Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Unbroken

December 21, 2014

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“If you can take it, you can make it,” says the helpful brother of Louis Zamperini (Jack O’Connell) early in Unbroken, giving us, though not Louis, an idea of what we’re in for. What does it take — what fortitude, what inner reserves of strength or patience — to make it to the end of Unbroken? The first hour cuts back and forth between Louis’ pre-war life as just the fastest, bestest runner you ever saw, and Louis as a bombardier in World War II, before his plane goes down in the ocean and he and two fellow soldiers survive on a raft for forty-seven days. Then the raft bumps into a Japanese warship. From there, you will spend the next sixty-five minutes with Louis in a POW camp and then a colder POW camp.

These epics (usually singing the praises of the Greatest Generation) that make a virtue of endurance always make the mistake of demanding endurance of the audience as well. There’s an element of shaming in this: If Louis Zamperini could spend years of his life being tortured in a POW camp, you can spend two hours of yours watching him being tortured, you non-Greatest Generation sissies. Based on a bestseller by Laura Hillenbrand, Unbroken has attracted a lot of intelligent talent: a run of screenwriters (William Nicholson, then Richard LaGravenese, then Joel and Ethan Coen) and director Angelina Jolie, and it’s hard to say what enticed any of them. The movie is about a man who suffers and perseveres and survives, and it isn’t about anything other than that.

Well, maybe it is: it’s also about homoerotic sadism, a theme that most every prison yarn is good for, even after Jean Genet’s Un Chant D’Amour made it explicit in 1950. Louis draws the eye of Mutsuhiro Watanabe (Miyavi), aka “the Bird,” a POW sergeant who takes out his career frustration on the allied prisoners and especially on tough, attractive Louis. This sadist looks and acts feminine and sometimes seems to be leching after Louis; after a while, nobody else in the camp interests Watanabe — he only has eyes for Louis. This all is drawn crudely, with none of the formal tension of something like Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence. I haven’t read the book — did the born-again Louis make as much of Watanabe’s fixation on him as the film does? Jolie, good liberal that she is, presents the dynamic but mutes it. As it is, Watanabe represents nothing but grinning sadism, as Louis stands for nothing but stoic American Christian resilience.

After the CIA torture report has come to light, it’s amusing that an epic about the spiritual value of enduring torture should become the country’s big Christmas Day release. Is Louis meant to be our very own American Christ, suffering for humanity’s sins and then forgiving his tormentors (as we’re told at the end, in some onscreen text that might’ve made for a more interesting film than the one we’ve just sat through)? Jolie straight-up turns Louis into Jesus at one point, when Louis, carrying a heavy plank over his head, casts a cruciform shadow on the soil of the prison camp. Louis hefting the plank is also the central image of the marketing. What’s actually going on here? Those who made this long, grinding tribute to The Passion of the American may find the question hurtful, but I say if you make it, you can take it.

Wild

December 7, 2014

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Pushing forty now (she turns 39 next March), Reese Witherspoon has long since shed the girlishness she had in early, attention-getting performances in Freeway and Election. She still has the drive, though, and in Wild we don’t question whether her character, Cheryl Strayed, will see her impossible goal through. Strayed, who wrote about her adventure in an acclaimed memoir, set out in 1995 to hike the Pacific Crest Trail despite having no backpacking experience. Strayed did this in part to get out of her own suffering head, after losing her mom to cancer and wallowing in annihilating grief. The way Witherspoon plays it, the hike is almost just one more way for Cheryl, an intelligent but complexly miserable woman, to punish herself.

Wild was an Oprah-approved book, and the Oprah website offers more than twenty inspirational quotes from its pages, but the movie is rather short on bromides. There are some here and there, but mainly the film respects the intractability of despair. Whatever positive meaning Cheryl’s mother Bobbi (Laura Dern) might have wanted Cheryl to take from it, Bobbi still died at 45 without having found her own life. Dern, though, gives us a woman who lunges at any shard of joy or freedom, and makes Bobbi’s positivity seem more tough-minded than depression or nihilism. Cheryl walks, she tells us, in hopes that she will meet in herself the woman her mother raised her to be. We may not doubt that Cheryl will finish the hike, but we’re not at all sure what kind of woman she will meet at the end of it.

Overflowing with rich but unsentimental scenery, the movie benefits from clear-eyed direction by Jean-Marc Vallée, whose Dallas Buyers Club last year shared Wild‘s compassion for flawed Americans and certainty that people will behave with kindness given the chance. Cheryl encounters a lot of men on her journey, not all of whom seem nice, though the first guy she runs into looks like a creep but ends up offering her a meal and a shower. (No strings attached; he’s contentedly married.) Cheryl is no prude: part of what she’s trying to escape is her period of anguished, drugged-out promiscuity. The movie doesn’t judge her for that — it simply allows that Cheryl has burned through it into a need for something purer.

Wild is the third movie to be released this year about a woman who goes solo walkabout; there was also Tracks, based on another desert-hike memoir, and the underseen Redwood Highway. Of the three, Wild has the obvious Oscar push behind it, but I prefer Redwood Highway and Shirley Knight’s lovely performance in it, as a kind of Cheryl Strayed forty years later. Still, Wild is decent enough as a bookend piece to Dallas Buyers Club, with a drifting, trippy-melancholic tone governed by Simon and Garfunkel’s “El Condor Pasa” (with its binary “I’d rather be a…than a…” construction). Cheryl keeps pursuing her mom, hallucinating her at times, but to where is Bobbi trying to guide her? We have a good idea where she wants to steer Cheryl away from, but towards what?

At the end, Cheryl tells us that later on, after the narrative ends, she will marry a man and have two kids. This is fine, if it was what Cheryl chose and wanted in actual life; but why seal the movie with reassurances that Cheryl finally got off the trail of solitude and became a mom just like her dear old (young) mom? Do we need that? Does the movie? I say we don’t and it doesn’t; it carries the unattractive implication that all an unhappy woman needs are the right man and a couple of babies. I’m sure that’s not what Witherspoon (also one of the producers) intended. Right? Or is it not reassurance at all, but a kind of warning? I’ll need to mull it over; Wild is not generally a movie that says a man, or anything else, will fix whatever ails a woman.

Birdman

November 28, 2014

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Birdman is a sort of accidental metafiction dunked in surrealism or magic realism. If that loses you already, I don’t blame you, but the movie is a bit more nakedly entertaining than that. It’s a bit up itself with its talk of artistic integrity and “risking everything,” but the trick of the supremely gifted director, Alejandro González Iñárritu, is that what must’ve been intensely difficult to film comes off as smooth, playful, fun. Birdman is in part a celebration of what movies can do, and despite the story’s inherent mopiness, there’s a pure-cinema jazz-riff feel to it. The movie is indeed a risk; it always seems on the edge of tumbling into pretentiousness, but the working-man self-abasement of its star, Michael Keaton, pulls it back.

Keaton is Riggan Thomson, a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Birdman, in three blockbuster movies. We are told, of course, that the script (by González Iñárritu and three others) did not have Keaton in mind, even though Keaton is a former movie star whose claim to fame is having played a superhero, Batman, in two blockbuster movies. I assume that once Keaton signed on, the script may have been tweaked accordingly, otherwise the line about Riggan last playing his superhero in 1992 — the year Keaton’s final Batman movie was released — is weirdly prescient. I also assume that Keaton in real life does not share Riggan’s occasional talent for telekinesis, though this always happens when no one else is around and may well unfold only in his head.

Riggan wants to make his big comeback, and bid for credibility, by writing, directing and starring in an adaptation of Raymond Carver stories on the Broadway stage. Disastrous circumstances lead to a difficult but brilliant actor, Mike Shiner (the brilliant and often-reportedly difficult Edward Norton), replacing an injured cast member, and the play heads into previews amid much chaos, ego, and tenuous sanity. Mike tries to have actual sex with costar Lesley (Naomi Watts) onstage. On another night, a drunken Mike tosses the script and makes a shambles of the set. A theater critic (Lindsay Duncan) tells Riggan that she has decided, sight unseen, to destroy his play. Riggan’s daughter Sam (Emma Stone), fresh out of rehab, teases Mike and herself with the possibility of a hook-up. And so on.

All of this, like Hitchcock’s Rope, is seemingly filmed in one swooping, unbroken take, which is especially impressive when Riggan’s fantasies go whole-hog metafantastical and helicopters fall from the sky while Riggan is tormented by Birdman and eventually becomes him. González Iñárritu plays around like Welles did, a boy enchanted with his train set. Birdman is probably no Wellesian feat — it’s too intellectually amorphous for that; there doesn’t appear to be a sharp intelligence behind all the game-playing, though Emma Stone is refreshingly tart and fierce in the one scene when Sam gets to let loose on Riggan. This sort of life-vs.-theater construct certainly is a toybox for actors, just as it was in the far more challenging Synecdoche, New York.

Keaton is getting the kind of surprised acclaim that reminds me of when everyone fell backwards over Bill Murray’s work in Rushmore, as if Murray had never been good or serious in anything before then. Same with Keaton. Make no mistake, he’s terrific here, bitterly melancholic and gnarled and human, just as he’s been terrific all along. I do hope Keaton gets the comeback out of this that Murray did (though with Murray it helped that he had Wes Anderson stubbornly casting him over and over until even the densest viewer had to admit that Murray was more than a ghostbuster). Keaton “gives us range,” to quote an actorism that pops up twice in the film. The movie doesn’t have an enormous lot going on under the hood — González Iñárritu and his writing confederates aren’t Charlie Kaufman. It’s hilarious, though, that this weird, often bleak meta-whatsit might be the closest González Iñárritu can come to escapism.

Gone Girl

October 4, 2014

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Gone Girl is the most loathsome movie I’ve seen in the twenty-eight years I’ve been reviewing films. What’s worse, I’m sure its director, David Fincher, would be jazzed by my reaction. But he shouldn’t be: he has brought considerable craft and resources to bear on a creepy, ugly thing, a pretty hate machine, a bruised corpse on a coldly gleaming autopsy table (which fairly well describes the film’s color scheme). It reduces everything and everyone to shit, and then rubs it in our faces. It’s the kind of movie that Alex the droog from A Clockwork Orange would make about human relationships and marriage, and its nastiness is not mitigated by art of any sort, or entertainment other than a detached buzz over novelist/scripter Gillian Flynn’s laughable plot twists.

Flynn’s script, brimming with l’esprit d’escalier dialogue reflecting a cynical writer’s idea of how clever people talk, sticks more or less close to her novel, from what I gather. Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) becomes the prime suspect in the disappearance of his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike). It’s a very long movie, at two hours and twenty-five minutes (and feels longer), so it probably doesn’t constitute a spoiler to say that the entire movie isn’t about chasing Amy, and that we shouldn’t trust our initial assumptions about Nick. Yes, if Maleficent was a #yesallwomen movie, Gone Girl is a #notallmen movie. Men’s-rights activists and incipient rapists and abusers should love it.

Much more than this I cannot reveal without blowing the movie’s raison d’être, and many people not culpable for the storytelling or aesthetic choices in Gone Girl have done honest work — including newcomer Carrie Coon as Nick’s sardonic sister and, incredibly, Tyler Perry as a high-powered lawyer who takes Nick’s case — so their work doesn’t deserve to be spoiled. That does leave me some leeway, though, to object to such details as how even the early, supposedly affectionate sex between Nick and Amy carries the sordid chill of the morgue; or how a later sex scene turns egregiously gory (it’s far worse than most violence that the usual moral guardians object to in slasher films but will excuse in this higher-toned Hollywood movie); or how the film depicts low-income motel-dwellers as thuggish thieves without blinking (the gross elitism of the writer and director really stands out here); or how a certain character’s perfidy reaches levels that require the diabolical planning acumen of the fucking Joker. Indeed, Gone Girl gives us Affleck-as-Batman versus Superman a year early: his adversary can do anything, can convince anyone of anything.

So this pulpy tripe — framed, I guess, as meta-commentary on pulpy tripe, which I submit amounts to the same thing — is what’s being peddled as a serious movie, one with not even Mad-magazine but Crazy-magazine-level “satire” of the media that feels a clean two decades off, complete with Missy Pyle as a fulminating Nancy Grace caricature. The paparazzi and news vans descend on Nick’s flyover town as if there were nothing else going on in the country, and we spend too much time watching Nick being groomed for media appearances. You see, Flynn and Fincher (how tempting to refer to these twin sociopaths with the portmanteau Flyncher) are saying, it’s not important in our degraded culture whether someone is innocent, but whether he or she appears innocent and whether the media buys into that.

Fincher’s Zodiac was a true-crime masterpiece of dread and obsession, but it’s clear by now that he’s a top-rank shiner of expensive shoes, a director drawn by technological challenges as well as a general dim view of the world, and after the cheap tricks and galloping misogyny of Gone Girl I’m pretty much done with him. (As for Gillian Flynn, from whom the blessings of this squalid story flow, she can go right to Hell and stay there.) This rancid saga, grindingly unpleasant to the eye and freezing to the touch, seems contrived to titillate audiences with fashionable bleakness, a dash of flesh, a cascade of blood, a wide streak of conservatism cloaked in the cold leather of faux punk rock. If this is what hits the top of bestseller and box-office lists these days, American literature and cinema deserve to burn to the ground. Pass the matches.

The Drop

September 28, 2014

resized_99265-the-drop-2_28-18758_t630The Drop is what happens when you take a story by Dorchester crime-fiction bard Dennis Lehane, give it to a Belgian director (Michaël R. Roskam in his English-language debut), and move it to Brooklyn. It retains a certain Boston Irish fatalistic undertone, and feels like a Boston story, and one wonders why it wasn’t set there; certainly Roskam doesn’t make much of the New York locations. Most of The Drop is filmed in a grungy bar or back alleys or people’s roach-trap apartments — it’s New York seen through the dingy bottom of a beer glass. It never pulls back to give us a larger view, as the recent A Walk Among the Tombstones does. Which is not a sin, really; The Drop isn’t a travelogue, it’s a slice of a few people’s rotten lives.

Expanding his short story “Animal Rescue” into a screenplay (which he later also novelized), Lehane isn’t shy about using an abused puppy to sketch in characters: the guy who plucks the pup from the trash, Bob Saginowski (Tom Hardy), is Good, while the psycho who beat and discarded the pup, Eric Deeds (Matthias Schoenarts), is Bad. What’s worse, after Bob has taken the dog, a pit bull, into his home and heart, Eric comes around demanding the dog back. Eric used to date Nadia (Noomi Rapace), who’s helping Bob raise the pit bull, whom she names Rocco (Bob prefers “Mike”). It’s not that Eric really cares about the dog; he just wants to drive a wedge between Bob and Nadia.

As if that weren’t enough misery, Bob tends bar at a dive called Cousin Marv’s, overseen by, yep, Cousin Marv (James Gandolfini in a fine swan song), who long ago ceded control of the place to a crew of vicious Chechen mobsters. The Chechens use the bar as a “drop,” a place to stash money until it can safely be picked up. A couple of local doofuses stick up the bar, taking a good chunk of the Chechens’ cash. This attracts the unwanted attention of the cops, represented by Detective Torres (John Ortiz), who seems to exist just to unsettle Bob by casting insinuating aspersions on his Catholicism. (Another holdover from Boston.)

There’s more; the plot thickens, perhaps unnecessarily, filling out Cousin Marv’s relevance to the story in a way that doesn’t especially help the story. I was with it, though, as a damp and depressing city fable about little people who either never made it or made it once, years ago, and then lost it. It’s essentially a small story that expands in meaning in one’s head later on, albeit in neatly literary ways — ah, yes, Rocco the dog is a “drop” just like the Chechens’ money, and perhaps just as dangerous to try to hold onto. Animal lovers who frequent the useful website doesthedogdie.com — “the most important movie question” — may want to know the answer as it applies here, and I cannot reveal it, since our uncertainty about Rocco’s future fuels much of the movie’s suspense. I can only advise you to look up the film on that site. Given the film’s darkness, you may be surprised: The dog, of a much-maligned breed, ends up being an emblem of hope.

The Drop covers most of its men in beards, and Matthias Schoenarts’ facial foliage, black and bristly like a beetle’s armor, wins hands down; he gives an accompanying great performance as a loser heavily invested in maintaining a rep as the neighborhood psycho. Schoenarts comes at his scenes from a weirdly menacing angle (for instance, always sealing his hostile chats with something like “Good to see you” and somehow making that sound sincere), inspiring us to fear for Tom Hardy’s physical welfare — probably a rarity. Hardy does his sweet-and-tender-hooligan specialty, getting the Noo Yawk rhythm down nicely, and he plays smoothly with Rapace and with poor Gandolfini, who deserved many more years of films to which he could lend threat and gravitas as well as wounded humanity. He’ll be missed. I respect The Drop and its makers most for wanting and landing Gandolfini to play a sullen, cynical man crusted over by the defeats of urban life, who nevertheless speaks wistfully of seeing Europe before he dies. The actor himself succumbed in Rome, so at least there was that.

A Walk Among the Tombstones

September 21, 2014

A WALK AMONG THE TOMBSTONESMatthew Scudder (Liam Neeson) has a way of getting to the point. In A Walk Among the Tombstones, based on the tenth of Lawrence Block’s Scudder novels, Scudder is snooping through a dubious character’s things, and is caught at it by Mr. Dubious, who wields a big knife. Scudder, an ex-cop and off-the-books private eye, takes one look at the guy and knows the knife isn’t about to be used. So instead of provoking him into violence, Scudder nonchalantly but firmly says something to the effect of, Look, I can take that away from you, but I’d rather not have to. Scudder isn’t a fan of brutality, though he has seen enough of it to tide him over several lifetimes. Liam Neeson, here and elsewhere in the movie, speaks and moves with the effortless authority of a man who still, at age 62, can fold you in half without breaking stride, but conducts himself with the grace of a man who would rather not have to.

A Walk Among the Tombstones is grim and sometimes ghastly, but its heartbeat is gentle and patient. Writer-director Scott Frank isn’t a fan of brutality either, though the plot is one of Block’s nastier items, about a pair of psychos who prey on the wives of rich men in the drug business. Such men are disinclined to call the police, and, realistically I guess, they don’t command a Tony Montana-style army. The psychos, too, depend on their marks to race into the situation with unclear heads full of stress and rage. Ultimately, the sickos demand a ransom but then deliver a kidnapped wife back in pieces. They don’t do it for the money, though the money does keep the lights on; they do it because they like torturing women, and the opening credits of the movie begin as a possible erotic afternoon delight and then gradually shade into something darker and more repugnant. Frank catches us leaning the wrong way here, but overall he suggests rather than lingers on the pain of the women.

The movie isn’t terribly concerned with women as anything other than plot motivators (Scudder’s prostitute girlfriend from the book has been omitted), which may draw it some charges of sexism it doesn’t really earn. It’s more engaged with the pain of men, the pain they’re in and the pain they cause. Scudder faithfully attends AA meetings, and a climactic event is intercut with an earlier church stop, where Scudder solemnly listens to a woman listing the Twelve Steps while in the future there is bloody cataclysm in and out of the rain. I don’t think anyone could call the movie pro-masculine; Scott Frank may elide the horrors, but he makes sure we catch enough of misogynist psychopathology to give us the shivers. One scene will haunt me: the two monsters, idling in their van, mesmerized by the sight of their latest prey, who walks the family dog and waves cheerily at them as she passes, while Donovan’s “Atlantis” — surely the creepiest use of it since GoodFellas — oozes from the van’s radio. It’s a terrifying sequence.

Scudder gets by with the help of a sidekick of sorts, T.J. (Brian “Astro” Bradley), a homeless kid who uses the library for reading and occasionally sleeping out of the rain. T.J. is black, but as played by Bradley he’s admirably not-cute; we don’t have to sit there and worry about the white man patting his young Negro ward on the head condescendingly — T.J. is tough and smart and helpful in the case. Scudder finds himself in this mess when a drug dealer (Dan Stevens) comes to him seeking justice for his wife, returned in “poor condition” by the psychos. The dealer has a brother (Boyd Holbrook) who came back from Desert Storm a heroin addict and who might be useful if he can get over his own man-pain. T.J. is about the only character we see, Scudder included, who just gets on with things.

The movie is great on such things as addicts’ rituals (two shots and a cup of coffee), the alarming but bracing sounds of a gunfight in full eruption, the sickly quiet after said gunfight, the way a sociopath sits down and eats calmly five minutes after having garroted someone, a whiskey bottle swung into someone’s skull that doesn’t shatter but bounces off with a painful-sounding tonk!, the grotesque indignity of slipping on bloody stairs. A Walk Among the Tombstones, indeed, strikes me as the first great American film of the new season, a stoically gripping opening shot to inaugurate the cooler months, when we adults can bid a temporary farewell to superheroes and robots and go, once again, to movies made for us.

Frank

September 6, 2014

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The first time I heard of Frank Sidebottom, the cult-favorite British musician/comedian also known as Chris Sievey, it was in the pages of The Trouser Press Record Guide, where Ira Robbins waxed ecstatic about the man who performed Queen medleys, thought everything was “fantastic,” and wore a large papier-mache head patterned after old Fleischer Brothers cartoons. You had to be in England during a particular era — mostly the ’80s — to tune into Frank’s dadaist charms, though he’s pretty well represented on YouTube these days. Those interested in Frank’s peripatetic career would do well not to rely on the new film Frank, a comedy-drama lightly based on Frank’s early days with his Oh Blimey Big Band. British journalist Jon Ronson spent some time as Frank’s keyboardist, and his experience led to a Guardian article, which was expanded into a short book, which in turn somewhat informed the movie.

There’s no hint of Chris Sievey under the Frank mask here (nor does he get the surname Sidebottom). Indeed, we don’t get a look at Frank (Michael Fassbender) until almost the end. In the meantime, he bellows muffled stream-of-consciousness doggerel into a mike while the Jon Ronson analogue (Domhnall Gleeson) plonks along on a Casio and the scowling Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) plays a theremin. Ronson has said that Sievey, who died in 2010, wouldn’t have wanted a straight Frank biopic (there’s a forthcoming documentary, Being Frank, to serve that purpose anyway), and the non-Sidebottom Frank we meet here — a son not of Timperley but of Bluff, Kansas — is perhaps not the Frank but a Frank, a symbol of persistent, lunging creativity. We’re left with the oddly comforting notion that Frank is legion, that he appears wherever illogic is sorely needed to disturb the squares.

What isn’t comforting — and it is right that it not be so — is the film’s clear-eyed assessment of the creative urge as it relates to mental illness. Frank refuses to romanticize affronts to the brain; it takes its cue from those who had to live and work with such crazy diamonds as Syd Barrett, Daniel Johnston, and Captain Beefheart. People in Frank’s band keep wandering off to end it all; it’s as though Frank attracts unstable elements so that he can feel more sane in comparison. By the time Frank’s band (with the jawbreaking name the Soronprfbs) plays a Twitter-hyped gig at Austin’s SXSW, young hipsters have gravitated to the various road dramas and to the instability on display; they appreciate Frank’s music ironically, as a funky freakshow. I was reminded of the following that the schizophrenic underground musician Wesley Willis found, despite himself. Enjoying the art of the mentally ill on any level should be an occasion for checking one’s own assumptions. Do we genuinely value the art, or are we taking a chic tour of the nightside of human experience?

Frank is a finely grained ensemble piece, more sober than it needed to be, and more complexly engaging, but no less entertaining. Fassbender manages to express more through papier-mache than most actors can unencumbered, and the strange, sometimes atonal music sets the outsider tone. This isn’t the Frank Sidebottom movie; it uses a similar likeness to probe the demons that can pursue — and, yes, inspire — artists, while sanely denying that the demons are necessary for the art. I’m sure Poe and Robin Williams would’ve opted for happiness over the darkness that undeniably added spice to their work, but who’s to say they wouldn’t have made better art, and had longer lives, without the darkness? The noncreative get their revenge on the creative by saying that the price of creation is madness. All this from a movie about a man with a big fake head. Fantastic.


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