Wednesday, November 30, 2016

the eyes of my mother

Wind through the trees. A farmhouse on a hill. Gray mist hanging over a barn. The black & white imagery is both stark and rich in Nicolas Pesce's debut film, The Eyes of My Mother, a horror folktale about a young woman who maims and chains victims in her barn after witnessing the murder of her mother. Her mother and father passed on a fascination with death, torture and the innards of human anatomy.

The Eyes of My Mother looms through years with little clues of what era it's in besides a glimpse of a Guess logo on blue jeans and an acid wash jacket. It's a pretty movie, almost cloyingly so. I guess the attempt is to marry gruesome imagery (and sound effects--like smacking on a mouse) with elegantly framed shots. The sound design is compelling as is the cinematography (by Zach Kuperstein) and Pesce's distinct cutting of the film. It's elliptical and quiet schlock gussied up with arty, Criterion flair, with scratchy turntable tunes and unnecessarily broken up into chapters (having seen this directly after Moonlight, which used a similar effect much more compellingly, made it seem even more trite). But there's both an airlessness to it and an air of pointlessness to it and the constant body horror, both alluded to and graphically shown, pushed my buttons too much. Some may counter, at least the film causes a reaction, especially in these times of disaffecting pics, though queasy carnage is an easy way to shock. Coupled with flat performances and a willful lack of camp or humor (which similarly- themed films like Psycho and 74's Texas Chainsaw bled so gracefully; or even the wondrous Motel Hell, which the vocal cordless screams conjured), the movie is a prettily filmed drag. There seems to be a few pretty indie horror movies of late with scant scripts that don't risk much aesthetically. At times I wish I could leave or sink into the Vincent Price movie on in the film's living room. This is not to say Pesce is a promising talent, especially as a director and editor--many moments are skillfully rendered and its chilly loneliness is palpable. But why can't schlock sometimes just be schlock instead of McDonald's served on fine china? **1/2

-Jeffery Berg

Sunday, November 27, 2016

la la land

It's difficult not to be dazzled by Damien Chazelle's musical La La Land. It has shades
of Minnelli and vintage-Hollywood romanticism but is placed in a modern-day, distinctive, if slightly highly-pitched, L.A. (Priuses, smoggy sunsets, traffic jams, crudely painted murals of dead stars); it also veers from being Xanadu camp (or far worse, "Glee") through the kineticism of Chazelle's direction, the bittersweet realism of the storyline and the film's two disarmingly funny and charming leads (Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone). They've been paired before with dynamite results in Crazy, Stupid, Loveas one of that movie's few highlights, but here, they enter a territory that makes them an unforgettable cinematic duo. What makes them so great and appealing to my particular generation is that you can picture them wincing from that description and yet affably, accepting it. 

Stone plays a Warner lot barista struggling to get callbacks from auditions including one that's "Dangerous Minds meets The O.C." Gosling is a pianist with a feverish passion for jazz who longs to open his own club. What ends up happening to these two characters unravels through a blissful pastiche of song and dance with an indelible score of songs by Justin Hurwitz and organic, not overly flashy, choreography by Mandy Moore (not to be confused with the pop singer / actress). There are homages to the heyday of Warner Brothers and MGM as these two try to realize their dreams, but the film restrains itself from being both overly varnished (like Baz Luhrmann) and overly saccharine. There are shaky, flawed moments here and there (anything involving the supporting players fizzles),
including an oddly-mounted party scene where Gosling plays in an 80s cover band and Stone sips from a can of Mountain Dew but those quibbles are ameliorated by so many fine moments and a particular stride in a paradoxical, brilliant coda where melancholic ache arises out of a re-telling of events with old-school, slapsticky fanfare. By the time we reach the end, we've made a journey--a far cry from the opening, 90s Gap-ad-like sunshiny traffic jam dance tune, into something more sobering and yet uplifting at the same time. 

La La Land hits a sweet spot, I think, at the end of a long, draining year of American tumult and division when many of us aren't feeling that optimistic. So sometimes the arrival of an artistic crowdpleaser feels like one of our country's few miracles to hang on to. Here's to the mess these artists make. ****

-Jeffery Berg