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Louis C.K. 2017

April 9, 2017

20170114_LCK _MG_2722.CR2In his new, simply titled concert film Louis C.K. 2017, the eponymous comedian doesn’t waste any time with pre-concert sketches. He just gets right into it: “So I think abortion is, um, here’s what I think,” Louis begins, and the audience guffaws knowingly. A lot of what Louis C.K. says is in quotes — “Here’s what a clueless white guy sounds like” is the unspoken preface, followed by an observation along the lines of  “I’m not condoning rape, obviously — you should never rape anyone. Unless you have a reason, like if you want to fuck somebody and they won’t let you.” The point, to an intelligent audience, is that there isn’t a reason; Louis also lays down a level of satire of self-justifying rhetoric. So when Louis steers his abortion bit into a statement that “women should have the right to kill babies,” the bit becomes more about the irreconcilable, eternally warring language used in the abortion debate than about abortion itself.

Louis C.K. 2017 finds Louis in his usual amiably schlubby but seriously askew conflict with life — a concept that gets no respect from him: the abortion material more or less ends with Louis saying that life is overrated anyway. (Another bit has him musing about suicide in a way that falls on neither side of that topic.) He wears a suit this time out, as he also did in his opening monologue on last weekend’s Saturday Night Live. Has he grown up, or sold out? Louis has shed his typical working uniform — a black t-shirt and jeans — in favor of an outfit that more effectively points up his opinions as those of a goofy white dude.

Louis treats his insights as throwaways; an unimpressed Generation X elder (born in 1967), he doesn’t buy into anything as the one way to look at the world, much less his own view. His bit about how Christianity “won” — pointing to the very fact of the numerical year we all agree on whether or not we’re believers (hence the title of the special, I guess) — is less confrontational than just bewildered. The broader his reach, the more timeless his comments, the closer he gets to being his generation’s George Carlin. But then he’ll take it back down to muddy earth, to the grimy and personal, linking him to Richard Pryor. Yet he comes off as an original; he doesn’t ape Carlin or Pryor so much as earn the right to be included with them in conversations about American comedy.

A good chunk of Louis’ material can be taken as depressing. Love, he says, is nice but doesn’t last; he even leaves out the usual bromide about how the finest things don’t last, which is why they’re the finest things. I suppose we can infer that, but that would violate Louis’ particular defeated weltschmerz. Carlin was angry; Pryor was afraid; Louis is just, like, whatever, this all sucks (another generational thing). There’s a cap, though, on how cynical a creative person can get — especially one operating at the level of Louis C.K., who in recent years has evolved from a comedian’s comedian to someone who can sell out Madison Square Garden. He has achieved, in this degraded pop culture, the rare distinction of being both artistically respected and wildly popular.

So how does someone whose shtick rests on himself being a skeevy bum (but hilariously honest about his bummy skeeviness) respond to being loved by his peers and by the masses? (Well, maybe not all his peers — there are still various allegations of gross behavior in front of female comedians he has to contend with.) On the evidence of Louis C.K. 2017, he just continues doing what he’s been doing. He can do five minutes on the most piddly-ass thing, and then tie it into a coherent (though frumpy) filter on the world. The subtext of his more outrageous bits is “Yeah, listen while this scuzzy idiot presumes to tell you what he thinks about [fill in the blank],” which is why his opening sentence about abortion gets a big laugh even though it doesn’t read funny on paper. A consummate actor, as proven on his dazzling and much-lamented FX show Louie, he can give the impression that his act isn’t honed and perfected over the course of dozens of gigs but just a guy riffing off the top of his head. As mopey as his material can get, the fact that Louis C.K. can work at his level and be successful is one reason to stay optimistic.

Oscar Night 2017

February 27, 2017

oopsThe most enduring image of last Sunday’s Academy Awards ceremony will not be that of a tearful, grateful recipient of the golden bald man. Nor will it be clips from any of the winning films. No, the picture that will persist for many years, haunting the nightmares of every future producer of the Oscars show, will of course be the shot of a card held aloft — a card pronouncing Moonlight the Best Picture winner instead of the erroneously announced La La Land. This was, globally, perhaps not a significant moment, but in the context of Oscar Night it was seismic. People from La La Land had time to get up onstage and begin their acceptance speeches, for fuck’s sake, before the error was clarified and made known. Even a Moonlight booster and La La Land detractor like myself couldn’t help but feel a twinge of pity for the hard-working creatives whose dream had been so decisively and publicly ripped away.

Well, drama and excitement were things the Oscars had been missing for too many years, and here were drama and excitement, all right. It was nice to see that the ceremony was still capable of surprise, albeit accidental. After all, La La Land was considered the favorite to sweep, the flagbearer for the Magic of Movies and the Beauty of Artistic Dreams. The irony is that while La La Land paid fawning lip service to those qualities, Moonlight actually embodied them, finding poetry in despair. That it not only won but literally wrested victory from the jaws of defeat will only add luster to the narrative of the little movie that could.

Aside from all that (and the lesser-known goof listing The Piano producer Jan Chapman among the dead in the In Memoriam segment instead of costume designer Janet Patterson), it was a competent enough evening. Jimmy Kimmel had some decent barbs in his pocket, and as usual he got considerable mileage out of his faux feud with Matt Damon. (I can imagine baffled Oscar-night viewers unfamiliar with the Kimmel-Damon beef that’s been going on for over a decade on Kimmel’s late-night show. “Why is he being so mean to Matt Damon?” they might have said.) Kimmel’s Mean Tweets were amusing as always, the bit with the bus tour maybe not so much.

The thing about Moonlight’s win — sorry, but this was the night’s big story — is that it garnered a Screenplay (adapted) award, while La La Land, over in Original Screenplay, lost to Manchester by the Sea. Hindsight is always 20/20, but La La Land not winning a writing trophy may not have been a positive sign for its Best Picture win. A Best Picture not winning a Screenplay award is not unprecedented — it isn’t even that rare (The Artist was the last film to do so) — but it doesn’t exactly help. In the end, Moonlight director Barry Jenkins had to be content with his shared Screenplay Oscar and the knowledge that he’d helmed the big winner, while La La Land director Damien Chazelle settled for Best Director and the five other Oscars it won.

One last thing. Many fans of Bill Paxton, who died right before the Oscar ceremony, grumbled that he wasn’t included in the In Memoriam piece. The reason is simple: the montage is created weeks in advance, and generally covers the period from February 1 of the previous year to January 31 of the current year. This is also why Alan Rickman and David Bowie weren’t acknowledged this year — because they were included last year. Paxton will, one hopes, be remembered during Oscar Night 2018. Know what else will be remembered next year? That card being held up, declaring La La Land’s brief reign as Best Picture winner as dead as Paxton.

I Am Not Your Negro

January 22, 2017

iamnotyournegro520x300A recurring image in I Am Not Your Negro, a wounded but finally hopeful documentary, is of forward movement — street lights or palm trees passing by from the POV of a car’s passenger, and so on. It expresses, I think, the state of mind of its wounded but finally hopeful subject, the writer James Baldwin. In 1980, Baldwin signed a contract to write a book, Remember This House, about his friends Medgar Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Malcolm X, all martyrs to the civil-rights cause. In 1987, Baldwin died, having completed just thirty pages. I Am Not Your Negro uses that text, and others from Baldwin’s public and private writing, to construct the story of a man’s soul under lifelong pressure from living in a racist society.

Despite its forward motion, the movie flits back and forth in time, making the point that Baldwin’s concerns in the ‘50s and ‘60s are, if anything, more relevant today. Things have changed in some ways, not in others. Baldwin refused black responsibility for “the race problem” — he thought that the “problem” was created by white people and that they needed to own it. To the extent that whites have failed to assume responsibility for the systemic racism that benefits them, much of the tension prevalent in Baldwin’s prime is still very much with us.

In an intimate voice approaching a whisper, narrator Samuel L. Jackson reads Baldwin’s diamond-sharp words. A multiple outcast, Baldwin was gay as well as black. Conceivably, he could find himself among fellow black men who would condemn his sexuality, and find himself among fellow gay men who hated his race. It’s no wonder, then, that Baldwin often wore what I would call a sad yet sardonic expression. His consciousness was unavoidably ironic and also informed, or warped, by the highly combustible tropes of the Hollywood movies of his youth. The movie takes the opportunity to interrogate Hollywood’s culpability in American racism, leading up to what I considered the single discordant element: cutting directly from footage of Doris Day emoting to a stark photo of a lynching victim. It’s mean and uncalled-for; it grates aesthetically and morally. Yes, Baldwin did call Day and Gary Cooper “two of the most grotesque appeals to innocence the world has ever seen,” but I mean, c’mon.

Otherwise, the film’s critique of American culture and society, following Baldwin’s lead, is more than fair (including Baldwin’s revulsion at such cinematic Uncle Toms as Stepin Fetchit — although that performer has since been re-evaluated). The Haitian director Raoul Peck stitches the timelines and footage together smoothly — the result is an engaging riff on Baldwin’s themes. It’s the opposite of dry and academic; the style is jazzy and allusive, with a strong mix of movie clips. Baldwin’s point about Hollywood is that one of the ways you learn a society’s nature is by looking at the stories they tell themselves about themselves.

So what story does I Am Not Your Negro tell? It’s not strictly a biographical piece; Peck assumes you know who Baldwin was and why he managed to rub elbows with so many African-Americans of note, serving as a “witness” more than taking direct action. It’s not a balm in frightening times; it endorses Baldwin’s thesis that the American problem must be faced. It brings some lesser-known Baldwinisms to a larger audience, and may lead people to his books and essays. (Maybe begin with The Fire Next Time, a true classic that influenced Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me among others.) It begins with the concept Baldwin had of a book about Evers, King and Malcolm, and ends up irising outward to take in the world that formed them, held them aloft for a while, and then took them.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream

November 7, 2016

amnd2Sixteen years ago, the Rhode Island filmmaker Richard Griffin made his feature debut with an adaptation of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. Now he comes full circle with A Midsummer Night’s Dream, which Griffin had wanted to make for years. Artists as diverse as Peter Brook and Neil Gaiman have tackled this supernaturally-tinged romantic comedy, and Griffin, who usually leans dark whether he’s dealing with horror or comedy, lightens up and opens his palette. He and his frequent cinematographer Jill Poisson are like little kids with a big bucket of Crayolas; everything is bold, vividly colorful, magic seen at magic hour.

The play itself I have mixed feelings about. We needn’t go into them. What matters is what an adapter does with it, and Griffin makes high entertainment out of it. He isn’t in the least intimidated by Shakespeare, perhaps because he started out making one of the Bard’s less prestigious plays. (“I knew you when, buddy,” Griffin might be saying to Shakespeare; “I was there when you were hacking off hands and feeding people their own children.”) And he’s comfortable with the story’s otherworldly aspects; he builds an atmosphere where people — whether regular humans or faeries — can be theatrical, stylized. Nobody here goes small. Johnny Sederquist, for instance, creates a Puck in anarchy shirt and rave-club makeup, endlessly amused by what fools these mortals be.       

There’s an element of cruelty in the premise, in which faeries use magic to turn hapless mortals into romantic puppets. The faeries, of course, are romantic love itself, the most simple and baffling of emotions, turning people into animals, or a literal donkey. Almost subliminally, in a matter-of-fact way, the openly gay Griffin turns Midsummer Night’s Dream into a queer-friendly, inclusive ode to l’amour fou. The play toys with gender to begin with; Griffin recasts “rude mechanical” Peter Quince as Rita Quince, who in the person of Christin Goff kept reminding me of Elizabeth Warren.

Griffin’s casts are always eager and robust — his joie de cinema rubs off on them — and the standout here is Ashley Harmon, whose Hermia is vulnerable, rageful, driven to frustrated dementia by her near-complete lack of agency. Harmon grounds Hermia’s suffering, and the play itself, in something real. Without Hermia you don’t have the darkness that the light of the play is designed to dispel; she might be the play’s backbone, its unsung hero. The rest of the cast bathes in Griffin’s and Poisson’s creamy Argento/Bava colors, having a grand old time and sharing it with us, but Harmon comes at things more sharply, speaking for the common woman (who isn’t so common).

A lot of foolishness unfolds under the dappled purple sky, a lot of poetry in the charged night air. Griffin sets the movie in “Athens, Massachusetts, 1754,” but the spirit feels modern, playful. (The occasional anachronistic gag is sprinkled into the mix, giving weight to the idea that the play’s concerns straddle the centuries.) As usual, Griffin manages to make a movie that looks — and also sounds, thanks to Daniel Hildreth’s lush score — as though it cost about a thousand times more than it did. As before, he brings the Bard to the screen with no fuss or pomp. If you’ve heard me go on about Griffin before, but you were too bashful for his naughtier films and too squeamish for his gorier efforts, A Midsummer Night’s Dream is as fine an introduction as any to his raffish charms.

War Dogs

August 21, 2016

ARMS AND THE DUDESThe wrong guy narrates War Dogs, a wannabe-wild comedy-drama about two guys who do well by doing bad — buying weapons and selling them to the U.S. military. The guy we’re interested in is Efraim Diveroli (Jonah Hill), a bullshit artist who has started his own gunrunning company. Efraim surfs into the movie on a wave of bad-boy stubble, hair gel, and Beastie Boys beats; he wants to be a Jewish Scarface, and Jonah Hill plays him as an irrepressible sleazeball smitten with the lifestyle. Unfortunately, our putative hero is Efraim’s old yeshiva buddy David Parkouz (Miles Teller), whose mopey, bewildered voice tells the tale on the soundtrack.

The way the movie tells it, Efraim offers David a 30% partnership in his company because David is financially desperate: his girlfriend Iz (Ana da Armas) is pregnant, and he can’t support a family on what he makes as a Miami Beach massage therapist. Soon enough, anti-war David is helping Efraim close gun deals with officers, while poor, deluded Iz thinks David is selling high-thread-count bedsheets to the Army. Iz is a thankless role in a mostly very male movie; she and the baby are there solely to explain why David leaps at the chance to make big bucks. Damn it, men wouldn’t have to profit off of death if you chicks didn’t keep popping out sprogs!

War Dogs is pretty much as jejune as that last sentence indicates, despite the efforts of its director, Todd Phillips (of the Hangover trilogy), to follow in the farce-to-true-life-dramedy footsteps of, say, Adam McKay (The Big Short). Phillips’ idea of making a roughhouse testosterone morality tale is to pile on the anachronistic needle-drops (the budget for the soundtrack, which includes Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and the Who, must’ve been enormous) and ape Scorsese by way of David O. Russell — so War Dogs is faux Scorsese twice removed.

Miles Teller is a fine enough actor (my respect for his craft goes back to Rabbit Hole), but he’s no Ray Liotta, nor is David anywhere near Henry Hill. David never does get any illicit charge out of what he does. He’s in it only for the money, whereas Efraim is an appetitive Id who wants to be an American bad-ass. As antically funny as Jonah Hill is in the role, his coruscating work in Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street dwarfs this; he simply doesn’t have the script (or the director) to let his freak flag fly, nor does he have any drop-dead-funny lines to touch Wolf’s “Smoke some crack with me, bro” or the one that never fails to make me lose it, “I’m never eating at Benihana again, I don’t care whose birthday it is.” In the end, Efraim is a tired dark mirror on David, who doesn’t have the personality to make us care whether he gains the world or loses his soul.

Of the movies to walk down the mean streets of war profiteering (including William Friedkin’s Deal of the Century and Andrew Niccol’s Lord of War), the most resonant one, to me, was the John Cusack-meets-Naomi-Klein satire War Inc., which saw war as a ludicrous but horrid mash-up of empty pop culture and opportunistic scorpions. I wish more people would go back and look at that film. War Dogs isn’t nearly as radical. It has no point of view about the war (Iraq/Afghanistan) or about gunrunning. In what amounts to an extended cameo, Bradley Cooper turns up in a few scenes as a glowering, stubbled rock star of a gunrunner whose presence on a terrorist watchlist has reduced him to being a middle man. Cooper’s suave professionalism is welcome. It shows one committed path the movie could have taken, one in which the stakes were larger than whether a friendship-by-convenience will survive the rigors of scamming armies the world over.

Knight of Cups

June 19, 2016

knightofcupsAnd so we enter that rarefied realm again, the world of reclusive writer/director — or poet/director — or poet/poet — Terrence Malick. This confounding auteur once spent twenty years between films, but of late the 72-year-old daydreamer appears to be obeying the exhortations of Thomas Carlyle, who advised us to “produce! produce!” because “the night cometh, wherein no man can work.” So in the wake of the universe-straddling The Tree of Life (2011) and the ode to romantic love and difficulty To the Wonder (2012), we now bear witness to Knight of Cups, which, for those of you who thrilled to the voice-over musings and lamentations of To the Wonder, provides more of the same.

I used to razz Malick for his ontological excesses — the mere thought of his 1998 The Thin Red Line makes me break out in hives. But as he and I have gotten older, Malick has stubbornly borne down on his woolgathering style, drifting farther away from standard narrative, while I have grown tired of standard narrative, especially as Hollywood practices it these days. So Knight of Cups, which peripatetically follows L.A. screenwriter Rick (Christian Bale) as he shuffles his deck of memories of past women, doesn’t make me want to tear my own face off the way it might once have done. Perhaps it’s just capitulating to the experience: Malick gotta Malick. Fish gotta swim, birds gotta fly, Malick gotta wander around in exquisite imagery — a painter lost in a gallery of his own paintings — while women twirl and throw their hands in the air, and men mope around weighed down by the eternal struggle between Nature and Grace.

I can say that the style here seems jumpier, odder, less becalmed than that of Tree of Life or To the Wonder. Rick seems to be Malick’s object lesson in how not to comport oneself as an artist and a human. He fritters away his life on empty pursuits, breaking hearts along the way. He searches, but the crass milieu of Los Angeles has blunted his perception. Rick also thinks about his dead brother, as well as his still-living brother (Wes Bentley), one of those saturnine, bitterly witty black sheep so many movie families have. Now and again, Rick’s religious father (Brian Dennehy) heaves his bulk into view; Dennehy, in his seventies, still has the most Brobdingnagian shoulders you’ve ever seen, and still looks as though he could just shrug you into the next life. Knight of Cups must be the artiest movie Dennehy has been in since Peter Greenaway’s The Belly of an Architect many moons ago.

It would probably take a hermetic band of analysts a year to unpack all the symbology in Knight of Cups, starting with its Tarot-inspired title and chapter headings. In the Tarot, the Knight of Cups card signifies love and joy; however, the same card when drawn upside down means the reverse, and the movie’s poster features Bale upside down on a card. There are also Malick’s usual favorite habitats: the beach at magic hour; water, water everywhere, though not cleansing or baptismal but weirdly isolating. Los Angeles from Malick’s viewpoint is spiritually adrift, no country for thoughtful men. Yet even such places as a nightclub or a strip club are artfully abstracted.

The interior monologues more or less take over; what few direct dialogue exchanges we see are often muted or blanketed by music. The largely improvised scenes have the tone of actors restlessly prowling a stage in some Off-Off-Off-Broadway experimental play; Emmanuel Lubezki’s mostly hand-held cinematography adds to the restlessness. There’s something insecure and almost frightened in the emulsion of the film; it seems to be making itself, finding its way in a dark room. Readily ripe for parody, Knight of Cups exists in a world of great sincerity. Snark is too easy a response to it. Reverence probably is, too. So: this is more of Malick doing more of what Malick does. He’s the only one doing work of such curiosity on this scale and this budget level. When he dies, his entire unique microgenre of filmmaking will die with him. You may be grateful for that when it happens, but I won’t be joining you, not during a period when idiosyncrasy and art are to be valued more than ever.

Ghostbusters (1984)

June 5, 2016

ghostbusters-1984-harold-ramis-dan-aykroyd-bill-murray-ernie-hudson-e1446269406109As we approach the dawn of the Ghostbusters reboot, the original film seems to have assumed the status of a sacred text, an inviolable classic, so it’s good that the thing itself is getting a brief re-release in theaters nationwide. That way, we can be reminded that the movie is … good. Often very good. But great? There is a collaboration between Bill Murray and Harold Ramis that does achieve greatness, and that’s Groundhog Day. But Ghostbusters? It’s fine, funny, painless entertainment, and it benefits from co-writer Dan Aykroyd’s soulful sincerity on the subject of metaphysics. It’s also formulaic and made out of a bunch of older parts — which, I suppose, one could also say about Raiders of the Lost Ark,  except that Ghostbusters director Ivan Reitman on his best day can’t come near Steven Spielberg on his worst.

For all its wit and snark and baggy-pants-Lovecraftian mash-up, Ghostbusters is very much an ‘80s film, and not just because of the pop music on the soundtrack (even Air Supply pokes their heads in, and Reitman buries their smarm as best he can). It’s a bit thoughtless politically; it has the same slobs-against-snobs structure as earlier Ramis efforts like Animal House and Caddyshack, but here the stakes are much bigger, so the snobs are represented by the Environmental Protection Agency, as obvious a Reagan-era straw man as any (Reagan and his advisors loved the film). The Ghostbusters begin as a trio (Murray, Aykroyd and Ramis) and then bring in an African-American (Ernie Hudson) who seems a sop to tokenism even though he’s more likely meant to be a regular-guy avatar for the many non-techies in the audience. (Which means the black guy gets to have metascientific concepts whitesplained to him.) Women are receptionists or bimbos or victims of the uncanny; even Gozer, the plot’s evil entity from another dimension, is played by foxy Serbian model Slavitza Jovan (“prehistoric bitch,” “nimble minx,” etc.).

Most of this, though, is mitigated by a surfeit of personality. It’s tempting to say that Murray, Ramis and especially Aykroyd were ideally cast at that point in their careers — the more I see the film the more the enthusiastic, emotional, uncool Aykroyd shines through as the movie’s true hero by right of sheer likability. Sigourney Weaver wrote herself a second career as a screen comedian (she’d been funny onstage for years by 1984, often in plays by Christopher Durang) and also got to be empoweringly erotic in a way that trumped Leia in the previous year’s Return of the Jedi. Rick Moranis’ Louis, the single-minded accountant, is a fresh and gently satirical creation, and William Atherton contributes the first of his ‘80s triptych of assholes (continued with Real Genius and Die Hard) with that aforementioned EPA agent. Reagan-friendly as that villainous character is, he has a point, and it’s only his arrogant manner that truly marks him as deserving of ridicule and Stay-Puft glop.

The movie is ‘80s-slick, with the typical soundtrack selected to shift units — Ray Parker Jr. had his one hit with the theme song and was seldom heard from again — and a certain flashy, bluish-purple look courtesy of cinematographer Laszlo Kovacs. The lighting has that big-movie John Badham nighttime sheen to it, wedded to Elmer Bernstein’s usual semi-parodic instrumental score he specialized in for various comedies (in, again, the ‘80s) involving SNL alumni. The human beats in the story are small (the biggest arc is Bill Murray’s as he becomes less of a pig to deserve Sigourney Weaver’s hand), but the scale is vast — though not as wild as Aykroyd originally envisioned, apparently. That’s the true conflict of the movie, between shlubby humanity and filmmaking gigantism.

And yet, despite the flaws I’ve dwelled on here, I feel real affection for Ghostbusters. How could you not? It’s goofy, funny, homey — it’s genuine comfort food. It’s just that I don’t see a great difference, qualitatively or thematically, between it and Caddyshack or Stripes or Meatballs; it just has massive effects by Richard Edlund and company. It’s probably the most kid-friendly of those four Murray vehicles (if you ignore a quick PG-rated blowjob joke), and thus it has endured as a horror-comedy alongside such peers as Gremlins and Beetlejuice. (A case could be made that Ghostbusters was a Tim Burton film a year or two early.) Its jocular DNA persists in blockbusters ranging from Men in Black to Guardians of the Galaxy, and it was one of the movies “sweded” in Be Kind Rewind. And its honor is now being defended against the girl cooties of the reboot by aghast baby sexists from sea to shining sea. The anti-establishment supernatural farce has become, finally and inevitably, establishment.