Western Side Story - Film Review: The Power Of The Dog ★★★★1/2
Injecting homoeroticism into the Western genre is nothing new, with The Sisters Brothers and Brokeback Mountain being just a couple of somewhat recent examples, but the great Jane Campion's long-awaited return to features, The Power Of The Dog, feels fresh due to its fascinating tone and examination of today's hot button issue of toxic masculinity. Adapted from Thomas Savage's 1967 novel, Campion delivers a slow, stately, and stunning depiction of how unchecked machismo has continued to impact society.
Benedict Cumberbatch plays Phil Burbank, who with his brother George (Jesse Plemons) operates a successful ranch in 1925 Montana. While George adopts a mannered, genteel persona, Phil, physically rigid and hard-staring, is one cigarette away from being the Marlboro Man. At a stopover on a cattle drive one day, they encounter Rose (Kirsten Dunst) and her lanky, effeminate son Peter (Kodi Smitt-McPhee), who prepare and serve food to the guests. Phil and his posse instantly key into Peter's lisp, the way he holds his napkin, and his penchant for making paper flowers, leading to an onslaught of homophobic slurs. Although Rose doesn't have the agency to defend her son, she clearly won't soon forget this attack.
When George takes a liking to Rose, eventually marrying her and bringing her back to the ranch, Phil feels threatened by her presence, labeling her a gold digger. On a break from his college medical studies, Phil soon joins them as well, creating an unhealthy dynamic in the Burbank household. Through Rose and Peter, we witness the crushing effects bullying has on them, while through Phil, we see how his adopting a patriarchal stance has crushed his soul, along with everybody else's. The push-pull of his relationship with Peter takes over the second half of the film. You wonder if Phil's atoning for past grievances or setting a trap for this ill-treated kid.
That mystery and tension had me in its grip from beginning to end. The film has sparse dialogue and gorgeous cinematography by Ari Wegner, who impressed me with her unforgettable work on In Fabric. Here, she frames the characters against the grand expanse of the wild west, with New Zealand standing in for Montana; the imposing landscape perhaps causing men to toughen up just as much as the ways in which they've been socialized.
Cumberbatch's performance commands attention from the start as we watch his facade chip away from one scene to the next. Phil's threats chill the bone, as do his acts of kindness. Violence could erupt at any moment with a man as tightly wound as him. He literally drives Rose to drink and pulls Peter into situations which grow more and more ominous. Cumberbatch gives the performance of his career here, forcing us to duck and cover at his hair-trigger temper or feel deep empathy for layers of himself he has long buried. One blistering scene at a private watering hole shows us all of these sides. It's utterly beguiling and terrifying.
A tad underwritten, the film's austerity sometimes jettisons certain motivations, particularly when it comes to Plemons' character. George gets abandoned by the script, making it a bit unclear what he knows and how he feels about it. Plemons, as always, does fine work, but he is eclipsed by his co-stars, who truly shine. Dunst beautifully conveys the desperation of a mama bear who can't protect her young or even herself from male aggression, and Smitt-McPhee seizes the screen with his watchful, gentle, yet sly performance. While his role lacks the kind of scenes which end up on Oscar reels, his quiet manner coupled with the actor's own mystique kept me seated upright. I haven't seen a bullied gay character portrayed before with this much watchfulness and smarts. Smitt-McPhee is brilliant. While the film looks like a Western, it feels more like an intimate chamber drama pitting old school masculinity against a type of new world presentation. It's that story sometimes just on the edges of a typical Oater which beguiles here.
Who will win out? Hard to say. While the film offers up its own definitive answer, men like Phil and Peter still seem to be at odds with each other to this day. Knowing this, especially when this fantastic film comes to its surprising, diabolical conclusion, will send a chill up your spine. Welcome back, Jane Campion. Your female gaze about the male gaze adds a new wrinkle to the conversation about gays.
Uncanny Valley - Film Review: Licorice Pizza ★★★★1/2
As a young, Jewish boy growing up in small town Ohio, I was in awe of the B'nai B'rith girls such as Sue Malkoff, Jodi Raven and Sharon Marks. They had such supreme confidence, mercurial tempers, and smarts. I was always jealous of how put together they were with their Izod shirts, corduroys, and suede Wallabee shoes and the way they entered a room as if they owned the place. Paul Thomas Anderson's new film, Licorice Pizza, opens on such a person. Alana (Alana Haim from the sisterly pop trio Haim) struts impatiently across a school yard looking for anyone who needs to use her mirror. She's working as a photographer's assistant helping the students get prepared for their class pictures. It's 1973 and twenty-five year old Alana has no time for these San Fernando Valley High School idiots. In an instant, I knew this woman. I missed people like this in life and on screen, those three dimensional characters with quirks, faults, and outspokenness fueled by equal parts elation and outrage. My old friends came flooding back along with the Debra Wingers and Holly Hunters of cinema. I knew I was in movie heaven right away.
Soon, Alana happens upon Gary (Cooper Hoffman, son of the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman). Although this fifteen year old falls instantly in love with her, Alana swats him away like a fly, but he's made an impression nonetheless with his intense gaze and assuredness. He asks her out. She refuses, but you know she'll show up anyhow, perhaps simply to toy with him, feel some validation, or maybe, just maybe, meet her soulmate. The age difference poses a problem for sure, but Anderson keeps things chaste throughout while still allowing this beautiful depth of feeling to materialize.
Gary, based on former child actor turned Academy Award winning Producer, Gary Goetzman, has had a promising acting career, currently in a film, clearly based on Yours, Mine And Ours, in which the real Gary appeared. Alana accompanies him on a promotional appearance in New York City where Christine Ebersole earns laughs as the Lucille Ball proxy. Alana meets one of Gary's co-stars, Lance (Skyler Gisondo) who nails his young ladies man character, and the two start dating. When he's welcomed into Alana's home for dinner, with Haim's real sisters and parents (all wonderful) in tow, their incompatibility comes into hilarious focus.
From here, the film takes on a shaggy, seemingly random quality, with disparate story strands woven throughout. We go on adventures with our couple as they open a water bed store, a pinball arcade, and encounter real life people like Producer Jon Peters (a scene-stealing Bradley Cooper) and City Councilman Joel Wachs (Benny Safdie). At one point, Alana becomes smitten with an aging movie star based on William Holden and played by Sean Penn. There's a false arrest, a dead-on meeting with a Talent Agent played to perfection by Harriet Samson Harris, and a stunning sequence involving a truck driven backwards down a winding road, It's a lot to digest and would sound ramshackle as hell were I to describe it, but through it all, Anderson stays intensely focused on our central relationship as we watch them grow separately and together, their magnetic connection realized by the repeated motif of them in what seems like a perpetual state of running. As each finds their voice, Anderson seems to be saying, they will always run back towards each other.
None of this would work without the beautiful lead performances by two actors making their debuts. They look like real people, not movie stars, and have unheard of things like acne, noses with character, and most important of all, layers. Hoffman has such a winning presence. Witness how he describes the food at a restaurant as "magnificent" or how believably he tells Alana he will never forget her. Moreover, the two have a palpable chemistry which oozes deep care for each other rather than anything overtly sexual. One glimpse of Alana's face when she arrives at a jail where Gary's been taken tells that story so succinctly. The film has an abundance of such grace notes, enough to make me ache for this pair.
Supporting our main duo throughout is a 70s aesthetic which never calls attention to itself. It's just there in Mark Bridges' costumes, which brought that decade perfectly yet subtly back to me in perfect focus. It's there in Florencia Martin's production design, which eschews such obvious signposts as lava lamps and black light posters for a natural lived-in quality to the spaces. It's there in Anderson and Co-Cinematographer Michael Bauman's shimmering, gauzy, hazy, sun-dappled frames. Andy Jurgensen's editing takes this episodic, hangout story and emotionally shapes it into something warm and wonderful. I've long admired Anderson's films, although I've enjoyed many at a distance. With this film, he finally, truly lets us in as it's filled with rushes of complete joy.
Now to the elephant in the room. The Media Action Network for Asian Americans has called for an awards boycott of the film due to its insensitive, racism aimed at its Asian characters. The scenes in question show John Michael Higgins' restaurateur character speaking English with an offensively stereotypical accent towards two of his wives depicted throughout the story. Anderson has defended these moments by saying that casual racism existed then as it does now, so why not depict it? While I don't think Anderson is racist himself, and it mainly serves to make Higgins' character look buffoonish, I found these scenes to display a serious lapse in judgment. The film isn't about racism, so these moments feel completely out of place within the larger context of the story. Just because it happens in real life doesn't justify its presence, especially since Anderson doesn't contextualize it or even examine its impact on our main characters. These exchanges could and should have been excised completely and we, the audience, would never have missed them. They're real head-scratchers to me. I applaud the Network for calling these egregious moments out and feel Anderson was caught up in the quirkiness of the character to truly grasp its negative impact.
Anderson fares a little bit better with his gay characters, giving one couple enough real estate in the script to delve into the struggles of being out and queer during this time period. Famed choreographer Ryan Heffington, however, plays right into certain gay stereotypes but makes his brief role as Jon Peters' assistant memorable nonetheless. He may seem like a 70s campy queen, but he also sprinkles in a palpable sense of self-importance and a funny way with his reactions to go beyond the cliches.
Named after a long-gone chain of Southern California record stores, Licorice Pizza sits at the top of the heap as one of my favorite films of 2021. Though this near masterpiece gets a big ding from me for the aforementioned offensiveness, I'd love to own a copy of this film with either those scenes cut out or perhaps footage exists which allowed these moments to land better. Either way, Anderson has turned an epic tale into an intimate, lovingly acted tribute to those forces of nature, those girls from my childhood. Welcome back Sue, Jodi and Sharon!
Citizen Kane - The Queer Rearview: Hester Street ★★★★
I've always had a soft spot for immigration stories, especially considering both sets of my grandparents came to America from Eastern Europe at the turn of the 20th century. By escaping the oppression they faced as Jews, my grandparents traveled to a new world rife with problems of its own. They struggled to fit in and were drawn to communities of other Jewish immigrants.
As such, the film Hester Street, the late great Joan Micklin Silver's 1975 feature film debut, resonates so much for me. Telling the tale of Gitl (Carol Kane in her Oscar nominated performance), an Orthodox Jewish woman who in 1896 arrives in Manhattan from Russia with her young son to reunite with her assimilated husband Yankel (Steven Keats), now known as Jake, the film could not be more relevant now, with immigration issues at the forefront of our modern world.
The Cohen Film Collection has released a 4K restoration of this classic where it hopefully will inspire a new generation of fans. Silver, who sadly passed away last year, has rarely been mentioned in the same conversation as the male directors of her era, yet deserves the praise for this film, along with Crossing Delancey, Chilly Scenes of Winter, and more. At a time when very few women had the chance to direct feature films, she proved herself a maverick with her own distinctive voice.
Filmed in black and white with an appropriate simplicity often seen in silent films or Yiddish theater, Hester Street first introduces us to Jake, who works in a sweatshop and carries on an affair with a dancer who possesses the relax bluster of a modern American woman. Jake seems happy to have shed his European influences and has his bubble burst when news comes to him of his wife's impending arrival. He arranges with his neighbor Mrs. Kavarsky (a young Doris Roberts) for some furniture and a roommate, Mr. Bernstein (Mel Howard), to help provide a place for his family.
His first glimpse of Getl and his son tells us everything we need to know. Clearly devout, Gitl wears a traditional wig and speaks Yiddish. Jake seems embarrassed by them, so Americanized is he that he looks at them with a disdain that has seemingly always been a part of the U.S. experience. Afraid and obedient, Gitl clings to her traditions while trying to make a nice home for her husband and son. Kane's performance, almost silent for most of the running time, remains a work of pure beauty. We can see everything in her eyes as she navigates a difficult, abusive situation and finds her strong, confident voice. A gifted comic actor ever since, this film serves as a reminder of Kane's great dramatic talent as well.
Hester Street gets able support from its Cinematographer, Kenneth Van Sickle, and Production Designer Stuart Wurtzel, who give us the rich atmosphere of Lower East Side Manhattan, from its market stalls to the dingy, barren walls of the tenements. It may feel less grand than the visuals from The Godfather: Part II, but it has a similar nostalgic impact.
Silver packs a lot into her adaptation of Abraham Cahan's novella, "Yekl", exploring the issues of xenophobia, sexism, spousal abuse, assimilation, and how to assert yourself in a scary new world. All of this gets covered in a deceptively slight, unassuming package.
If I had one quibble, it's that the restoration is a bit too perfect. The style of this film calls for a little wear and tear, a little grain in its images. The clarity here detracts a bit from the immersive feeling of the original release. Don't let that stop you, however, from seeking out this gem and honoring the special talents of Carol Kane and Joan Micklin Silver.
Crash! Boom! Bang! - Film Review: Titane ★★★★1/2
For me, good art is pretty, but great art is confrontational, forcing the viewer to reflect upon the human condition and reveal truths, however inspiring or ugly. The 2021 Cannes Palme d'Or winner, Titane, writer/director Julia Ducournau's sophomore effort, definitely veers towards the latter type of confrontation. With enough brutal violence to fill all of the Halloween sequels combined, this viscerally charged film will likely polarize audiences, but its vision and power cannot be denied.
A highly visual, almost wordless film, Titane begins with Alexia, a young, androgynous girl, pestering her father by kicking the back of his driver's seat. Annoyed, he turns to scold her, swerving off the road and injuring his daughter. Saved by a titanium implant in her head, we next see Alexia as a young adult (phenomenally played by Agathe Rouselle), in a scene highly reminiscent of the opening single shot from Brian De Palma's Femme Fatale, strutting toward her job as a dancer at an Auto Show. With punk rock aggressiveness, she forces her way through the crowd and ends up gyrating on the hood of car. A combination of antisocial, disturbed, or just not having the time of day for anyone else's problems, Alexia, in a series of horrifically bloody scenes, establishes herself as a relentless serial killer, gets impregnated by a car (not a typo!), and uses a chopstick for all the wrong reasons. She seduces men and women alike while never cracking a smile or exhibiting an ounce of joy. You may not like this feminist anti-hero, but you won't ever forget her.
I wouldn't blame you for walking out at this point, as it's not for the delicate stomach, but if you stay, you'll be richly rewarded with this decidedly queer body horror thriller. Disguising herself as a young man to evade police capture, Alexia eventually gets taken in by a lonely fire captain named Vincent (Vincent London). This hulking, muscular, man believes Alexia to be his long-missing son, causing Alexia to use binding cloth to hide her breasts and expanding belly. Vincent has troubles of his own as he's often seen injecting himself with an unnamed substance which could possible be steroids or heroin. The bond the pair forms proves surprisingly touching, especially in a scene involving CPR and the song, "Macarena". Where all this leads may not surprise you, but it manages to land in that no man's land between beauty and dread.
Besides De Palma, it's easy to spot Ducournau's other influences such as Gasper Noé's Irreversible, David Cronenberg's Crash, and Jean-Jacques Beineix's Betty Blue. I also couldn't help but see the link between the film and Jonathan Glazer's hypnotic Under The Skin, both involving otherworldly women on killing sprees. Her muscular, in your face style has that 80s punk aesthetic, forcing you to slam against the back of your seat with its non-stop drive and cover your eyes half the time. Aided immensely by cinematographer Ruben Impens, Ducournau has a style of her own, simultaneously over-the-top and bleak and keyed in tight to the emotional cores of her lead actors. Inspirations be damned, Ducournau has a singularly driving yet tender cinematic voice.
Titane is a film about trauma, anger, human bonds, gender identity, and the ability for even the most troubled among us to tap into their humanity. It's a work of art in its assaultive, unforgettable, confrontational way.