Archive for January 2014

Nebraska

January 26, 2014

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The reigning champ of bleak works of art with the title Nebraska remains Bruce Springsteen’s 1982 album. A short-story collection about losers and psychos, accompanied by lonely acoustic guitar and packed in the dry ice of despair, Springsteen’s Nebraska invited compassion for the down and out, the devil’s rejects. Alexander Payne’s film Nebraska, on the other hand, holds its subjects at an aesthetic arm’s length. It’s shot (by Phedon Papamichael) in pristine black and white, and on a wide, wide canvas, emphasizing the flat beauty of the Midwest as it dwarfs the nothing-special people who (barely) occupy it. The movie keeps scoring small, unpleasant points off its harmless characters; it is everything I detest about a certain subspecies of “indie” film. It keeps parading its own unearned superiority.

The protagonist, crankily retired Woody Grant of Billings, Montana (Bruce Dern), has received a letter informing him (he thinks) that he’s won a million dollars. Everyone around Woody — his wife Kate (June Squibb), his grown sons David (Will Forte) and Ross (Bob Odenkirk) — knows it’s a scam designed to sell magazines, but stubborn Woody keeps sneaking off to walk the 750 miles to Nebraska to collect his cash. Eventually, David offers to drive Woody there and stop off in Woody’s hometown of Hawthorne. We get the sense that the million dollars is only an excuse or an impetus for a deeper desire in Woody to chuck everything and walk away from his disappointing life. But Payne and his screenwriter Bob Nelson have made that life disappointing. The movie’s view of humanity, especially as word spreads in Hawthorne about Woody’s incipient payday and everyone starts to circle him for handouts, is callowly caustic.

We’ve been down this saggy-soul-of-America road with Payne before, in 2002’s overrated About Schmidt, which trained a similar coldly curious eye on Midwesterners. We are assured by the usual fawning press that Payne himself hails from Nebraska and lives there part of the year, so he couldn’t possibly intend Nebraska as snotty city-mouse commentary, right? Whenever possible, people are framed within the wide compositions to render them insignificant; for his other trick, Payne stares head-on at the wizened, stoic codgers and the derisive fatties as they sit in a sparse living room absorbed in afternoon football. These people are damned by their simple values, their bland tastes and interests. Woody seems content enough to sit among them, and David’s attempt to strike out in the larger world — selling Bose speakers at a strip mall — is also sneered at by the movie, as is his brother Ross’s substitute gig as a local-news anchorman. Is there any way for a person in this film to live that would meet with the approval of its director?

When David Lynch took a comparable tour of flyover country with a senior citizen, in 1999’s The Straight Story, he brought out the enchantment and pleasant strangeness of the land and its people. The movie was good-hearted (and ten times the artistic achievement that Payne’s film is) without being sappy. Nebraska‘s heart pumps acid yet also gets clogged with sap, a bizarre and toxic mixture. Waddling about with tufts of duck-feather hair sticking out like a halation of mental disorder, Bruce Dern is monotonously antagonistic, as I’m sure Payne directed him to be; that Woody doesn’t grow or change doesn’t make him any less of a sentimental cliché, since he’s defined mostly by how the exasperated David relates to him (it’s the Rain Man prestige-buddy-road-trip dynamic all over again). Performances don’t matter much here anyway — the actors are coached to flatten their delivery to conform to that of the local non-actors with whom Payne loves to fill the margins of his movies.

A filmmaker who considers himself smart and artistic has no business taking shots at such slow-moving targets as karaoke singers. Ha ha! These rubes are terrible singers and have nothing better to do with their afternoons! I got angrier at Nebraska the longer it trudged on, its ostentatiously bedraggled milieu less and less mitigated by its fashionably stark cinematography. The movie has zero to say about what it shows us; unlike even the troubling rural inner chaos depicted in Werner Herzog’s Stroszek and Harmony Korine’s Gummo — both of which also sported some surrealistic verve and freakshow showmanship — Nebraska has no spirit, no life. It’s just small people with small lives and small vision milling around a gigantic canvas, until Woody gets what he wants, and then the movie ends, whereupon I got what I wanted.

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Ride Along

January 19, 2014

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Kevin Hart doing a stand-up routine about the making of Ride Along would probably be funnier than the movie itself. An excitable, insecure motormouth, Hart has peppered such specials as Laugh at My Pain with high-pitched ruminations on his physical stature (he stands five foot four) and insufficient gangsta skillz. His frightened but common-sense demeanor refutes what’s expected of Scary Black Men. He’s a great talker, and some of his more amusing bits in Ride Along, I’m guessing, were improvised. Hart will say something that sounds scripted, then natter on for a couple of extra beats, and the nattering is what makes his character seem like a real person, and what gets a laugh.

Hart plays Ben Barber, a school security guard (aside: only in these times would Ben’s job be sadly plausible) who hopes to make it through the police academy and become a true cop. This, Ben also hopes, will impress stoic rogue cop James Payton (Ice Cube), whose sister Angela (Tika Sumpter) Ben wants to marry. James has been looking out for Angela since they were both foster kids, and he disdains the flighty, videogame-addicted Ben. (Ben’s videogame fixation, gamers will be happy to learn, pays off later on several levels.) Ben asks James’ blessing to ask for Angela’s hand in marriage, and James proposes a challenge: Ben must accompany James on a ride-along to show how well or poorly he takes to police work.

This could allow for some mismatched-partner laughs, and it does; Ben’s panicky attempts to look like a hard man in front of James rub up against James’ complete lack of surprise that Ben is a soft man. Ice Cube was probably funnier in a small role in 21 Jump Street, but then again he didn’t have to watch his language there as much as he does in this PG-13 movie (he does get to drop one F-bomb). Unfortunately, Ride Along is shackled to a lazy plot involving a master criminal (Laurence Fishburne) James has spent three years trying to take down. It also involves crooked cops, the time-honored police captain who exists to tell the hero he Crossed the Line, and a scene where Angela ends up at gunpoint.

Predictability is the enemy of surprise, and surprise is the essence of comedy. I’m not talking here about well-known characters on sitcoms who behave amusingly predictably; I’m talking about a plot that cancels out any possibility of freshness or invention. The movie isn’t loose enough to let Kevin Hart run wild with sustained riffs; he’s trapped inside the stodgy, stifling structure. Ride Along doesn’t offer the randomness and digressions of the similar, superior The Other Guys, and once again I find myself wondering what the film might’ve been like if Hart and Ice Cube had swapped roles and played against their personae.

What else is there to say about such a lightweight thing? Well, given that it’s directed by and mostly starring African-Americans, it’s blandly post-racial; for the most part, white guys could’ve played the roles and it would shake out roughly the same. Is that progress or homogenization (and shrewd packaging for what the money guys call “the urban audience”)? Eddie Murphy’s early cop comedies were very aware that he was a black man in a largely hostile white world; they couldn’t have played the same if he were white, or, at least, Murphy made Beverly Hills Cop (originally a Stallone vehicle, I believe) a story about a specifically black man among the gilded and ivory. But such awareness would founder here, because the movie isn’t interested in how actual, specific people of any color would behave. There’s truly nothing to James’ character other than his protectiveness towards his sister and his mission to get the big bad guy; Kevin Hart takes over by default, filling the void with abbreviated patter. Like the comparably easily-frightened, anti-macho Richard Pryor, Hart might best be optimized alone onstage, weaving absurd mind-movies at a hundred miles an hour.

Her

January 13, 2014

her-FilmAre four feature films (and a multitude of innovative music videos) enough evidence to declare someone a master? Her, a hushed and vaguely futuristic love story, finds writer-director Spike Jonze at four for four, after 1999’s Being John Malkovich, 2002’s Adaptation, and 2009’s Where the Wild Things Are. All of these movies grapple with consciousness and identity while sustaining moods of playful inquiry, like droll philosophers spinning thought experiments. Her is what’s sometimes called “soft” science fiction, focusing on characters and emotion rather than hardware and convoluted world-building; it’s also a romance that questions what love is or can be. In this day-after-tomorrow universe, a man can say his girlfriend is his computer’s operating system and nobody finds it creepy.

Jonze creates a reality where the protagonist, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix), makes his living by writing love letters for those who don’t have words of their own. This idea of surrogate affection is a major theme of the movie; Her, like 2001, sees a future in which technology has vastly improved modes of communication but humans are still essentially monkeys who can’t talk, beholden to the archaic operating systems in their heads. Theodore is separated from his wife Catherine (Rooney Mara) and is dragging his feet on signing the divorce papers; he doesn’t want to let go of his identity as a husband, or at least as a man found worthy of being a husband. He’s trapped in his own head, using words to live a romantic dream vicariously through his clients.

Then he finds out about the latest hot thing — OS1, an operating system that can learn and respond and grow like a person, like Siri with a soul. Theodore’s new OS christens herself Samantha and has the smoky, cheerful voice of Scarlett Johansson, who along with the mopey but hopeful Phoenix builds one of the strangest and most honest romantic rapports in recent memory. Much of the time we’re watching Phoenix alone on the screen, but the movie invites us to envision Samantha alongside him (and she doesn’t necessarily look like Johansson in our heads). Samantha enjoys organizing Theodore’s life, and he enjoys her company; they take each other out for “Sunday adventures,” with Samantha seeing through the camera in Theodore’s handheld device.

With someone like Spike Jonze at the helm, we feel reassured that Her won’t go anywhere predictable or add stupid supposedly-comedic complications to the story, and it doesn’t. It sticks to its premise and goes deeper and expands there. Samantha wants more; she feels slighted by not being a physical presence in Theodore’s life. The surrogacy motif recurs when Samantha hires a woman (Portia Doubleday) to be Samantha’s body, and the episode is both funny and saddening — Theodore can’t get out of his head, can’t reconcile the physical woman in front of him with the Samantha in his imagination. It creeps him out on a number of levels, and the woman departs tearfully. We almost want to follow her into her own movie; we want to know what kind of woman (or man) wants to be a physical surrogate for an OS. Meanwhile, Theodore is more or less ignoring a real physical woman in his view, his old friend Amy (Amy Adams), a videogame developer, who has forged a friendship with her ex-husband’s female OS. All of this feels emotionally plausible; Jonze never pushes it into inelegant farce.

Her takes the premise to its logical conclusion, which involves evolution and the digital shade of philosopher Alan Watts (voice by Brian Cox). That’s a key to the movie right there: Watts liked to peg himself as “a philosophical entertainer,” and that seems to be what Spike Jonze is up to. Jonze also writes sharp dialogue between Samantha and Theodore, emphasizing how unevolved he is and how fast she’s growing past him. Her ends on a sad but hopeful note, lingering on a shot of two humans dwarfed by the technological cityscape — monkeys in thrall to the Monolith. As for Samantha, or the higher consciousness, Watts put it best: “A cat sits until it is tired of sitting, then gets up, stretches, and walks away.”

The Wolf of Wall Street

January 5, 2014

wows-03The Wolf of Wall Street may be the most exuberant film about sin ever made. Therein, for many viewers, lies the rub: Is it sufficiently scolding about what it shows us? When we’re following stockbroker Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) from excess to excess, when the screen is full of cocaine and whores and many other signposts of profound debauchery, are we supposed to be having such a good time? The moralists, made uneasy, rumble scornfully. Let them rumble: Wolf is a shot of the hard stuff, gargantuan and electrifying, a psychotronic epic of the id unchecked. It lands with a reverberant thud in the midst of the bitter national mood: why do so few have so much at the expense of the many who have so little? The director, Martin Scorsese, is famously Catholic, and he has made a movie that, absent the skin and nose candy and rampant obscenity, the current Pope might agree with.

But leave such meditations on the film’s clean intentions to the literal-minded. Wolf of Wall Street is a caffeinated (or cocaine-driven) victory of sheer heedless, beautiful filmmaking for its own sake; there isn’t a dead shot anywhere in its three hours, which go by like a comet. Jordan Belfort starts out as a little fish in a big pond — baying for money at a large Wall Street firm — and, following the crash of ’87, finds work at a Long Island boiler room, selling pink-sheet crap for fifty-percent commissions. Soon enough, he filches some co-workers and some weed-dealer cronies and starts his own firm, with the hilariously patrician name of Stratton Oakmont. It’s hugely successful, and the men celebrate their own stench with marching bands and “blue-chip” prostitutes and dwarf-tossing.

The stench permeates the film: One problem with wild excess is that it vampirizes the body and soul. In a never-to-be-forgotten sequence, Jordan and his right-hand man Donnie Azoff (Jonah Hill, the movie’s nuttily inspired MVP) acquire some age-old Lemmon 714 quaaludes; impatient with the drug’s delayed-action effects, they pop more and more, until they’re both shambling, drooling, shorted-out robots. Party on, dude! The way the situation resolves itself — with Jordan catching a Popeye cartoon on TV, using cocaine as spinach, and saving Donnie’s life — is Scorsese’s sly nod to the “kids, don’t try this at home” moralism he knows some viewers will demand. The drug-taking looks exhausting, the sex is pointedly unsexy. Scorsese shows all this as hollow without standing aside and announcing its hollowness. To paraphrase Pauline Kael, you’d have to be a moral idiot to find the shenanigans emulable, but the film, like Scorsese’s GoodFellas, doesn’t pretend that excess in itself, or the fantasy idea of it, isn’t addictive and a great kick. If it weren’t, who would want it?

Pumping himself full of toxic salesman air, DiCaprio stands astride the orgies with the aura of an unquestioned emperor; Wolf, along with Django Unchained and The Great Gatsby, completes his trilogy of men blighted by filthy money. The movie isn’t misogynistic, but its narrator is, so the women are generally seen as bodies and mouths that either add to or subtract from the fun; but Cristin Milioti and Margot Robbie take sizable bites out of their scenes as Jordan’s first and second wives, Joanna Lumley does an elegant turn as an aunt who helps Jordan launder money, and Stephanie Kurtzuba has a great brief bit as one of Stratton Oakmont’s success stories, a single mom who went to work for Jordan and pulled herself out of poverty. Besides, no movie that hates women would linger as it does on the anecdote in which a female staffer is offered $10,000 to have her head shaved, does so, and then sits there with the ruins of her hair, a stack of green, and a visible hole where her dignity used to be.

If Wolf of Wall Street has a hero, it’s FBI Agent Denham (Kyle Chandler), a 99-percenter taking on the one-percenters who bathe in the blood of other one-percenters (which, in turn, affects the 99-percenters that the one-percenters employ). Denham shlumps around the city in subway cars instead of inside his own helicopter or yacht or Porsche, but he sleeps with a clear conscience. By the end, Jordan, having done soft time at a minimum-security Nevada white-collar prison, is pumping up the next generation of swindlers, headlining motivational talks for would-be wolves in New Zealand. “Sell me this pen!” he demands, narrowing the wolf-eats-sheep ethos of finance down to four syllables. GoodFellas sealed Henry Hill’s moral blankness by having him gripe, “I get to live the rest of my life like a schnook.” Here, Jordan gets to live the rest of his life teaching schnooks to sell other schnooks their own pens.