Movie Reviews - 2015 postsThursday June 18, 2015
Movie Review: The Overnight (2015)
You’ve got to admire a sex comedy that can make Dan Savage squirm in his seat.
My main thought going into “The Overnight,” which closed the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival, was about the asterisk on the poster. I immediately thought it looked like Kurt Vonnegut’s illustration of an asshole from his novel “Breakfast of Champions.” But no way, right? I knew the movie was a sex comedy but I figured it wouldn’t reference Vonnegut (or assholes) so obliquely.
But that’s what it does. That’s what it is. (The poster has since gotten a sexier update: mouse over.)
It’s a simple premise. Alex and Emily (Adam Scott and Taylor Schilling) have recently moved from Seattle to L.A. for her job, but they feel isolated. Or he feels isolated. She, at least, has a place to go every day; he just goes to the park with their young son, R.J. But it’s there that they meet another father, Kurt (Jason Schwartzman), a porkpie-hat-wearing extrovert, who invites them to family pizza night, where, with wife Charlotte (French actress Judith Godreche), Kurt suggests they put the kids to sleep so they can continue their conversation like adults. But things get increasingly weird: They get stoned, he shows a breast-feeding video his wife starred in, he shows Alex his paintings of assholes, then he suggests they all go swimming in the pool and strips completely and dives in.
P.S. He’s hung like a horse.
Here’s the question: Is he just an extrovert interested in showing a Seattle couple a good time? Or is he interested in a good time?
It seems obvious he has ulterior motives but Alex doesn’t see them, even as Emily, and we, do. Alex’s continued naivete throughout the night is, in fact, the main false note in a movie predicated on delivering confessional truths. One assumes writer-director Patrick Brice needed to keep the show going, so he someone needed to be the naïve one, and Alex drew the short straw. So to speak.
That’s the part, I believe, that made Dan Savage—who moderated a Q&A after the screening—squirm. Not the fact that Kurt has a huge schlong and Alex has a little pee-pee; it’s Alex’s hot-tub admission that he has a small pee-pee—that his penis didn’t grow much after junior high, and that he and his wife have an unfulfilling sex life. That’s tough to admit. And baring your sexual soul to viritual strangers? Really? Although maybe it’s easier that way. Maybe that’s why we all go to priests and psychiatrists. A stranger is a buffer. Tell them anything and then continue with your normal, secretive life.
Still, Kurt and Charlotte are hardly pychiatrists, while the hot tub isn’t exactly a confessional.
Besides, you’d think with Alex’s particular secret, and with everyone stripping, he would be the first one to want to go, since staying would mean potential revelation. But he drew the short straw.
We wind up liking Kurt a lot more in the third act. For much of the movie, we assume he’s being nice to Alex to get to Emily; then we discover he likes Alex, meaning his motives aren't ulterior at all. Everyone, in fact, has a sexual secret or hangup. Alex has a small dick, Kurt likes Alex, Emily lusts after other men. Charlotte’s reveal is the oddest. She goes to Thai massage parlors and pays money so she can jack off fat men on tables. Really? In what world do hot French women need to pay money to give handjobs? And where do I volunteer for the experiment?
With its male full-frontal, and frank sexual discussions, “The Overnight” has potential as a cult movie. It’s certainly getting a lot of buzz. But I think there’s too many false notes on its path to the truth that we all have sexual hangups.
But I would love to take a poll of people exiting the film, particularly for gender reasons. After the SIFF screening, the women around me talked up how funny it was. That was their main thought: Funny. My main thought? Painful. But I seemed alone with this thought—and worried about what it said about me—until Dan Savage, with his first comment, set me free. Thanks, Dan. You’re right: It got better.
Movie Review: Eisenstein in Guanajuato (2015)
Oh, Peter Greenaway. What might you give us is you cared just a little about narrative and a little less about vomit and other forms of bodily excretion?
“Eisenstein in Guanajuato” is set in 1931 in, yes, Guanajuato, Mexico, where Sergei M. Eisenstein (Elmer Bäck of Finland, who’s good), the acclaimed Soviet director behind “Battleship Potemkin” as well as “Strike” and “October” (or “10 Days That Shook the World”), is at work on his next great project. But it’s the one that undoes him. Why does it undo him? From Greenaway you get a sense that maybe Eisenstein didn’t work hard enough (or at all), maybe he had too much sex (for a change), maybe his producers—Upton Sinclair’s wife, Mary (Lisa Owen) and her brother, Hunter S. Kimbrough (Stelio Savante, attempting an atrocious Southern accent)—were philistines who didn’t appreciate great art.
What is the project? According to this article, it’s meant to be “a six-part avant garde film spanning Mexican history and culture from pre-Conquest times through the 1910-20 revolution.” I hardly got that from Greenaway. I thought maybe it was on the recent Mexican revolution. Maybe.
There’s a lot of historical stuff Greenaway seems to bypass. You get a sense, for example, that the Mexican trip is part of a long, worldwide tour Eisenstein has been on, but I didn’t get he'd been on it for three years. I didn’t get that the original purpose was not only to show off Eisenstein to the world but for Eisenstein to learn how the rest of the world was making sound pictures. I didn’t get that Eisenstein was in trouble with Soviet filmmakers before he went on the trip—for not adhering to “socialist realism”—and not just because he seemed to be delaying his return.
Here are the film’s basics:
- In grand, white-suited pomposity, Eisenstein arrives at his five-star hotel and showers in front of the staff, including his Mexican guide Palamino Cañedo (Luis Alberti). He talks to his penis, telling it to behave. (Per Greenaway, lots of male full-frontal.)
- Eisenstein wanders the city but falls victim to Montezuma’s revenge; Cañedo cleans him up and puts him to bed. (More full-frontal.)
- Talk and flirtation between Eisenstein and Cañedo, who finally go to bed, with Cañedo taking the lead and Eisenstein suddenly shy. It turns out he’s a virgin. (Ditto.)
- The two in and out of bed, with various annoying people, particularly Sinclair and Kimbrough, interrupting, and with increasing talk about death and the Day of the Dead.
- Eisenstein forced to leave Guanajuato, and to leave his 250 miles of film footage in the hands of the philistines. It’s the 10 days that shook Eisenstein.
The movie is visually striking with beautiful sets and clever split-screens and triptychs, but it’s narratively limp. It’s mostly dialogue, and most of that is so-so—although I did love a line of Eisenstein’s on money: how it’s a new phenomenon; how idiots have a lot of it and great men have little, so what good is it? That made me smile.
Not enough. All play and no work makes “Eisenstein in Guanajuato” a dull film.
Movie Review: Love, Theft and Other Entanglements (2015)
“Love, Theft and Other Entanglements” is a dark comedy about Palestine and Israel, but sadly it’s neither comedy enough nor dark enough. Still, you’ve got to give writer-director Muayad Alayan credit for trying. Tough to make comedy out of ongoing tragedy.
Mousa (Sami Metwasi) is a petty thief who gets enmeshed in more powerful forces when he steals a car not knowing an Israeli soldier—barter for the release of Palestinian prisoners—is bound and gagged in the trunk. Suddenly his hot car, a Volkswagen Passat, is superhot. No fence will touch the stripped items he offers, and both the Palestinian militia in their white van and the Israeli cops, led by a tall, bald official, are after him.
All his life, Mousa was someone who ran away. When we first see him, he’s at a construction job, angry and outraged with boredom; then he bolts. Years earlier, he got a girl, Manal (Maya Abu al-Hayyat), pregnant, and he bolted then, too, even though he now returns to bang her and stare moony-eyed at her/his daughter from a distance. (She married someone else, a rich man, so his daughter is now daughter to someone else.) Beofre this latest screw-up, Mousa was getting ready to run away anyway—to Italy, via a fake passport—but fake passports cost. The plan was to use the money from the Passat to pay for the passport. Now he can't. Now he’s trapped.
There’s some good bits. I like the nervous dance Mousa does, gun drawn, when he first releases the soldier, Avi Cohen (Riyad Silman), from the trunk. Metwasi and Silman have good chemistry as they go on the run, sleep on the ground, are discovered by a goat and a blind woman. Mousa isn’t much of a thief and Cohen isn’t much a soldier—a cook, I believe—and some of their back-and-forth is mildly amusing, but that’s about it. It’s all presented matter of factly. It feels like it needs a slight Coenesque push toward something broader, or more poignant, or both, but Alayan doesn’t give it that push. He also seems to care too much about Mousa without giving us reason to.
So if the essence of Mousa is to run away from responsibility, what will the ending be? Right. He stays to take responsibility for something he didn’t do. In a sense, the ending is the most tortured part of the movie.
Movie Review: The End of the Tour (2015)
After the screening at the 2015 Seattle International Film Festival there was a party at the Rainier Chapter House, a Mount Vernon replica home built in 1925, with open bar and hors d’oeuvres and Dilettante chocolates; and it was there, in this lovely building on a lovely evening surrounded by lovely and beautiful people, that I realized that I liked “The End of the Tour” more than everyone around me.
Then again, I’m about its perfect audience.
Like David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), I was a struggling writer in the 1990s who was envious of, and blown away by, the massive talent of David Foster Wallace (Jason Segel, cast against type), who, in 1996, became a household name—in households that cared about serious literature anyway—with the publication of the 1,000-page novel, “Infinite Jest.” (He killed himself 12 years later.) In the film, Lipsky has just published his own novel, “The Art Fair,” which is greeted with the indifference we greet most things, when he hears about the accolades for “Jest” and dismisses them out of hand. Popular equals shitty, right? But his girlfriend, Sarah (Anna Chlumsky), suggests he actually read the book. He does, in silence, for about 10 seconds of screentime. Followed by a quiet, envious: “Shit.”
Like Lipsky, I’ve also interviewed a lot of people—although not for five days while living in their homes or going on tour with them. At best, I get a few hours in the office. But I know the tension between opening them up, wanting to be their friends, and potentially betraying them. “You’re not his best buddy,” Lipsky’s editor tells him, “you’re a reporter.”
Even an innocuous scene reminded me of me. At one point, Lipsky is sleeping in Wallace’s spare bedroom, with extra stacks of Wallace’s books towering over him and threatening to crush him, and I immediately flashed on one of the first short stories I ever wrote. A middle-aged writer, obsessed with great writers, with not adding litter to literature, is made small and insignificant by the huge book cases along one of the walls of his apartment, and winds up being crushed beneath one of them. (I'm not saying it was good.)
Plus half the movie takes place in Minneapolis, which is where I was born and raised.
So I get why “The End of the Tour” appeals to me more than most people. It’s “My Dinner with David Foster Wallace”: philosophical discussions about writing, fame, self-awareness and all that crap. It’s Salieri interviewing Mozart for Rolling Stone, and Salieri is my patron saint.
It’s about why we feel as empty as we do, having as much as we do.
People who do not love us but want our money
But I’m not unsympathetic to the complaints I heard at the Rainier Chapter House:
- It went on too long.
- Foster Wallace’s sudden jealousy by the refrigerator was odd.
- Eisenberg’s jittery acting is off-putting.
Once I began talking about the film, though, people invariably admitted, “Oh yeah, that part was great. Yeah, that, too.”
Example. Foster Wallace says this, or something similar, at one point:
As the Internet grows, and as our ability to be linked up [grows] ... at a certain point, we’re gonna have to build some machinery, inside our guts, to help us deal with this. Because the technology is just gonna get better and better and better and better. And it’s gonna get easier and easier, and more and more convenient, and more and more pleasurable, to be alone with images on a screen, given to us by people who do not love us but want our money. Which is all right. In low doses, right? But if that’s the basic main staple of your diet, you’re gonna die. In a meaningful way, you’re going to die.
This quote is taken from Lipsky’s book, “Although Of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself: A Road Trip with David Foster Wallace,” which is the basis for the movie. It’s an amazing quote. In 1996, I wasn’t even online; yet David Foster Wallace had already figured out what was already dangerous about it.
We get a lot of regular guy talk in the film: “Die Hard” (they both like), the empty calories of junk food (Wallace is an addict), the empty calories of television (ditto). Part of the tension is that Lipsky expects a genius while Wallace keeps retreating into regular guyness. Wallace has what Lipsky wants, is who Lipsky wants to be, but keeps denying that part of himself. Or so it seems to Lipsky.
Wallace is portrayed as a child of Holden Caulfield, worried about being a phony, and fame has simply added to that worry. The better-praised he is, the more he feels like a fraud. Popular equals shitty, right? He’s a hipster child of the ’70s, when you were never supposed to want fame. He’s a child of the Midwest, too, which is almost Amish in its reserve. You’re not supposed to stand out. All of these tensions make him a wreck. He’s trying to stay on the right path and it feels like success keeps pushing him off.
He’s weird about his privacy (“How did you get this number?” he asks when Lipsky first phones) and even weirder about women. In Minneapolis, Lipsky flirts subtly with Wallace’s college girlfriend, Betsy (Mickey Sumner), who flirts back less subtly, and that evening Wallace suddenly hijacks Lipsky’s conversation with Sarah for about 30 minutes. It’s payback. The next day, Lipsky gets Betsy’s email address, ostensibly for quotes about Wallace for the article, but Wallace sees something else, and demands Lipsky be a stand-up guy. Question: Is Wallace “too sensitive” here? Or is he simply “ultra sensitive”—picking up on what is happening all around us?
It’s the conversation, stupid
That moment leads to accusations, bad feelings, silent treatments, further arguments. It’s the story’s “arc” and it feels a little false. It feels like both men are expecting way too much of the other, that no one is being professional here. Is it even true? I can’t find anything about it in Lipsky’s book.
For me, “The End of the Tour,” written by Donald Marguiles (Pulitzer Prize for “Dinner with Friends”), and directed by James Ponsoldt (“The Spectacular Now”), would’ve been better served finding a subtler arc; or none at all and going the full “My Dinner with Andre.” Its conversations are good enough.
Ironically, the one conversation Wallace and Lipsky don’t have is about the death of serious literature as a force in the larger culture. Meaning both men were both worried about a kind of fame—Wallace having too much of it, Lipsky not enough—that was going away anyway.
Movie Review: Being Evel (2015)
About two-thirds of the way through “Being Evel,” Daniel Junge’s fun, straightforward documentary on Evel Knievel, the motorcycle daredevil who became part of the wider culture in the 1970s, we’re suddenly watching 8-milimeter footage of nondescript boys emulating his stunts on their bicycles: building ramps and jumping things on the sidewalks in front of their homes.
“Hey,” I thought. “Just like Chris.”
My older brother Chris was 10 in 1971 when we saw the B-movie “Evel Knievel” starring George Hamilton at the Boulevard Theater near our home. Inspired, he dragged an old toy refrigerator out on the front sidewalk, laid it flat, placed a sturdy board on top, and had at. Pedaling his banana-seat bicycle furiously, he jumped over stuffed animals, then real animals, then neighborhood kids. His daredevil career abruptly ended when parents got wind of the danger he was putting their kids in, but I’d always thought Chris had been an anomaly. Nope.
Part of the point of the doc, in fact, is how many young boys Evel Knievel influenced. As his son Robbie says with a smile, “We all have a little Evel in us.”
From Butte to Snake River
Robert Craig Knievel was a major asshole. Might as well say that up front. Maybe it’s more accurate to say he became a major asshole. Could’ve been the fame, could’ve been the painkillers/booze, maybe he landed on his head too much. The human body is a delicate machine and he didn’t exactly treat it delicately.
His life was a lot like the parabola of his jumps: rise, fall, crash.
He was born and raised in Butte, Montana by his grandparents. (It’s almost a cliché: another guy driven to success to make up for a lost father.) Butte was a tough town where you stood your ground, and that’s what he did. A relative remembers hitting Bobby, who promptly ran head-first into a door and told him point-blank: “You can’t hurt me.”
He was a rebel in the 1950s mode; he did petty crimes, skirted the law. Was he a safecracker? “He broke into my place,” says one resident. “He ran a racket,” says another.
The turning point almost seems like a joke. Evel Knievel, insurance salesman? But he was good at it—a natural salesman. And when he felt the boss screwed him over, he got a job selling motorcycles. That led to a stunt in Moses Lake, Wash., jumping his motorcycle over rattlesnakes. Then he was part of a team, “Evel Knievel and His Motorcycle Daredevils.” Throughout, he kept selling himself.
The big break came in March 1967 when he jumped 15 cars at a motorcycle race in Gardenia, Calif., which just happened to be aired on “ABC’s Wide World of Sports.” Afterwards no one talked about the race; everyone talked about this crazy motorcycle jumper, this real-life Steve McQueen in “The Great Escape.” He got even more attention for the fountain jump at Caesar’s Palace later that year, but it only happened because 1) he thought it up, and 2) pushed and lied to make it happen. He kept phoning the owner of Caesar’s Palace and pretended to be different reporters asking about the event that hadn’t even been scheduled. He crashed—famously, in slow mo—but his career soared: Carson, Cavett, Sports Illustrated, Ideal Toys. All kids wanted to be Evel Knievel. Cue that 8-mm footage.
His most famous jump was a bust. At the end of the Hamilton movie, he talks about wanting to jump the Grand Canyon but the Dept. of the Interior said no. So he bought property next to the Snake River Canyon in Idaho and prepared to jump that. It was the excess of the period in microcosm. There was anarchy on the grounds (fights, rapes); the press saw him up close and didn’t like what they saw; and the jump itself was ridiculous. I was 9 when it happened and even I thought it absurd. Wait, he’s not on a motorcycle? Wait, he’s in a little rocket ship? Well, what’s the point of that? That’s not Evel Knievel. You see him being lowered into the rocket ship here and he looks like spam in a can. Worse, the parachute deployed early, and it was suggested that he did it himself; that he was scared. The press was brutal, even if it paid attention. For once, bad timing: That same day, Pres. Ford pardoned Nixon for crimes surrounding the Watergate cover-up. Evel Who?
He kept going—Wembley, Ohio, “Viva Knievel”—but he was increasingly paranoid and in pain, and his career crashed for good in 1977 when he assaulted his former publicist, Shelly Saltman, after the publication of Saltman’s book, “Evel Knievel on Tour.” There’s a good bit in the doc when various talking heads say, more or less, the book seemed fine to them; but Knievel took exception and went after Saltman with a baseball bat. At trial he was unapologetic, serving time even more so. The negative publicity hurt sales of the Evel Knievel toy and the Ideal company pulled out. His excessive lifestyle meant he’d saved little. He lost it all.
The sole, clean, clear leap
For some reason, Knievel’s influence on pop culture goes unmentioned here. There’s no Super Dave Osborne, Fonzie jumping 14 garbage cans (and a shark), nor Captain Lance Murdock inspiring Bart to jump Springfield Gorge on “The Simpsons.” Instead, Junge focuses on how influential Knievel was with, you know, the jackasses of the world. Johnny Knoxville is one of the doc’s main talking heads. We also hear from Knievel’s descendants, either literal (Robbie) or metaphoric (Tony Hawk, Robbie Maddison). We get footage of Maddison jumping an entire football field in 2007, which seems insane to me. It set the world record, but I first learned about it here.
That’s the thing: These guys are niche while Knievel seeped into the broader culture. His times allowed it. Back then, we had three channels and national meeting places, and Knievel broke through because he was crazy, original and a showman. He created and sold himself as a combo of Elvis, Gorgeous George, and Steve McQueen. The doc shows footage of him on “The Tonight Show” wearing a white fur coat and carrying a white cane on hands heavy with gaudy rings. What fun.
There’s also a rather forced attempt to redeem Knievel in the end. Junge wants rise, fall, crash and resurrection. There’s talk of needing heroes, of a man on a white horse, and somehow that’s applied to Knievel. C'mon. He was just a balls-out crazy showman who arrived at the right time. If Knievel means more than that—the way Muhammad Ali means more, the way Bobby Thomson’s homerun in “Underworld” means more—Junge doesn’t find it.
Maybe the beauty of Evel Knievel is simply the beauty Archibald MacLeish wrote poems about: the sole, clean, clear leap that has disappeared.