Sep 30, 2014

Whiplash


Whiplash, impressively written and directed by Damien Chazelle, is a stunner. A thrilling, exquisitely crafted ride that gives one hope about the future of American film. The twist is, it is a rather conventional story. It may remind you of Rocky, or of Full Metal Jacket, or Black Swan or even of Bambi (the hero has no mommy, again). But the difference is in the milieu: Whiplash is the story of young Andrew Neyman (a spectacular Miles Teller), an ambitious student at a renowned music academy in New York. He plays jazz drums. Andrew meets his match in the sadistic professor Terence Fletcher, played by J.K. Simmons, in the role of a lifetime.
The plot uses some well worn tropes: the girlfriend that competes with jazz for Andrew's attention, the absent mother, the music competition; story turns you know like the back of your hand, but Chazelle manages to make them look fresh by unleashing truly surprising twists that keep you on the edge of your seat.  Chazelle reimagines and invigorates yet another story of an obsessive hero struggling to make himself heard, through jazz. Whiplash is a tight composition of a film that works with a fantastic score by Justin Hurwitz and Tim Simonec, plus standards like Caravan by Duke Ellington and the title song by Hank Levy. Apparently, Chazelle storyboarded the film to the music score, which explains why Whiplash is a thrillingly musical film, and since the music is big band jazz, it has major swing.
The craftsmanship on every aspect of this movie is of the highest caliber: the music editing, the visual editing, the cinematography, and the very sharp writing and directing from Chazelle. Which brings me to the actors. As Andrew, Miles Teller offers an almost silent performance, but you can detect every single shift of feeling that crosses his mind. He does quiet intensity well, and he is truthful and riveting. In terms of talent, I can't think of another young American actor today that reminds me of Sean Penn or even De Niro like Teller does.
He holds his own and then some against the formidable J.K. Simmons, letting it rip as Fletcher, a sadistic son of a bitch who abuses students with inspired humiliating rants and soul crushing torture. Fletcher is deeply wrong about his method, which is to force talent out by way of destruction (though, to his credit, it does get the students to practice). He is hateful, but Simmons somehow makes him likable: he inhabits his conviction fully and we can understand his flaw. It's not that he means well. It's not tough love. It's that he believes he has a calling to beat the next Charlie Parker out of someone, both for the love of jazz and for the hurt of being unable to reach those heights of genius himself.
Chazelle sustains the tension between the turning wheels of plot and the complexity of the characters. The outlandish flourishes he indulges in feel earned because the movie is one with the world it portrays; with the music its characters worship. Whiplash is an exhilarating movie. I hope it gets the accolades it deserves this award season.

Sep 22, 2014

Now Streaming: Koch


 An even-keeled documentary about the formidable Ed Koch, former mayor of New York City, Koch is a fun reminder of how gritty and borderline unlivable the city was in the 70s and 80s, before everything got gentrified and hipsterized and made into a theme park. Not that we miss the days of graffiti-covered subways, junkies, and garbage-strewn streets, but anyone who loves New York City and watches the footage of it burning with arson, riots, looting, and plain collapse, has to pine a little bit for its edgier days.
Into a metropolis on the verge of bankruptcy, came Edward Koch, a lifelong politician—and lover of attention—who ended up being, for better or worse, one of the most charismatic leaders, and a three-time mayor of New York City. A closeted gay man, fiercely defensive of his own closet, Koch was attacked by gay groups for not doing enough at the time of the AIDS crisis.
While he was perceived as being indifferent to gay issues because of his own gay issues, he nevertheless passed gay anti-discrimination legislation at a time when Harvey Milk and Mayor Moscone of San Francisco got killed for attempting to do the same. Yet this was a man who, in the '70s, faked a relationship with a former beauty queen in order to win his first mayoral race against Mario Cuomo (“Vote for Cuomo, not the homo,” went the slogans, which are included in the doc). In short, Koch is a film about a brilliant, larger than life, complicated gay man. 
Like all world class narcissists, Koch’s hubris seems to be his lack of empathy (not as bad as Rudolph Giuliani’s, but close), be it with the black community on the closing of a hospital in Harlem, or his unsympathetic response to the murder of a black man at the hands of white youths in Brooklyn; or his lack of compassion, whether real or perceived, at the time of the AIDS crisis in the '80s. In retrospect, perhaps a few words of solace or support for these communities would have garnered him respect and loyalty. But as first-time director Neil Barsky shows through archival footage and other talking heads, Koch didn’t have it in him. He liked to rule and to antagonize, with bluntness, charm and chutzpah.
Still, Ed Koch is responsible for urban projects of enormous consequence, like the redevelopment of Times Square from a squalid, crime-ridden porn hub to the tacky, but somehow awesome tourist trap it is today. As Barsky shows, Koch saved New York from bankruptcy by adopting draconian measures, allowed a mass transit strike to go on for 11 days, showing the unruly city that he meant business, and left an enduring legacy of public housing which turned around hellish neighborhoods and contributed to the improvement of living conditions for many poor people in New York. Yet he had such an outsized personality, and was so diplomatically challenged, that he also fomented great racial and political tensions.
Koch was  an attention seeker, not a conciliator. He buttered nobody up. Early in his career, he got in bed with corrupt political bosses whose graft came back to haunt him, ending his one of a kind, brilliant career as mayor. With unfettered access to Koch, Barsky, a former reporter for the Wall Street Journal, still manages to present a nuanced, complex and entertaining portrait of one of the most colorful characters in New York City history. Just to hear the real “Noo Yawk” accents of the distinguished talking heads in this film is a source of joy. Koch is a fascinating glimpse, not only of the man, but of the decades when he ruled New York, changing it forever, mostly for better.  
Koch airs tonight at 10 pm on PBS and is now streaming here.
Originally published on Out Magazine on 1.31.2013.

Aug 11, 2014

Guardians of The Galaxy


This is what happens for reading reviewers who see so many crap franchises and tentpoles, that they think this is good. The first half hour of the number one movie in the world is an epically boring spectacle. The screen teems with digital stuff and nothing happens. Mindnumbing exposition about the different characters doesn't matter, as they are all as disposable as plastic action figures.
I may not be the target audience, but don't think I am incapable of enjoying a good fun movie (see any Spielbergian romp with dinosaurs or E.T.s). Guardians of The Galaxy is just calculated, mostly soulless dreck. Weren't comics supposed to be non-mainstream, off the wall content for nerds and misfits? As they become a billion dollar industry, they have lost their last shred of cool.
I enjoyed myself only when there was a lull in the space chases and explosions for some half-witted talk among the heroes. The spaces for dialogue seem to come on a timer, as do the meaningless chases and explosions. Entire villages (as my friend Katya says) of visual effects people appear at the end credits. Everything is crammed into the frame and polished to within an inch of its digital life but barely anything is touching, beautiful or awesome. And whenever your eye finds something worth lingering on, a fast cut is sure to swipe it out.
The guardians of the galaxy turn out to be a hastily assembled group of misfits (what else?), each with a chip on their shoulder because some evil guy (Lee Pace) did some evil thing to them. A lot of time is spent on explaining irrelevant details, but none on substance. It would have been nice to know why this comic book version of Dick Cheney wants to be so evil and to what purpose, because destruction for the sake of it is not very convincing, but he is just mean.
Chris Pratt plays the hero. He is very engaging as he tries not die of boredom himself while emoting to a green screen. The plot is about delivering a special ball that harnesses a lot of energy to Glenn Close, who is like the President of the Good Guys (We can safely assume by the red, white and blue color scheme that they mean the US). Close is wasted, as are John C. Reilly, Benicio del Toro, and other competent actors who probably had a couple more scenes and lines before the mindless action sequences chased them off the frame. The only one who gets to chew the scenery with gusto is the great Michael Rooker.  Bradley Cooper tries to be funny, lending his voice to Rocket, a rather vicious raccoon. He nails it on occasion. At some point Rocket gets his hands on a big weapon and he almost drools with pleasure. I found this repulsive and depressing, but this movie did not offend me as much as other gazillion dollar spectacles have. At least it is not pretentious, hectoring crap like Avatar. Movies that guzzle enough electric energy to sustain a small African country and then preach about the environment are cinema non grata in my book. If Guardians of the Galaxy is teaching us a lesson (one that we have not already learned from all the Pixar movies), please let me know which.
Zoe Saldana, now a minty hospital green, needs to do two things asap: 1. Eat. 2. Get a sense of humor. Eating may restore her sense of humor. She's so thin, she looks like she's on the verge of organ failure. Dave Bautista plays a muscle man who uses big words but has no sense of metaphor (cute) and Vin Diesel lends his voice to an animated tree trunk that only says one line. The jokes are only mildly funny, yet they feel like a balm after all the pointless chasing and shooting. I need to know: Guys, do you really find these fights and chases exciting? I felt like I was lobotomized and injected with paralyzing serum.
One senses that whatever made this script fresh and funny was whittled down to almost the lowest common denominator in the fear that some kid in Uzbekistan or another one in El Salvador may not understand it. This is how billions are made at the global box office. There is less talk and less time to develop characters in favor of more action, even if it is sloppy and confusing. I detected a faint trace of a love story between Pratt and Saldana, but it was so tepid, that I surmise the studio doesn't want to offend anyone in China, or wherever they may frown upon such things. This is unfortunate. American movies used to entice people. They seduced people into experiencing them, even if they had some concepts foreign to an international audience, they expected people to make the leaps needed to connect. And in the best cases they provided enough humanity, humor, and uniqueness to make it happen. I am convinced that the big studios could still make gazillions worldwide with less patronizing scripts. But these franchise movies are made to serve billions of people, like fast food joints.
And they are just as unhealthy and unsatisfying.


Aug 9, 2014

Cinema Classics: Double Indemnity


The best movie showing in town right now is 70 years old and sharper, fresher and nastier than anything out there. Double Indemnity, the fantastic film noir based on a novel by James M. Cain, with a screenplay by Billy Wilder and Raymond Chandler (just mull this over for a moment), is a jewel: a kind of mashup of classic hardboiled noir sprinkled with Billy Wilder's jaundiced sense of humor.
This movie is a delicious, bitter joy.
Fred MacMurray, a lug, but whom Wilder used well (see The Apartment), plays Walter Neff, an insurance salesman that gets ensnared by femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, the magnificent Barbara Stanwyck, a very alluring anklet-wearing dame. Poor Phyllis is trapped in an unhappy marriage. Feigning innocence, she suggests taking out an accident policy for her husband. Like any insurance agent worth his salt, Neff can smell a rat, but the twist here is that he knowingly bites. It's not that he doesn't know trouble when he sees it, is that he sees trouble and he joins it. He makes it worse. Nobody is innocent.
Chandler and Wilder are interested in ambiguity and grey areas. Phyllis (not the sexiest name for a femme fatale) tells a tale of marital woe. She claims she is married to a horrid man who stifles her and humiliates her. She may be lying, we think, to butter Neff up. But later we see the husband in action, and indeed, he reeks. She was telling the truth. Like all good sociopaths, she bends and arranges the truth to suit her purposes.
Best thing in the movie, in my view, is Edward G. Robinson as Barton Keyes, an insurance claims adjuster who distrusts everything and everybody. Robinson is one of those actors in old movies who seems to be more natural, more modern than everyone else (Spencer Tracy was another one). He completely inhabits this fastidious, suspicious man with a moral certitude and a verve that no one around has. It is a beautifully written character and Robinson fills him in. He is given one of the funniest monologues ever written. It's about death. Absolute greatness.
One of the heartbreaking ironies of the film is that Keyes leaves no stone unturned in his quest for human corruption, but he is naive about his colleague Neff, whom he never suspects. This seems like a trifle, but it is killer stuff. Do we really know people? When even the most punctilious skeptic about human nature can be fooled, we are all in trouble.
The movie is beautifully shot with hard angles and shadows. La Stanwyck glows from the inside out, but the most sparkling gems are the words that flow out of the characters like diamonds, a mile a minute.

Aug 6, 2014

Yves Saint Laurent


A surprisingly good biopic: edgy, sexy, gossipy and with two enormous actors from the Comedie Française in the main roles. I did not expect much (as a rule, never expect much from biopics) and I was very entertained and moved by this look at the rise and fall of Yves Saint Laurent, directed with panache by Jalil Lespert. I suspect that if it weren't for the contributions of Pierre Niney as YSL and Guillaume Gallienne as his partner, Pierre Bergé, the movie would be a notch below. But these two actors inhabit their roles and their relationship with total commitment and extraordinary acting. Lespert is also an actor, which may account for his sensitive direction.
As Saint Laurent, Niney gets the look, the walk, the designer moves, the petulance just right. He is a sensitive young man in Algeria, and then working in Paris as Christian Dior's assistant. He becomes head of the house of Dior at the tender age of 23, after the master dies. He is an obsessive worker, and an inspired artist. He is also emotionally volatile.
The movie does great justice to his designs. It's delectable fashion porn. Drool as you watch the period authentic, not anorexic models parade the lovely clothes he did at Dior, to which he added his own whimsical touch, and marvel at the stuff he did to influence fashion forever, when with the help of Bergé, he founded his own couture house.
There was a family (I suspect Mexicans) sitting in front of me, dad, young son and daughter) who squirmed in their seats like live clams at all the scenes of love and longing between Yves and Pierre, and Yves and other men. They were not happy campers, these viewers, but I was, because I did not expect this film to dedicate time to YSL's sexy (and compulsive) gay life. This part of his identity is treated both with verve and as a matter of fact, as should be.
The story is told in retrospect by an aging Bergé, who was the business genius behind the scenes, the man who understood YSL's talent and championed him through thick and thin. The classic dichotomy between the tortured genius and the shrewd businessman gets a more intimate, personal treatment. Theirs is a complicated love story, which may be the reason the movie works. It goes deep into the relationship, as opposed to just being a series of milestones in the life of a famous man. Yves and Pierre had spats and jealousies and Yves could behave like an ungrateful brat, but they were together until the end.
Gallienne gives one of the finest performances I have seen on screen recently. He does not have to affect the real Berge's mannerisms, as Niney does with YSL, but he creates a solid character, a creative, exuberant businessman and ruthless protector of the love of his life.
Without expensive period soundtrack, the lovely music by Ibrahim Maalouf enhances the decades really well, going from 1950's cool jazz to disco, to opera, as YSL's life becomes more and more fabulous and spins out of control. The fashion is presented with great authenticity and it shows the enormous influence of YSL on the way we dress today.