Oct 27, 2014

Dear White People


Director Justin Simien's awkward satire promises far more than it delivers, although it does pack a punch of provocative racial invective. Some of it is funny, but in general the script could have benefited from extensive polishing. I admire the gumption behind the idea of making a comedy that exposes racist attitudes in American colleges, based on actual offensive parties that have sprung in several campuses recently, but the execution is underbaked. Just because characters sling shocking racial accusations at each other, it doesn't mean that the artistic merit is as high as their shock value.
Simien has a bizarre sense of comic timing (barely any at all) that smothers any hint of comedic buoyancy. He is tonally awkward. Most scenes are underwritten and go nowhere. Characters take forever to deliver their punchlines. The actors, although capable, are not inherently comedic performers. Simien's stylistic choices are also wrong for the material: polished cinematography which looks like a decently lit TV show, with no expressive edge.
The tone hovers between dry satire and almost melodrama. The characters are thinly sketched, and for the most part, badly cast. The heroine, a lovely girl called Sam (Tessa Thompson), has a college radio show in which she berates white people for being white, as in: "Dear white people: stop dancing". But as written and acted, Sam has not a funny bone in her body. She is self-righteous, which in the hands of inspired comedians can be hilarious (think of Will Ferrell's persona, always so sure he is right, when in fact he's totally clueless). Sam is just self-righteous, and she is pissed off, and though there is nothing wrong with righteous anger, for it to be funny, it should be tempered with something absurd to undercut it, or at the very least with comic verve (Spike Lee was self-righteous and angry, but he could be funny. Also, Richard Pryor).
I don't think it is the actors' fault, but rather the result of immature script and directorial choices which strand the actors in stereotypes. Sam is of mixed race but this is not really contrast, because it is the result of circumstance, not of personality. Most black characters are stereotypes with a circumstantial conflict: the son of the college's black dean is a white wannabe (an oreo, is it?), who is ambitious and handsome, but he smokes pot in hiding. The educated black girl who refuses to be ghetto, but will outghetto herself in order to give the people what they want. A black gay nerd, played by Tyler James Williams, is the only character who is interesting to watch, even if he seems to have flown in from a different movie.
The white characters are all one dimensional stereotypes. There is no attempt to render them any differently. Perhaps this is on purpose. Imagine how black people feel at looking at themselves in the media through a limited amount of types from central casting. White people who complain that this movie is racist against them are missing the point. For one, the black characters viciously stereotype each other, just to add salt to the wound of ingrained bad cultural habits. Two, I never understand when whites whine about black racism. How could black Americans not be racist?
Simien completely avoids the representations of blacks we are used to seeing in pop culture. Quite deliberately, he avoids sassy fat mamas, twerking hoes, hooded drug dealers, the motley crew of black "characters" that permeate our media. In fact, this is the most radical thing about this movie: it forces us to see these educated, ambitious middle class black kids as the norm, not as aliens from a fictional planet, or as politically correct wishful thinking. It also points out how even within black culture certain characters are off limits, like the gay black nerd. This is shocking: to realize the dearth of fully composed black characters in our culture, to realize that we are still being fed a bunch of stereotypes, perhaps softened from the days of blackface, but which still do not represent the diversity of blacks in America, often with the collusion of black people themselves. Simien introduces two different mixed race couples. We rarely see people like them on TV or film, laying waste to the idea that this is not normal simply by cuddling, even when they relate to each other in terms of race. They have more of an impact than all the verbal race baiting.


Oct 20, 2014

Gone Girl


This twisted tale about a marriage on the rocks, adapted by Gillian Flynn from her own novel, is given the neat, brisk polish of a David Fincher production. The plot is rather outlandish, but what is interesting is the context. Nick and Amy Dunne seem to be the perfect couple. Yet anything can conspire to bring hardship into a marriage. In their case, the loss of a job, a parent's illness, money problems, moving from New York City to a generic town in Missouri, arguing about whether to have kids, the usual stuff that stifles romance in the privacy of home. Things turn sour.
Amy is the daughter of two creepily successful parents (David Clennon and Lisa Banes) who turned her young life into a series of children's books a la Madeline. Amy (Rosamund Pike) claims that all the ideal things that happen to her in the books were imaginary improvements upon her real life. The movie is too a story about the stories we tell ourselves, the stories we make up for others, and the stories that others make up about us.
Nick comes home one day to find Amy gone, apparently under the threat of violence. He cooperates with the local police, who do not arrest him, probably because he's white and lives in a big house. As played by Ben Affleck, Nick is sympathetic, but flat. He doesn't pander to the media circus that wants him to play the grieving husband, and some of his habits should be cause for concern, such as having whisky for breakfast.
I don't know if Nick is supposed to be a cipher, but the movie and the character would be richer if we could see more of the wheels turning in his head. As the story evolves, a lot is revealed about him but Affleck's performance is not layered, and Nick seems a hollow man. Pike is very good as ice queen Amy, but I wish there were more ambiguity to her, that we could sympathize more.
The plot has many fun twists, but I found the idea of a man suddenly hunted by the media more interesting than the pulpy story. Nick seems to be oblivious to the demands that the omnipresent media places on any citizen who gets thrown into the spotlight. Not so his parents in law, whose media savvy borders on the sinister. They know just what kind of show to put on. Histrionic newswomen (Missy Pyle and Sela Ward, both pitch perfect) crucify Nick over the disappearance of his wife without regard for evidence, crafting the clichéd story they think the public wants to hear: a simplified tale of a victim and a villain, which they use drum up ratings and egg on the whims of public opinion.
Eager townspeople relish their part in the morality play, doing mediagenic searches and vigils: the American penchant for putting on a spectacle of empathy every time somebody (usually white) falls down a well. I really liked this about Gone Girl. It has a brittle view of the American media circus and the public as a willing accomplice to its excesses.
Who is to be believed? First we hear Nick's side of the story. Then we hear Amy's. It's more than a he said/she said thing. Gone Girl is a dark metaphor for the pitfalls of marriage taken to extremes. How do we act as a couple, in public, in private and with one another?  Do we really know our better halves? What are the acts we put on to keep the marriage going? Is it all a performance, a sham?
Neither Nick nor Amy are as wholesome as they would like to seem, but our perception of them changes as the point of view shifts. Our sympathies tend to lie with the person telling the story. They may switch as we hear the other side, only to find out that the versions contradict each other. Now we don't know who to believe. Rashomon meets Fatal Attraction.
Flynn and Fincher handle the shifts in perspective with economy and precision. Fincher tamps down his customary glossy style, as if he's trying for an Anywhere, U.S.A kind of vibe. But the film has a strain of wry, dark humor that separates it from a made for TV movie. It has some bitter ironies, from their pious and unapologetic participation of the public in the demonization of Nick and the canonization of Amy, to the grotesque karmic stuff that befalls her, which is very funny, if it weren't so violent,  and all the perverse turns which I won't spoil here. Except for a visit to a crystal meth den that seems too photogenic to be real, Fincher keeps an elegant grip on the story. I wish the main characters were less dispassionate, more messy, more made of flesh and bone.


Oct 17, 2014

Listen Up Philip


A brazen dark comedy that does everything they tell you not to do in screenwriting school, Listen Up Philip, written and directed by Alex Ross Perry, is the story of Philip Lewis Friedman, an ambitious young writer, (Jason Schwartzman, in his best movie role yet), who is an unrepentant asshole. He is solely concerned with himself, he is cruel to his friends, horrible to his lovers, and refuses to do publicity for his book, which is like being Satan in the publishing industry. Movie heroes are supposed to be likable, or as they say, relatable. Philip is not only flawed; he is a horror. Schwartzman finds the right amount of deadpan, contemptuous self-regard, and somehow makes him funny.
Like in a book, the movie is narrated with big, polysyllabic words by an omniscient narrator with a soothing, sexy voice that belongs to the wonderful Eric Bogosian. This is a literary movie about the petty, insular literary world, breaking unspoken rule number two: "thou shalt not make movies about writers".
Philip is anxious about the publication and success of his book, about writing a new one and about the indignities of people's demands on him. All they ask from him is respect, attention and some modicum of humility, none of which he is capable of summoning. He's the kind of guy who reads about someone else's tragedy and takes it as something that deflects attention from him. His ego is inconsolable.
He is a ladies' man (girls do fall for forbidding, enigmatic literary types), but he lives with his lovely, inexplicable girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss, fantastic, as always), a successful photographer. She endures his monstrous selfishness with decreasing good humor. She is as full of feeling as he is full of himself, and thus plays not only his girlfriend but his foil. She ventures out into the world, while he remains trapped in his own calculated aloofness.
As he only cares about his own fate, Philip endears himself to Ike Zimmerman, an older, very successful writer, played as the living portrait of needy egocentrism masquerading as wisdom by the great Jonathan Pryce. The cleverest thing in the movie is a montage of the book covers of Ike's successful novels. They are spoofs of Philip Roth novels, seventies' book jacket design and chunky typeface included.
That Philip is virtually this man's younger version is apparent to everyone but Philip. There is something poignant about having the future version of you in front of you, so you can take notes on who and who not to become, but Philip doesn't seem to learn much from his mentor. It's not clear whether Philip sees himself as a future Ike, whether he wants or not to be like him, or learns from how sad it is to grow old with success, yet not ever shaking off an almost crippling insecurity, which translates as arrogance, contempt and mistrust for everyone.
Philip strikes a friendship with Ike, which means he must endure Ike's mastery at undermining. Pryce also manages not to make his character totally odious. He has a daughter, the wonderful Krysten Ritter, whom he treats badly. There could be a semblance of a hate-love flirtation between her and Philip but Ross Perry does not pursue that.
I wish the camera work was not as shaky (cinematographer du jour Sean Price Williams, jerking it all over the place), the sound was better, and the jazz sax score less intrusive. But it's the actors who do justice to the bitter tone of the film.
During the second act, Philip virtually disappears from the screen and we follow Ashley's life without him. It's hard to understand what she saw in him, but Moss is alive with possibility. In the end, Philip remains unredeemable, which breaks the next rule of screenwriting. The flawed hero must change, or find redemption, or learn something. It doesn't happen. So how come this movie is not depressing and hateful? Ashley's determined moxie makes up for it. She's a hero for putting up with Philip, and even more for sticking to her guns and her dignity.
This is a comedy, so there is a happy ending of sorts; a bittersweet, rather abrupt ending. This contrarian, off-kilter film is a good companion piece to Birdman, which also deals with creative egotists, with more budget and much less bile.

Oct 15, 2014

Birdman


Well, Alejandro González Iñárritu should certainly do comedy more often. This is the best film he has made since Amores Perros. He has always been gifted at the cinema of extreme emotion, and this material allows him to indulge in his trademark intensity without falling into sentimentality or melodrama. He has made a movie with a sense of humor. At last.
Now I can see why it is hard for the previews to convey the tone and the experience of this movie.  Birdman, Or The Unexpected Virtue Of Ignorance is a really ambitious film about art versus commerce, love versus adulation, fame versus talent, ego and creative risk taking.
Riggan Thompson (the much missed and wonderful Michael Keaton), is a has-been movie star who found celebrity playing Birdman in a Hollywood comic book franchise. To expiate his mercenary sins, he is now orchestrating a comeback, starring in, directing and producing a serious play on Broadway. He has all the fame in the world but he wants his prestige back.
Riggan is putting everything on the line to make this show work, even if no one, including himself, thinks he can pull it off. It is seen as the vanity project of a washed up star and it doesn't help that a voice in his head, that of Birdman himself, is constantly questioning his artistic pretensions. We are inside the head of this man as he navigates the treacherous waters of celebrity and creative ambition.
Iñárritu films this as one continuous shot with the help of the great cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki, aided by digital stitching. Usually, this kind of daredevil style distracts from the story, and ends up giving the audience headaches, but Lubezki and Iñárritu make it work. It is a visual tour de force. The camera closely follows the characters in endless motion through the narrow backstage confines of the St. James theater. This mimics the experience of being in Riggan's shoes, dealing all at once with his fear of the unknown, the vertiginous demands of everyone around him, from his lawyer and partner (Zach Galifianakis), to his estranged daughter (an excellent Emma Stone), to the actresses in the play (Naomi Watts and Andrea Riseborough), to his unhinged costar (Edward Norton). In all the razzmatazz, Lubezki finds moments of repose, his camera always at the service of the actors. The lighting is precise, eclectic and beautiful. It is seamless, expressive work, which should be honored with a seventh Academy Award nomination.
Iñárritu's films have always had great energy and visual verve, but this one is actually fun. He elicits compelling, if over the top, performances from all his actors, but my favorite is Edward Norton, happily chewing the scenery as Mike Shiner, a crazy actor with lots of talent but not so much fame. Norton is so electric and fun as an enthusiastic thespian douchebag with a smidgen of vulnerability, he should be in every movie. Why is he not in every movie?
Antonio Sanchez's drum score gives the film an extra jolt of energy, which is a bit much. The drums work really well when no one is speaking, but they irritate when the characters strain to be heard above them. Luckily, Iñárritu, who is not known for his restraint, tempers this sonic assault with a soundtrack of beautifully chosen classical music for the more lyrical moments, which are very welcome.
Birdman is very meta, what with the Raymond Carver references, actors who have been in superhero movies playing actors who have been in superhero movies, and a dose of teasing whimsy we're not sure if it is all in Riggan's head or not. But if you strip the technical fireworks, the showmanship and the sometimes labored references, the raw emotions of all those needy egos are there and they manage to be truly touching. Riggan is a beleaguered character, and though his ego and his need for validation are immense, they take an enormous beating from all quarters. He is trying. He is serious. And what he is doing is, in his world, heroic. A fantastic (both for its greatness and for being totally contrived) confrontation between Riggan and Tabitha Dickinson, the faux chief critic of the New York Times (the great Lindsay Duncan) gives you both sides of the thematic crux of the story. She berates Riggan for cheapening art with his fame, and he reads her the riot act by saying that by writing a review she is risking nothing, whereas he is putting his entire life on the line. They both have a point. I did not get a clear sense of where the writers' sympathies are. Would we rather watch what seems a pretty awful theatrical adaptation of an important work of literature, or would we rather be entertained by a cinematic roller coaster ride? I think the answer lies somewhere in the middle. Something like Birdman, which is trying to be artistic in a very entertaining way. In the end what endures is real love, which Riggan finally finds after his comic misadventures, and the creative powers of imagination.

Oct 11, 2014

Foxcatcher: NYFF 14


A horror film. As dark a movie as you'll ever see with a Hollywood cast, Bennett Miller's film about millionaire John du Pont's relationship with Olympic wrestling champions Mark and Dave Schultz, is profoundly disturbing. I came out of it wanting to dunk myself in a bath of Clorox. This is high praise. I, for one, am grateful for an American film that challenges our increasingly unsustainable obsession with heroism.
Like most movies based on real stories, Foxcatcher may not be entirely faithful to the real events that transpired, but it takes them as a springboard to explore the corrupting power of money.
It is about a loser with all the money in the world, an extremely creepy Steve Carell, who takes Mark Schultz (a solid Channing Tatum), an Olympic gold winner with zero money, under his wing. du Pont is obsessed with Olympic wrestling, with patriotism, winning, guns and the American way. He is heir to the enormous du Pont fortune and he lives alone; that is, with his disapproving mother (Vanessa Redgrave, doing almost nothing and killing it). He is unloved and deeply warped by unhappy money.
The real heroes, the Schultz brothers, are hardworking regular people trying to make a living. Somehow, they were unable or were not chosen to parlay their olympic gold medals into endorsement deals. So they are losers, stuck working hard to eke out a life. Meanwhile, John Eleuthére du Pont, scion of a blue blood American family is, by all accounts, a winner. He has inherited everything he could possibly want, except what he can't have, which is a life. du Pont is a failed athlete, a wannabe coach. He wants to be a mentor, father figure, brother, teacher to a winner, by which he assumes he will garner the admiration of the entire nation. But he is too feeble, or too pathetic, or too damaged to do anything worthy. Thus, he achieves personal glory by buying his prestige.
It is possible that he wants to be the father he wishes he had, or that he gets a kick out of watching semi-naked muscular men pile up on top of each other. Wisely, Miller and the screenwriters (Dan Futterman and E. Max Frye) don't clutter the film with cheap psychology or flashbacks of his lonely childhood. In one scene, he opens up to Mark, and with one line about a childhood friend, we learn all we need to know about what it is like to be him.
Miller lets the story unfold at a stately pace as we watch with growing despair how toxic du Pont's embrace of Mark Schultz is. Carrell, sporting a fake nose, bad teeth, bad skin, and bad eyes, summons a man who seems to be asphyxiating under his own repression, of something so bottled up, it sucks the life out of anyone, including himself. He is an inspired choice, since as a comedian, and particularly as Michael Scott, in The Office, Carell has demonstrated he's capable of going to uncomfortable extremes of maladroitness, self-delusion, self-absorption and lack of social finesse. Even though the character of John du Pont is humorless, he cuts so ridiculous a figure as a wrestling groupie, Carell finds ways to sneak in the funny, in a very unsettling way. Like Michael Scott, du Pont is a loser with power, but from hell and on steroids.
du Pont wants the Schultz brothers to come to his remote mansion and train with him, but David (an excellent Mark Ruffalo), the eldest, and the real father figure to Mark, is a high school coach and a decent family man, and he doesn't want to go. However, with enough bags of money, DuPont eventually lures him. You think you can't buy integrity? Think again. du Pont's money is as irresistible to David and the U.S. Olympic Wrestling Federation as it must be to our long-suffering representatives, who can't campaign for office without begging for corporate munificence. Once the checks are written, politicians cannot be beholden to anyone but their benefactors, just as Mark and David have to cater to the man who is buying their lives. It is true corruption and it destroys everything.
One can extrapolate this story of one rich man's capacity to buy everything with money with the nature of life in America. After all, du Pont is a patriot, as concerned with the notion of freedom as any of those rapacious Republican titans of industry who bandy the term about only for what suits them. He talks in empty platitudes about freedom. A freedom that apparently only applies to those with means. Freedom to buy your way around so that everybody is at your service. The kind of freedom that turns others into slaves.
In du Pont's admiration for Mark there must be a tinge of envy. His is not the well-intentioned attention of a real mentor. It's the manipulation of a narcissist. Miller doesn't tip his hand before he has to, which makes Foxcatcher a harrowing movie .As we discover du Pont's mind games, and his psychological troubles, we realize in growing horror that his charitable motivations are a calculated ruse to aggrandize himself. His manipulations and his detachment from normality really creep up on you.
With enough money, everything becomes a circus. The wrestlers have no choice but to indulge du Pont's pathetic coaching fantasies. In this movie, du Pont can't wrestle, let alone coach, his way out of a paper bag, nor can he be a true role model for anyone, since it is all a lie. Perhaps if he were a European aristocrat, he'd be content to snort his millions up his nose, lose them at Monte Carlo, waste them at Saint Tropez, or whatever it is those people do. But as an American, he is delirious with the imperative to be heroic. He has the misfortune of being a loser in the land that does not suffer them gladly. But unlike most losers, he is armed with money, and extremely dangerous.