Tag Archives: Oscar Isaac

AT ETERNITY’S GATE (2018)

Vincent Van Gogh may be the art world’s quintessential paradox. That he was a great, idiosyncratic painter is indisputable. Yet, he was also an incurable romantic, zealously religious (he once sought to become a minister), highly argumentative (according to most of his contemporaries), extremely prolific, he cut off his ear, and he committed suicide at the age of 37. Today, he’s a Hobby Lobby superstar.

The subject of numerous cinematic treatments, Van Gogh has been posthumously canonized by the bourgeois who never would have accepted him in his life. They bypass his personal flaws in favor of “Starry Night” and “Sunflower” coffee mugs. He’s more myth now than human. Neither his contemporary Paul Gauguin nor his successor Pablo Picasso have been afforded such whitewashing. Indeed, their character flaws are often still held against them, despite the fact that they are both superior artists to Van Gogh (taking nothing from the Dutchman).

Another cinematic Van Gogh biography comes with about as much anticipation as another retelling of Dickens’ “Christmas Carol.” Yet, Julian Schnabel has produced an aesthetically provocative Van Gogh biopic At Eternity’s Gate (2018). It’s about damned time.

One of the most frustrating things to witness in a gallery or museum is patrons zipping by paintings as if they’re Speedy Gonzales in a mall, spending a few seconds glancing at work that artists labored over for days, weeks, months or years. Schnabel, a painter himself, is having none of that, and paces his movie glacially. Although reactions to the film are predictable as hell, it’s almost refreshing to read audiences and critics harping about the film being so long and so pretentious. That would inspire a yawn, if it weren’t for the fact that Van Gogh is finally pissing people off once again. It’s about damned time.

Still from At Eternity's Gate (2018)Apart from the pacing, patrons complain about the impressionistic aesthetic of the film, and the fact that star today is almost twice the age of Van Gogh at the time of his death. Even a quick look at the artist’s self-portraits reveals the casting is astute: Van Gogh looked three times his age, ugly, ravaged, and cantankerous. As for the aesthetics: this isn’t a really a biopic at all, and indeed we do not need another. Instead, Schnabel has produced a gorgeous requiem.

Dafoe’s intensity is akin to pigment ground into celluloid with raw knuckles. On paper, reading Van Gogh waxing poetic about finding a “new light” would be unbearably pretentious, yet when we watch him painting the landscape before him, we see him practice what he preaches (and this artist was always a preacher). The result is a Van Gogh creation that reinterprets nature (Gauguin, who insisted that artists are to disregard and improve upon nature, would be proud).

Much of the dialogue is taken from Van Gogh’s letters. At times, the sentimentality of his language borders on the saccharine, but it takes a special artist to master sentimentally. did it (early on, before it throttled him). Van Gogh mastered it as well, but only because he backed it up with talent. Yes, he actually talked that way, and we have to remember that painting, once primarily commissioned by the Church, was seen in the 19th century as potentially obsolete with the advent of photography. However, painters of the period, like Van Gogh and Gauguin (played with humorous arrogance by ) set about to prove that death sentence premature. They—the artists- –would be the new priests, subverting common sense, and fought like hell to create a new language, since the Church’s clergy had become hopelessly complacent and status quo. Dafoe captures Van Gogh’s childlike innocence. He was desperate for unconditional love and, by God, that’s the preacher in him, making us recall the scripture passage that says one must be like a child in order to attain the Kingdom: AKA, Eternity’s Gate. We’re reminded that Dafoe previously played an equally provocative Christ. It’s no accident that these are his two best roles. Like a child, Van Gogh finds joy in repetition, and because he couldn’t find it in love, he finds it in paint.

Van Gogh tells his priest (the typically wonderful ): “Perhaps God made me a painter for people who aren’t born yet.” In this, he speaks the language of Mahler, who also realized he wouldn’t live to see his work accepted. Van Gogh’s heights are reached only through painting. Everything else is devastation. He takes Gauguin’s advice to escape the hierarchical community and head South. Gauguin joins him, but even that is disastrous. Gauguin was and remains a more innovative artist than Van Gogh, and while he rightly assesses his peer as being as much sculptor as painter, he doesn’t quite have the intuition to realize that their relationship is one of unrequited love. The chemistry between Dafoe and Isaac is bewitching.

At Eternity’s Gate focuses on the last years of Van Gogh’s brief life. Even then it’s fragmented, and by keeping it focused on “being Van Gogh,” (Schabel’s description) it becomes the most satisfying cinematic interpretation of the painter to date.

Initially, Schabel’s decision regarding the depiction of Van Gogh’s death is a curious one. He opts for a flimsy minority theory, although cause of death was almost certainly suicide. Yet, artistically and psychologically, it makes sense in the context of Schnabel’s Van Gogh. There’s an early scene in which the artist becomes almost violent in reaction to a teacher mocking his work. Van Gogh’s death, as presented here, throws out the notion of a “romantic suicide of a martyr for art,” and renders it even more visceral than the actual event. That’s apt; a bit like a requiem.

CAPSULE: ANNIHILATION (2018)

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Alex Garland

FEATURING: , ,

PLOT: As her husband, the only survivor of an expedition into a bizarre phenomena referred to as the Shimmer, recuperates, a biologist enters the region in search of answers.

Still from Annihilation (2018)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Novelist-turned filmmaker Alex Garland, who wrote the screenplay for Never Let Me Go before making his directing debut with the excellent feature Ex Machina, probably has a really weird movie in him somewhere. This one isn’t quite it—its ambiguities are just a bit too unambiguous—although it’s definitely an off-cadence step in the right direction.

COMMENTS: Without giving away much more of Annihilation than you will find in the trailer, the story involves a trip into a rapidly expanding zone (existing behind a border which looks like a soap bubble) in which Earth’s scientific laws—especially the laws of biology—have gone wacko. Inside the Shimmer, the exploratory team finds deer growing flowers from their antlers, crystalline trees sprouting on the beach, killer animals with unusual mutations, and gruesome videos detailing the misadventures of the previous expedition. (One of these provides the film’s most squirmworthy scene, a true test of the viewer’s intestinal fortitude.) The Shimmer is an extremely colorful world with rainbow colors and (feminine?) floral motifs. That said, I wasn’t always a fan of the film’s visuals, which seemed too unnatural, at the same time too clean and too soft, and sometimes needlessly intrusive (little prismatic sunlight beams distractingly filtering through the forest). Still, the look arguably gives the film a necessarily artificial sheen, and the flowing, fractal climax is well worth the wait for connoisseurs of acid trip visuals.

Annihilation glances at a couple of an science fiction themes: the enclosed “Shimmer” unavoidably recalls Stalker‘s mystical “Zone,” while the ambiguity of the ending is reminiscent of Solaris. It naturally nods at 2001: A Space Odyssey, the grandaddy of “psychedelic” sci-fi films, too. These are only touchstones, of course: contra Tarkovsky and Kubrick, the movie is modern Hollywood in its overall approach, maximalist in its flowery CGI, and it even includes action sequences and jump scares (and bankable stars like Portman and Isaac) as accommodations to commercial realities.  Whereas 2001 was a meditation on evolution on a macro (even a cosmic) scale, Annihilation draws its scientific impetus from inside, from cellular biology and the fundamentally unfair tricks it plays on us poor humans. Instead of 2001‘s telescope, Annihilation explores the cosmos through a microscope. The title refers, among other things, to the concept of programmed cell death, the idea that our DNA is coded to self-destruct—a theme mirrored by the film’s psychological exploration of self-destructive personalities. The mutations found within the Shimmer are a sort of alt-science, alien alternative to our biological status quo. Scientifically speaking, they might as well be magic: no firm explanation is ever provided for either the source or motive of the mutations. It leaves you free to ponder questions like whether aliens were behind the phenomenon, why humans are programmed to die, and, curiously, why the last group of volunteers sent into the Shimmer are 100% female.

Annihilation is based on a series of novels by Jeff VanderMeer, but reportedly departs significantly from them (even courting a whitewashing controversy by changing the race of the protagonist). After a short theatrical run, it will play exclusively on Netflix, where it will debut internationally as early as March 7 in some markets (U.S. and Canadian dates are not yet known).

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“…a compromised film, one caught awkwardly between its source material’s daring and its producers’ fears that someone, somewhere might not get it. ‘Be weirder!’ I occasionally grunted at the screen. At the same time, studio horror films starring Oscar winners are rarely this weird. Taken on its own terms, this Annihilation does offer rewards.”–Alan Scherstuhl, The Village Voice (contemporaneous)

CAPSULE: SUCKER PUNCH (2011)

DIRECTED BY: Zach Snyder

FEATURING: , Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, , Jamie Chung, Carla Gugino, ,

PLOT: After accidentally killing her sister in an attempt to save her from their evil step-father, Baby Doll is locked away in a horrific mental institution and condemned to a lobotomy. She invents two separate fantasy worlds in which she and her fellow inmates can attain freedom through a video-game-like epic quest.
Still from Sucker Punch (2011)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: While some of Snyder’s visual tactics and musical cues are interesting, most of Sucker Punch is a highly referential, poorly written adventure whose stranger elements only recall better, weirder movies.

COMMENTS: Set in a dark, tall-tale version of the 1950’s, Sucker Punch’s plot is just a mess. The dank mental asylum is shown for no more than 5-10 minutes, with Baby Doll’s cohorts popping up briefly in the beginning.  Her first mental escape—a glitzy brothel in which she and the other inmates are imprisoned sex workers—provides another set of challenges for our boring protagonist to meet.  This leads to a second imaginary escape, prompted by the madame (Carla Gugino) forcing Baby Doll to dance for everyone.  She slips into a trance involving an epic journey to secure five mystical items that will set her free, and her dance is apparently so sultry she practically hypnotizes everyone in the room.  The script flits between these two fantasies for most of the film, mixing the made-up quests into one metaphorical goal: freedom.

The trailers for this film made me think Sucker Punch could go either way: it could be an imaginative, high-flying action flick with strong women characters at the center, or it could be a teenage boy’s sexual fantasy thinly disguising itself as a feminist steampunk adventure.  To very little surprise, it turned out to be more of the latter.  The story is almost offensively dumbed-down while somehow remaining unnecessarily convoluted thanks to the pointless fantasy-within-a-fantasy conceit.  The barely-written characters are flat as can be, with most of the actors putting in dull-faced performances.  The battle scenes, while large in scale and generally exciting, feature so many familiar set pieces and villains that it’s hard to be genuinely swept up in Snyder’s world.  Oversize metal samurai?  Mother dragon fighting to protect her baby?  Nazi zombies?  It’s been done.

The fact that almost the entire proceedings—all of which are meant to be the conscious projection of an independent 20-year-old woman, mind you—involve scantily-clad twentysomething hotties with heavy fake eyelashes fighting evil in egregiously high heels while their male tormenters ogle them, well… that just gives Mr Snyder a chance to incorporate as much exploitation and fetishization as he can.  The overabundance of slow-motion is the cherry on top of this very indulgent and overloaded psycho-sexy sundae.

Admittedly, there are some positive aspects to the film.  Jena Malone, Abbie Cornish, and Carla Gugino—arguably the most talented actors present—do their best with the shoddy material, adding just a dash of emotional weight to the proceedings amidst the clunky dialogue and overblown electronica soundtrack.  Malone especially stands out: with her adorable spiky haircut and acute expressiveness she is a welcome relief from Emily Browning’s infantalizing pigtails and ever-present look of worried, victimized Barbie doll.  Many of the visuals, too, are quite intriguing, with Snyder utilizing his usual dulled color palette and sped-up/slowed-down battle sequences. Several of the action scenes feel like an anime in real life (Baby Doll’s ridiculous schoolgirl outfit and katana and Amber’s giant mech certainly help), which is a nice thought.

It’s always nice to see confident, independent women kicking butt onscreen, and it’s a thing that doesn’t happen as often as it should, but Sucker Punch is not a good example of this genre.  While on the surface it features some memorable fantasy images, sexy babes in killer costumes, and exciting gunplay, it’s neither fun nor smart enough to make up for the uninspired script, bad acting, and wanton exploitation.  In the end, the weirdest thing about it is that it seems to take itself seriously.

WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:

“Spastic, bombastic, and incoherent, Zach Snyder’s Sucker Punch is a baroque, highly polished chunk of pop culture vomit. A nonsensical mash-up of Shutter Island, The Lord of the Rings, I, Robot and Kill Bill, it doesn’t even have the decency to have fun with its cartoonish obsessions, instead delivering a somber, moody, metafictional melodrama that that thinks it’s about female empowerment but instead has all the philosophical heft of Maxim Magazine.”–Jeff Meyers, Detroit Metro Times (contemporaneous)