Jul 27, 2015

Trainwreck


Some are complaining that this movie, written by Amy Schumer and directed by Judd Apatow, turns Schumer's irreverent and subversive humor into conventional comedy. I have less problems with having a happy ending in a romantic comedy, than with the movie trying too hard to appeal to both genders from Mars and Venus. Namely, I'm not interested in Lebron James, or Amar'e Stoudemire, or the NY Knicks, or any of the tepid, has-been celebrities who make undistinguished appearances for no purpose other than to satisfy fanboys. I'm interested in Amy Schumer, who is a sharp satirist and like many great comedians, is able to turn off-putting flaws into endearing quirks, and some seriously funny truth-telling.
I'm also interested in Bill Hader, who is funny and winning as Aaron, the celebrity sports doctor who falls in love with Amy. Besides, it's a sin to waste screen time on sports stars when it could be wisely spent on Tilda Swinton, doing an unrecognizable turn as a horrid editor, or the funny Vanessa Bayer, or Ezra Miller, upon whom one could gaze at for two hours without interruption. And I'm mostly interested in "Amy", a magazine writer and unapologetic slut with commitment phobia, and in how, to her chagrin, she ends up falling for Aaron.
The Knicks must have paid for the branded content, and Apatow and Schumer try very hard to weave them into the story. Except for a funny visual gag in which Hader plays a mano a mano with Lebron, and a droll cheerleading routine, the time we spend in the guys' corner (sports) is deader than a four day old dead fish. It's as if someone were afraid that guys can't laugh at a female character who loves to drink, sleep around and is mortally afraid of commitment. You have to give the guys something else, whether it is projectile vomiting, which I doubt any woman has ever demanded from a movie, or wooden sports stars. Don't we trust that Amy Schumer can carry her own high-concept film without this kind of help? Women rarely get their something else in most Hollywood flicks for guys. We just sit there through the endless chases, gun fights and explosions, our eyes glazing over.
Trainwreck feels schizophrenic, swinging between Schumer at her best, and a patchy script. Apatow likes to sprinkle his comedy with pathos. Alas, as gifted as he is for making good-natured comedies, Chekhov he isn't, and in this film the blend seems particularly forced, since Schumer is primarily a satirist, and satire and pathos rarely mix.
Amy has been given a family sob story. She has a nasty dad (Colin Quinn) who is losing his mind to Alzheimer's, and a sister (the lovely and adroit Brie Larson) who hates her dad. This means tears have to drop, and family reconciliations have to happen. Someone in the chain of command did not quite trust that Amy was sympathetic enough -- hence the melodrama. But what makes Amy Schumer sympathetic, even adorable, is precisely how unapologetic she is. I applaud a woman who makes a violently icky face at the news of her happily married sister becoming pregnant. I don't necessarily want her to be nice.
Schumer's satirical kind of sketch humor may be hard to translate to a full-fledged movie onscreen. Still, that doesn't mean that she has to go all gooey on us. The movie's concept, a woman who turns tables on men by behaving as caddishly as they do, has plenty of comedic legs. Unfortunately, Trainwreck does not totally deliver on the promise of Amy Schumer. The audience expects irreverence and subversion, not a paid commercial for the N.Y. Knicks, let alone a heart-warming story about family, spottily moving as it may be.

Jul 13, 2015

Amy


This documentary by Asif Kapadia (Senna) chronicles the meteoric rise and tragic fall of singer Amy Winehouse, who was all of 27 years old when she was found dead of alcohol poisoning, her body ravaged by the effects of bulimia and substance abuse. Kapadia uses only existing footage taken by either those close to Amy, or the media. We only hear the voices of those close to her, we never see them. At times in the movie I missed their faces, because we can read faces better than just voices. Still, this allows Kapadia to portray Amy's life without interruption, as it was briefly lived.  
That she was a unique and major talent is clear from the opening images of a chubby pre-teen, authoritatively belting out "Happy Birthday" in a home video, with the chops of a much more mature singer. That she and her working class family were ill-equipped to deal with fame is also abundantly clear. This too-long film condenses well the brutal cycle of adoration and rejection of a fickle public and a ravenous media.  There is nothing both love more than a success story, unless it's a success story that implodes as nastily and spectacularly as possible. This they seem to love with the cruelest glee. And this, Amy Winehouse gave them in spades.
The movie shows how most of the songs she wrote were transparently autobiographical, including Rehab, her monster hit, and Love is a Losing Game. It shows her at her best, and then, rather relentlessly, at her worst. And the same goes for the audience and the media: they adore her, then they jeer her mercilessly when she's down, finally shedding tears for her untimely death.
As is common in these kinds of stories (see: Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. See also, Jackson, Michael), toxic people (her husband Blake Fielder) glommed on to her and were instrumental in her unraveling.  It's easy to assign blame: a money-struck father, an ineffectual mother, a junkie leech of a husband, managers who saw the dollar signs at the expense of her health. But what about her own responsibility? Amy Winehouse looked and behaved like a tough cookie, but she wasn't. She was sensitive and vulnerable. She easily fell prey to bad influences and desperately needed someone to impose clear boundaries. However, there is an amazing scene in which she shows that she had enormous willpower, even if she used it mainly to self-destroy. She comes onstage in Belgrade, completely wasted, in front of thousands of adoring fans, and simply refuses to sing. Other performers tend to claim "exhaustion" or a sore throat, and cancel. Not her. She could clean up when she wanted to, and dive into mayhem just as well.
According to her own mother, Amy Winehouse was too big a personality to control, even when she was a child. But although she grew up in a house rattled by divorce, she was surrounded by a tight-knit circle of loving family and friends, some of whose members, like her first manager and her childhood friends, always had her best interests at heart. Not so her dad, Mitch, whose infidelities the young Amy never really could get over, and who, as much as he loved her, seemed to care more for the money rolling in when what she needed was a strong hand to discipline and guide her. It must be unendurable to know that those whom you love most (dad, husband) are exploiting you.
Like a trans person trapped in a body that doesn't feel right, Amy identified as a jazz singer, not a pop star. She admired the great jazz vocalists and would have been happy to be one of them.  In today's world, that is not a financially winning proposition, and she didn't have the stubbornness or the clarity of purpose, perhaps, to guide her own career in that direction. For the music industry, she was too talented to be in a small niche. It is heartbreaking to see her reaction when none other than her idol, Tony Bennett, announces she has won the Grammy for best artist of the year. We see them recording the song Body and Soul together, and Amy is nervous and Bennett is sweet, patient and encouraging. Her loss breaks his heart and ours.


Jun 29, 2015

Love and Mercy


Even with a happy ending, the story of the emotional travails of Brian Wilson, the musical genius behind The Beach Boys, is very sad. Wilson is played by two gifted and committed actors: Paul Dano, who plays him in his youth, full of creative exuberance and psychic hurt, and John Cusack, who plays him when he is older, depressed and being manipulated by psychiatrist Dr. Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti, utterly evil and relishing the role). Both Dano and Cusack successfully convey a personality filled with layers of sweetness, eccentricity, wonder, fear, hurt and mental illness, and director Bill Pohlad achieves a believable continuum of character via his two wonderful actors.
The blond, sunny Beach Boys, poster kids for California insouciance, were the product of a deeply unhappy home, with an absent, alocholic mother and a physically and psychologically abusive father (Bill Camp). The extent of this man's monstrous pettiness is summed up in a scene in which young Brian plays him the masterpiece that was to become "God Only Knows", really one of the greatest pop songs ever written, and his father diminishes it in a virtuosic show of undermining.
The movie is structured as a back and forth between Wilson in the early eighties, when he had fallen prey to unscrupulous Dr. Landy, who overprescribed drugs and kept him away from his family, writing himself into Wilson's will, among other abuses, and Wilson at the height of his creative powers, when he came up with the album Pet Sounds, a masterwork that was ahead of its time and was not, like everyone wanted, yet another sunny Beach Boys hit.
The script by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner refuses to ascribe clear reasons to Wilson's mental instability. We don't know if he always heard voices, if he heard voices because his father used to smack him hard in the ear, causing him to lose some of his hearing, if his creativity already came with a dose of mental imbalance, or this was caused by the stress of being a misunderstood genius teetering between success and failure, the demands of his own creative ambition and other people's expectations. This, in a way is fine, since life doesn't always offer such neat explanations. Through today's science we now know that creativity and mental illness are sometimes physiologically intertwined and that emotional stress can have traumatic effects on mental health. In Wilson's case, throw in wild early success and an overly sensitive soul and you may well have a recipe for disaster. For another devastating real-life parallel of the damage toxic fathers can cause to their talented, sensitive sons see also the documentary Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck. Cobain's response to parental humiliation manifested itself in violently angry self-destruction which led to suicide, whereas Wilson was too meek a soul for anger. He preferred quiet obliteration through drugs and a three-year stint in bed.  Perhaps it is thanks to this mild disposition that he survived.
Wilson's father and his shrink provide destructive father figures, but the movie is anchored by the calming presence of Melinda Ledbetter (the excellent Elizabeth Banks), who meets Wilson cute at the Cadillac dealership where she works, and they fall in love. She discovers the abuse that the shrink is subjecting Wilson to and, with the poised tact and listening skills of a good car saleswoman, helps Wilson regain his life. Banks deserves awards for this performance, even if the showier and equally deserving roles belong to Dano and Cusack.
Accompanying this story are the cascading melodies of Wilson's genius, which director Bill Pohlad uses in snippets of Wilson's complex arrangements at the recording studio, in which we can hear their rich layers of melody and harmony separately in a sonic metaphor for the painstaking work of creativity. Composer Atticus Ross (Trent Reznor's collaborator for film soundtracks) also created sonic mashups of the noises and music in Wilson's head, which help us listen in amazement to the pristine, beautiful songs that eventually came out of him.


The Tribe


A tough and remarkable first feature film by Miroslav Slaboshpitsky, The Tribe is a harrowing story of a Ukrainian boarding school for deaf and mute kids. A young man finds his way to the school, on what we asume is the first day of class, only to find himself down a rabbit hole of abuse and corruption. Usually, when one thinks of disabled children, one thinks of innocent, vulnerable beings, but in this case this vulnerability is exploited to turn them into productive members of the criminal class.
This is the story of a young man that is dehumanized by violence and abuse; that is, something we have seen in many films before, but because the setting is the world of deaf mutes, and Slaboshpitsky has chosen to film it in sign language, without subtitles, it takes an added dimension. He fully immerses us in the silent, yet enormously expressive world of people who can't hear nor speak, who happen to live in a dedicated and efficient system of corruption.
All the recent movies that I have seen from Russia and Ukraine in this case, are concerned with the pall of a corruption so toxic and entrenched that it poisons every aspect of life. Slaboshpitsky takes this to an extreme, making the setting for the breakdown of civilized society this dilapidated school where deaf and mute kids are not only not helped to integrate into society, but are warehoused and turned into a gang of thugs. If only the masterminds of corruption would apply their ruthless efficiency to doing good. Alas.
We learn the rules as the young man learns them. The deaf mute carpentry teacher is running a racket, from panhandling, to robbery, to prostitution with these kids, but Slaboshpitsky shows us how there is always someone higher in the chain of command. As the young man soon finds out, it starts with the main school bully, who is in thrall to another bully higher than him, to the carpentry teacher, all the way up to a bureaucrat who has successfully made this school into his little mafia fiefdom.
In the first minutes of the film we see a school opening ceremony with the institute's principal and assorted teachers, a beleaguered teacher in a classroom tries to teach the older kids something about Europe, but then these figures of authority disappear, never to be seen again. The kids are on their own, alone at night in the empty corridors, in their narrow cots, in a place that's falling apart.  No parents, no guards, no teachers. There is no solace, there is no order but that of violence and intimidation. The social stratification of the school as a hive for criminals is as sophisticated as an ant colony. This boarding school is an apt metaphor for the state at large.
The young man, burly and sweet looking, promptly understands that in order to survive, he needs to show brute force. We instinctively sense (this is one of those rare films that makes us question all the clichés and stereotypes that ordinary movies siphon into our brains) that he is a good kid who will not make it, but he is tough, and soon he is promoted through the ranks, by way of an unfortunate incident which is one of the most swiftly shocking things I've ever seen onscreen.
Then, as they say, shit happens, in the form of feelings. He falls for a girl, a fellow student, and their grudging intimacy, shown full blown in a couple of raw and powerful sex scenes, their found humanity, is the cause of his downfall.  He wants connection and normalcy in a place that won't have it. The end is beyond tragic.
Not only is it remarkable that we can follow the story from watching what happens, trying to understand it only through action and expression, without words, but Slaboshpitsky's formal control of the medium is extraordinary. The camera work is astonishing, the storytelling always focused. I was wondering how the script was written. Did Slaboshpitsky write dialog and then translate it to sign language, or did he just indicate the gist of conversations? There is no music, we can only hear the sounds these people cannot hear, their muffled voices as they scream at each other in silence.
This movie is not for the faint of heart, but it is an extraordinary film.