Aug 26, 2015

Grandma


It's always good to see Lily Tomlin in action, even in a creaky little movie that reads like a paean to Planned Parenthood (which needs all the love it can get these days).
Written and directed by Paul Weitz, Grandma is about Elle, a cranky old lesbian poet (Tomlin), who likes to alienate people. She has just broken up with her younger lover (Judy Greer), when Sage (Julia Garner), her teenage granddaughter, arrives asking for money for an abortion.
That for the better part of an hour nobody can come up with the $600 needed to do the deed stretches belief, and this is the kind of formulaic writing that plagues the movie. Elle doesn't have it, having cut her credit cards to shreds, a maverick move if there ever was one.
The movie is a little road trip in search of the dough, in which we learn that Elle has been through that road before. We are told that Sage's mother is a monster, and Marcia Gay Harden tries her best to make her so, although I never understood what she did for a living. She is some kind of neurotic Hollywood executive. The lack of specifics make the movie feel undercooked. And unfortunately, Garner is no match for Tomlin. As underwrittten, she is a typically sullen, uninteresting teen without character.
The best part of the movie is Elle's visit to an old flame (Sam Elliot, doing his best work in years), from whom she tries to get the money. It also provides the hokiest, paint by numbers drama.
Tomlin is funny and caustic, and the movie has some laughs, but it feels weirdly stilted, as if it's not in synch with its own comedic rhythms.
As much as I applaud the right to choose, I don't necessarily thrill to a movie that so transparently aims to pontificate on the importance of a woman's right to do so. A liberal screed does not a compelling movie make.

The Diary Of A Teenage Girl


We live in a culture that is more concerned with passing judgment than with dealing with complicated emotional issues and their endless varieties of nuance. People prefer to hector their self-righteous opinions than deal with human messiness. When it comes to female sexuality, women may like to have sex as much as men do, but we are not allowed to admit it. A man can boast of his sexual conquests and feel perfectly at ease appeasing his sexual urges, but a woman who screams to the winds that she loves to shag is branded a slut or a nympho.
Thus, a movie that challenges such puritanical stances is rather refreshing. I can't name a recent American movie starring a sexually unabashed and unpunished female protagonist. Can you?
This provocative film by Marielle Heller, based on the graphic novel by Phoebe Gloeckner, clashes with the culture at large by telling the story of 15-year old and horny Minnie, (the extraordinary Bel Powley), who has a clumsy, painful and inappropriate affair with her mother's boyfriend, Monroe (an effectively spineless Alexander Skarsgård). Since it is Minnie's diary, it is her point of view, which true to teenage reality, is inconsistent to say the least. At times, Minnie seems mature and well-rounded for her age. She is sophisticated, smart, precocious and droll, but when it comes to handling the emotional fallout of seducing a 35 year-old man, she still is just a child, and she acts like one, floundering in love.
It does not help that the adults in her life act worse than unruly children, and that they all happen to live in the San Francisco of the late seventies, with the counterculture run amok. Minnie's clueless, pseudo-liberated mom (Kristen Wiig) parties hard and snorts coke in front of her two daughters. Trying to be hip, she encourages the awkward Minnie to show more leg, get a boyfriend, etc. For instant karma, Minnie does exactly that with her mom's boyfriend. Monroe, he just goes with the flow. He is not the feral predator one expects, but he is amoral, spineless, immature, selfish and stupid. Minnie is way out of her depth, which is what coming of age stories are about. She may think she is empowered, but she is blown apart by the dynamics of the affair, a secret adventure in which she does not really have much say, even though she initiated it and fully consents.
This is not a story of an evil predator against a virginal young victim. The inadequacy and the inequity of the relationship are disturbing and painful. At one point, when Monroe tries to break up with Minnie, she throws a tantrum and he accuses her of manipulating him. He is less capable of handling himself than she is, but she feels totally powerless, because as a young girl, she is.
Powley, who is in her early twenties, has a pitch-perfect sense of teenage self-importance (Minnie records her diary on tape for posterity) as well as of Minnie's inexperience and her emotional hunger. She and Skarsgård are marvelously wrong together.
What saves Minnie, besides her considerable pluck, is that she is becoming an artist. She draws and admires Aline Kominsky (R. Crumb's wife and muse) and somehow emerges through this tough, life-changing experience, with the clear purpose of becoming an artist. Her drawings are animated and they are edgy and completely appropriate for the movie. Heller directs her actors with great skill and does not shy away from messy, uncomfortable emotions. She leaves the judging to the audience.

Aug 8, 2015

The Gift


Here's one scary movie that has no creaking doors, no ghosts, no supernatural forces. The evil man can do needs no special effects; it is destructive enough to warp reality for a lifetime. This excellent psychological thriller from the multi-talented writer, director, producer and actor Joel Edgerton delivers several jolts that make the audience jump in their seats, and, better yet, some very disturbing twists firmly rooted in complicated, believable characters.
Jason Bateman plays Simon, a charming achiever who moves from Chicago with his lovely wife Robin (the excellent Rebecca Hall) to a beautiful mid-century house in LA, an exposed house seemingly made of endless glass windows, delicate like an eggshell. Simon and Robin are a lovely couple trying to start a family, and Hall and Bateman have an effortless, lived-in intimacy which is rare in movies.
Bateman is perfectly cast as an ambitious corporate climber with a casual sense of humor and an easy-going charm. He is one of the best straight men in comedy, who specializes in smug all-American jocks. He brings his deadpan humor to this dramatic role. We root for Simon, we are seduced by his pluck, his good looks, and how he charms everyone who crosses his path: such a nice, successful man.  He is so suave that he has somehow talked Robin into moving away and quitting her job as a successful interior designer. Getting his way comes effortlessly to him.
As they shop for new furniture, they run into an old classmate of Simon's, a guy called Gordon (Edgerton). Soon Gordon, formerly nicknamed Gordo, is welcoming the couple to the neighborhood with a zeal bordering on the creepy. He leaves gifts on their doorstep, shows up unannounced, too full of good intentions. However, there is something about Gordo that seems both cowed and aggressive, weak and persistent. He is hateful, as all stalkers.
This movie delivers surprising twists that catch the audience off-guard, and change our perception of the characters, which feels as shocking to us as it does to Robin. The fortuitous encounter with her husband's old schoolmate unravels a web of secrets she had no clue about. It is a terrifying feeling to find out that you don't really know the person you think you know best.
Edgerton creates an atmosphere of tension from the moment Gordo appears at the furniture store, out of focus, on the edge of the frame. The sense of class tension helps, as Simon's golden boy seems to have thrived while everything about Gordo is undefined, and clearly not as successful. Robin is willing to give Gordo's neediness the benefit of the doubt. He has been in the Army, his life has unraveled, and he keeps showering them with gifts. But Simon is mean about him and a little wary.
Unsettling things happen. Simon asks Gordo to stop pestering them. As he explains himself to his wife, he sounds like a mouthpiece for the Republican party. He has little sympathy for Gordo's travails; he claims he had a rough childhood but got up by his bootstraps and made something of himself. His smug charm is that of any garden-variety sociopath, of those people who don't need guns or violence to crush others. In this country, their getting ahead by any means tends to be celebrated. Exuberant admiration for enterprising bullies (from Steve Jobs to Donald Trump, to name just two) is a quintessentially American thing. Edgerton is from Australia. Perhaps his vantage point allows him to see this with unusual clarity.
Although The Gift becomes more conventional towards the end, it establishes its premise and its characters deftly enough that certain exaggerated twists still make sense within the story. It's a small quibble for the rare thriller that uses reality to give us a good scare.


Aug 3, 2015

The End Of The Tour


I once tried to read David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest and I gave up around page five, if not sooner. My footnote-reading days were officially over the moment I stepped out of college, and I just didn't have the sensibility or the mental stamina to pursue the effort. I have never read anything by Wallace, except perhaps an essay in some magazine. My interest in this film has nothing to do with literary fandom. I am a big fan of Jason Segel (so sue me) and of Jesse Eisenberg, the patron saint of movie slimeballs. To their and this movie's credit, I am now looking forward to give Foster Wallace's writing another stab.
Most biopics of creative people are as exhilarating as watching paint dry. The End Of The Tour is not really a biopic, however. It is a fascinating drama about the dynamic between two opposite personalities, both writers, both named David, both living in the thrall of success for opposite reasons. David Lipsky craves it desperately, David Foster Wallace has it in spades and hates it (or does he?).
Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg) was an unsuccessful novelist and a writer for Rolling Stone when he pitched a story about Wallace (Jason Segel), a literary maverick who seemed to blaze out of nowhere with the word genius written all over him: the great white hope of American letters. The excellent script by playwright Donald Margulies is based on the memoir Lipsky wrote about the interview he conducted with Wallace.
The End Of The Tour is a tense, awkward, uncomfortable road trip in which Lipsky accompanies Wallace on the last five days of his book tour, with stops in Jealousy, Fame, Talent, Genius, Depression, Male Bonding and One-upmanship.
The movie starts with a sad little scene in which Lipsky reads from his novel at a barely attended reading. Not even his friends bother to show up. In short: the life of any obscure New York City writer. Cut to a crowd snaking up the stairs at the KGB Bar to listen to wunderkind David Foster Wallace. Symbolically, both Davids could be two sides of the cycle of hope and despair that any writer goes through, but they are also two very smart guys engaged in a very subtle game of cat and mouse. Lipsky is the cat who wants to write a juicy article about Wallace and his rumored demons (drug addiction, alcoholism, suicide watches -- a good read), and Wallace is the mighty mouse who is painfully attuned to, and aims to shape, every layer of meaning in his waking life.
Lipsky travels to a remote town in the upper Midwest, in the dead of winter, where Wallace, the literary phenomenon of the century, lives in isolation with his two dogs and teaches creative writing in an unsung college. Lipsky is a wiry, hungry little fellow. Jesse Eisenberg excels at playing characters whose wheels of ambition you can see turn feverishly in their heads. You can feel his corroding envy of Wallace in your gut. He can't fathom what objections Wallace can possibly have to acclaim, success, and fame. Every time Wallace doth protest too much about being a famous genius, Lipsky cocks his head: he doesn't get it and he doesn't buy it either.
As written, Lipsky is a thankless role. He is petty, competitive, resentful, and increasingly feral in his pursuit of the story, but Eisenberg finds poignancy in his painful hunger for success and his need to understand and connect with his subject. Lipsky is aware that he is no David Foster Wallace. This kills him. And it kills us to watch it. He thinks he is the underdog, but in this tragic instance the hero is Wallace. He may be the top dog with all the powers, but he is engaged in an epic battle with his own unbearable sensibility.
Segel's Wallace is a big bear of a guy with an addiction to junk food, candy, soda, and American entertainment, which he seems to guzzle in order to stave off more lethal addictions. He also has a finely calibrated grip on his own narrative. Segel, who is excellent, makes him into a very sympathetic figure. He is generous, casual, soft-spoken, self-effacing and quietly turbulent. He makes good use of his comedy chops and his impeccable sense of timing. For a tortured soul, he seems pretty easygoing. But there is always an undercurrent in him of pained suspicion, of eternal disappointment at others' incomprehension, of the burden of people's expectations. When Lipsky asks pointed personal questions, displeasure drifts through his face like clouds darkening the sky. Yet he always gives Lipsky good copy, well aware that he is both feeding the machine that he loathes while crafting his own myth. Lipsky soon catches up to his underhanded shagginess. Wallace invites Lipsky to stay in his guest room, instead of a dreary motel. This magnanimous offer turns out to be, not only a way to show Lipsky who's boss, as the room is stacked high with copies of Wallace's books, which can only make Lipsky's stomach churn further, but is also designed to keep him close by.
It's a well-matched battle of wits. I hear Lipsky when he finally calls bullshit on Wallace's "I'm just a regular dude" routine, exasperated by the man who insists on denying himself what every American thinks is his God-given right to spectacular achievement.
Director James Ponsoldt and his two actors sustain an atmosphere of unbearable tension and awkwardness, at times darkly funny and very moving. The script is a good illustration of the symbiotic, sometimes unhealthy relationship between the famous and the media (I hate you, but I need you, which is a two-way street). It is also a master class in dramatic writing, with the opposing Davids engaged in a crafty clash of ambitions.
Furthermore, any movie that employs Joan Cusack (as Wallace's overly chirpy literary tour escort) deserves my undying respect.
Because The End Of The Tour uses Lipsky's interview as a springboard to investigate broader themes, it becomes rather irrelevant whether the fictional Davids are faithful to the originals. Beyond the biographical facts, this film achieves a rare, rich and accurate depiction of what it is like to be a writer, both in success and in failure. Also, I surmise, of what it's like to be male.
If I have one objection, it's to a happy ending-ish coda tucked among the end credits in which Wallace is shown letting loose at a dance. I think the movie should have ended where it ends, as Lipsky reads from his memoir of Wallace at a robustly attended venue, having achieved some success by writing, by all accounts well, about the giant he could not be. I chose to leave the theater with the satisfyingly acrid taste of that ending in my mouth. The End Of The Tour is a fun, intelligent and rewarding film.


Jul 29, 2015

Phoenix


A German-Jewish Holocaust survivor, Nelly Lenz, (the extraordinary Nina Hoss) comes back to Berlin after the war, her burned and disfigured face totally bandaged. She has plastic surgery, choosing to resemble her former self, and not a movie star like her surgeon suggests. Nelly wants to reunite with her German husband, Johnny (Ronald Zehrfeld). She used to be a singer, he a pianist. She comes back to a ravaged Berlin, where her former neighbors are now desperate to survive and to forget and deny everything.
This movie by Christian Petzold is almost pulpy. Phoenix is reminiscent of Eyes Without A Face, 1940s melodramas, of film noir, even of Cabaret. But at the core of this brilliant film is the very real topic of the German reckoning with Nazism.
After refusing to move to Palestine, Nelly stays in Berlin to continue her search for Johnny. She finally finds him, going by a different name, working as a busboy at the Phoenix nightclub. He does not recognize her. Still, it occurs to him that he could use this woman to pretend that she is his returned wife in order to collect her money from reparations. He nicely offers to give her some of it for the ruse.
We are being asked to suspend our disbelief. How can he not recognize her? How can she agree to such a thing? How can she love him? Nelly fabricates an exculpatory fantasy of his not knowing, much like Germans did. Incomprehensibly, she insists on being with him, despite mounting evidence that he betrayed her and that he is abhorrent. Her answer as to why took my breath away.
The question is: after an inconceivable atrocity such as the Holocaust, how can we not suspend our disbelief? If the Holocaust was possible, this story of burning love is also possible.
Petzold balances the twists of the plot and the moral probing of the story (which is based on a novel) by embracing cinematic genres. Realism is insufficient, it seems, to deal head-on with human atrocity and its consequences. The metaphor of a phoenix not only refers to Nelly, who claws her way back to life through love; but to Germany, and how it rose from the ashes through obfuscation, denial, and silent shame, if not sheer opportunistic profiting. Paradoxically, Petzold's reliance on genre actually strengthens the film's j'accuse. Phoenix is both a terrific movie (a stylized fiction, a cultural artifact), and a powerful indictment of German culpability. It also happens to have one of the best endings I've ever seen on film.