Friday, January 21, 2022

Fleeing Toward a New World

So you think you’ve got troubles? Thoughts of the Omicron variant getting you down? Well, stop and consider the plight of Amin, who as a young boy fled Afghanistan with his mother and older siblings, after his father disappeared into the clutches of a cruel regime. Paying traffickers for safe passage out of the country, the family ends up in Russia, where they endure in hiding, hassled by cops looking for bribes. As the years pass, their lives become no less harsh. Two sisters barely survive a ghastly trip to Sweden in a shipping container. For the remaining trio, including the aged mother, there’s a forced march involving guides ready and willing to shoot stragglers, followed by a grim winter sea voyage in the hold of a leaky ship. (The bedraggled refugees make it almost to Norway, and are photographed by excited passengers from the deck of a luxury liner, then are promptly sent back to Moscow.) 

 Amin’s story is told in Flee, an international co-production guided by a writer/director, Jonas Poher Rasmussen, who befriended the actual Amin in Denmark and slowly learned the details he’d hidden within himself for so long. Part of what haunts Amin, though now living a pleasant life in the Danish countryside, is the fact that he was once sternly instructed never to disclose that his family members were still alive, for fear of endangering his refugee status. Deeply feeling the debt he owes to his elder siblings, who risked their own happiness to secure his future, he can’t get past a strong sense of guilt and thwarted obligation.

 It's partly to protect Amin’s identity that his story is told through animation, with the tale’s actual hero never appearing on screen. The framing device is simple: a graphic version of the adult Amin, often staring straight forward as if into the lens of a camera, haltingly discloses the twists and turns of his life to his filmmaker-friend. Rasmussen’s gentle questions lead us into enactments of various segments of the life Amin is recalling. What’s striking is the way the style of animation shifts from scene to scene. Family members are portrayed hyper-realistically—we see beard stubble and adolescent skin blemishes—and the characters are often set against backdrops that are nearly photographic in their realism. Then, as disaster strikes yet again, the animator’s palette shifts briefly into blacks and greys, with fleeing figures looking almost ghostly as they butt up against enemies both human and metaphoric. There are also interspersed moments of documentary photography, showing the crowded streets of Kabul, the gloomy byways of Moscow, the bright lights and skyscrapers of New York City.

 It's not all gloom. We experience the swirling excitement of a Swedish gay bar (yes, that’s another aspect of the challenges Amin faces), and we also revel in the peaceful landscape of Denmark. And sound design too contributes to the kaleidoscopic effect: we hear actual clips from newscasters and politicians, and Amin (especially in childhood) finds a happy, though short-lived, retreat in the American pop music that blasts through his headphones.

 Flee is an artistic tour-de-force, while also being a provocative look at one man’s personal refugee crisis. No wonder the film has won so many critics’ awards, and seems likely to be nominated for Oscars in more than one category. It’s, at one and the same time, a foreign language feature, a hard-hitting documentary, and an animated film that’s worthy of going up against Pixar’s usual brilliance. And if you watch Flee—for a while, at least—your thoughts of COVID will be far away.

Tuesday, January 18, 2022

A Stroll Down Nightmare Alley: The Deceiver Deceived

Director Guillermo del Toro is in love with the fantastic and the macabre. Sometimes his grotesque figures turn out to be benign, even heroic, as is the case with his sexy aqua-man in the Oscar-winning The Shape of Water. In the magnificent Pan’s Labyrinth, a girl in retreat from the brutality of everyday life finds solace in the make-believe world of magical creatures. In his new Nightmare Alley (based on a 1946 novel that was previously filmed in 1947 with Tyrone Power in the central role), del Toro turns to film noir stylistics to explore the surreal lives of carnival folk. One big difference from his previous work: in this film the magical tricks and stunts all are given logical explanations. Though they seem eerily supernatural, they’re in fact 100% bogus.  Each is cleverly designed to fake out the credulous, all the better for unscrupulous men (and women) to exploit their “marks.”

 The setting for most of Nightmare Alley (probably too much, given the film’s excessive length), is a seedy traveling carnival, circa 1940. It’s the depths of winter: snow, slush, and torrential rain are constant reminders that the natural world can be harsh indeed. Into a tumble-down tent stumbles Stanton Carlisle (Bradley Cooper), a man who’s clearly seen better days. He’s desperate for work and a sense of belonging. Soon he’s part of a team led by the carnival’s owner, played by the always sinister Willem Dafoe. Among Stan’s new comrades are midgets, fortune-tellers, a pretty young woman who conducts electricity through her body, assorted freaks, and (literally) geeks. (If you don’t know the grotesque original meaning of that currently popular term, you’ll certainly learn it here.)

 Though the season remains winter, matters considerably heat up when Stan falls for Molly, the electric girl (Rooney Mara), and takes the tricks he’s learned as a carny into the wider world. Quickly he evolves into “The Great Stanton,” charming uptown folks with a flashy mentalist act in which he divulges secrets and facilitates conversations with the dead. The point seems to be that credulity knows no boundaries of class or economic status. Wealthy, powerful men approach Stan, desperate to initiate contact with lost loved ones. Stan is, of course, more than happy to oblige, though the results are not quite what he anticipates. I will not go into the role played here by the protean Cate Blanchett (so very different from the flashy TV host she plays in the current Don’t Look Up.), except to say that it reinforces the movie’s overall theme: that no one can really be trusted. It should not surprise us that when the film’s ending finally rolls around, Stan’s essentially back to where he started, with one grim difference. At least he’s wised up enough to know where he stands in the carny hierarchy . . . and in the universe.

 Nightmare Alley is effective, if you know in advance you’re in for a long sit. In addition to Bradley Cooper (who dynamically conveys his character’s weaknesses as well as his strengths), the carnival folk include such reliable presences as Toni Collette (as Zeena the Seer), David Strathairn (as her hapless husband Pete), and Ron Perlman (as Molly’s hulking guardian figure). The world of the rich is inhabited by Mary Steenburgen (in a poignant and ultimately shocking small role) and an almost-unrecognizable Richard Jenkins, a del Toro favorite. Visually, the seedy carnival world, juxtaposed with the art deco elegance of Cate Blanchett’s office, is not easily forgotten. It’s the stuff that can haunt your dreams. 


Friday, January 14, 2022

Finding The Lost Daughter (or "Leda and the Swain")

The slyness of The Lost Daughter is part of its attraction. This film, based on a novel of the same name by Italy’s mysterious Elena Ferrante, does contain as an important plot strand a little girl  who strays from the Greek beach where her parents are enjoying sun and sand. But mostly this is the story of a mother who feels lost.  Or, at least, a mother who is continually questioning her own behavior, past and present.

 The film, effectively helmed by Maggie Gyllenhaal in her directorial debut, shifts artfully between past and present. The Leda of the past (her name is a nod to Greek mythology and the poetry of Yeats) is a frazzled young wife and mother who resents the intrusions of her two rambunctious young daughters as she struggles to translate English verse into Italian. The Leda of the present—the one who occupies the central position in the film—is a highly placed professor of comparative literature. Loaded down with heavy books, she arrives at an oceanside resort town in Greece, for what she terms a working holiday.

 This older Leda, on the cusp of middle-age, is sometimes hard to fathom. As played by the always watchable Olivia Colman, she sometimes seems to be joyously drinking in the spirit of her new surroundings. The beach is enticing, the caretakers who work in the area are friendly, and she responds with amiable politeness to everyone she meets. But there’s another side to her too: she can throw us off balance with a sudden rude remark, and there’s something about the big noisy family group that encamps near “her” spot on the beach that is clearly setting her off. Some reviewers, seemingly determined to make the film into a suspense thriller, emphasize the mysteries of Leda’s behavior as though this were an episode of Murder, She Wrote. No, it’s actually more of an in-depth character study of a woman who recoils from others partly because she’s recoiling—unsuccessfully—from herself.

 The most baffling aspects of Leda’s behavior involve a child’s doll, a rather scruffy plaything beloved by the little girl whose brief disappearance gives the story its title. While being the one to locate the missing child, Leda secretly holds onto her doll, even as the girl’s family desperately searches for its whereabouts. Why? Many smart people I know are debating this question. But I believe the answer is hidden in those flashbacks, in which another well-loved doll, essentially a family heirloom, makes an appearance. The contradictory things Leda does in the present are inextricably linked to her behavior in the past, as a young mother (well played by Jessie Buckley) torn between her various responsibilities and her flagging sense of self.

 Because the true identity of the pseudonymous Elena Ferrante remains a mystery among literary types, some have speculated that “she” is actually a male author. I have no way of knowing, but based on the contents of this film I’d say that Ferrante, like Maggie Gyllenhaal, knows at first hand what it’s like to go through life as a female. Women who’ve raised children have a special insight into the tug-of-war between motherhood and self-preservation. Leda, it seems clear, loved (and still loves) her daughters, but has also spent her life fighting to hold onto a personal identity that doesn’t always have room for their daily demands. An intellectual woman, one whose ambitions stretch far beyond hearth and home, is not always satisfied with playing the familial caretaker role. No wonder the younger Leda fell so catastrophically for someone who admired her for her mind.  


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Importance of Being Sidney (Poitier)

How well I remember the evening in 1964 when Sidney Poitier became Hollywood’s first African American winner of the Oscar for Best Actor. The film was Lilies of the Field, in which he played a wanderer in the parched American Southwest who is persuaded by some feisty German nuns to build a chapel for the glory of God. It’s a charming movie, one that could raise few hackles among those who were made uneasy as the Civil Rights Movement built up steam. My parents and I were thrilled that the film industry had gotten it right, giving its highest honor to someone who so clearly symbolized social progress.

 It wasn’t Sidney Poitier’s fault that he was the right man at the right time. Starting in the late 1950s, Hollywood was realizing that African Americans should be seen as more than Pullman porters, shoeshine boys, and lazy household retainers in the Stepin Fetchit mold. Tall, handsome, and ebony-skinned, Poitier fit naturally into hero roles, and had neither opportunity nor inclination to try for a broader range of parts, such as those that later Black actors like Denzel Washington have enjoyed. Even while playing an escaped convict in Stanley Kramer’s The Defiant Ones (1958), Poitier displayed a natural nobility that inspired white audiences while sometimes annoying Black intellectuals. James Baldwin noted in The Devil Makes Work how “liberal white audiences applauded when Sidney, at the end of the film, jumped off the train in order not to abandon his white buddy. The Harlem audience was outraged, and yelled, ‘Get back on the train, you fool!’”

 Karen Kramer, who became close to Poitier through her director-husband, admits that, off-camera, Poitier “didn’t know where he belonged. He was not completely accepted by the white community, and he was stepping out of bounds with the black community. So he was in limbo there.” Rod Steiger, Poitier’s In the Heat of the Night co-star, later revealed how Poitier chafed at being designated the Prince of his People: “They put this image on him, for chrissake. He couldn’t yell, couldn’t swear, couldn’t do anything, ‘cause he was the prince of the black race.” This awkward label made Poitier jealously guard his private hours, and contributed to his hypersensitivity about his reputation with the moviegoing public.

 By the mid-Sixties, Poitier’s roles invariably showcased a man alone, set apart from society by the color of his skin. Never was he allowed such basic things as romance or even sexual urges. In 1965 he twice starred opposite gifted white actresses: Elizabeth Hartman as a needy blind girl in A Patch of Blue; Anne Bancroft as a suicidal matron at the other end of a telephone hotline in The Slender Thread. In both films he shows compassion, but also physical detachment. In the Heat of the Night makes it clear, in a key scene, that he’s a loner, a cop married to his job.

 In the banner year 1967, when Poitier was Hollywood’s biggest box office draw, Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner fomented even more ire among Black viewers, because it celebrated their Sidney as the unexpected fiancĂ© of a (rather vapid) white woman. The film prompted a young Black playwright, Clifford Mason, to publish in the New York Times a scathing take-down titled “Why Does White America Love Sidney Poitier So?”  Recently Mason explained to me his vitriol toward Poitier as an outgrowth of dashed expectations. He’d hoped for a leading Black actor who could truly tackle the hard issues. Mason now phrases his disappointment in movie terms: “I wanted Bogart, but all I got was Cary Grant.”