Archive for the ‘drama’ category

Two Men in Town

March 8, 2015

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William Garnett (Forest Whitaker) stands straight, moves slowly, and seldom smiles. He’s been in prison for the last eighteen years for killing a deputy, but good behavior has bought him a parole — a chance he seems earnest about not wasting. Very quickly, William settles into his new life; he finds a job, he finds a girlfriend, he moves in with her. If you’re thinking there are elements from his past violent life willing to drag him down, though, congratulations on having seen more than a few movies. Fortunately, Two Men in Town, a remake of a 1973 French film, doesn’t rest much of its weight on its plot. It’s a mood piece, an actors’ showcase, set out in the desert of New Mexico where sun and dust and sky are the whole world.

William is haunted by two men from the bad old days: Sheriff Bill Agati (Harvey Keitel), whose deputy William killed, and Terrence (Luis Guzman), an old associate who wants to pull him back into crime. Men lead to damnation, but women point to salvation: William’s parole officer, Emily Smith (Brenda Blethyn), is tough-minded but wants him to do well, and his bank-clerk girlfriend Teresa (Dolores Heredia) shares William’s yearning for a simple, honest life. There are very few twists in store, which is good but can make the movie seem a bit lightweight. William has anger issues, and he converted to Islam in prison, and he enjoys tooling around on the cheap motorcycle that was one of his first post-jail purchases, and that’s about all there is to him. Simplicity.

Director/cowriter Rachid Bouchareb seems interested in William’s conflicts as iconic, metaphoric. He is a Free Man who will never truly be free. William is black and his nemesis the sheriff is white, but nothing much comes of that. The sheriff has a couple of scenes, in fact, that underline his compassion in certain contexts; he works border patrol (just as Keitel did in the sorely overlooked The Border) and feels badly about the suffering of illegal immigrants, and he throws a party for a returning soldier from Afghanistan. I imagine these details are here (if they aren’t imported from the 1973 film) to show the sheriff as a multifaceted man whose life doesn’t entirely revolve around hovering over William and waiting for him to fuck up.

The scenes between Whitaker, who underplays and simmers, and Keitel, whose rage at the death of the deputy feels genuine, are powerful enough to raise the question of why their conflict is never resolved. Not much else is, either. Two Men in Town, like a lot of desert-set cop dramas (The Pledge, Electra Glide in Blue, El Patrullero), sort of lets its story drift upward and away, like a shimmering highway mirage. Waiting for a climactic scene between William and Teresa? Sorry. How about between William and Emily? Nope. So you have to get your enjoyment in bits and pieces, from the mood and the landscape and the performances. Blethyn is just about the hero of the piece, and deserves better than to have her character all but forgotten about. Ellen Burstyn turns up for a few minutes as William’s adoptive mother, and though it’s fine to see her, all she did was make me reflect that the only other movie featuring her and Harvey Keitel was Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, forty years ago now, and that they don’t have much more time to reunite properly (they don’t share any scenes here). And I’m reasonably sure that wasn’t what I was supposed to be thinking about during her scene.

Maps to the Stars

March 1, 2015

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The world of David Cronenberg is usually hushed, intimate, frequently antiseptic, but within this hermetic construct people suffer, orgasm, howl in elation or agony, transform, die. Cronenberg’s is a tightly ordered vision of chaos. In Maps to the Stars, the Canadian director’s first film in his 46-year career to be shot in America, the Hollywoodites we meet are damaged, monstrous to others and to themselves. It’s been called a Tinseltown satire, but Cronenberg doesn’t think of it that way, and neither do I. It is, if you will, a horror movie about how living on the toxic soil of Hollywood deforms human beings, body and soul. This is a place where a woman can gleefully celebrate the death of a little boy she’d been cooing over not a day earlier — where, indeed, children in general are drowned, strangled, drugged, sexually abused, almost set on fire, or just die alone in a hospital of blood disease.

Hollywood is a graveyard of innocence/innocents, though it could also be every other place in America, only more so. Maps was written by Bruce Wagner, the eternal insider (his novels are long on L.A. grotesques, and he wrote the comic strip that became the surreal Wild Palms) turned Castaneda mystic. Wagner is hip to the ways that Hollywood chews up and spits out spirituality, perverts it and monetizes it. One of the creatures in the movie is Stafford Weiss (John Cusack), who sells ersatz therapy to suffering stars; his approach hasn’t much helped his family — his daughter (Mia Wasikowska) is a burn-scarred schizophrenic, his son (Evan Bird) a teenage star of hacky comedies who’s already almost washed up. Among Stafford’s clients is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging actress with heavy mommy issues.

In this ghastly atmosphere, there’s no way to raise children without ruining them as human beings, no way to live without putting your soul at hazard. Often, Cronenberg puts characters alone within a frame, talking into a void. He brings Robert Pattinson back from his previous film Cosmopolis, this time driving a limo instead of riding in one. The two movies are bookend pieces, the monetary insanity of New York and the rancid dream factory of Los Angeles, a sleep of reason that produces monsters¹ … and ghosts. Maps to the Stars is loaded with guilty visions of dead kids, dead parents. People speak to each other in grave whispers, as if attending a funeral — maybe their own. Yet the movie also sneaks in deadpan humor whenever it can. It’s a pretty good joke, for example, that Carrie Fisher — as clear an example as anyone of how Hollywood can deform people into self-medicating neurotics — plays herself here as the (unwitting) instigator of the movie’s entire twisted plot.

The violence is abrupt and sometimes shocking — a dog is shot to death, and that’s only a warm-up — but we’re never sure how much of it is real, since it seldom has any consequence (unless, of course, it involves a prosperous comedy franchise). A scene in which someone self-immolates at poolside might be intended to be taken as “real,” but the flames look so fake it’s hard to know. We could, if pressed, shelve this film alongside any number of other Cronenberg efforts; it seems to me to be less a screed against Hollywood than a study of a particularly fucked-up family, a theme that aligns it with The Brood and A History of Violence and Spider. Once again, Cronenberg meditates on the split between mind and body, the perfect Hollywood bodies and the deformed minds within.

¹ Indeed, the movie is rather Goya-esque, and the epigram for Goya’s The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters would fit the film as well: “Fantasy, abandoned by reason, produces impossible monsters; united with it, she is the mother of the arts and the origin of marvels.”

Boy Meets Girl

January 24, 2015

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Boy Meets Girl is a mildly ironic title for a movie that almost always feels genuine. It’s a romantic comedy-drama about Ricky (Michelle Hendley), a young Kentucky woman who wants to go to a fashion school in New York. Ricky was also born female in every way except physically. The transgender narrative has become more familiar and less exotic in recent years, and deservedly so. What once might have come across as gimmicky, a way for a cisgender actor or actress to play trans and collect accolades (cf. Felicity Huffman, Jeffrey Tambor), now powers a low-key film in which Ricky’s identity is more or less taken for granted, and Ricky is played by a neophyte trans actress whose experiences bring unstressed authenticity to the character.

Ricky hangs out with childhood friend Robby (Michael Welch), who seems to see her as just Ricky, a girl he’s known forever. Pretty much everyone in the small Kentucky town knows who Ricky is and what her deal is. One day Ricky meets Francesca (Alexandra Turschen), and even though Francesca is engaged to a soldier, David (Michael Galante), stationed in Afghanistan, she and Ricky pursue a tentative connection. Francesca doesn’t know what Ricky’s deal is, but she finds out soon enough, and it intrigues her even more. We can guess, however, that David won’t be in Afghanistan for long.

Despite that, Boy Meets Girl takes its cue from the laid-back drawl of Michelle Hendley, whose unaffected performance provides a baseline of truth and humor. Ricky has climbed long and hard to be okay with herself, and by the time the movie starts she’s already done seven years of hormones and many more years of getting used to her own skin. The awkwardness is mostly felt by Francesca and, later, her fiancé; they may not hate Ricky for who she is, but the very fact of Ricky makes them wonder about their own identities. The supporting cast — especially Michael Welch, who reminded me of the very young Saving Private Ryan-era Nathan Fillion — seems happy to work alongside Hendley and to enact the script’s emotional convolutions.

This is the tenth feature by writer-director Eric Schaeffer, whose goofy If Lucy Fell I pooh-poohed nearly twenty years ago, and whose subsequent work I skipped. Based on Boy Meets Girl, I now feel I may have done Schaeffer a disservice, ignoring his later output that may have been, for all I know, as thorny and insightful and good-hearted as this film is. The movie logically stops at the eighty-minute point, but then goes on a bit longer, because it recognizes that it needs to deal with two other characters and the feelings they bring into the mix. The cheerful denouement feels earned. Ricky’s life beyond the movie will go as it should. She can take care of herself.

Appropriate Behavior

January 18, 2015

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The debut feature by writer/director Desiree Akhavan, Appropriate Behavior has been compared to Lena Dunham’s HBO series Girls. I’ve never seen the Dunham show, but I’m prepared to believe that Akhavan’s movie is as inspired by Dunham as leagues of white male nerds were by Woody Allen. The question you have to ask is: Derivative as it may be, is this film its own thing — does it have its own voice, its own concerns, its own world? Appropriate Behavior does, I think.

Akhavan also stars as the lead character, Shirin, a bisexual Brooklynite closeted to her Persian family, to the chagrin of her girlfriend Maxine (Rebecca Henderson). The story of Shirin and Maxine unfolds in non-linear flashbacks; the present tense involves Shirin’s attempts to move on from her breakup with Maxine, including a job teaching filmmaking to five-year-olds and an awkward polyamorous fling with a couple she randomly meets. Shirin is a typical confused twentysomething, trying to forge an identity among people who may be a little too rigid in their own identities — and not just the conservative Middle Eastern family she’s vaguely afraid of.

Akhavan’s writing/directing style is as deadpan and laid-back as her acting. The movie is the opposite of emotionally pushy, which makes an underwear-snipping, bottle-throwing argument late in the film stand out even more. Appropriate Behavior is, of course, about inappropriate behavior, but nobody is judged for it. It’s just the sort of goofiness that smart, needy people get themselves into, and nobody gets terribly hurt. The movie’s amused view of aimless artistic types in the city reminded me a little of the 1995 Parker Posey vehicle Party Girl. People ironically take stock of their neuroses, aware that their problems aren’t the end of the world, even if they feel apocalyptic.

Shirin doesn’t have a whole lot of back-up; she has one nonjudgmental friend, Crystal (Halley Feiffer), and various acquaintances and flirtations. Characters are allowed to be weird, complicated, flawed; nobody really does the expected thing. The guy who gives Shirin her job (Scott Adsit from 30 Rock) is a Louis CK-type sad sack who’s a little clueless but nonthreatening; that goes for pretty much everyone else, though they’re all clueless and nonthreatening in their own styles. The movie doesn’t seem to be up to anything larger than an amiable slice of urban life, and it doesn’t need to be.

Appropriate Behavior packs a drowsy erotic charge during a couple of its trysts, and even during those it doesn’t lose its tremulous sense of humor. Shirin teaches class alongside a blonde waif who used to be a hair model and whose “advanced” moviemaking class produces a pompous, Artistic little film called “At Park”; Shirin’s more down-to-earth class makes “Tales of the Lost Fart,” featuring zombies, boogers, and copious farts. Akhavan’s own movie is somewhere in the middle — no stranger to foo-foo self-reflection or to embarrassing physical foibles.

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.


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