erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Wednesday December 17, 2014

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)


I thought “Whiplash” was about a sadistic teacher who makes life hell for an innocent kid who just wants to be a jazz drummer.

Instead, “Whiplash” is about a sadistic teacher who makes life hell for an arrogant bastard ... who just wants to be a jazz drummer.

So it’s much better than I thought.

At first, Andrew (Miles Teller) seems another fish-out-of-water kid. He’s at a prestigious school, Shaffer Conservatory of Music, seemingly without friends, and goes to the movies (“Rififi”), with his father, Jim (Paul Reiser), a put-upon teacher whose wife left soon after Andrew was born. At the theater, an unseen man bumps Jim’s head with a bucket of popcorn and it’s Jim who apologizes. He’s that kind of guy. Whiplash, with Miles Teller and J.K. SimmonsThe kind of guy, it turns out, that Andrew doesn’t want to be.

The movie opens with Andrew on the drum kit, playing away, when the school’s best teacher, Terrence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), arrives and listens. Andrew stops when he sees Fletcher. “Why did you stop playing?” Fletcher asks. So Andrew starts again. “Did I ask you to start playing again?” Fletcher says. “Show me your rudiments.” The kid is desperate for attention and Fletcher enjoys not giving it. He leaves without a word (to Andrew’s disappointment), then returns (to Andrew’s relief). But instead of encouragement, he says, “Oopsie-daisy, forgot my jacket.” Then gone again.

The “oopsie-daisy” is like a little knife in the side. The knives will get bigger.

Third division
Initially we think Andrew is like us—just more talented. But he’s not like us. And he doesn’t want to be.

This becomes painfully clear at an extended family dinner. His accomplishment—making Fletcher’s class—is run over by family talk, and when he returns to it no one seems to get it. They shouldn’t, really. Fletcher? Who’s Fletcher? Plus it’s jazz, not football. Now Uncle Frank’s boys, they’re on the football team. “Yeah,” Andrew says dismissively, “third division.” In the next minute, we get Andrew’s philosophy. It’s all about the work, the music. Friends? Family? They just get in the way. Charlie Parker is held up as the exemplar, to which Jim mentions his drug-addled death. Andrew’s response? “I’d rather die drunk, broke at 34, and have people at a dinner table talk about me, than live to be rich and sober at 90 and nobody remembered who I was.”

In this sense he’s the perfect student for Fletcher.

Is that why Fletcher focuses on him so much? Because he senses this drive in him? The anecdote that’s constantly brought up is that moment in 1937 when drummer Joe Jones threw a cymbal at a teenage Charlie Parker. Parker was humiliated, but practiced for a year until he was, well, Bird. Then he blew everyone away. That’s what Fletcher says he hopes to do: be the Joe Jones who brings out the Bird in a new Charlie Parker.

Does he see that in Andrew? Or is it simply the sadist feeling out the masochist? Because—beyond an introductory lesson in humiliation in which Fletcher calls out a student for being out of tune (even though he wasn’t)—Fletcher focuses completely on the drum kit.

Andrew starts out as alternate, replaces 1st drummer Carl  (Nate Lang) when he misplaces Carl’s sheet music, then competes with both Carl and Ryan (Austin Stowell) for 1st chair, and Fletcher’s attention. Fletcher keeps them all off balance and yearning. With Andrew, he tells him he’s rushing or dragging. “Not my tempo,” he says over and over.

That’s among the nicer things he says. His talent for invective would give R. Lee Ermey a run for his money:

  • Parker, that is not your boyfriend’s dick: do not come early.
  • If you deliberately sabotage my band, I will fuck you like a pig.
  • Oh dear God, are you one of those single-tear people? You are a worthless pansy ass who is now weeping and slobbering all over my drumset like a 9-year-old girl!

Also this: “There are no two words in the English language more harmful than good job.”

Does the movie agree with this assessment? Is this a wake-up call for the audience, sitting in the dark, listless, munching on popcorn and wish fulfillment, about what it really takes to get ahead? The rest of us are the family at the dinner table, or Jim apologizing because someone else was rude, or Nicole (Melissa Benoit), whom Andrew dumps two scenes into their relationship because she’ll just get in the way. Andrew, willing to get blood, sweat and tears on the kit, is ruthless in his determination. That’s why he gets where he does.

I buy that argument to some extent. In my own life, I’ve made choices, and they’ve invariably been “Minnesota Nice” choices. What ruthlessness I’ve displayed is usually followed by pangs of guilt and self-abnegation. I think most of us feel trapped between these two unpalatable options: getting run over by life, like Jim, or being a massive asshole like Fletcher.

But there are other options.

Twenty-game winner
The counterbeat to all of this played in my head even as the story played out onscreen. It’s the story of Ferguson Jenkins. I don’t remember where I read it—I can’t find it online—but he was a pretty good player, a Major Leaguer, certainly, but he wasn’t great yet. Then a coach instilled confidence in him. The coach made him believe he could be what he became: one of the great pitchers of his era, a 20-game winner for six years in a row, and an eventual Hall-of-Famer. That coach built up; this one tears down.

“Whiplash” is written (sharply) and directed (beautifully) by first-timer/squeaker Damien Chazelle, and it progresses smartly. Andrew’s bus breaks down on the way to a concert, he has to rent a car to get to the hall—but he leaves his drumsticks behind. When he goes to retrieve them, there’s a car accident, a truck upending his rental (beautifully filmed), and Andrew crawls from the wreckage and runs to the show, where, despite being in shock, despite being bloodied unable to hold his sticks, he sits in. Does Fletcher appreciate this? Show concern? No. After Andrew flubs it, Fletcher dismisses him. Then Andrew attacks him and is expelled; then he becomes an unnamed part of a lawsuit against Fletcher for abuse. An earlier student, whom Fletcher had held up as an exemplar (and who died, he said, in a car accident), had actually hung himself—in part, the lawyers say, because of the years of psychological abuse Fletcher had inflicted on him.

When Andrew sees Fletcher again, he’s playing piano in a jazz club, and he asks Andrew to play drums with his band at the JVC Jazz Festival at Carnegie Hall. Andrew hasn’t been practicing much since his expulsion, and he’s slightly worried as he sits at the kit. Someone doesn’t play well at JVC, they’ll probably never get another gig. That’s the idea. And that’s Fletcher’s idea. Because he knows it was Andrew who ratted, and he begins with a song that Andrew has never practiced, and for which he has no sheet music. He’s humiliated, leaves the stage and collapses into the arms of his father, who consoles him.

The end? No. He doesn’t join the Jims of the world. He goes back and fights the Fletchers.

Andrew returns to the kit, and without instruction begins playing; then he tells the band when to join in, and they do. (Why do they listen to him exactly? What’s the protocol on this?) It’s like he’s taking away Fletcher’s band from him. He’s the leader now. But that’s not it either, exactly. There’s no comeuppance for Fletcher. By the end, Fletcher and Andrew are working together. You can see Fletcher’s eyes light up in a way they haven’t yet. He’s wondering if this is the moment. He’s wondering if he’s finally getting his Charlie Parker.

It’s a triumphant ending. Two jerks create something beautiful. That's kind of ... beautiful. 

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Posted at 06:17 AM on Dec 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday December 15, 2014

Movie Review: Top Five (2014)


There aren’t many movies that make me think, “Thank God Adam Sandler’s arrived.”

What a disappointment this thing is. I guess hoping for Chris Rock’s “Annie Hall” was too much, but maybe his “Radio Days”? Instead we get his “Celebrity.”

Remember “Celebrity”? Kenneth Branagh plays a Woody Allenish reporter named Lee doing a magazine profile on a Hollywood star (Melanie Griffiths), and they visit her childhood home, where, in the bedroom, he makes a pass. She turns him down  ... only to give him a blowjob. “There are many things to be said about this sequence,” Anthony Lane wrote back then for The New Yorker, “but you could not, with a clear conscience, call in cinema vérité.”

In “Top Five,” The New York Times sends reporter Chelsea Brown (Rosario Dawson) to interview former standup comic/movie star Andre Allen (Rock, homage alert), whose new serious film, “Uprize,” about a 19th-century Haitian slave rebellion, is opening that day, and who is getting married to reality-TV-star Erica Long (Gabrielle Union) that weekend. Top Five Chris RockAllen is against the interview, since the Times movie critic, Dave Nielson, has always slammed his films, including the hugely popular “Hammy the Bear” series (a man in a bear suit with a machine gun); but eventually he goes along with it.

Too bad. Because she’s the worst reporter in the world.

The worst reporter in the world
First, she shows up unprepared—without her tape recorder. Then she insists on retrieving it at her home (rather than using her iPhone’s built-in recorder) because that’s her lucky one. Then she spends half the day talking about herself and her problems. We get to witness one of those problems—her boyfriend, Brad (Anders Holm), who turns out to be gay, or bi, and who’s cheating on her. At that point in the movie, upset and humiliated, she actually walks away from Allen. She walks away from her story. He’s an alcoholic, she’s an alcoholic, but she walks into a liquor store and contemplates drinking.

Oh, and guess what? It turns out she’s Dave Nielson; she just writes the reviews under an alias.

Think about that for a moment. The New York Times has a beautiful—and I mean drop-dead gorgeous—Latina movie critic, but they choose to hide her identity behind a stodgy white male persona, because ...? I’m at a loss. Is it 1952? 1919? Should we check to see if A.O. Scott really looks like Eva Mendes but the Times thinks “white, dumpy, male” sells better in the digital age? No offense intended, A.O.

And it’s not just reporters or the media that writer-director Rock doesn’t get. He doesn’t seem to know movie stars, either. He doesn’t know the movies. I assume “Hammy the Bear” is a takeoff on Rock’s successful “Madagascar” movies, but those don’t look like crap; “Hammy” does. There’s no way that thing’s making $600 million worldwide. And the interview takes place on the day “Uprize” is released? Isn’t that a bit late? And Allen thinks that “Uprize” will do well at the box office? Is he that clueless? Even “12 Years a Slave”—which isn’t about a slave who killed white folks—opened in only 19 theaters. Allen is lucky “Uprize” is opening anywhere. He should know that.

Throughout the first two-thirds of the movie, I kept thinking “Fake fake fake fake ...” like Elaine in that episode of “Seinfeld.” Then Jerry Seinfeld arrives and saves the final third.

Chris Rock’s problem
There are a few good lines throughout. I like this Bob Newhartish conversation, for example, as Allen is doing promo and explaining “Uprize” by phone to some radio station somewhere:

Allen: It’s about the greatest slave rebellion of all time.
Allen: Slave rebellion.
Allen: It’s when slaves rebelled.

Then the plot kicks in again. He and Chelsea argue, make out, nearly have sex in a bar bathroom; then he borrows her phone and discovers she’s his arch-nemesis Dave Nielson; then he discovers no one’s going to see “Uprize”; then he gets drunk in the aisle of a mom-and-pop market, winds up in jail, is sprung, heads to his bachelor party at a strip club.

That’s where he meets Seinfeld, Sandler and Whoopi Goldberg, who, all sunk into middle-aged senescence, give him straight shit on marriage. It’s funny. Seinfeld “makes it rain” at the strip club. He accuses a bikini-clad stripper of taking his wallet, and when she asks where she would put it, he says, in that classic Seinfeld manner, “Do I have to say it?”

After that, Allen goes through with the marriage to a reality-TV star and lives happily ever after.

Kidding. The movie is set up so he doesn’t. We know that going in. In fact, we know exactly how it’s going to end. Earlier in the movie, Chelsea talks up the Cinderella complex:

Chelsea: Cinderella did what girls do when they want to see a guy again.
Allen: Handjob?
Chelsea: She left something behind.

Make a note: She’ll leave something behind. And she does.

At the strip club, she reappears, takes Allen to a comedy club, where he gets up on stage for the first time in years—he’d avoided it because he’d never done it sober—and kills, with, one assumes, old material. Then they say their tearful goodbyes. Then in the backseat of the limo he’s going through the bachelor party gift bag and finds something she left behind: a Cinderella-ish shoe. And he tells his right-hand man, Silk (J.B. Smove, who, cameos aside, is the best thing in the movie), to ... Actually, I think he just says his name. We know what’s going to happen. So Rock just ends it. It’s a good end to a bad movie.

Here’s Chris Rock’s problem. Actually, he has two. The first is he’s not a very good actor. He’s just not. The second is the difference between what made him a star (stand-up), and where he’s currently placing his star (the movies).

The best stand-up, including Rock’s, is generally funny because it’s true. People get up on stage and say the shit that everyone’s thinking but no one’s saying. Or they reveal the absurdities/hypocrisies of race (Rock), modern culture (Louis C.K.), the Bible (Ricky Gervais), relationships (everyone), that most of us haven’t thought of. But the absurdities/hypocrisies have to be true or they’re not funny. Stand-up is a delivery device for truth-telling.

The movies are a delivery device for wish-fulfillment fantasy: good beats evil, boy gets girl, etc. On screen, we’re tougher, braver, sexier than we really are. Most movies lie, in other words. The best movies don’t. Think of Woody Allen’s best. He gives us “Most of us need the eggs,” and “You have to have a little faith in people” and “You’re God’s answer to Job.” Rock needs to revisit these movies if he’s seriously interested in taking over the mantle. Because Chris? We really do need the eggs.

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Posted at 05:32 AM on Dec 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Wednesday December 10, 2014

Movie Review: Birdman (2014)


“Birdman” is one long unbroken shot after another. The camera swoops down hallways and past doors and through windows and up, up and away toward the sky. It’s a movie about an actor who once played a superhero, but in the movie the camera is the superhero.

“Birdman” is a movie about the making of a play, and each unbroken shot, you could say, is like a scene in that play. Scene i takes us through the falling stagelight and scene ii is “meeting journalists” and scene iii is the introduction of Mike. Even its backstage shenanigans feel theatrical. Is Laura pregnant? Will Mike and Lesley break up? Will Laura and Lesley leave Mike and Riggan for each other? Birdman starring Michael KeatonAt the same time, it’s astonishingly cinematic. The movie is full of seeming contradictions this way. It’s full of echoes.

Here’s one. “Birdman” features a Hollywood actor doing a play that reflects back upon his own life—even as the role reflects back upon the real-life Hollywood actor playing him.

Twenty-five years ago, Michael Keaton starred in “Batman,” 1989’s biggest box-office smash, and, along with Christopher Reeve’s “Superman,” the forerunner to the modern superhero movie. He returned to the cape and cowl three years later for “Batman Returns,” then abandoned it. He went for more serious roles (“My Life”), or funnier roles (“Speechless”), or supporting roles in movies by hot directors (“Jackie Brown”); then suddenly it was 2005, superheroes were everywhere, and he was second-billed to Lindsay Lohan in “Love Bug” reboots.

Twenty years ago, Riggan Thomson (Keaton) played Birdman, the hottest superhero property in Hollywood; but after three films he abandoned the role and the world abandoned him. Now he’s trying to make a comeback by writing, directing and starring in a Broadway play based upon the short stories of Raymond Carver: “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.”

He just has a few problems.

Feeling beloved on the earth
Start with the voice in his head. It’s deep and guttural, like Christian Bales’ Batman. “How did we end up here?” it asks. “This place is horrible. Smells like balls.” It’s the rebirth of Riggan’s Birdman. Or maybe he never went away. Maybe he’s been dogging the actor’s troubled mind since Riggan turned down “Birdman 4” all those years ago. Now Riggan is in a dingy, cramped dressing room while the TV blares news of Robert Downey Jr.’s latest multimillion-dollar deal for playing Iron Man. “We handed these poseurs the keys to the kingdom,” Birdman admonishes him.

Other voices in Riggan’s life are more ignored. Take the quote stuck in the bottom corner of his dressing-room mirror.

A thing is a thing, not what is said of that thing.

No one in the movie takes this advice to heart. Even the movie doesn’t take this advice to heart. The first thing we see—the film’s epigraph—basically upends it:

-- And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?
— I did.
— And what did you want?
— To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.

In “Birdman,” written and directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu (“Amores Perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel,” “Biutiful”), a thing isn’t a thing, it’s almost always what is said of that thing. Is the play any good? Depends what the New York Times critic writes tomorrow. Am I any good? “You’re beautiful, you’re talented, and I’m lucky to have you,” Riggan tells Lesley (Naomi Watts), one of his actresses, to calm her down and prop her up. It’s really only Mike (Ed Norton), the great stage actor, the wild card who may be superseding Riggan, who doesn’t have this overwhelming need to feel beloved. He wants truth, absolute truth, onstage, and throws fits when he doesn’t get it. When he plays “Truth or Dare” with Riggan’s daughter, Sam (Emma White), he always picks truth. No one is less beloved than the truth teller.

Riggan is torn. He recognizes talent, he wants truth, but he wants love even more. He once felt himself beloved on the earth in a way that was impossible until very recently, and the worst part of him, the Birdman voice, wants it back. At one point, he makes an awful confession. He tells his ex-wife, Sylvia (Amy Ryan), that he’d recently been on a flight going through severe turbulence. Passengers cried, prayed. George Clooney was on the flight, too, and all Riggan could think about was how headlines of the crash would be about Clooney, not him. It’s a devastating story, and Keaton tells it, finishes it, with a frozen half-smile that seems to realize how fucked-up it is, but with a relief that he got it out—that he told this awful truth inside him.

“I’m nothing. I’m not even here,” Riggan’s character says onstage as the love fades from his life. This is echoed in Riggan’s own life. “I’m fucking disappearing!” he shouts in his dressing room. “I’m the answer to a fucking Trivial Pursuit question!” His daughter admonishes him for not keeping up with the new power. “You hate bloggers, you don’t use Twitter, you don’t even have a Facebook page: You don’t exist.

So many echoes. What about the ironic echo of the superhero costume? Before the final preview, Riggan, in his robe, steps into the alleyway for a smoke and the door closes on him and catches his robe. He can’t open the door and he can’t pull himself free. This itself is ironic—he once played a superhero but he’s not strong enough to tear fabric—and maybe more so because he actually imagines he has those powers. We first see him in his dressing room wearing tightie-whities and sitting in the lotus position in mid-air. An actor isn’t working out? A stagelight falls on him. “I made it happen,” he admits to his lawyer, Jake (Zach Galifianakis). We see this again and again—Riggan moving objects with a wave of his hand, Riggan levitating, and then, gloriously, flying—even though, like most of us, he actually controls little. He’s a schmuck. His zipper’s down, he burns his finger on a joint, Mike is getting all the credit for his play. And he can’t tear the fabric of his robe to break free from the stage door.

So he leaves the robe behind, and walks through Times Square to the front entrance in his tightie-whities. It’s a glorious scene—again, one take—with everyone raising their cameras high to record and upload the video for the world to see. Riggan literally lives the nightmare we all have—I’m in a public place ... in my underwear!—but it’s more than that. What is a superhero but someone who appears powerfully to the world in his underwear? But Riggan appears to the world in his underwear because of his powerlessness.

(The irony continues with all of those uploaded videos, which garner 350,000 views in a matter of hours. “Like it or not,” Sam tells him, “this is power.”)

There’s also the ironic echo of the superhero mask. Losing his mind, Riggan shoots himself onstage with a real gun, not a prop, but misses and gets his nose. When we see him in the hospital he’s wearing gauze and tape over his face. It’s essentially a superhero mask, but, like the underwear, a symbol of weakness rather than strength. When he removes the mask, he’s got a new nose. Birdman has a new beak. The question is: Will he soar?

We all want to soar above the mass, not be of the mass. At one point we get this dialogue:

Riggan: I was a shitty father, wasn’t I?
Sam: No, you were just fine.
Riggan [dismissive]: “Just fine.”

He asks if he was below normal, she says he was normal, but he can’t stand being normal; he can’t stand being of the mass.

It’s as if this is the scale:

  1. Godlike
  2. Great
  3. Ordinary
  4. Shitty
  5. Nonexistence

Who wants 3) when you’ve been 1)? Riggan was godlike both onscreen (as a superhero) and in life (a celebrity, beloved on the earth), and, in a sense, Riggan confuses 3) with 5). “You’re scared like the rest of us that you don’t matter,” Sam tells him. “And you’re right: You don’t.” She means he’s ordinary, a 3), but he sees it as 5): nonexistence. And maybe it is, if you’ve been 1). Which is why, in his mind, he keeps returning to 1). The less power he has, the more he imagines he has.

So after the final preview, and after his conversation with the Times critic in the nearby bar—she says he’s going to destroy his play, because she hates him and everything he represents, that tawdry Hollywood crowd “handing each other awards for cartoons and pornography” (great fucking line)—he goes on a bender and ends up on a rooftop and jumps off. And flies. He soars and the soundtrack music, usually discordant drumming, wells majestically. He becomes Birdman again. “You are a God,” Birdman tells him. “This is where you belong—above them all.”

But what do we make of the ending?

Up, up and away
Initially I thought it should’ve ended with the gun on the stage and the blast, and the camera slowly moving toward the sky. But Iñárritu keeps it going. Thank God. He lets his hero live, and we descend into the hospital room, where Riggan’s lawyer, his ex, and his daughter, argue over what’s happened. The ex thinks it’s all awful, but the lawyer is thrilled with the superlative Times review (its headline is the movie’s unnecessary subtitle, “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”), while Sam tells him she’s set up a Twitter account for him, and he’s got 60,000 followers already. He’s quiet throughout, the man in the gauze superhero mask, but when they all leave he shuffles into the bathroom and removes the mask. He admires his new beak. Birdman himself is sitting on the (closed) toilet all the while, and silent for a change. He has no words. Then Riggan walks back into the room, opens the window, and jumps.

End? No, thank God. Sam returns to an empty room. She calls for her father, sees the open window, rushes to it and looks down. Nothing. Or so her face says. We’re just seeing her, not what she’s seeing. Then slowly, almost as if she’s worried she’s going to hit her head, she looks up. And her eyes get happy. And she smiles. And, as the screen goes dark, we hear a laugh, almost a giggle, escape her mouth.

So what is she seeing?

Throughout the movie, we assume Riggan’s superpowers are in his head. He’s destroying his dressing room with a flick of his finger, but when Jake arrives we see him physically doing it. He descends from the sky in front of the theater, but then a taxicab driver follows him inside demanding his money.

But here? Here we get corroboration. Of something.

Is it magic realism? Iñárritu is Mexican, and you know those damn Mexicans and their magic realism. Is it metaphor? He’s soaring again. In the press, online, in the world, he matters. Is it the Hollywood ending? One of my favorite moments—and really I’d wish there’d been more of it—was when Birdman himself breaks the fourth wall. He talks about us, the moviegoers, to Riggan. And this is what he says, as, in Riggan’s mind, meteors pelt the city and helicopters go swirling down and away, and a giant flying bird threatens everyone:

Look at these people. Look at their eyes. They’re all sparkly. They love this shit. They love action. Not this talky depressing, philosophical bullshit. Give the people what they want: some good old-fashioned apocalyptic porn!

I admit it. As he said this, my eyes were all sparkly, but not because of what we were seeing but because of what he was saying. Because of the absurdity of what we want (over and over again): the awful, wish-fulfillment fantasy. 

So is the ending simply more of that? Another Hollywood ending?

We know this much anyway. The movie begins with a falling meteor, representative of the hero, and it ends with the hero somehow ascendant in his daughter's eyes; somehow going up, up and away.

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Posted at 07:27 AM on Dec 10, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Monday December 08, 2014

Movie Review: Dear White People (2014)


Let’s look at two lines spoken by two different characters in the movie.

The first comes from “Coco” Conners (Teyonah Paris, Dawn Chambers of “Mad Men”), a pretty black girl who, in the Ivy League setting of Winchester University, wears blue contact lenses, a straight-haired wig, and wants a “Gosling” not a “Denzel.” She’s being interviewed for a possible role on a reality TV series, which she wants desperately, and she’s putting on airs. She says she’s from Hyde Park in Chicago, and when the (black) producer asks where exactly, she says 78th Street. That’s South Side, he says. He tries to get her to own up but she backs away. “Hey, there is nothing ’hood about me,” she says. He winds up rejecting her for the show. (Showing what an idiot he is: she would be perfect.)

The second line is spoken by one of the doofus white fratboys, who wind up, in the movie’s final act, putting on a hip-hop party where white students dress in blackface. Dear White PeopleThis is before that. He’s simply talking to, I believe, Coco, and dropping hip-hop slang and gangsta talk to impress her. After she dryly asks him where he’s from—Ohio?—he drops the pose for a moment. “I’m actually from Vermont,” he says. Then, attempting to recover some cachet, “but the west side.”

That line actually made me laugh. Coco’s didn’t but his did. Why is that? They’re basically involved in the same act—denying where they’re from, trying to be what they’re not—but hers is tragedy and his is farce. Because she’s female and he’s male? Because she’s a fully realized character and he isn’t? Because girls pretending they come from wealth is the stuff of melodrama while guys pretending they’re tougher than they are is the stuff of Bob Hope?

Either way, it makes you wonder: In a country where the races want to be each other this much, shouldn’t we get along more?

Or is that why we don’t get along more?

School days
I wish “Dear White People” were better. It feels young. It’s provocative, like the title, but not particularly informative. Also derivative. See “School Daze.” Which was released, remember, 30 years ago.

Sam White (Tessa Thompson) a “Lisa Bonet-looking wannabe” according to Coco, is both film student and campus provocateur. She hosts a campus radio show, “Dear White People,” in which she dispenses advice to her title characters:

  • You now need two black friends to not be racist.
  • Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.
  • Quit touching our hair.

(I’ve heard this last complaint forever, but who does that exactly? In the movie, it’s just white girls, and I wouldn’t be surprised if in reality it’s just white girls. Or some white girls. Whoever’s doing it, stop it already.)

Sam, like everyone, has secrets. Her father’s white, she’s dating a white guy (her film studies T.A.), and she likes Taylor Swift. (“I was so careful,” she whispers under her breath when confronted—a good bit.) And is her heart really into the neo-black power shtick? How much is her and how much is Rovian right-hand man Reggie (Marque Richardson)?

Reggie, after all, is the one who pushes her to run for president of the black campus fraternity against the son of the dean, Troy Fairbanks (Brandon P. Bell), a studly, going-along-to-get-along dude who just wants to smoke pot now and again and write for the campus satirical magazine—even though he doesn’t have an ounce of humor in him.

Other characters include the rich white guy, Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), son of the university president, whose sister is dating Lionel, and who articulates the Fox News point of view: that the toughest thing to be in the American workplace these days is an educated white guy. Yawn.

The most interesting character, particularly early on, is Lionel Higgins (Tyler James Williams, Chris of “Everybody Hates Chris”), the dude in the poster, who doesn’t have a group; he doesn’t even have a place to live. Beneath his massive ‘fro, he’s reserved, gay, apolitical. One imagines he’s like writer-director Justin Simien, who’s reserved, gay, but less apolitical. But then the journey Lionel takes is from apolitics to politics. He gets politics even as Sam loses hers. (Or, per Scorsese, she changes from iconoclast to smuggler.) It’s a little like Mookie in “Do the Right Thing,” except instead of tossing a garbage can through a window, he pulls down speakers at the black-face fraternity party.

Do we do the Spike Lee thing yet? Do we compare and contrast with “School Daze”? I actually think Simien’s debut effort is a better movie, with a better story and a better ending, but “School Daze” was like nothing else before it. It was a dirty bomb that exploded in a portion of the culture. It talked about things the culture didn’t talk about—the whole light skin/black skin, good hair/bad hair dynamic as revealed on a historically black Southern college during the days of Reagan and Apartheid protests.

Many of the characters in “Dear White People” would actually fit pretty easily on the Mission College campus. Sam and Reggie are some combination of Larry Fisburne’s Dap, Coco is one of the wannabes, Kurt (now white) is Dean Big Brother Almighty. They’re just less cartoonish here. At the same time, Lee includes a great scene that resonates beyond the decades: the confrontation between Dap and the locals in the parking lot of a fast-food joint. I’m white and northern, not black and southern, but I identified. Half my high school/college days seemed to involve unnecessary confrontations with jerks in parking lots.

Nothing like that in “Dear White People.” Do we even get off campus? Is the movie theater off campus? The black kids protest that the only black movies available are Tyler Perry movies. The vignette is a total Spike Lee ripoff—outrage played to comic effect—but all I could think was: Why are you telling this to the ticketseller? Poor, minimum-wage-earning schmuck.

Wakey wakey
But Simien does provide a wake-up call. Lee gave us literal ones that didn’t work, while Simien gives us a metaphoric one that does.

During the black-face, hip-hop party, which he filmed in nightmarish slow-mo, I kept thinking, “Right, didn’t this happen somewhere? Didn’t some white fraternity do this?” And during the end credits, we get the reveal via newspaper headlines: Dartmouth. Then Simien reveals another. And another. And another. He gives us half a dozen headlines from half a dozen universities on this very phenomenon. Revealing that if racism isn’t alive on college campuses, at least massive historical ignorance is.

The best part of the movie for me? The humor, as in the scene (1:50 in the trailer) where Sam argues with her secret white boyfriend, Gabe (Justin Dobies), even as Reggie and company are knocking on the door:

Gabe: I’m sick of your tragic mulatto bullshit.
Sam: You can’t say mulatto.
Gabe (angry): Mulatto! Mulatto! Mulatto!
Reggie (outside): Did somebody say mulatto?

I’d like to see more of this. Humor, after all, is often saying the thing what many are thinking but few are saying. It’s the ultimate smuggler. 

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Posted at 05:56 AM on Dec 08, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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Friday December 05, 2014

Movie Review: St. Vincent (2014)


Theodore Melfi’s debut feature, “St. Vincent,” is like the “Me and Julio” scene from “Royal Tenenbaums” for an entire movie. It’s a curmudgeon, Vincent (Bill Murray), teaching a polite kid, Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher, a real find), how to, in Royal’s phrase, take it out and chop it up.

Vincent takes Oliver to the racetrack and a bar. He hangs out with a lady of the evening, Daka (Naomi Watts), who’s hot and Russian and pregnant. He teaches Oliver, who’s being picked on at school, how to fight. He feeds him sardines and calls it sushi, they tool around in Vincent’s 1983 wood-paneled Chrysler LeBaron convertible, and after they win the Trifecta at the racetrack they celebrate with ice cream cones, wearing matching gangster bandanas and listening in slow-mo to a song from Bronze Radio Return on the soundtrack.

Basically it’s an idealized portrait of a kid (who has a big heart and a curiosity for the world), and a dyspeptic portrait of an adult (who has a bitter heart and just wants to be left alone), but it works. St. VincentIt’s charming. I laughed a lot.

Make no mistake, though: it’s the kid who makes the movie. Murray’s been getting a lot of attention but it’s the kid, Jaeden Lieberher, who gets my laughs.

Thank you?
This exchange for example (1:11 in the trailer). It’s just before Vincent, with a cigarette in one hand and a stiff drink in the other, tries to teach the kid how to defend himself:

Oliver: I’m small, if you haven’t noticed.
Murray: So was Hitler.
Oliver: [pause, realization] That’s a horrible comparison. 

The Hitler line is absurd, so it’s Oliver’s genuine reaction to it that’s funny. See also: “She works at night” in the trailer. There’s a genuineness to Liberher acting that makes it work. He’s got to seem like a kid and he does.

He also gives us one of the best prayers I’ve ever heard.

Oliver and his mom, Maggie (Melissa McCarthy, underplaying), arrive in Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn, after she finds her husband sleeping with everyone in town, and while she works days (and some nights) as a nurse at a hospital, he attends St. Patrick’s Elementary School. She wants him to get a quality education. But on the first day, the teacher, Brother Geraghty (Chris O’Dowd, a standout in a small role), asks him to lead the class in prayer. Oliver, in a straightforward small voice: “I think I’m Jewish.” But this is 2014, the school is diverse—that one’s Muslim, she’s agnostic, he’s Hindu—and so Oliver has to do it anyway. He bows his head:

Dear God.
Thank you?

That’s my new prayer.

Because Maggie’s busy—she’s also being sued by her ex for joint custody—she pays Vincent $12 an hour to watch the kid. “Watching” means the above—the taking it out and chopping it up. Also sitting in Vincent’s dirty, cramped house and watching old TV. I was depressed by Vincent’s shows—reminiscent of Schmidt watching awful late-1960s Bob Hope comedies in “About Schmidt”—but then Oliver starts giggling along to Abbott and Costello, and that redeemed it all. “Are they old?” he asks. “No, they’re dead,” Vincent answers. “That’s as old as you can be.”

Critics have accused Murray of playing cute here but Vincent is pretty much an asshole. Sure, he is going broke because he keeps his wife, suffering from dementia, in a high-end assisted living facility and does her laundry on weekends. But that’s his one redeeming quality. He owes the assisted care facility, he owes a bookie, he owes the bar, he owes Daka. When the assisted care facility demands its money, Vincent takes Oliver’s Trifecta winnings, $2700, and blows it on another Trifecta. He never pays it back. He’s never even referenced again.

But he has his luck. Or “luck.” When the bookie (a rumpled Terrence Howard) is about to hurt him, he has a stroke. As his wife is about to be moved to a worse facility, she dies.

Yes, thank you
So why the title? Because during Brother Geraghty’s discussion of saints, he gives the class an assignment to research and write about a modern-day person who may or may not qualify for sainthood. Oliver chooses Vincent, even though the “chopping it up,” photographed by a private dick, has led to joint custody with Oliver’s dad, David—who, in a nice touch, turns out to be a bland, bald, seemingly sympathetic dude (Scott Adsit). Oliver researches well. He finds info and photos. He tells the assembly that Vincent was born in Sheepshead Bay in 1946, grew up on its tough streets, went to Vietnam, saved the lives of many men. He cared for his wife in her senescence. He taught Oliver how to fight.

The lesson is really the lesson of “It’s a Wonderful Life”: that everyone’s life is remarkable when you look deeply enough. Also the lesson of “To Kill a Mockingbird”: You never really know a man until you stand in his shoes and walk around a little.

Even so, Vincent’s hardly a saint. The kid, though? Sure. The kid’s too good to be true. 

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Posted at 05:31 AM on Dec 05, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014
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