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‘Touchy Feely’: Lynn Shelton’s Low-Key Charmer

[Originally published in Seattle Weekly, September 2013]

What compelling mysteries might be quietly thrumming inside the world of the dentist’s office? It is characteristic of the wistful, daydreamy universe of Lynn Shelton’s films that this unlikely question (has anyone outside the dental profession ever asked it?) makes up part of her latest project. Touchy Feely is the stubbornly—and, I think, wonderfully—low-key follow-up to Humpday and Your Sister’s Sister, the partly improvised comedies that put Shelton on the indie-movie map. This new one is again shot in Seattle, Shelton’s hometown. Two siblings experience unexplained eruptions in their professional skills: Massage therapist Abby (Rosemarie DeWitt, from Your Sister’s Sister) is suddenly repulsed by the touch of human skin, and dentist Paul (Josh Pais) develops magical healing powers that can cure his patients’ jaw problems.

These phenomena are suspiciously related to the everyday issues afflicting the two, as Abby has been dawdling over an invitation to move in with her boyfriend Jesse (Scoot McNairy), and Paul has passively allowed his practice to dwindle because of his super-awkward manner. Meanwhile, Paul’s college-age daughter Jenny (Ellen Page) is trapped in her job as a dental assistant, and carries around an unrequited crush on someone who probably won’t return the feeling.

Except for the magical-realist touches, this story does not break new ground, and its resolutions are not surprising. But in the film’s exactly observed living rooms and offices, something human is going on, in a way too many movies don’t get. Maybe this film is about the need to see people in a new way, which also describes Shelton’s deep-tissue work with actors. For instance, veteran character actor Pais has dozens of movie and TV credits, yet this is a breakout role for him (if the word “breakout” applies to a movie this languid). And Page, easily typed as a brittle comic performer after Juno, has never been more vulnerable and touching.

If Touchy Feely were a European film and had subtitles, it would probably get better reviews; it has audience-friendly moments, but mostly this is about mood and place. And speaking of place, Shelton’s filming in Pugetopolis is never pictorial, but always sunk into authentically lived-in locations. You’ve been to this dentist’s office before, though you might never have suspected what went on there.

Review: Outside In

Reviewed by Robert Horton for Seattle Weekly

“You are to stay within Snohomish County,” the man says sternly. These words—not often uttered in the cinema—are spoken by a parole officer to a newly released ex-con in Outside In.

They are also taken to heart by the film’s director, Lynn Shelton, who creates a beguiling mood piece by staying close to her local roots. This film is especially evocative in its sense of place: There’s an unmistakable familiarity in the way the camera sees the evergreen-lined byroads east of Everett and the homey storefronts of Granite Falls. I spotted the little smear of green mold that develops around car windows when they haven’t been cared for during a Northwest winter (something I might possibly have some experience with). Outside In is about feeling like an outsider on your own home turf, but it’s been made with a native’s view of the landscape.

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Silverado

This is the uncut version of a piece I wrote for the September 1985 Film Comment. Richard Corliss didn’t normally cut my stuff, but as usual I had written late and long, and at the last minute he needed to cede some space to the ads. —RTJ

I said I liked Silverado and the editor said mostly he didn’t. I said it had given me a grand time; he grumbled something about structural problems. I allowed as how it bordered on the miraculous that some wised-up, thoroughly contemporary filmmakers had managed to rediscover the pleasures of the pure Western without parodying, tarting up, or otherwise condescending to the genre. He said he only liked Westerns that transcended the genre, and as far as he was concerned the genre needed all the transcending it could get. I said, “I like Westerns. I grew up with Westerns!” He chuckled, pleasantly: “Ken Maynard?” “Among others.” That put the discussion on hold for about two weeks.

Well, I did grow up with Westerns — Jack Randall and Hopalong Cassidy on Saturday-afternoon TV, occasional Technicolor excursions with Audie Murphy, Alan Ladd, Jimmy Stewart at the moviehouse. Something other than nostalgia accounts for my continuing fondness for those youthful experiences. Some of those Westerns would turn out years later to be films de Anthony Mann or “the George Stevens classic, Shane“; others would recede in the memory as simply movies with Audie Murphy or Jack Randall in them. Cumulatively, all left their mark. In some fundamental ways, my pleasure in the ultrastylized look, movements, and behaviors of Westerns shaped my sense of what movies at large ought to be, what sorts of texture, ritual, and discovery we should require of them.

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‘Contagion’ Doesn’t Want to Reach Out and Touch You

Kathleen Murphy’s review of Contagion was written for Movies/MSN at the time of the film’s original release.

Steven Soderbergh’s super-creepy Contagion does for pandemic what the Oscar-winning director did for drug Traffic back in 2000. Mimicking the insidious spread of coke-related ills, he tracks a lethal little virus—bat-borne, then transmitted to a piglet—as it metastasizes out of a friendly handshake to world-killer. A panic-worthy journey for sure, but no need to buckle up for fast-cutting, tension-building, apocalyptic action­­—or anything else that might significantly raise your blood pressure. Less hysterical than hushed, more numbing than terrifying, Contagion‘s closer to documentary—an imagined record of how global citizenry might realistically react to monumental crisis.

Says Soderbergh: “We were looking for something that was unsettling because of the banality of the transmission. In a weird way, the less you trump it up, the more unsettling it becomes.”

Accordingly, the director paints his plague canvas with a muted palette that leaches heat and color out of potential melodrama; sometimes the very air seems dimmed, weighted with invisible death. Chronicling the mundane, almost slow-motion process of coping with pandemic, the movie’s narrative engine runs cool rather than hot—in contrast to Outbreak (1995), in which mild-mannered scientists morph into action-heroes, questing for curative antibodies while fighting off trigger-happy generals.

Contagion has more in common with Michael Crichton’s The Andromeda Strain (1971): Set underground in hyper-sterile laboratory environs, that chilly movie’s action was mostly of the cerebral kind, featuring a quartet of dispassionate experts glued to microscopes, computer screens and observation windows, looking to decode a deadly, alien virus.

Similarly, Contagion‘s way of picturing catastrophic events is three clicks removed, like peering into a microscope, watching cellular warfare under glass. The cast is overstocked with attractive A-listers—Gwyneth Paltrow, Matt Damon, Kate Winslet, Marion Cotillard, et al.—but none stands out.

Soderbergh pulls a Hitchcock (Psycho) by offing a lead early on; during the autopsy, that actress’s iconic features are literally peeled away. He continues to subvert our pleasure in movie stars as warm, beautiful bodies, objects of subliminal desire: how can we fantasize about intimacy when human contact—an embrace, a kiss, a sigh—is fatal? Their charisma banked, the stars—potential Petri dishes of infection just like regular people—deliberately do not shine.

Quarantine puts the kibosh on those staples of the traditional disaster movie, loner heroics or Capra-esque communal activism. Emerging momentarily as a smart, no-nonsense healthcare organizer, the striking Winslet soon falls out of focus, another ravaged body in a gymnasium full of anonymous dead. Cotillard, as a World Health Organization doc, gets kidnapped in China, her ransom a supply of the curative vaccine. Distinctly unthrilling, this plotline peters out in anticlimax, an exercise in futility.

As End Times loom, Soderbergh spotlights, almost clinically, human selfishness and short-sightedness, the metabolism of everyday life. When a maverick researcher cracks the viral code, a rival scientist blurts, “Now he’ll publish!” Nurses strike, bureaucrats argue budget, funeral homes turn away the dead, the government (as usual) fiddles while Rome burns. Action-movie addicts will jones in vain for some bigger-than-life villainy to offer escape from Contagion‘s enervating realism. 

Reprising the structure if not the tempo of Traffic, Soderbergh deploys a network of narrative threads to catch the inexorable spread and impact of infection: from the globe-trotting Patient Zero, to global health organizations desperately trying to find a cure, to foodlines on the homefront. The Internet, potentially a secure lifeline for the world’s isolated souls, spreads another kind of lethal virus. A popular blogger, aptly named Krumwiede, unleashes a highly infectious meme about government–Big Pharma conspiracy and a cure called Forsythia. What’s this cross between Andrew Breitbart and Michael Moore after? A killing in hedge fund futures! (Krumwiede’s played by a snaggle-toothed Jude Law, recalling his rodent self in Road to Perdition.)

Soderbergh does provide some warm spots in his low-key vision of humanity in extremis. A father (Matt Damon), bereft of wife and little boy, guards his daughter from contagion, sealing her off from even gestures of love. A high-level staffer at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, (Laurence Fishburne) gives a janitor’s kid his own allotted vaccine. And, of course, there’s one act of world-saving heroism—but hey, the lady’s hoping for a Nobel Prize. These moments don’t pack much emotional punch, seeming almost like afterthoughts in Soderbergh’s chilly laboratory of catastrophe.

Though far from a likeable movie, Contagion‘s admirable as a highly controlled, verging-on-Kubrickian exercise in directorial vision and style. What’s most disturbing about this low-energy disaster movie is how tellingly it taps into America’s current angst, the fear of a slow decline that can’t be cured, all our heroes having succumbed to a plague of Krumwiedes.

Trouble in Mind

[originally published in The Weekly, March 26, 1986]

“When I wrote the script it was never as exotic. It was more a straightforward kind of movie. Which it still is. It just takes longer to get straight.”

That’s Alan Rudolph talking about his movie Trouble in Mind, which he wrote “with Seattle in mind” and shot here a year ago this month. How well you take to its exoticism and how patiently you wait for the straightforwardness to assert itself will depend on your tolerance of, or enthusiasm for, Rudolph’s highly stylized brand of filmmaking. I happen to consider him one of the most dynamic, and certainly most distinctive, of modern American filmmakers, and find that his latest feature combines the haunt and vibrancy of Choose Me with the fleetness and wit of Songwriter. That opinion may be disputed. What no one will dispute is that Trouble in Mind makes more exciting use of Seattle as a movie location than any other film ever shot here.

Not that the setting is supposed to be Seattle. Rudolph calls his mythical location RainCity and, as one of the characters reads early in the film, “Above all, the city is a promise of something better—the faint perfume of tomorrow’s fortunes.” That phrase is less likely to have been written by a chamber-of-commerce flack than by a film critic with a deeply ingrained sense of what The City has meant in countless motion pictures about the loss of American innocence. RainCity is the city of film noir, a maze of rain-slicked streets all perversely aspiring to be alleys, of cafés and nightspots and timeless temporary rooms where furtive life hedges its bets and keeps an eye out for the main chance.

Rudolph himself notes that Trouble in Mind‘s characters have been created “out of the movie myth more than the life myth.” The film gets under way with the hero’s release from prison. Hawk (Kris Kristofferson), a former police detective, has spent eight years inside for a vigilante killing. Back in the city, he holes up in a room over Wanda’s Café—Wanda (Geneviève Bujold) is a pal from the old days—and ponders his options. Become a sort of shadow agent for the police? Or sign on with Hilly Blue (Divine), chief mover and shaker of the RainCity underworld these days?

Then fate deals a wild card. Out of the piney woods come Coop (Keith Carradine), a brash young drifter, and Georgia (Lori Singer), the common-law wife he parks in a camper outside Wanda’s while he embarks on a new career in urban crime. Hawk takes one look at the blond waif with baby son in her arms, and our Bogartian hero’s a goner.

The elements of the story are familiar, but Rudolph weaves his own inimitable spell with them. The characters’ trajectories keep crossing, and glancing off one another, according to a cockeyed choreography that speaks to an appreciation of mood, place, and emotional imperatives over the mechanics of plotmaking. Film noir, with its penchant for the ritualized intercourse of strangers and its air of stories that pass in the night, is after all a natural stomping ground for the writer-director of Choose Me, that mating dance of love-seekers beguiled into aesthetic and emotional synchronicity.

***

Choose Me made sad, unexpectedly sweet comedy out of the elements of despair; in its more sardonic way, Trouble in Mind is also a comedy. Its passages of real or potential violence tend to leap into hysterical slapstick. Thieves and fences pull guns over a Chinese dinner; the convergence of emotional itineraries in Wanda’s Café leads to a flailing punchup and giddy verbal crossfire. On a more sober level, irony and goofiness keep swapping valences: Hawk’s fixation on the bucolic airhead Georgia at once signals that he has begun to “get some heart,” as Wanda once ruefully advised him, and proves his undoing at several levels of absurdity.

In some ways, Trouble in Mind represents a slight falling-off for Rudolph. Although the possibility of death runs riot in this movie, there never seems to be quite as much at stake as there was in the much less sanguinary Choose Me. Some of the comedy is just exasperatingly silly (especially when John Considine, an old comrade from Rudolph’s apprenticeship with Robert Altman, turns up as a gangster rival of Hilly Blue’s), and Lori Singer’s wood sprite, for all her efforts to suggest a kind of animal innocence and purity, mostly comes off as a poor-man’s Daryl Hannah.

But such weaknesses are far outweighed by the film’s myriad beauties. The fiercely ambivalent relationship of Wanda and Hawk is grounded on shared history the more evocative for our never quite knowing what that history was. Joe Morton, who played the silent black extraterrestrial in John Sayles’s The Brother from Another Planet, limns a fascinating portrait of Solo, Coop’s lethal, aphoristic tutor in crime, who speaks in quasi-Oriental arboreal metaphors and sets a death trap with sharpened bamboo. (First approached by the jitterbug Coop in Wanda’s Café, he says, “Impatient, eh?” and makes two declarative sentences out of it.) Above all, there is Rudolph’s tirelessly inventive camera eye (abetted by cinematographer Toyomichi Kurita, making an auspicious debut), which stimulates and rewards the viewer’s own imagination with every adroitly selected angle and mythmaking movement of connection.

The narrative in no way insists on it, but this movie takes place in an environment entirely its own. There’s almost a science-fiction air to this world—”low-tech science fiction, emotional science fiction,” Rudolph is quick to qualify. The action appears to be taking place in the near future. There’s a militia parading in the streets; the bills we glimpse in Hilly Blue’s wallet at one point are multicolored, a visual cross between Canadian currency and Monopoly money; jurisdictions are discussed in terms of “sectors” rather than counties or states. Yet the silhouetted specters of uniformed men in a railway station, the lipstick and mannerisms of a diner waitress, the Forties cut of Hawk’s fresh-out-of-prison suit and black shirt, all lend a flavor of period piece—an acid flashback from the pre-acid past.

RainCity itself, though kissed with the bloody blush of neon, retains, like its real-life prototype, an atavistic memory that it was carved out of mountain and forest. Between criminal endeavors, Solo scribbles and murmurs a prose poem about “a dream of trees,” and after all the guns have gone off and the blood has been spilled, the film leaps exultantly to high country and cloud for a mysteriously beautiful coda.

I congratulated Rudolph on this ending, even as I noted, “I find it terribly moving, yet I really can’t say quite why.” He thanked me and confessed that he didn’t quite know why, either. Being unable to account for the beauty he’d created didn’t seem to bother him much. No reason why it should.

Copyright © 1986 by Richard T. Jameson

Forced Closure: Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, it sure was a whole lot easier to put a damned bow on a franchise. Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, director J.J. Abrams’ return to the trilogy he kicked off with The Force Awakens, is clearly facing some monumental pressures in its quest to deliver a satisfying ending, with a litany of production woes ranging from the passing of Carrie Fisher, the dismissal of the original director, and the ire of random goons on the internet. Given all of the agita, the fact that the final movie comes off as something other than a clear victory lap is less than surprising. What’s odd, though, is how much of the narrative chaos feels self-inflicted. This is a finale that somehow registers as both flabby and rushed, expending at least as much energy in rubbing out perceived past snafus as in moving forward. I mean, it’s still better than Attack of the Clones, but the line is perilously close at times.

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Review: Piranahs

Fifteen-year-old Nicola (Francesco Di Napoli) is a good kid in a bad situation. His Naples neighborhood is terrorized by gangsters and his single mother is barely holding on with the onerous protection money payments. So, this smart, ambitious kid organizes his buddies into a gang, appeals to the former neighborhood Don (now an outcast for turning informant) for weapons, and takes the neighborhood back.

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Implosion Round: ‘John Wick: Chapter 3’ Pushes it to the Limit

Video game designers often rhapsodize about Core Loops, those small, quickly repeatable moments of coolness that can keep players glued to the controller past the point of thumb-trauma. 2014’s John Wick made this phenomenon into a spectator sport, devising a seemingly infinite (and distressingly satisfying) variety of ways for Keanu Reeves to inflict grievous bodily harm on a steady stream of henchmen. John Wick: Chapter 2 somehow managed to further refine the formula, ramping up the action scenes to the verge of head-popping nirvana, while also adding new wrinkles to the agreeably odd surrounding mythology. (This is a universe in which literally Every Second Person You See is an assassin.) They were both just about perfect, in a Red Meat/Reptile Brain way.

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Nuff Said: ‘Avengers: Endgame’ Nails the Dismount

Sealing the Deal tends to take low priority in the movies these days, with measured resolutions and logical endpoints largely phased out in favor of open-ended tosses to various cinematic universes. Happily, though, Marvel’s gargantuan, decade-in-the-making Avengers: Endgame largely nails the dismount, blending clever callbacks and newfound cosmic hooey into a satisfyingly constructed mass of entertainment. While it improves upon the previous installment in a number of aspects—there’s much more Ant-Man, for one thing—what ultimately impresses the most is how it allows itself to wrap things up and let a number of significant curtains fall.

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Review: Trouble is My Business

Disgraced private detective Roland Drake is on the verge of being evicted from his crummy little office—the glass door is scarred with tell-tale signs of a partner’s name haphazardly scraped off—when she slinks in. “She had a face that could launch a thousand ships and a body that would bring them back,” he monotones in voice-over. Played by actor/director/co-writer Tom Konkle with the hangdog presence of a born patsy, Drake has a bottle in the drawer, a fedora perched on his head, and an attitude that reaches for world-weary resignation.

That reach—like much of the film—exceeds Konkle’s grasp, but the ambition of Trouble is My Business is impressive. 

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High Life: Harsh Mistress

The Final Frontier has received any number of varied cinematic treatments over the years, ranging from a Kubrickian adherence to physics, to full-on Road Runnerish refusals to honor the laws of gravity. High Life, the latest barbed wonder from Claire Denis, makes its particular approach to the void clear from the first few moments. Here, the objects set adrift in space either hover poetically, or fall straight down to God Knows Where. While the effect may well make scientists clutch their heads, it informs the film’s startling combination of unblinking body horror and gauzy far-out glories, fueled by the respectively stoic and frenzied performances of Robert Pattinson and Juliette Binoche. Even at its most baffling, you can always detect the pulse of a master filmmaker. She controls the vertical, the horizontal, and everything in between.

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Uneven Beams: ‘Captain Marvel’

Saluting a megalithic juggernaut for taking risks is a bit of a mug’s game, but the Marvel Cinematic Universe has been in a winningly funky mood lately, alternating the large-scale Sturm and Drang of the Avengers series with lighter, more idiosyncratic fare. (Yes, I realize that something like Thor: Ragnarok is light years away from being an indie film, but work with me here.) Captain Marvel, the long-overdue solo launch for the comic company’s most powerful female character, unfortunately can’t quite keep the left-field streak going, settling for a pretty familiar origin story delivery mode. While the pre-Iron Man timeframe contributes some novelty—to say nothing of some stellar soundtrack needle-drops—it often feels like a throwback in less engaging ways, as well. Still, even when mired in generic comic movie trappings, the exceedingly game Brie Larson and her ace supporting cast keep things buzzing.

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Review: Arctic

There are a couple dozen lines of dialogue in Arctic, plus an assortment of grunts. As it happens, we don’t need even that much spoken information: The simplicity of writer/director Joe Penna’s approach and the magnificence of Mads Mikkelsen’s acting is more than enough to make this survival tale a gripping experience.

One of Penna’s best decisions was to lop off the first act of the story. We don’t know how or why a man, played by Mikkelsen (the superb Danish actor from Casino Royale and the TV version of Hannibal), has come to be stranded somewhere in the frozen North.

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Review: Under the Volcano

[Originally published in The Weekly, July 8, 1984]

Ah, the past has filled up quicker than we know, and God has little patience with remorse.

—Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano

Adapt a novel of consequence to the screen and you’ll damn well answer for it. At best, your pride of achievement will have, quite properly, to be shared with the author of the original work. At worst, you will be taken to task, by those who cherish the book, for any deviation from it. In the muddled middle range of opinion, reviewers can sound learned and play it safe at the same time by suggesting that, honorable and sporadically admirable as your adaptation may be, it somehow misses the essential imaginative core of the artistic experience. It isn’t …well, heck, it isn’t the novel.

This problem becomes tetchier still with a novel so relentlessly novel-ish as Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano. The main portion of Lowry’s book, dealing with the drunken peregrinations of the ex–British Consul in Cuernavaca, Mexico, on the Day of the Dead 1938, is tacitly a flashback. It’s also a dense, roiling stream-of-consciousness piece with both the hyperclarity and level-shifting instability of a fever dream. Symbols and allusions—cultural, literary, historical, geographical, political—pile up to create a veritable poetic and spiritual analogue of Western consciousness, an updated Waste Land for the generation after T.S. Eliot. (Lowry worked on the book from 1938 through 1946.)

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Chasing the Hat

[This article first appeared in the September-October 1990 issue of Film Comment. It was reprinted in the National Society of Film Critics anthology They Went Thataway: Redefining Film Genres (1995).]

Ice dropping into a heavy-bottomed glass: cold, hard, sensuous. The first image in Miller’s Crossing hits our ears before it hits the screen, but it’s nonetheless an image for that. Tom Reagan (Gabriel Byrne) has traveled the length of a room to build a drink. Not that we saw him in transit, not that we yet know he is Tom Reagan, and not that we see him clearly now as he turns and stalks back up the room, a silent, out-of-focus enigma at the edge of someone else’s closeup. Yet he is a story walking, as his deliberate, tangential progress, from background to middle distance and then out the side of the frame, is also a story – draining authority from the close-up Johnny Caspar (Jon Polito) who’s come to insist, ironically enough, on the recognition of his territorial rights.

The place is a story, too, which we read as the scene unfolds. A private office; not Caspar’s, but not Reagan’s either – it’s city boss Liam “Leo” O’Bannion (Albert Finney) who sits behind the camera and his big desk, listening. An upstairs office, we know from the muted street traffic (without stopping to think about why we know). Night outside, but sunlight would never be welcome, or relevant, here. A masculine space, green lampshades amid the dark luster of wood, leather, whiskey. A remote train whistle sounds, functional and intrinsically forlorn; the distance from which it reaches us locates the office in space and in history. This room exists in a city big enough to support a multiplicity of criminal fiefdoms and a political machine that rules by maintaining the balance among them, yet it is still a town whose municipal core lies within faint earshot of its outskirts. Urban dreams of empire have not entirely crowded out the memory of wilderness, of implacable places roads and railroads can’t reach, even if one of them has been wishfully designated Miller’s Crossing. Hence we are not entirely surprised (though the aesthetic shock is deeply satisfying) when the opening master-scene, with its magisterial interior setting and dialogue fragrant with cross purpose, gives way to a silent (save for mournful Irish melody) credit sequence in an empty forest. And then to a title card announcing, almost superfluously, “An Eastern city in the United States, toward the end of the 1920s.”

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