Tuesday, January 31, 2023

Does Father Know Best?: “Aftersun” and “Armageddon Time”

Aftersun? I admit I felt an after-shock, once I checked the rave reviews for an art-house film full of weird camera angles, scratchy footage, and little to no plot. Yes, it can be interesting to pan through someone’s vacation videos, looking for clues about relationships and impending traumas. But Aftershock just didn’t seem as fascinating to me as it did to my favorite serious critics, who pronounced it a work of genius by a bright new filmmaker, Charlotte Wells. 

 Maybe it’s all a matter of watching an ambitious film on a theatre-sized screen. Maybe you need to be in the right place (and not on your living-room couch) to appreciate idiosyncratic artistic choices and stories that hide the characters’ motivations beneath scads of mundane details.

 Yes, I was sympathetic to a film about the relationship between a lively 11-year-old girl and her 30-year-old father making up for lost time at a vacation resort. I could see the inherent tensions between them: the dad’s efforts to shield his daughter from his cigarette cravings, his tentative inquiries about her mother back home, the daughter’s budding fascination with the teen-age canoodling going on around her. But the critics’ glib explanation that this is a memory piece, with the now-grown daughter trying to sort through her recollections of a father who has come to a bad end, led me to wonder how they’d sorted out the film’s few clues and come to such a definitive explanation. (Question: was it all laid out for them in the film’s press packet?)  I like sleuthing  beneath the surface as much as the next moviegoer, but my main feeling here was one of frustration.

 Speaking of fathers, I’ve also just watched James Gray’s semi-autobiographical Armageddon Time, in which a middle-class New York kid discovers that life is not always fair, that when it comes to trouble his African-American buddy will always be getting the short end of the stick. Most reviews I’ve seen have focused on the story’s racial elements, as well as the kid’s deep emotional connection with an old-world  Jewish grandfather who knows from discrimination. That grandfather is played by Anthony Hopkins, in an unlikely but surprisingly convincing piece of casting. But Gray’s well-realized story also draws sharp portraits of young Paul Graff’s parents.

 It is striking to see Anne Hathaway, so often a perky ingenue, play (very nicely) a mom, one who’s trying awfully hard to hold together a family group whose values sometime conflict with one another. But I found myself particularly interested in Jeremy Strong, an actor whose name is new to me, despite his impressive stage and screen credits. (He won an Emmy for Succession And, with a lot more hair, he was Jerry Rubin in 2020’s The Trail of the Chicago 7.)  Strong plays Paul’s father, a plumber who has married into an affluent family, but can never quite forget his own blue-collar roots. What makes him so fascinating—and so real—is that he’s a volatile man, who reveals different sides of his personality at different moments. Waking up his son for school on an ordinary morning, he's charmingly goofy. When there’s just been an overnight death in the family, he’s gentle. But when Paul is accused of serious wrongdoing at school, he responds with a towering fury that is just shy of dangerous. What we don’t quite realize immediately is that he feels himself a bit of an outcast in this family. He’s not comfortable with the burden of private school tuition for both of his sons. Here’s a father who’s complicated, but the clues aren’t hard to find.


Thursday, January 26, 2023

Everything Everywhere . . . and the Kitchen Sink

The last time I saw a movie about the running of a laundromat, it was My Beautiful Laundrette. That 1985 British dramedy, an early film for both director Stephen Frears and actor Daniel Day-Lewis, had a lot to say about social relationships, particularly those involving culture clashes between native-born Londoners and immigrants from Pakistan. Everything Everywhere All At Once is also about immigrants who own a laundromat, but social realism is not exactly its genre. This hugely popular film, which now leads the pack with 11 Oscar  nominations, somehow combines an intimate family story with a bravura tale about saving the universe by way of martial arts derring-do.

 Everything Everywhere starts out matter-of-factly enough, with a frazzled Chinese immigrant named Evelyn Wang, played by the wonderful Michelle Yeoh. Evelyn is stressing about everything in her life: the state of the family laundromat, an obligatory birthday party for her ancient father (94-year-old movie veteran James Hong), her boyishly naïve husband (Ke Huy Quan, who once played a nerdy kid in The Goonies), and the fact that her daughter Joy (Stephanie Hsu) is in love with another woman. And then there are tax problems which require the family to meet with a mousy but stern IRS agent (Jamie Lee Curtis, having an absolute ball playing against type). It’s right in the middle of a tense meeting at IRS headquarters that Yeoh’s character discovers that the universe operates on multiple levels, and that she’s personally in charge of saving the world from evil. Say what? She’s not convinced, but suddenly her amiable husband is making impressive martial arts moves, using his dad-sized fanny pack as a weapon of war.

 From this point onward it’s a wild ride through the cosmos, with Evelyn alternatively overjoyed and terrified by her multiple selves, which include a woman warrior, a Chinese opera star, and glamorous movie queen. Yes, in her long Chinese film career, Michelle Yeoh proved she could be convincing as all of these things. I was surprised to learn that the film script for Everything Everywhere was retooled for her benefit; it was originally supposed to star Jackie Chan. But the male-to-female transition of the leading role allowed writer/directors Dan Kwan and Daniel Scheinert to explore a woman’s role both in a kung fu-style universe and in a domestic household, thereby giving their admittedly wild and crazy story some spine.

 Of course, not everyone has been a fan. Though film critics and chopsocky enthusiasts (not to mention members of the Academy) have shown their adoration for this highly original and skillfully produced entertainment, it can be hard for some of the rest of us to get with the program. I suspect there’s a huge generational divide involved: someone with whom I watched this film on my brand-new giant TV screen had a hard time finding any dramatic point at all within the film’s fun and games. (It does exist, I promise, but you may get restless—over a stretch of 2 hours and 19 minutes—while wading through bagel jokes, lightning-fast montages, and goofy parodies of other flicks in order to find some actual meaning at the story’s end.) The film can be seen as a bold homage to the entire history of cinema.  Or the entire history of pop culture. Or something like that. I do know, though, that my movie-viewing partner just came away from this experience feeling old and tired. Personally, though I love the artistic boldness that went into this concept,  I know exactly what he means.

 To Bernie—many happy cosmic returns! 



Tuesday, January 24, 2023

Catherine Cyran: Force of Nature

This year had barely started when I was shocked by an item that appeared in several Hollywood trade publications. The headlines read “Catherine Cyran, Emmy-Nominated Director, Dies at 59.” It turns out there were several errors in these stories (for one thing, Cyran made it to her sixtieth birthday), but the basic facts were all too true. The vibrant young woman with whom I had worked closely at Roger Corman’s Concorde-New Horizons had been carried off by cancer, after two years of valiant struggle.

From my perspective, at least, it all began in the 1990s, when Catherine moved into an office next door to mine. She had been recommended to Roger by a fellow Harvard graduate. Roger, always impressed by Ivy League credentials, doubtless also liked hearing that she’d spent some time in the business school of his own alma mater, Stanford. Nonetheless, she started off in a modest job as assistant to the two women in charge of distribution. Catherine being Catherine, she didn’t stay behind that desk for long..

It helped that Roger appreciated strong women, and enjoyed promoting them into positions of power. (Producer Gale Anne Hurd, who would go on to launch her own big-league career with The Terminator, is only one of the Corman alumnae who insist that Roger preferred hiring women because they were smarter, worked cheaper, and were more loyal.) As Catherine’s role at Concorde grew, she and I spent some time trying to work out the plot for a martial arts movie, to feature our in-house kickboxing star, Don “The Dragon” Wilson. When I discovered that back at her New York high school Catherine had been a top--rank violinist (who knew?), we came up with the notion that our hero would be torn between his budding kickboxing career and his love for the violin. Yes, in retrospect it sounds like a bad mash-up of old John Garfield movies, but plotting it out was fun.

Later, when Roger’s wife Julie Corman bought the rights to a Middle Grade adventure classic called Hatchet, the three of us talked at length about exactly how to adapt it for the screen. Once all the details were ironed out, I noted that someone would have to do the actual writing of the script. Catherine quickly volunteered, and A Cry in the Wild became a notable success. (The title was changed from Hatchet, because anything connected with the Corman name would probably be mistaken for a horror flick.) Once Catherine earned that first screen credit, her ambitions grew. She wrote a second wilderness adventure that took advantage of her own outdoor skills, and then directed it herself. White Wolves nabbed her an Emmy nomination for outstanding direction in a children’s special, and she was well on her way.

Since those long-ago days, Catherine’s résumé has grown to include 15 films as a writer, 18 as a director, and 8 as a producer. Along with family films like The Prince & Me II: The Royal Wedding, she’s made erotic thrillers and delved into the horror genre. Notably, she wrote Werewolf: The Beast Among Us (2012), to be directed by her longtime life partner, Louis Morneau. Last September, while battling Stage 4 cancer, she rallied to direct Our Italian Christmas Memories, which aired in November on the Hallmark Channel.  Louis told me, “It's a very nice final film which deals with Alzheimer's. She was very proud of it, her mother having died from the disease. We are hoping Beau Bridges receives an Emmy nomination.” 

 As Roger Corman knew, a strong woman can do just about anything.