Archive for November 2020

Wander Darkly

November 29, 2020

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The drifting, emotionally allusive Wander Darkly is for sure the work of a woman (writer/director Tara Miele). It feels its way through a difficult, nonlinear narrative having to do with life after a car accident for young couple Adrienne (Sienna Miller) and Matteo (Diego Luna), whose relationship had gotten brittle with mistrust and miscommunication even before the event that wrenched them apart. But are they really apart? At one point, a hollow-feeling Adrienne is watching Night of the Living Dead; she notes that she now identifies with the zombies. A more germane black-and-white horror film in the public domain for Adrienne to watch might be Carnival of Souls. I’d better leave it at that.

Then again, anyone who watches Wander Darkly in a too-literal frame of mind is guaranteed to be disappointed. It’s a tone poem about how time plays tricks on us after trauma — how the past floods in and seems as horribly vivid as the present, while the present drifts off on quiet ripples of dissociation or depression. Adrienne believes she is dead, a ghost cursed to hover around lives she once touched — Matteo, their baby. Once or twice, Tara Miele finds a spooky note in this, but mainly it seems intended as a metaphor for disordered consciousness (which can be spooky enough). Is there something supernatural going on? Maybe, maybe not; depends on one’s personal set of associations. I wouldn’t file it under horror or even fantasy — maybe phenomenological romance.

It’s refreshing that neither Adrienne nor Matteo is perfect, nor is their bond. They have plenty of reasons to doubt themselves and each other, mostly having nothing to do with each other. Diego Luna is soulful and sharp — he’s always struck me as what might happen if Edward Norton wandered into an Alfonso Cuarón film and couldn’t get out. So it’s hard to buy him as the Lothario the movie wants us, at times, to suspect him of being. As the internet might put it: get you a partner who looks at you the way Diego Luna looks at the one he loves. But it’s really Adrienne’s story, and Sienna Miller pulls us into her warring emotions as Adrienne rocks back and forth through her life, like Billy Pilgrim in Slaughterhouse-Five. The trope of reality being agonizing enough that we have to look at it sidewise, piecemeal, is durable enough to support many kinds of stories.

It’s a very hard balancing act Miller has to do, but largely she pulls it off, without showboating or showstopping. Adrienne doesn’t have any big moments; her pain spreads wide and hurts deep, like a bad bruise. She could be actually dead, which would be the least interesting take on the story. Or she could be rattled, relating to life as though she’d left it — in the early going, before we’ve grasped that this isn’t going to be that kind of movie, we may predict that Adrienne did technically die but came back, and that her fractured tour of her life is what happens to the mind after a near-death experience. But no, all of that is simply too left-brain. Best to sit back, breathe, and say “She had a trauma, and this is how she processes it.” Revelation will arrive eventually, as it must.

I try not to think in terms of gender essentialism, but Wander Darkly feels thoroughly female to me. I don’t know that even the most sensitive male could devise the scene where Adrienne imagines her baby as a teenage girl crying as she reads her mother’s bitter journals, or the one where Adrienne picks out which dress she wants to be buried in. And if he had thought of them, could he have written them so painfully, leaving room for the actress to add her own pain? Some art is straight-up Male or Female, and that’s fine (and some isn’t). The movie may stand alongside films like Ghost and Truly, Madly, Deeply, though those two were, alas, penned by males. Here is a movie that feels specifically tied to a woman’s ruminations on grief and guilt. It moves past revelation to resolution, and becomes rather touching along the way.

The Stand In

November 22, 2020


For about an hour, I was mystified by my response to The Stand In. Was this not supposed to be a wacky identity-swap comedy? Instead I could feel my stress level rising, and the movie certainly doesn’t look like a comedy — as lighted by cinematographer Eric Moynier, it has the burgundy tone of a somber legal drama. But then the movie’s scheme clicked into place. Please don’t go by the trailer or the poster: Despite some funny bits, The Stand In is more of a drama about those who make comedies, somewhat like Judd Apatow’s Funny People. If you go into it knowing this, it’ll take you far less time to plug into it. And it boasts two terrific performances by Drew Barrymore, as shambolic low-comedy movie star Candy Black and as Candy’s stand-in Paula.

Candy is a dumpster fire of a person who screams at everyone, and Paula is a sweet wallflower who loves being close to the star’s light and heat. So for a long time, our identification shifts to poor Paula, and when she switches places with Candy we expect her to blossom under the new attention. But that would be the typical Drew Barrymore rom-com, and that’s not what we have here. (To give you an idea, the script is by Sam Bain, who co-wrote Four Lions.) Five years after an on-set meltdown that cost a co-star (Ellie Kemper) her eye, Candy is being forced to go into rehab. Her plan is to get Paula to take her place in rehab so she can stay home, drink herself to sleep, and maybe pursue her true passion of woodworking. So Paula takes over, and ends up being a better Candy than Candy herself — Candy without the drugs, attitude and decibel level.

Candy is awful and Paula is one of us, so it’s jarring at first when we sense that their trading places goes deeper and somewhat darker. Paula, an aspiring actress, doesn’t just want Candy’s fame — she wants her life, and that extends to Steve (Michael Zegen), who’s into making Shaker furniture and who has struck up an online relationship with Candy. When we realize that Paula is about to help herself to Steve, she starts heading into areas where we really can’t follow her any more; once she drugs Candy’s smoothie so she can invite Steve over to Candy’s (now Paula’s) mansion, our allegiance, too, has changed places. This all is a good deal more interesting than the taffy-flavored comedy I was expecting, where gauche Paula has the storybook ending, while rotten Candy gets her comeuppance.

As Candy, who hasn’t bothered to get her hair done in a while, Barrymore has her own features and a sloppy red mane that recalls Susan Sarandon. As Paula, Barrymore sports a fake nose and blonde bangs that make her look more like Wendi McLendon-Covey’s stand-in. Candy’s puffier, vulnerable face draws us closer, while Paula’s sharper profile, done up with Hollywood makeup, comes to seem a bit hawk-like. Candy, with Barrymore’s considerable help, becomes a real and complex woman who goes by her given name Cathy Tyler; she seems visibly relieved not to have to deal with publicity any more (these days, camera phones make everyone paparazzi), and she throws herself gratefully into building bureaus from scratch. Paula, who has only ever wanted what Candy/Cathy has rejected, grows dislikable in a different style from Candy. Paula has false values, which Barrymore highlights by establishing that Paula gets less compassionate the farther along “Candy’s” apology tour she goes.

So the Barrymore we don’t expect to get the patented Barrymore rom-com happy ending gets it. That’s fair, and it gives us more to chew on. Barrymore, whose shingle Flower Films produced the movie — Jamie Babbit (But I’m a Cheerleader) directed — seems to be telling us that we wouldn’t want to be the media’s idea of Drew Barrymore. (Although I doubt she’s also telling us her true love is building ladderback chairs.) Candy is presented to us as almost a female Adam Sandler in Funny People, headlining terrible stoner comedies (Pippi Bongstocking) in which she falls face-first into cow flop and delivers her catch-phrase into the camera: “Hit me where it hurts!” Talk about self-hatred. That’s the life Paula wants until she gets it. If you can ignore the brief irritation of T.J. Miller as Candy’s agent and Lena Dunham as more or less herself (though her character’s name is Lisa, ha-ha), The Stand In is more biting about what Hollywood and its consumers want from women than it’ll probably get credit for. 

Chick Fight

November 8, 2020


A movie about a secret fight club for women to work out their rage probably shouldn’t be as bland as Chick Fight. The scenes in which the women punch, kick, head-butt and choke out their fellow women express a kind of ironic liberation that the by-the-numbers script (by Joseph Downey) doesn’t really explore. Chick Fight has a raft of female producers or executive producers (including two of its stars, Malin Akerman and Bella Thorne), but is written and directed by men. Some would see no problem with this, as telling stories requires some degree of imagination and trying to see through the eyes of those unlike you. But we also miss what female creatives might have brought to this story. (Look, for example, at Karyn Kusama’s indie drama Girlfight from twenty years ago.)

Here, the trappings of a female fight club only set up a cute arc of triumph for the movie’s cutely downtrodden protagonist Anna (Akerman). Owner of a sinking coffee shop, Anna has more than enough anger and sorrow on her plate. Her car gets repossessed, the coffee shop goes up in flames, and her macho dad turns out to be bisexual. (Why? I dunno, except to give us a few scenes of Anna reacting to her dad’s sexuality with baffled acceptance.) Her cop friend Charleen (Dulcé Sloan) brings her to the underground fight club, where she runs afoul of the place’s resident heat-seeking missile Olivia (Thorne). We know the plot leads up to a climactic showdown between Anna and Olivia, just as we know Anna will spend many allegedly funny scenes training with drunken Jack (Alec Baldwin).

The cast, including Fortune Feimster and Alec Mapa, is diverse and funny and up for anything, but the script keeps letting them down. Various character revelations, like Olivia’s daytime identity and Anna’s connection to the club, just sort of lie there forgotten. After a while I began to wish Akerman and Thorne could have switched roles, since Thorne gets some slightly more interesting things to play and shows some outlaw charisma. But then Thorne would have been stuck with the uninspiring Anna, to whom Akerman brings little but a mild woe-is-me Cathy Guisewite vibe. Like Goldie Hawn’s Private Benjamin and countless others, Anna must grow up; she must become True Woman, spitting blood and taking punches. Akerman has an amiable but generally null presence; our only clue that she’s the star is that the movie focuses on her from frame one, but Thorne’s eccentric energy marks her as the film’s real star.

Too bad she’s thrown away as the Bad Girl who must be defeated by the Good Girl. Having women write and direct Chick Fight (lame title, guys) might have gone some way towards eliminating female clichés imagined from the outside. As it is, there’s a scene in which Anna takes a heavy ball to the crotch so she can go to the doctor (with what money?) and find out he’s the doctor from the fight club, so she can start a romance with him. There are so many more promising directions the movie could have gone other than providing Anna with a professional white boyfriend. (She’s surrounded by gayness, but is resolutely hetero.) Another revelation involving the club means that Anna’s money problems get handwaved away. The coincidences stack up, until we feel the narrative pushing us around.

There isn’t even a decent winding-down scene between Anna and Olivia; the latter is brushed aside, as if Bella Thorne had grown tired of the story and gone home early. Given what we discover about Anna and the legacy she’s a part of, a more intriguing comedy would have pitted our dark heroine Olivia against Anna the blonde brat born into the world that Olivia had to scratch and kick to be included in. Chick Fight may lead to more than a few discussions more thoughtful than the movie itself. Of course, it’s only conceived as a dumbass comedy with a light glaze of you-go-grrl empowerment. But it’s hard to believe that so many talented folks bought into something so vanilla, so incurious, so dedicated to banality. And it needn’t have gone in a serious direction; women as much as men deserve wild and twisted comedies in which they behave abominably. But that’s exactly what Chick Fight isn’t. It might as well be about a book club.


November 1, 2020

zappaSome artists — especially artists like Frank Zappa — must hear Thomas Carlyle in their heads from time to time. Pinching a bit from the scriptures, Carlyle wrote, “Produce! Produce! Were it but the pitifullest infinitesimal fraction of a Product, produce it in God’s name! ‘Tis the utmost thou hast in thee; out with it then. Up, up! Whatsoever thy hand findeth to do, do it with thy whole might. Work while it is called To-day, for the Night cometh wherein no man can work.”

Zappa, who lost his tussle with prostate cancer just shy of his 53rd birthday in 1993, produced as though Carlyle were screaming those words in his ear all the time. At the end of Alex Winter’s new documentary Zappa, we’re told that Zappa put out 62 albums during his life, and his estate has found enough stuff in his sprawling archives to release another fifty-plus. Winter draws from tons of never-seen footage, letting the voluble Zappa tell as much of his story (mainly to contemporaneous interviewers) as possible. At just a hair over two hours (plus several minutes of Kickstarter-lengthened end credits), Zappa feels epic though not too chunky for the newcomer. We get a sense of Zappa the man, composer, performer, and activist against record labels. When Zappa visited Prague in 1990 as a guest of Czech president Václav Havel, he was received, says engineer Dave Dondorf, as “a king of freedom.”

Sometimes we seem to revere the more difficult artists not so much because of the art they make — though that can be enriching — as because of their persistence. Zappa was a one-off who couldn’t make music any other way but his own perfectionist way, and if he ever sold out — his one hit “Valley Girl” came about because he wanted to spend more time with daughter Moon Unit — it was purely coincidental. He was the ultimate cult musician, as well as a musician’s musician; in the film, we see Zappa onstage with John and Yoko, and Lennon genuinely seems honored to be up there with Zappa. (Supposedly Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles’ whack at a Zappa album, and Zappa returned the salute with the cover for the Mothers of Invention’s We’re Only in It for the Money.)

Was Zappa a jerk at times? Winter talks to several people (including Zappa’s tough-minded widow Gail, who died in 2015) who allow that, given Zappa’s driven nature, he couldn’t avoid ruffling feathers. A bit cold and isolated, and not emotionally demonstrative, Zappa must’ve run afoul of many of the session musicians he depended on to realize his work. It wasn’t until he started working with musicians who approached his music as fans that he truly got what he wanted. (We also see him tinkering on some horrible proto-computer moving music files around. He was going to get his music how he wanted it if he had to do it all himself on a box that looks like it packed less RAM than an Atari console.) And Zappa was not immune to the charms of groupies, let’s say.

But his crusade against parental-advisory labels on albums, though not really successful, may be his true legacy in terms of his public face in pop culture. He was the severe-looking guy, hair snipped down to a Wall Street cut your dad would approve of, standing up against “Washington wives” and industry fatcats. (It could just be that that was what got him in front of our TV dinners most often.) It took up more of his steadily-decreasing time than he surely wanted it to. Zappa has time to touch on a couple of lesser-loved segments of his life: his score for Timothy Carey’s amazing 1961 film The World’s Greatest Sinner, which Zappa was dismissive of, but which, he acknowledges here, paid enough to let Zappa open a studio; and his dismal hosting gig at Saturday Night Live in 1978, wherein he kept breaking character and mugging to the camera. The effect is of a peripatetic artistic life, a portrait of an artist who would try anything once except dishonesty.