erik lundegaard

Movie Reviews - 2014 posts

Friday January 30, 2015

Movie Review: Selma (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

First, yeah, it screws up LBJ.

Second, it gets almost everything else right.

Let’s start with the casting. I kept going “That’s got to be...” and every time it was: Andrew Young (André Holland), John Lewis (Stephan James), Diane Nash (Tessa Thompson). Nigel Thatch looks more like Malcolm X than anyone who’s ever portrayed him on screen. Wendell Pierce isn’t exactly a dead ringer for Hosea Williams, but he brings that Wendell Pierce “shit is fucked/I got your back” spirit with him. Check out the scene where he calls John Lewis—who put his body on the line during the Nashville sit-ins, the Freedom rides, and as president of SNCC—“young blood.” When it’s announced that Harry Belafonte is coming to Selma, Hosea leads everyone in a rousing version of “Banana Boat Song.” Seriously, who wouldn’t want to hang with Wendell Pierce?

Then there’s Martin Luther King, Jr. and Coretta Scott King (David Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo). Screenwriter Paul Webb and director Ava DuVernay make them real people again. They give them a sense of intimacy. It’s hard to view a man as a saint when you’ve seen him put a plastic lining in the trash bin under the sink. Watching “Selma,” I had this obvious thought for the first time: “He really did marry up in the looks department, didn’t he?”

Selma We get that sense of intimacy right away. It’s December 1964, and King and Coretta are in their room in Oslo, Norway, where he is about to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. He’s trying to practice his speech but he spends more time fussing with his ascot. He doesn’t like it. He doesn’t like the message it sends back home. She argues for it. It’s the miniscule details of the scene, the subtle tensions, the promises he makes to her that we know (and he knows, and she knows) he won’t be able to keep: about becoming a pastor in a small church somewhere, and teaching a class, and raising their kids in a home they own rather than rent; about leading a regular life rather than leading a movement that brings death threats and the hate of half the country down on them. I was immediately won over.

Eyes on the prize
“Selma” is divided into three basic types of scenes: attempts to undercut movement leaders from outside; attempts to bolster movement leaders from within; strategizing among groups. The strategizing scenes are best.

Undercutting: The FBI spies on King, calls his house, plays sex tapes for Coretta over the phone. It tries to bring down the movement by getting between him and his wife. “That ain’t me,” he tells her, as they listen to two people in the throes. “I know,” she says quietly. “I know what you sound like.” Another humanizing moment.

The most unnecessary bolstering scene involves Coretta. Martin’s in jail, and Hosea and the others are going “uh oh” because Malcolm X just arrived in town. What will they say to him? What will he say? We don’t get that. Instead, we cut to an older black woman walking with and giving advice to Coretta. Aren’t we undercutting the drama here? We don’t even get to hear Malcolm X give the speech he gave, but at least we get to hear Martin and Coretta arguing over Malcolm X. Another nice scene.

The best bolstering scene starts out poorly. It’s after the first two Edmund Pettus bridge incidents: a police crackdown that horrified the country, and the one where MLK led everyone away from confrontation. Had he lost courage? Faith? John Lewis, still scarred from the first bridge incident, talks to him about the beating he took in the Freedom Rides. At first I didn’t buy it. Is John Lewis schooling Martin Luther King on the history of the movement? But no. He’s telling him about how, at that moment, Lewis began to lose faith, and King propped him up with a sermon. “What did I say?” MLK asks quietly. I love that. He’s forgotten, of course. For him, it was just another day; another sermon in 10 years of sermons.

Both of those types of scenes are fine; but the strategizing scenes is where the movie, and history, come alive.

A good reminder: It wasn’t just Sheriff Jim Clark (Stan Houston) who didn’t want MLK in Selma; SNCC didn’t want him there, either. Lewis and James Orange (Omar J. Dorsey) had been in Selma two years already, working on registering voters, and the worry—and it was always a worry, of which King was painfully aware—was that MLK would come in and grab the glory and the headlines. Plus SNCC was the younger generation. It was getting tired of waiting and tired of marching. It was moving away from MLK, nonviolence, and the civil rights movement, and toward Black Power. Interestingly, in ’63, Lewis was “young blood.” He was the firebrand, demanding to say use the word “black” instead of “Negro” during his March on Washington speech. A year after the events in “Selma,” Lewis would lose the SNCC chairmanship to Stokely Carmichael for being too middle-of-the-road; for siding too much with King. You see some of this dynamic in his arguments with Orange. The movement is already fraying. Black Power will end it.

I love the way the history of the movement is subtly layered into the strategizing sessions. The protests of Albany, Ga., in 1962 didn’t work because Chief Pritchett kept his cool; they did in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963 because Sheriff “Bull” Connor didn’t. So the big question for Selma: is Jim Clark a Pritchett or a Connor? Orange and Lewis admit, reluctantly, that he’s a Connor. So the SCLC stays. So the protests and marches begin.

(Related: In the Obama years, do you think the Republican party has been a Chief Pritchett or a Bull Connor? There’s a good discussion there for the GOP to have with itself; or for Roger Ailes with his self.)

As King and the movement strategizes, so do—separately—Gov. George Wallace (Tim Roth) and his deputy (Stephen Root), and President Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) and his (Giovanni Ribisi). The former is interested in defeating King, the latter in deflecting him. LBJ is the voice of restraint here. He’s the institutional voice saying “Wait” on voting rights.

Which I suppose brings us to the LBJ question.

A change (is gonna come)
I’ve read less about Selma than other civil rights hotspots (Montgomery, Nashville, Birmingham), but I know that when Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 he told an aide, “We’ve lost the South for a generation.” Not only was he right, he was optimistic. (It’s been two generations.) So if anything, Johnson wanted blacks in the South to vote. To give the Democratic party a chance there.

Here are two excerpts from “Eyes on the Prize,” the companion book to the seminal documentary on the civil rights movement. The first backs up the movie’s portrayal; the second doesn’t:

  • “In his State of the Union address, President Johnson articulated the goal of eliminating ‘every remaining obstacle to the right and the opportunity to vote,’ but voting rights came seventh on his list of domestic priorities.” (pg. 258)
  • “On the day of Malcolm X’s speech [early February 1965], President Johnson held a press conference. ... It was his first direct response to Selma and a welcome surprise to the activists. ‘I should like to say that all Americans should be indignant when one American is denied the right to vote,’ said Johnson. ‘The loss of that right to a single citizen undermines the freedom of every citizen. That is why all of us should be concerned with the efforts of our fellow Americans to register to vote in Alabama. ... I intend to see that that right is secured for all our citizens.’” (pg. 262)

At this point in the movie, DuVernay actually implies that LBJ was silently conspiring with J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) to undercut MLK via the FBI sex tapes.

Here’s DuVernay herself on the subject:

The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn't interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. ...  Johnson has been hailed as a hero of that time, and he was, but we're talking about a reluctant hero. He was cajoled and pushed, he was protective of a legacy—he was not doing things out of the goodness of his heart.

Goodness schmoodness. Let’s ask the Watergate question: What did the president say and when did he say it? What did the president do and when did he do it?

Here’s a transcript of LBJ strategizing with MLK on January 15, 1965, before most of the events in the movie. He hardly seems the reluctant ally DuVernay makes him.  

The greater insult might be how dull she makes him. For all his faults (and there were many), LBJ was still one of the gladhandingest, craziest, talking-your-ear-off-while-he’s-sitting-on-the-crapper control freaks to ever occupy the Oval Office. He dominated rooms and people and the world. He went out of his way to control inflation. Color TVs too expensive? Talk to RCA. Egg prices up? Tell the Surgeon General to issue a warning on high cholesterol. But for most of the movie, he’s back on his heels, fretting in silence over newspaper headlines, taking guff from George Wallace of all people. George Wallace! Every report I’ve read of their meetings ends with Wallace as soft putty in LBJ’s giant hands—at least until he gets back to Alabama—but here Wallace stares down the President of the United States and doesn’t blink. Was Wilkinson wrong for the role? Was Roth? Should Southerners protest that they’re constantly being played by Brits? Maybe DuVernay just doesn’t know how to direct white people? They’re certainly the weakest part of her movie.

We shall overcome
Look, I get it. Hollywood’s been awful on the civil rights movement. It’s made heroes of historical obstructionists: the FBI in “Mississippi Burning”; southern whites in “The Help.” “Selma” is actually the first theatrical release to feature MLK as the main character. How awful is that? That it took more than 50 years to get him front and center and in the theater?

I also get that LBJ’s reluctance to go along with the Selma campaign gives the movie its dramatic structure. We spend most of the movie waiting for two things to happen: the march from Selma to Montgomery to go forward and the Voting Rights Act to get pushed through Congress. The march is stymied by troops first, and MLK second, before Judge Frank Minis Johnson (Martin Sheen) declares it lawful; then it goes. The Voting Rights Act is stymied mostly by LBJ’s reluctance; but then he has a change of heart (somewhere), gives the big speech in front of Congress, and appropriates the movement’s signature phrase: “And we shall overcome,” So: happy ending. But I think there are better—and more honest—dramatic structures. I think more could have been done, for example, on why King led the march away from the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

(Sidenote: According to movement leader C.T. Vivian, when Johnson said “We shall overcome,” Vivian looked over at Dr. King and saw a tear running down his cheek. In the movie, King is dry-eyed. Because DuVernay didn’t believe Vivian? Because dry-eyed is more dramatic? Because that’s the way DuVernay wants it to be?)

I do think some of DuVernay’s choices weakened the movie. I suppose she’ll just have to settle for directing the best film about the civil rights movement ever made.

Posted at 07:33 AM on Friday January 30, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Monday January 26, 2015

Movie Review: Belle (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Here’s how our concerns for the title character—what we and she worry about—keep shifting in “Belle.”

It’s 1761, and an impossible pretty black girl named Dido (initially Lauren Julien-Box, eventually Gugu Mbatha-Raw), is brought by her white father, Capt. Sir John Lindsay (Matthew Goode), to his uncle’s estate in England, where slavery is still legal. Her African mother has died and Lindsay is about to go to sea again. Someone needs to care for the girl.

That’s our initial concern: Will this impossibly pretty black girl find a place to live in superwhite England, or will she be left to the wolves?

Belle Gugu Mbatha-RawShe finds a place to live. (Whew.) The reluctant aunt and uncle, Lady and Lord Mansfield (Emily Watson and Tom Wilkinson), agree to bring her up on their estate—along with her cousin, Elizabeth (Sarah Maden), whose mother has also died. So these two girls, one black and one white, grow up together—laughing and chasing each other around trees, as girls in period pieces are wont to do.

But then the increasingly engaged grandaunt and uncle worry: What happens when we die? Dido will be penniless (and left to the wolves)!

Except her father dies first. And leaves Dido his fortune. Second problem solved.

But we're still in England in the 1770s, and Dido, while impossibly pretty, is still black. No one, certainly no one in society, will be interested in her as a wife. So that’s the next worry: She’ll wind up an old maid like Lady Mary! (Lady Mary, by the way, is played by Penelope Wilton, the annoying Isobel Crawley of “Downton Abbey,” whom no one ever wants to be like.)

Except ... aha! ... a handsome man, John Davinier (Sam Reid), arrives on the estate, and he and Dido meet cute. She’s polite to everyone but him, which means, in movie terms, that she totally likes him. Plus he’s interested in the Zong case—about the destruction of property (read: slaves) aboard a ship, and what it means for insurance law, not to mention English law. Dido’s own uncle, Lord Mansfield, and the Lord Chief Justice, is the man deciding the case.

Not only that, but cousin Elizabeth, who can’t play the piano as well as Dido, is being pursued by James Ashford (Tom Felton, forever Draco Malfoy), and he’s got a taller, handsomer brother, Oliver (James Norton), who’s totally interested in Dido, and not in a creepy way, either. Which is good because Davinier impetuously blows it with Lord Mansfield and has to leave the estate forthwith. Plus Davinier is a mere vicar’s son. It never would have worked.

And there’s no need! In London, Oliver proposes marriage! So this problem is now solved. She won’t wind up an old maid like Lady Mary!

Except ... does she truly love him? Like with John Davinier? Which leads to our next and final worry: Will she wind up with the right man? Also known as: Will she find TRUE LOVE?

You can guess the ending. (She does!) Oh, and the Lord Chief Justice rules properly on the Zong case, paving the way for the eventual abolition of slavery—or at least the slave trade—in England in 1807.

I was bored throughout. The movie is glorified BBC: the heroine ascending the ladder of worries until she winds up with everything. It’s “Masterpiece Theater” with a tan. 

Posted at 09:21 AM on Monday January 26, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Sunday January 18, 2015

Movie Review: American Sniper (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Clint Eastwood’s “American Sniper” doesn’t believe in gray areas. It’s about God, country and family. It’s about protecting your own, and the greatest country on earth, and taking down the bad guys. Maybe even a record number of them.

At one point, on the second tour of Iraq for Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), the deadliest sniper in U.S. military history, Kyle greets his younger brother, Jeff (Kier O’Donnell), a skinny dude who is about to be shipped back home. But something’s off. Jeff has a thousand-yard stare, and eventually he tells his bigger, beefier brother, “Fuck this place.” Soon after, Chris is talking to another soldier, who tells him, “I just don’t believe in what we’re doing here.” Chris is stunned. “You want these fuckers to come to San Diego or New York?” he asks. “We’re more than just protecting dirt.” So off they go. To kill more savages.

American SniperNow, you could bring up the fact that these fuckers in Iraq weren’t going anywhere until we arrived and toppled Saddam, and allowed anarchy to break loose, and al Qaeda to move in, and ... Sorry. Gray area. The movie isn’t any more complicated than that.

For whom was the war more complicated? Pat Tillman, for one.  An NFL football player with a lantern jaw, he joined the U.S. Army after the attacks of 9/11 with the hope of fighting al Qaeda in Afghanistan. Instead, he wound up fighting an insurgency we created in Iraq—a war which Tillman regarded as illegal. That’s not a thought that enters the mind of Chris Kyle, not to mention Eastwood. In “American Sniper” we have to be in Iraq because that’s where evil men—“savages” in the language of the SEALs—do evil deeds. That’s why we’re going door-to-door in bombed-out cities. And that’s why Chris is on a rooftop with gun trained: to protect his fellow soldiers. He has milliseconds to decide whether or not to kill not only bad men but women and children.

Psst: He’s never wrong.

It’s a helluva thing killing a man
What an interesting career Clint Eastwood has had. Forty years ago, he was a darling of  conservatives everywhere, and a fascist in the eyes of movie critics like Pauline Kael, for his portrayal of trigger-happy and Miranda-rights-dismissing lawman Dirty Harry Callahan. Twenty years ago, he became a celebrated Oscar-winning director for his somber, violence-begets-violence western “Unforgiven.” Ten years ago, he actually became an enemy to the pro-life right for the sad, euthanasia-ish ending of “Million Dollar Baby.” More recently, he starred in and narrated a Chrysler commercial trumpeting the return of Detroit, orchestrated by Pres. Obama, then showed up at the 2012 Republican convention to dismiss Obama as an empty chair.

Now he’s a hero of the right again. He’s recreated the Iraq War in the Hollywood mould, which is, one imagines, how Pres. Bush, and many pro-war conservatives, imagined it in the first place. Eastwood even manages to put a positive spin on the phrase “Mission accomplished.” No small feat.

The great lesson for Chris begins early, when his father, Wayne (Ben Reed), takes him hunting. His father is stern (never leave your gun in the ground), but complimentary (you’ll make a good hunter some day), and then at the dinner table, when younger brother Jeff shows up with a black eye, he lays it all out for the boys.

There are three types of people in the world, he says, and lists them:

  • Sheep (victims, essentially)
  • Wolves (bullies, essentially)
  • Sheep dogs (those who protect the victims from the bullies)

I don’t raise sheep, he says.

You begin to raise a finger, a counterpoint, that none of us are any one thing, and that sheep dogs, for example, have a troubling tendency to spill over into wolves territory. But then you realize: Eastwood. “Don’t Mess with Texas.” Screw your gray area, Brainiac.

In 1998, after the al-Qaeda-orchestrated U.S. embassy bombings in Africa, Kyle joins the SEALS, and we get some brutal training footage, as well as a not-bad meeting and romance with his eventual wife, Taya (Sienna Miller, going brunette). Then 9/11. As the SEALs say, “It’s ON!”

Kyle quickly gets a rep as a sharp-shooter. Eventually he’s known simply as “The Legend.” He kills a young boy, about to throw a rocket-propelled grenade at Kyle’s fellow soldiers, then takes down the woman (the boy’s mother?), who was definitely trying to blow up the men. He keeps killing bad men with big guns, then grows weary of rooftop patrol and goes door-to-door with other SEALs and Marines.

When he gets home, he can’t adjust. It’s like the supermarket scene in “The Hurt Locker” but more protracted, and with more complaints from the Mrs. Then he returns to Iraq. Did he re-up? Was it stop-loss? Who knows? There’s an expert sniper on the Iraq side, Mustafa (Sammy Sheik), who pins down Kyle, kills this and that guy, and becomes the bête noir: Kill this guy, it’s implied, and the war will go right.

At home after the third tour, Taya tells him, “I need you to be human again.” (But we don’t, since the inhuman hero is an action-movie staple.) She tells him, “I need you to be here.” (But we want him to be there, since that’s where the story is.)

It’s on his fourth and final tour that Kyle kills Mustafa—with an impossible, slow-mo shot from a mile away. “Mission accomplished,” a fellow soldier says with a grin and no trace of irony. Then Kyle returns home, has trouble, adjusts, becomes a good husband and father again, and ... tragedy off-screen.

We all got it coming, kid
Apparently the real Chris Kyle wasn’t as conflicted as Bradley Cooper’s cinematic version. He might not have been as humble, either. In the movie he’s the perfect man for imperfect times: tough but polite, witty with women, gentle but firm with kids, conflicted about killing, but in the end mostly interested in protecting the greatest country on earth. He carries the Bible and believes in God and Jesus Christ.

The script by Jason Hall (“Spread,” “Paranoia”), and based upon Chris Kyle’s book of the same name, is often witty. Early, Jeff and Chris witness Chris’ girl cheating on him, and after Chris beats up the dude, and quietly but firmly kicks out the histrionic girl, Jeff asks, “So when’s the wedding?” During SEALs training, the men are lambasted as “Cheetos-eating and Dr. Pepper-drinking motherfuckers,” which drew an appreciative laugh from the popcorn-munching and Coke-drinking folks at Pacific Place. After one tour, Kyle comes home and wonders where the war is. “It’s not even on the news,” he says. After another, he stares into the blank TV set while the noises of the war resound in his head.

“American Sniper” is an unapologetic portrait of an unapologetic man, and in that regard it’s kind of fascinating. Even so, I was often bored. Nothing is questioned (most particularly: why Iraq?) because answers are assumed (sheep/wolves/sheepdog). The world is actually more complicated than that, and to assume otherwise can be dangerous. Pres. Bush didn’t believe in gray areas, either.

Posted at 08:49 AM on Sunday January 18, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Tuesday January 13, 2015

Movie Review: Inherent Vice (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

The only Thomas Pynchon I’ve read—and that was 30 years ago—was “The Crying of Lot 49,” which I found bizarre, beautifully written, very L.A., and almost completely incomprehensible.

The movie “Inherent Vice,” directed by Paul Thomas Anderson, and based upon Pynchon’s 2009 novel of the same name, shares with “Lot 49” everything from outsized names (Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax) to the pungency of L.A. at the end of the 1960s (drugs and hippies, Orange County Republicans and real estate, skateboarders and bikers) to incomprehensibility. Halfway through, I thought, “It’s like ‘Chinatown,’ but with the Dude rather than Jake Gittes as the P.I., and steeped in the spacey nihilism of the 1970s rather than the grittiness of the 1930s.” Then I thought, “Actually, it’s just a lot like ‘The Big Lebowski.’ The stoner take on noir. The detective work that goes nowhere. Except ...”

Except, I thought, it’s not as good. The tone is off. It’s smart, well-acted, but ...

And then it hits you: Is the problem the director?

Stoner noir
Inherent ViceI say all of this with trepidation. In 2007, after seeing Anderson’s “There Will Be Blood” at the Guild 45th, I dismissed it. I thought it wasn’t quite there. Then a few years ago my friend Vinny forced me to rewatch it. And I was blown away.  

So maybe I’m missing something here, too. Maybe I need to see it again. That, at least, is an option with Anderson. Even when his movies don’t quite connect, you still want to see them again.

“Inherent Vice” opens the way all noir detective movies open: a girl enters the office of the detective with a case. Except here, the office is a run-down near-breachfront apartment, the P.I. is a pot-smoking slacker, Doc Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix), less hippy than fallen hipster, while the girl, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston, Sam’s daughter), is Doc’s former girlfriend, and now paramour of real estate mogul Michael Z. Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). She talks vaguely, and circularly, of a plot to kidnap him and put him in a mental institution. She’s worried for him. Doc is worried for her. He still loves her, you can tell. Soon, she goes missing.

Other cases, connected to this one, keep turning up at Doc’s doorstep. Tariq Khalil (Michael Kenneth “Omar” Williams), fresh out of prison, wants Doc to find his former cellmate, Glen Charlock, a member of the Aryan brother and current Wolfmann bodyguard. He also wants him to find his old neighborhood, which has been razed for one of Wolfmann’s new developments: Channel View Estates. Blacks being booted for the whites. In the development, at the end of a cul-de-sac, Doc finds a brothel, gets hit on the head, and wakes up next to a very dead Charlock while dozens of members of the LAPD train guns on him. They’re led by Lt. Det. Christian F. “Bigfoot” Bjornsen (Josh Brolin, in a standout peformance), a crew-cutted chest-thumper, who earned his nickname by beating up suspects, and who has a comic oral fixation with black phallic symbols—mostly chocolate-covered bananas. In turns, we find out he’s 1) smarter than we thought, 2) henpecked at home, 3) disrespected or at least disconnected at work. He has issues. And he’s the closest thing Doc will have to a partner in the movie.

He’s also the subject of one of the film’s more meaningful lines. The last time we see him, he literally breaks down the door to Doc’s beachhouse, glowers down at a stoned Doc, takes a puff of his joint, then eats the rest of it. It’s almost an “I-drink-your-MILKSHAKE!” moment, isn’t it? Stunned through his haze, Doc says something like, “Take it easy, brother,” and we get this exchange:

Bigfoot: I ain’t your brother.
Doc: No, but you need a keeper.

Nice. And both in the simian and Biblical sense. Maybe we all do.

Another case that winds up on Doc’s doorstep? Hope Harlingen (Jenna Malone) wants him to find her husband, Coy (Owen Wilson). If almost everyone in the movie has a habit of going missing, Coy keeps turning up in Doc’s path and on Doc’s TV. There he is disrupting a speech by Pres. Nixon before a right-wing “Vigilant California” rally. So is he a left-wing agitator? Not really. He’s an informer now for the feds, and the disruption is supposed to give him street cred. But he wants out. Except there is no out. That’s why he’s missing. He’s staying away from his wife and child to protect them.

All of these various mysteries soon revolve around an organization called the Golden Fang, which is either an Indochinese drug-smuggling cartel or an association of Orange County dentists. Or both. The latter is led by Dr. Rudy Blatnoyd (Martin Short), a coke-snorting, secretary-schtupping mess, who dies in a trampoline accident off-screen. But it’s not an accident.

Paying the rent
“Inherent Vice” has all the trappings of a noir detective story but not much is solved. We want right angles and get curves, endings and get fizzle. There’s a paranoid sense of a menace, a monstrosity shifting the world beneath our feet, but it’s not just paranoia. It’s Gov. Reagan releasing mental patients, and in effect privatizing mental health care (as he would do nationally as president), and it’s in one of these institutions where Doc finally finds Michael Wolfmann, who made the mistake of thinking he could give away his real estate holdings. It’s the collusion of money and politics, which is backed by shocktroops both public (LAPD) and private (the Aryan Brotherhood). It’s the return of Shasta, who was never kidnapped or killed, as Doc feared; she just went away for a while. But she returns damaged goods. Wolfmann abused her sexually, and she liked it, thrived on it, and still wants it. And Doc gives it to her. That scene—love turning to sadomasochism—is a death-of-the-sixties moment. It’s Woodstock becoming Altamont, the hope of RFK becoming the reality of Nixon.

Which is why, I assume, Doc engineers the ending he does. Sitting on a stash of Golden Fang heroin, he brokers a deal with Vigilant California bigwig Crocker Fenway (‘90s indie favorite Martin Donovan, in a pitch-perfect cameo): the return of the heroin for the release of Coy Harlingen from his informant obligations; so he can return to his wife and child; so Doc can have ahappy ending, even if it’s not his.

Their dealmaking conversation is instructive:

Doc: How much money would I have to take from you so I don’t lose your respect?
Crocker (smiles): A bit late for that. People like you lose all claim to respect the first time they pay anybody rent.

The look Doc gives him on that one. Rent as a sucker’s game. You and me playing by the rules even though the game is fixed. There’s a sense here, and throughout the movie, that this is where we went wrong. During this pivotal moment, the left got stoned while the right got busy. It shifted the ground. It rigged the game even more.

I don’t know. Maybe I’ve written myself into liking the film more than I did while watching it. In the theater, I kept thinking Anderson was screwing up. Despite everything happening on screen, it all felt flat, extended, poorly edited.

But I wouldn’t mind seeing it again. There’s something there. If we could just figure out what it is. 

Posted at 06:58 AM on Tuesday January 13, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Thursday January 08, 2015

Movie Review: Force Majeure (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I was surprised that the avalanche occurs 12 minutes in. Then there’s the silent accusations that become vocal during a squirmingly awful dinner with another couple. That takes us 30 minutes in. The movie, I knew, verged on two hours. I looked over at Patricia, stricken, hand on my chest, and said, “I can’t believe this goes on for 90 more minutes.”

But it does. “Force Majeure” may be the most uncomfortable comedy I’ve seen.

Nixonian
Tomas (Johannes Kuhnke), is the young, handsome patriarch of a photogenic Swedish family on a ski vacation in France. But he recalls Richard Nixon in this way: It’s less his crime than his cover-up.

Force MajeureAfter skiing one morning, the family is having lunch on a picturesque veranda when they hear the muffled explosion of a controlled avalanche. Then they see the snow coming toward them. Everyone stands, oos and ahs, and takes pictures and videos. Tomas does this, too, even as his youngest, Harry (Vincent Wettergren), struggles to get away. But the father assures him it’s alright. Until, that is, this monster of white all but envelops them, and Tomas flees. That’s his crime. He leaves his wife and children behind on the veranda.

In that split-second, their lives are irrevocably changed.

The avalanche turns out to be a ghost avalanche, a snow cloud, and as it dissipates the sky turns blue again. But the skies aren’t really blue again.

It’s the kids who silently accuse Tomas first. Nothing is said, but they act bratty with both parents and kick them out of their hotel room.

Then it’s Tomas’ wife, Ebba (Lisa Loven Kongsli). They’re having dinner with Charlotte (Karin Myrenberg), a Swedish free spirit, and her ski-lodge pickup, a wide-eyed American (Brady Corbet). Tomas acts the patriarch: he noses the wine, nods approval to the unseen waiter, they talk about their day. It’s all rather dull business until Ebba mentions the avalanche, and Tomas running away from the avalanche. Tomas denies it. Except it’s a weak denial. It’s not angry—as it should be, since he’s being accused of cowardice—it just hangs there awkwardly.

The poet John Berryman once said that the problem with modern society is that a man can live his entire life without knowing whether or not he was a coward. I don’t know how true that is, but it’s certainly no longer true for Tomas. He knows. So why doesn’t he admit it? Because it’s about the worst thing you can admit. So he acts like Nixon; he covers up. It’s his second cowardly act, and, in a way, the more unforgivable one.

Ebba, like a one-woman Woodward and Bernstein, tries to break through, but she only works up the courage when they’ve been drinking with other couples. First there was Charlotte; the next  night it’s Tomas’ heavily bearded friend Mats (Kristofer Hivju of “Game of Thrones” and “Kraftidioten”), dallying at the resort with his young girlfriend Fanni (Fanni Metelius). Initially I thought Mats would represent the strong, “natural” man to Tomas’ cowardly, “civilized” man, but thank God no. Instead, Mats plays the awkward diplomat:

I believe that the ‘enemy’ is the image we have of heroes. All those stories about heroes. And the pressure to be a hero and do heroic acts in terrible situations. ... Very few of us are heroic.

Ebba listens, then plays the trump card—the video Tomas was taking as he ran away. It’s played; and Tomas is revealed to himself and to the world.

A shell of a man
That’s the uncomfortable. Where’s the comedy?

Here, for example. On the way back to their room, Mats and Fanni have the following conversation:

Fanni: I wonder how I would react if you had done that to me.
Mats: Right.
Fanni: You might have run, too, and left your kids behind.
Mats: You might also have run.
Fanni: We’re talking about you and Tomas.
Mats: [Odd noise]
Fanni: Because I think I would react like Ebba: I wouldn’t be able to run.

Is Fanni overidentifying? Does she not know what she’s accusing him of? Is she just young? She gets hers, though. Mats keeps her up for hours trying to prove the negative she dumped into his lap.

If Fanni regrets her bizarre accusation, Ebba comes to regret her sleuthing. Tomas was a shell of a man, and she broke through that shell, but it turns out it was the only thing holding him up. The next day, he all but melts into a puddle. He cries with Mats, locks himself out of his room, wanders around the hotel. At the ski “bar,” a girl tells him that her friend thinks he’s the best-looking guy in the place, and he has seconds to bask in this thought before she returns to tell him, in essence, “Whoops, she meant another guy.” When he finally gets into the room again, with his wife and kids around, he goes into another crying jag, and all gather around to comfort him.

The next day, their last day at the lodge, visibility is slight but the family goes skiing anyway. You’re thinking, “Disaster.” You’re right. Ebba gets left behind, and Tomas trudges after her, calling her name. The camera stays with the kids. Time passes. They plop to the ground. They call out for mother and father. We see their point of view. It’s all white.

For a second, I thought the movie would end there. It wouldn’t have been a bad end, to be honest.

Instead, triumphantly, through the white, we see Tomas carrying Ebba. He smiles, exhales; she walks away. Why was he carrying her if she could walk? Because the whole thing was staged by Ebba? Either to test Tomas (would he try to rescue her now?) or to prop him back up? I assume so. And I assume the latter reason. She broke through his façade to this quivering jelly of a man, and he was so unpalatable, and so much work, that she created a situation where he could be whole again. And they could be a family again.

The image of heroes
The atmosphere of “Force Majeure,” written and directed by Ruben Östlund, is distant, cold, spooky. It’s the modern, mechanized society Berryman alludes to. All of their needs are met but no one is really present. We only see two employees and both are silent and incompetent. Otherwise, everything is just there and vaguely menacing: the booms of the controlled avalanches; the creaking of the ski lifts. And it’s not just the ski resort. One of my favorite shots, which Östlund keeps returning to, is the family waiting through their electric toothbrush routine. No brushing is actually involved. They’re all just waiting for the mechanism to finish its task. Its task is us.

What do you make of the end? The family, vaguely whole again, is taking the resort bus down the winding narrow mountain roads; but the busdriver is an incompetent who can’t handle the sharp turns. He freaks out Ebba, who demands an exit, and everyone gets out except for Charlotte, the self-satisfied free spirit, and the bus continues on its way. The crowd looks around, wondering what to do. I suppose you could say they’ve left the mechanism and they’re not sure what to do. Then they do. They walk down the mountain.

Are they free now? Hardly. Tomas first rejects, then accepts, a cigarette from a fellow walker. He leads the way—with his heavy boots, aviator shades, and cigarette dangling from his mouth. He’s the image we have of heroes. 

Posted at 07:41 AM on Thursday January 08, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Monday January 05, 2015

Movie Review: Wild (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

How do you make a movie about a woman hiking 1,100 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail by herself? There’s only one person on stage. Where’s the drama?

The drama is in 1) who she meets, and 2) what she carries. And with the latter, I’m not talking tents and food and water; I’m talking memories. I’m talking about why Cheryl Strayed (Reese Witherspoon) is hiking the PCT in the first place.

“Wild,” based upon the 2012 memoir “Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail,” is a much better movie than I thought it would be. It’s a wholly American movie. It encompasses the width of our land, from Arizona to Washington state, and the breadth of our land in the music we hear. We start out with shivers of Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa,” and end it with “Homeward Bound,” and in between we get touches of spooky Elvis (“Don’t Be Cruel”) and Lucinda Williams, and it’s all crowned by an odd, small boy in a rainy Oregon forest singing the All-American song of love and loss, “Red River Valley”:

From this valley they say you are going
We will miss your bright eyes and sweet smile,
For they say you are taking the sunshine
That has brightened our pathway a while

And who’s responsible for this All-American movie? Well, the screenplay was written by Nick Hornby (“About a Boy”), a Brit, and it was directed by Jean-Marc Vallée (“Dallas Buyers Club”), a French Canadian.

Wild with Reese Witherspoon

Of course. Bien sur.

Above your nerve
When Laura Dern first showed up in a flashback as Bobbi, the mother of Cheryl, I whispered to Patricia, “No wonder’s Cheryl’s so screwed up.” But it’s the opposite. This is a new kind of role for Dern. Bobbi is the spiritual center of the movie. She’s what Cheryl hopes to return to.

Why is Cheryl so screwed up? We get flashbacks of the life she’s running from: sex, drugs and a little rock ‘n’ roll—the All-American dream and the All-American mess. She’s a Minnesota girl who became a Portland heroin junkie. But how did that happen? And how did she climb out of it?

Early on, we get a sense that it’s not contemporary. In the flashbacks, Cheryl talks with her mom about Erica Jong and zipless fucks, and why James Michener isn’t a great writer, and those are ’70s or ’80s conversations. Later, we figure out she’s on the trail in the early to mid-’90s. When she hears Jerry Garcia dies.

In my own experience, and that’s just day hiking, the first steps of the hike are often the hardest, and so it seems here. Cheryl so overpacked she can barely stand up. I assumed she would begin to discard things, like Katz in Bill Bryson’s “A Walk in the Woods,” but she forces herself upright, and out the door, and ponders the hitchhike options. Then it’s to the trailhead and its logbook, where for the first time she writes down an inspirational literary quote and cheekily adds herself to the attribution: “‘If your nerve deny you, go above your nerve.’ —Emily Dickinson (and Cheryl Strayed).” She keeps doing this with other authors throughout the PCT. It’s a bit precious but kinda fun, too. It's also how she gets known to the other hikers. That, and being a woman hiking alone. Which leads to its own problems.

For all the overpacking, she neglected the proper stove fuel, so she eats her mush cold. By Day 8 she’s starving and veers off the trail and finds a nighttime farmer. Much of the drama (per 1, above) is drama typical to meeting strangers: Can I trust this person? It’s exacerbated, certainly, by Cheryl being a woman alone, but man or woman it’s the reason most of us don’t do what she’s doing. It’s less the rattlesnakes crawling on the ground than the rattlesnakes walking on two legs. She’ll meet a few of those. One in particular.

Frank, the nighttime farmer, is big and blunt (“What kind of woman are you?” he asks), and he takes a nip of liquor, but we don’t really fear him, do we? Partly because he’s played by W. Earl Brown (“Deadwood”), but more because he finishes his nighttime plowing before attending to her needs. He’s the first of her stranger-philosophers, and maybe the best. She regrets decisions she’s made, he talks about his own, she asks if he would change them if he could. But to him, he didn’t have a choice. “Never been a time in my life when there’s been a fork in my road,” he says. In a sense, his lack of choice frees him from the regrets of the past.

Compare this with Cheryl's line about her mother's philosophy:

There is a sunrise and a sunset every day and you can choose to be there for it. You can put yourself in the way of beauty.

Is it better to have a choice or no choice? Both are freeing in their own way. In the end, in an Oregon rainforest, Cheryl splits the difference between the two:

What if I could forgive myself? What if I was sorry? But if I could go back in time I wouldn’t do a single thing differently. What if all those things I did are the things that got me here?

Choice is maintained, regret nullified. I had similar thoughts when I was 27. And I wasn't in an Oregon rainforest at the time. 

Pro choice
As Cheryl hikes the trail, meets the people she meets, and overcomes what she has to overcome, she goes deeper into her backstory, which is mostly the story of her mother. Bobbi got fucked over by life and responded with a positive attitude. Then life rewarded her with terminal cancer. That was the event that sent Cheryl spiraling down.

“Wild” isnt' exactly deep but it's never uninteresting. Admittedly, this is the kind of story that’s easier to do in a book, which is a more thoughtful medium, but Hornby and Vallée manage it. The story just flows. To be honest, I wouldn’t have minded less happening. I wouldn’t have minded more alone time with Cheryl—that dizzying, buzzing sense of solitude in the wilderness.

Posted at 07:32 AM on Monday January 05, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Friday January 02, 2015

Movie Review: The Babadook (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

I understand why this movie, despite being in the maligned horror genre, wound up on so many critics’ “best of ...” lists this year: It’s steeped in ambiguity. Even at the end, we don’t know if mother and son are truly haunted (by a ghost-demon), or metaphorically haunted (by the past). It’s almost like “Birdman” in this regard: Is this person crazy or is a little crazy happening in the world?

Extra credit: Does such ambiguity play well with traditional horror fans?

Full disclosure: I’m not a traditional horror fan.

Who’s the monster?
“Babadook” is a low-budget Aussie affair with exceptional acting from its two leads, and exceptional directing from its first-time director Jennifer Kent.

Amelia (Essie Davis) is a single mother, working at a nursing home, and raising her six-year-old son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). If it’s in a word Or in a look You can’t get rid Of the BabadookHe’s a cute boy who sees monsters at night, but he’s odd and she’s harried. Sleep is interrupted. He’s bringing weapons to school, hurting other kids. Eventually the monster has a name, the Babadook, and one night, at Sam’s request, Amelia reads to him from a book she’s never seen: “The Babadook.” It’s a frightening children’s book with menacing pop-up figures and rhymes:

If it’s in a word
Or in a look
You can’t get rid
Of the Babadook

The last half of the book is nothing but blank pages. When she sees the effect the book has on Samuel she puts it away. But we know it will return. Those blank pages have to be filled.

A lot of the movie fits within such traditional horror tropes, but they’re subtler; both more grounded and more ambiguous.

To be honest, I kind of figured it out fairly early. Samuel lost his father the day he was born—car accident on the way to the hospital—and one day, at her birthday party, his cousin teases him. She say he doesn’t even have a father. He insists he does. Insists.

That’s when I knew: Baba-dook. Father.

Samuel gets worse: angry, irrational, out of control. In a sense, he becomes a little monster—a more outré version of the way kids are often little monsters—and he and Amelia become more and more isolated. He’s suspended from school, she’s given time off from work, she becomes estranged from her sister. The “Babadook” book somehow winds up back in Samuel’s room, so Amelia rips it up and throws it in the garbage outside; but then it reappears on her doorstep, taped together, and those blank pages are now filled. Is that her in the book? Is she strangling their dog? Is she stabbing her son?

I’ll wager with you
I’ll make you a bet
The more you deny
The stronger I get

(Cf. Amelia’s line about her husband: “I have moved on. I don’t mention him. I don’t talk about him.”)

She goes to the cops and says she’s being stalked—not without reason. Except she looks without reason. Isshe? One moment we pity her, the next we’re suspicious. Are there really roaches crawling out of a hole behind the refrigerator? Is there even a hole behind the refrigerator?

“LET ME IN!” the book says. “Don’t let it in!” Samuel yells at her. But it happens. Capture is inevitable in horror stories.

Worms as food or food for worms
It’s an odd thing, though. As soon as the Babadook “gets her,” as soon as she becomes possessed by it, I stopped being afraid. Amelia is us, our eyes and ears, and the worst thing that can happen to her has already happened to her. More: she’s the strong one now. She’s in control.

Overall, in fact, I wasn’t that frightened by the film. And I scare easily.

I did like the ending. She barfs up the Babadook, more or less, and banishes it, more or less, to the basement. They live with it—this ghost or demon of her dead husband. Or maybe it’s just the weight of the memory of her dead husband. You can make that argument. You can even argue about the worms Samuel digs up in the garden and gives to Amelia to give to the Babadook. Are they to keep the Babadook alive—his food—or are they there to slowly eat him? To finally end him? Is it worms as food or food for worms?

I lean toward the former. Overall the movie’s about suppression. What we repress grows malformed and strong. (“The more you deny/ The stronger I get.”) The goal is to live with the awful thing in order to keep living, and that’s what Amelia and Samuel achieve. That awful thing in their basement? In most horror movies, that’s the starting point. Here’s, it’s the happy ending. It’s harmony.

Posted at 06:47 AM on Friday January 02, 2015 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Tuesday December 30, 2014

Movie Review: The Imitation Game (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“Sometimes it is the people no one imagines anything of,” we’re told in this movie (three times), “who do the things that no one can imagine.”

Unfortunately, it’s the studios no one imagines anything of, who make the movies with no imagination.

I suspected as much going in but you hold out hope. I love Benedict Cumberbatch. I thought the story of Alan Turing (Enigma code? And computers? And gay?) was ripe for a great movie. Plus I liked the opening. It’s Turing’s voice talking to an unspecified you, which, under the circumstances, might as well be us. In fact, it’s partly us, but it’s mostly someone else:

Are you paying attention? Good. If you’re not listening carefully, you will miss things. Important things.

I sat up straighter after that, ready to hear important things. Then deflated for the next two hours.

Did the trailer give too much away? Were the conflicts too facile? The Imitation Game with Bennedict CumberbatchWas everyone typecast? Were more interesting aspects of Turing’s life left out? All of the above? 

All of the above.

159 million million million Turing fans can’t be wrong
The movie is split into three time periods.

It begins in Cambridge, 1951, where Det. Robert Nock (Rory Kinnear) is investigating a burglary in the apartment of Prof. Alan Turing (Cumberbatch), who abruptly dismisses him like a lesser life form. Nock gets curious and investigates the man, hoping to find one of those Cambridge Soviet spies he’s been reading about. Instead he finds, in the words of a fellow officer, a poofter. It’s actually Det. Nock that Turing is addressing during the opening monologue. In the interrogation room, Turing, for some reason, suggests a kind of Turing test—man or machine?—with Nock as judge.

The brunt of the movie takes place during the World War II years, when Turing, a math genius who has already invented the universal machine—a forerunner to the store computer program—is summoned, along with other math/chess geniuses, to break the German’s supposedly unbreakable cipher machine, Enigma, which is reset every day, and which, every day, has 159 million-million-million (or 159,000,000,000,000,000,000) possible combinations.

For some reason, the others, including the dashing Hugh (Matthew Goode) and the diplomatic John Cairncross (Allen Leech, Tom of “Downton Abbey”), who should know the odds, actually try to break the code every day, and they actually get angry at Turing for spending all his time developing an infernal machine. They also get angry at him because he’s a bit of a machine himself. He’s uncommunicative and overly literal. Implications in human conversations are lost on him. He doesn’t realize, for example, that “Alan, we’re going to lunch,” is an invitation to come along.

Feeling pressure from colleagues and superiors, who object to costs, Alan writes Churchill, takes over from Hugh as head of the group, fires two men, hires two more. Well, one man and one woman. Enter Keira Knightley as Joan Clarke and the dullest of subplots. First, the men won’t let her test because she’s a woman. Then her parents won’t let her come because she’s a woman and would be surrounded by men. Then, even after she realizes the importance of the project, she’s about to return to them because she’s 25 and unmarried. So Turing proposes. He feigns love, which she believes.

Meanwhile, Turing makes enemies of Commander Denniston (Charles Dance of “Game of Thrones,” who could play the role in his sleep), makes an ally of MI6’s Stewart Menzies (Mark Strong, ditto), and more or less confesses his homosexuality out of the blue to John, who has his own agenda. (He’s a Soviet spy.) Meanwhile, Turing’s machine, nicknamed “Christopher,” sputters, works, but still can’t break the Enigma code. They’re a day from getting the plug pulled when he hits upon the obvious: Have it search for certain phrases, such as “Heil” and “Hitler.”

Bing!

Fake fake fake
So the initial drama was to get the team to work together; then it became to make the machine work. Now? Now it’s how to use the information so the Germans won’t get suspicious that Enigma has been broken.

The movie makes it seem this was Turing’s call—he allows the brother of a codebreaker to die, for example, and is called a monster for it, even though we know it’s all horrible but logical—and I didn’t buy any of it. Surely it was someone else’s call. Churchill’s, most likely. But Norwegian director Morten Tyldum (“Headhunters”), and newbie screenwriter Graham Moore (not much), keep it insular, uninteresting, and unbelievable.

They keep doing this. Throughout the World War II years, we get flashbacks to 1928 and a young Alan at prep school, being bullied, and meeting the love of his life, named, of course, Christopher, who dies of TB in 1930. That’s the big secret. Alan isn’t just trying to win the war; he’s trying to resurrect his lost love. It’s supposed to be his Rosebud, but it has nowhere near the Wellesian impact. It not only feels untrue, it is untrue. Via Slate:

Additionally, Turing did not call any of the early computers he worked on “Christopher”—that is a dramatic flourish invented by screenwriter Graham Moore.

All the things that feel untrue in the movie? Turing’s Sherlockian propensities? The battle for control among the scientists? The big blow-up with Clarke, where she calls him a monster? Invented dramas that feel invented.

Ditto the final scene between Turing and Det. Nock in the interrogation room. It’s supposed to play like the final scene between Salieri and the priest in “Amadeus” but, again, it’s flat. After telling his tale, Turing asks the Turing-test questions: Am I man? A machine? A hero? A criminal? Nock looks devastated, for reasons I can’t fathom, and croaks out, “I can’t judge you.” Because he’s realizes this poofter is a hero who shortened the war by two years? And saved millions of lives? And maybe all of Britain with its mountains green? So why not make Nock more homophobic at the outset? Or something? To give it meaning? Particularly if you’ve invented him in the first place?

It’s sad that “The Imitation Game” relies upon such weak-tea imitations as this. It’s sad that we feel the need to dumb down the stories of our most brilliant men. 

Posted at 08:07 AM on Tuesday December 30, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Monday December 29, 2014

Movie Review: Obvious Child (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

In the first three minutes of the movie, Donna Stern (Jenny Slate), doing standup, lists off several things that can go wrong with the vagina. The rest of the movie is something she doesn’t mention: pregnancy and abortion. From the start, Donna and writer-director Gillian Robespierre want you to know it’s not all rose petals down there.

When did I fall in love with this movie? I think after Donna is dumped in the club’s unisex bathroom by her boyfriend, Ryan, then consoled by her gay friends (one male, one female), until she winds up at the apartment of her father, Jacob (Richard Kind), who makes “pasghetti” and talks her through her troubles. Kind usually plays the doofus Jew, the one who doesn’t get what’s going on, but here he keeps giving advice I wish I’d heard when I was 27. Obvious Child “You know, creative energy sometimes comes from the lowest point in your life,” he says. “Negativity will either be your best friend or your worst enemy,” he says. Then he suggests Donna go see her mother, Nancy (Polly Draper, still hot), and Donna objects:

Donna: You guys need to know there are some children out there who don’t talk to their parents for months.
Jacob: Really? Not ... my ... child.

He leans in to say this line. He says it with firmness and warmth. The world plays that way? Well, we don’t.

My god, isn’t that lovely?

For a shegetz, he’s a mensch
“Obvious Child” is a kind of reverse-gender “Annie Hall.” It’s about a Jewish comedienne who winds up with a nice gentile boy—a shegetz. But there’s a big difference between this shegetz and that shiksa. Besides the obvious one.

Along with nighttime standup, Donna works at a bookstore, “Unoppressive Non-Imperialist Bargain Books,” which turns out to be a real thing (I immediately thought  of Woody in “Annie” reducing Allison Porchnik to a cultural stereotype: New York, Jewish, left-wing, liberal, intellectual, Central Park West ... ) Since it’s 2014, the store is going out of business. So everything’s falling apart for Donna. Even her standup is unfunny in the wake of her break-up.

Thankfully, the movie’s not. At one point, Donna and lesbian friend Nellie (Gaby Hoffman of “Girls”) are sounding off on men in front of gay friend, and fellow standup, Joey (Gabe Liedman). “Everything you are saying is valid,” he says, “but you are scaring my dick off.” At another point, Donna visits her mother, a professor, who is as cold as her father is warm, and, closing the refrigerator door, she jumps seeing her mother, late 50s attractive, standing there. Hand over heart, she tells her mom, “You’re like an Eileen Fischer Ninja!”

What stops Donna’s downward cycle? A boy, of course: Max (Jake Lacy of the final seasons of “The Office”), who is polite, painfully WASPy, and who works in the gaming industry in a way that confuses and/or bores the comedians. That night, he and Donna get drunk, go back to his place, dance in their underwear, then sleep together. In the morning, she tiptoes out. Because she’s not ready for another relationship? Because he’s a computer programmer? Because he’s a shegetz? Because of the word shegetz?

But he keeps showing up—in ways either believable (at the comedy club) or not (at her mother’s place, since he’s her former student who’s returning a book he borrowed). Donna keeps pushing him away again. Partly because she’s confused. Mostly because she’s pregnant. She actually finds out too early, so she has to wait a few weeks until Valentine’s Day, of all days, for the abortion.

I assumed this would give her time to get together with Max and keep the baby and live happily ever after. I mean, for all the right-wing attacks on Hollywood, abortions aren’t the stuff of movies anymore. Certainly not rom-coms. But Robespierre is made of sterner stuff. Max comes through—for a shegetz, he’s a mensch—but Donna still goes through with the abortion. Jokes are even made before Donna goes onstage at the comedy club:

Nellie: You are going to kill it out there.
Donna: Actually, I have an appointment to do that tomorrow.

My god, that’s ballsy.

Even better is the heart-to-heart with mom, who reveals her own abortion, illegal, in the 1960s. A little history lesson for the younger crowd.

He’s also without personality
“Obvious Child,” whose title is based upon the Paul Simon song for reasons I can’t fathom, is a short, sweet movie, but it differs from “Annie Hall” in this: the gentile there, Annie, had personality. She seemed a real person. Max? He’s not ... anything. He floats along in a sea of niceness, accompanies Donna to Planned Parenthood, sits with her on the couch afterward, suggests a movie. He warms butter for her with his hands. He shows up when necessary and cuddles when necessary.

You know how women complain about one-dimensional female characters in male-driven rom-coms? Max is the male version of that. But he’s invaluable in that. He gives every guy a glimpse into the secret heart of women everywhere. It’s kind of scary. More, please.

Posted at 10:26 AM on Monday December 29, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Sunday December 28, 2014

Movie Review: Foxcatcher (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Bennett Miller’s “Foxcatcher” is a great indictment of the American class system. It’s about the need we breed into the poor and dislocated, and how that need—that fury—can sometimes lead to excellence, and how that excellence can be bought by the idle rich. It’s a movie about the sadness of people with too few options, and the sadness of people with too many. It’s about these words, “No, Mark, stay,” which implies a dog you can control, and “No, John! Stop, John!” which implies a dog you can’t.

The dog you can’t control is the very rich, who are very different from you and me.

The pace of the film is slow and measured but with an angry intensity always ready to uncoil itself. It’s a movie that blasts you with quiet, and then—per George Stevens’ gunfire in “Shane”—blasts you with the final, sad, incomprehensible act. It ends with a lusty crowd chanting “USA! USA!,” which Miller cuts off mid-chant like a rebuke.

Buying friends and enemies
First off: Holy shit, Channing Tatum, where did that come from? The first third of the movie is his brooding intensity, his seething anger—not to mention his athleticism. He’s a big man who moves with sudden speed. Foxcatcher, with Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo, Steve CarellHe grabs, spins, you’re down. There’s beauty in it.

It’s March 1987. Mark Schultz is a freestyle wrestler who won gold at the 1984 Olympics but lives by himself in a dingy, second-floor walk-up. He gives stuttering talks to uncomprehending elementary school kids in half-filled auditoriums, then trains for the ’87 world championships and the ’88 Olympics with his brother, Dave (Mark Ruffalo), at Wexler University.

They’re opposites. Mark understands little and forgives less, while Dave understands much and forgives more. Mark is bottled-up and resentful, Dave is outgoing and gentle. During their training session, Mark headbutts Dave in the nose, drawing blood. It seems intentional, his resentment getting the better of him; but Dave simply steps back, wipes the blood off, continues. No looks, no accusations. Dave has a wife and two kids, and he’s good with them; Mark is alone with his thoughts and ramen noodles.

Then the deus ex machina of Mark’s life arrives—a phone call from John Eleuthere Du Pont—and he’s spirited away, by helicopter, to the vast Du Pont estate, called Foxcatcher, outside Philadelphia. There, the heir to the Du Pont chemical fortune (Steve Carell) invites him to stay: to train for the Olympics as part of Team Foxcatcher. The Soviets have state-sponsored training, so why not, in the U.S., idle-rich-sponsored training?

Here, Mark’s eyes light up for the first time in the movie. He sees the wealth, the purpose, the call to patriotism, but he doesn’t see what we see: Du Pont’s slow-motion creepiness. With head slightly raised, Du Pont, who wants to be called “Eagle” or “Double Eagle,” speaks with interminable pauses, as if he’s still learning the language; or as if he’s used to people waiting on him. There’s a trophy room filled mostly with the medals and ribbons of his mother’s prize horses. Mark is warned to steer clear of Mrs. Du Pont (Vanessa Redgrave), and we expect her to be batty, or mean; but beyond the isolation of her class, and her view that wrestling is a “low sport,” she doesn’t seem too bad.

Does John go for the “low sport” to spite her? Because it’s macho? Homoerotic? All of the above? Is he interested in another trophy for the room? Is Mark that trophy? The questions mount and Miller doesn’t quite give us answers. We get why Du Pont comes between Dave and Mark—he wants greater control of, and greater credit for, the Olympic champion—but why offer Mark cocaine? Because he doesn’t understand what it takes to succeed? And why does Mark give up training? Why dye his hair blonde? Are he and John lovers? We also get why Du Pont finally brings in Dave to shape up Team Foxcatcher—they really need a trainer—but why does Dave accept? He was offered the gig before and turned it down.

Du Pont: How much does he want?
Mark: You can’t buy Dave.
Du Pont [long pause]: Huh.

There’s a moment in the movie when we actually feel for Du Pont. It’s when he tells Mark that he only had one friend growing up—the chauffer’s son—but later found out that his mother paid the boy to be his friend. And here Mark is unintentionally saying the same thing: You bought me, but you can’t buy Dave. But then Du Pont does buy Dave. Was the money better this time? Were the accommodations for his family? Was Dave worried about his brother? His country? USA, USA?

We all become our parents. As a child, Du Pont’s mother bought friends for him, and as an adult he does the same for himself. But he knows enough to not trust what he’s bought.

The relationship between John and Mark is awful and symbiotic. John needs to prove to his mother that he has value, and Mark needs to prove that he has value without his brother. Neither man succeeds. Mrs. Du Pont seems to see through her son’s charade—there’s a painful scene where, with his mother watching, he shows champion wrestlers basic moves—and Mark not only doesn’t succeed without Dave, he falls on his face. He loses his first match in the ’88 Olympic trials, and only makes the team because Dave nurtures him back to health. After that, Mark’s resentment shifts—from Dave, whom he felt overshadowed his success, to Du Pont, who undid it. He winds up leaving Foxcatcher; Dave stays.

We live here
It would be interesting to hear Bennett Miller talk about why he made the decisions he made in condensing the “Foxcatcher” story. In real life, Dave and Mark were never at Foxcatcher at the same time. In real life, more than seven years passed between Mark leaving and Du Pont killing Dave Schultz in cold blood, but Miller makes it seem a couple of months. Reports also indicate that Du Pont began to act crazier in the months preceding the shooting. In the movie, he starts out odd and doesn’t change much.

Indeed, for all of the film’s opaqueness, are the characters themselves too obvious? One-dimensional? Du Pont begins and ends odd, Mark begins and ends with an angry glower, Dave is thoughtful throughout. I got such a feeling of warmth around Dave. I don’t know how Ruffalo conveys that, but he does. Carell’s Du Pont? Icky. Even the gummy teeth was apparently real.

Was Miller warned away from Du Pont’s apparent homosexuality? Did he find it inconclusive? Irrelevant? I suppose I would’ve liked less ambiguity in terms of motivation and more ambiguity within the characters themselves.

Even so, what an indictment of our class system. Near the end, the Schultzes return from the’88 Games—which Mark apparently threw so Du Pont wouldn’t get credit—and they’re confronted at the gate by a suspicious security team, who ask them to state their business. “We ... live here?” Dave says. But he's no longer sure. Even if it wasn't an intentional message, a message was still sent. We are allowed this small space at the sufferance of our betters. We ... live here.

Posted at 08:29 AM on Sunday December 28, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Friday December 26, 2014

Movie Review: The Interview (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Thanks for making me watch this crap, North Korea.

I’d seen the trailer. A shallow talk-show host, Dave Skylark (James Franco), who is good at getting celebs make the big reveal (Rob Lowe removes his toupee, Eminem admits he’s gay), turns out to be a favorite of North Korea’s dictator Kim Jong-un (Randall Park of “VEEP”); so Skylark and producer Aaron Rapaport (Seth Rogen) jump at the chance to interview him. Then the CIA, in the form of “honeypot” agent Lacy (Lizzy Caplan of “Masters of Sex”), asks the two doofuses to “take out” the dictator. Yes, kill him. It’s a comedy.

To be honest, I didn’t plan on seeing it. I mean, the trailer wasn’t bad (I liked Rogen’s line reading, “That is not an actual thing people say”), and the plot seemed pretty outré (actually assassinating a dictator?). But the scatological stuff? Doofus Hollywood? Rogen and Franco? I’d seen it before. I wasn’t a big fan of “This Is The End,” for example. Maybe eventually I’d watch it on Netflix, I thought. Maybe. Eventually.

The Interview, with Seth Rogen and James FrancoThen the Guardians of Peace hacked Sony, spilling its embarrassing emails into the world, then threatened any theater showing “The Interview.” This caused theater chains to pull out, which caused Sony to suspend release, which caused Pres. Obama to suggest Sony made a mistake in doing so, and ... Here we are. Instead of maybe eventually watching it on Netflix, Patricia and I watched it Christmas Day on YouTube. It almost felt like our patriotic duty to do so.

Thanks for nothing, North Korea. Assholes.

Banging the hot Korean general
Here’s the big question that the trailer doesn’t answer: What happens when Skylark and Rapaport get to North Korea?

Well, they prove surprisingly adept at the spy game and have plenty of opportunities for assassinating Kim Jong-un. But after several deep “My Dinner with Andre”-type conversations, they realize that what they prize about America is not its global-policemen capabilities but its adherence to democratic principle; and that they, as citizens of this democracy, have no right to assassinate the leader of another country, no matter how megalomaniacal. So they return home, chastened but wiser, determined to turn “Skylark Tonight” into a source of legitimate rather than celebrity news.

Kidding.

Instead, Skylark gets suckered into liking Kim, who lies to him about Korean prosperity but is truthful about his inner heart. (He likes Katy Perry’s music.) Meanwhile, Rapaport, after an encounter with a tiger, and forcing a CIA-delivered projectile up his anus, becomes involved with a hot Korean general, Sook (Diana Bang), who secretly hates Kim. The three resin strips the CIA provides to assassinate Kim? One is swallowed by a Kim lieutenant, who dies a horrible, convulsing death; a second is thrown on the ground by Skylark to protect his buddy Kim; a third winds up on Rapaport’s hand while he’s trying to make love to Sook.

The titular interview, being broadcast live around the world, hedges on whether Skylark has been taken in by Kim. (He hasn’t.) Then it hedges on whether Skylark can outdebate Kim. (He can’t.) “You have failed,” Kim tells him triumphantly. “You made a long journey just to show the world they were right about you: You are incapable of conducting a real interview. You are a joke.” Which is idiotic several times over. How is the whole thing suddenly about Skylark? Besides, doesn’t Kim want the world to think he’s outdebated a Mike Wallace rather than a Ryan Seacrest? So why would he ... ?

Anyway, at the 11th hour, while Rapaport and Sook fight technicians in a bloody, over-the-top battle in the broadcast booth (during which Rapaport has two fingers bitten off), Skylark asks Kim about his father, and about margaritas, then sings from Katy Perry’s “Firework,” all of which causes Kim to break down and cry on international television. Then Kim lets out a long fart. A shart. Which he denies and blames on a cameraman. “Ladies and gentlemen,” Skylark announces. “Kim Jong-un has just pooed in his pants.” Since he’s supposed to be a God with no bodily functions, this comes as news to the North Koreans.

After that, there’s a chase, Kim is killed by a missile, our heroes escape, and Sook leads a revolution toward a democratic North Korea.

Funny or die
Actually, there’s a bigger question that the trailer doesn’t answer: Is the movie funny?

Not enough. I had a few laugh-out-loud moments. I loved the cute Korean girl singing in the beginning about death to America. I liked Dave’s tone-deaf speech upon landing in Pyongyang, which he ends with “Konichiwa.” I liked this exchange between Dave and Kim as they look over a tank:

Kim: It was a gift to my grandfather from Stalin.
Skylark: In my country, it’s pronounced Stallone.

It’s just not funny enough. Patricia, who tends to like dopey comedies, was bored a third of the way in.

But “The Interview” is, in its way, prophetic. It’s a nothing comedy that actually made the real Kim Jong-un, a totalitarian dictator, shit his pants. That’s worth something. Right?

Posted at 02:30 PM on Friday December 26, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Monday December 22, 2014

Movie Review: Hercules (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

Hercules Hercules Hercules!

We hear this chant several times in Brett Ratner’s “Hercules,” starring Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, and I laughed every time. Because Eddie Murphy. He’s completely ruined this word for me—for the better—as Steve Martin did with the word Oklahoma ... Oklahoma Oklahoma!

Or did “Hercules” come to us ruined?

He’s never exactly been an A-list character, has he? He gets played by musclemen who don’t have a wide range of talent: Steve Reeves, Lou Ferrigno, Kevin Sorbo. We like our 20th century updates of Hercules—Superman, Conan, Hulk—better than the ancient Greek myth, which, after all, is ancient, and Greek, and mythy.

Ratner’s version doesn’t begin badly because it takes apart the myth. “You think you know the truth about him?” a voiceover asks. Hercules 2014“You know nothing.” We think the voice is addressing us, but it’s actually the voice of Ioalus (Reece Ritchie), Herc’s nephew and chief storyteller, who is being held captive by some scummy pirate or something. And the story Ioalus tells? Of Hercules’ 12 labors? Of being a demi-God and the son of Zeus? It’s bullshit. The myth is the myth, and Ioalus is the first P.R. man in history. Sure, Herc is big and strong, and each of the 12 labors is based on something, but they’ve been greatly exaggerated to instill fear in tyrants.

Who is Hercules really? He’s a former orphan and a former general who’s now a mercenary—a man who leads a team of experts:

  • Autolycus (Rufus Sewell), the right-hand man
  • Amphiaraus (Ian McShane), the seer
  • Tydeus (Aksel Hennie), the crazy mute
  • Atalanta (Ingrid Bolsø Berdal), the tough chick/archer

We see them in action once, and then in repose; and then they’re hired by Ergenia (Rebecca Ferguson), daughter of the embattled Lord Cotys (John Hurt), whose kingdom is being threatened by the rebel demon Rhesus (Tobias Satelmann), who ravages villages and leaves a stream of refugees in his wake. Herc takes the gig. He trains Cotys’ men into a strong army. And off they go—too early, in Hercules’ mind—to fight.

In the first battle they’re ambushed by bald men, painted green, who come out of the ground and attack with fury. They’re like the zombies in “World War Z,” and Herc and everyone win in the end ... but just barely. So, more training. Who were these green men? The villagers themselves that they were supposed to save? Did Rhesus do something to them to make them bald? Or green? I never quite got it.

At this point, and even earlier, we have two options as to where the movie’s going to go:

  1. Herc and his team will lose badly to Rhesus, be forced to regroup, and come back and win in the last act.
  2. It’s a trap. Cotys is a tyrant, and Herc is training the men he will have to fight in the end.

I suspected No. 2. Mostly because Cotys’ right-hand man, Sitacles, is played by Peter Mullan, who’s played villains in “Red Riding” and “Top of the Lake” and pretty much everything. You’d have to be a fool to trust that guy.

Which turns out to be the case. In the second battle, against Rhesus himself, who is simply a tall, blond, handsome dude, the battle ends quickly in Herc’s favor. But in the aftermath at Cotys’ castle, it’s all quickly revealed: Cotys, Sitacles, they’re dicks. The refugees? Cotys’ fault. Ergenia? Forced to fool Herc because Cotys threatened the life of her son—the true king. But Cotys isn’t a fool. He offers Herc a generalship, and, when this is declined, he simply pays him and lets him leave. But Herc can’t. He has to do what’s right. And in doing so—after being captured, chained, yadda yadda, and after Autolycus does the Han Solo thing by abandoning him but returning for the decisive blow—Herc becomes more than a man. He becomes more than his P.R. He lives up to the whatever.

Ratner, in other words, takes apart the myth in order to redeliver the myth. We’re too smart for the wish-fulfillment fantasy but we’re too weak to not want it.

Even so, beats hell out of “300.”

Posted at 05:56 AM on Monday December 22, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Wednesday December 17, 2014

Movie Review: Whiplash (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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. 

Posted at 06:17 AM on Wednesday December 17, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Monday December 15, 2014

Movie Review: Top Five (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

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

What a disappointment this thing is. I was hoping it might be Chris Rock’s “Annie Hall” but was preparing myself for, say, “Radio Days.” Instead we got “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.

Posted at 05:32 AM on Monday December 15, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  

Wednesday December 10, 2014

Movie Review: Birdman (2014)

WARNING: SPOILERS

“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 Stone), 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.

Posted at 07:27 AM on Wednesday December 10, 2014 in category Movie Reviews - 2014   |   Permalink  
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