April 29, 2014

Smile: 'Finding Vivian Maier' and 'The Other Woman'

Vivian Maier, a virtually unknown street photographer from Chicago, is the subject of a new documentary entitled Finding Vivian Maier, which is directed by John Maloof and Charlie Siskel. Maloof, a historian who was working on a book about Chicago, came across some of Maier's photos in an auction about seven years ago. They were negatives, about to be discarded, and he purchased them for around 300 dollars. Maloof immediately saw in Maier's work a kind of genius, and set out to learn more about this photographer. But alas, Google had nothing to elucidate the mystery. And neither did anyone else. Maier rarely allowed any of her work to be seen. Maloof's curiosity becomes an obsession to discover why.

Finding Vivian Maier is an absorbing film that explores the mysterious compulsion to create. It doesn't have much insight into why we create, or why someone like Vivian Maier chose to create in a vacuum. The best guess the film can offer is that Vivian was an eccentric woman who hated the spotlight. Vivian Maier, we learn, worked for many years as a nanny for various families in the Chicago area. She never sought public recognition or even exhibition of her work. She just skulked around Chicago--often with her rambunctious young charges in tow--and captured thousands upon thousands of moments: subtle, provocative, powerful, tragic, comic, beautiful, fascinating.

This movie got me thinking about one of last year's documentaries, Dear Mr. Watterson. Both docs have essentially the same set-up: a young man with a compulsive need to understand his artist of choice sets out to make a documentary. Add to that the fact that both Maier and Watterson were/are obviously and deliberately secretive. They either left or completely avoided the spotlight. The difference is that Finding Vivian Maier channels the naturally fascinating story of its subject, while Dear Mr. Watterson struggled to find anything fascinating about Calvin & Hobbes. It was gushy, mindless fan worship disguised as documentary. John Maloof has the somewhat easier moral conviction of exposing a great hidden talent to the world. Many of the people that Maloof interviews remind him how much Vivian herself would have hated all the attention he's giving her. But there is something redemptive about Maloof's search. It's like she's finally getting her due.

You get the impression that she was standing in her own way, perhaps out of fear or self-doubt. Maloof's intent may be rooted in a kind of hipsterish need to adore obscurity, but he doesn't genuflect at Vivian Maier's altar. And he doesn't act as if the knowledge of her greatness were only available to him, and (lucky us), he decided to distill it to the public. Instead, Finding Vivian Maier seeks to understand the motive behind not displaying one's talent. Why would someone with such keen sensibilities keep her work hidden away in trunks, locked up in attics and storage? This is a compelling woman and a compelling story, and I recommend it highly.


When a comedy flops, the feeling of strained boredom in the theater becomes unbearable. When a comedy nails it--and The Other Woman nails it--there's a kind of rejuvenating, happy energy among the audience. There's something joyful in the moment when a whole bunch of people are sitting in a darkened theater having an immensely good time. How can I say how much I enjoyed The Other Woman? I was in physical pain from the constant laughter. My head hurt and my ear hurt, and I felt a bit euphoric as the comic relief melted away the stress of the week.

The plot of the film is really just Nine to Five and The First Wives Club: three spurned women decide to get even with the man (Nikolaj Coster-Waldau) who treated them all like disposable washrags. In this case, the women are Leslie Mann (the wife), Cameron Diaz (the girlfriend) and Kate Upton (the other girlfriend). They're pretty much clueless about each other until Diaz unwittingly pays a visit to the boyfriend's suburban house in Connecticut.

What follows is a loony, silly, ridiculous, happy, drunk comic misadventure. Leslie Mann steals the movie. Her character has been kept in a kind of suburban housewife cage for so long that when she finds out the truth about her marriage, something in her snaps. She becomes a basket case, a hot mess, and Cameron Diaz becomes her "sister, lawyer, mother, friend, psychiatrist, and cop" (to quote Bette Davis in All About Eve).

Of course, I didn't realize how alone I was in my opinion until I started reading the reviews. (I tried very hard not to, but I failed.) I feel compelled to defend this movie because I've seen it twice and I thoroughly enjoyed it both times. Some of the criticisms are admittedly fair: the women are constantly focused on men and how to win them or get revenge on them. They end up relying on other men for help, even though Cameron Diaz's character is a lawyer and should be smart enough to come up with the big revenge plot on her own. (Especially since it involves the scumbag's duplicitous money practices.) And of course, The Other Woman is getting a lot of flack for not advancing women far enough--if at all.

But while all of these criticisms have a degree of truth in them, they don't take away the fact that the movie is funny. Really funny. Leslie Mann is a delicious brand of nutbag that feels a little bit Marx Brothers, a little bit Lucille Ball, a little bit Gilda Radner, a little bit Amy Poehler, a little bit Stepford Wives. And it's quite refreshing to see women doing physical comedy. (At various points they're like the Three Stooges.) Why do movies about women have to be political too? Why can't they just be enjoyable? Isn't even this a double standard, this requirement that "chick flicks" now advance women in society? I'm mystified that the film has gotten such bad reviews.

Directed by Nick Cassavetes and written by Melissa K. Sack. With Taylor Kinney, Nicki Minaj, and Don Johnson.

April 21, 2014

Skin Games: 'Transcendance' and 'Under the Skin'

In 2013's Her, Joaquin Phoenix fell in love with an operating system voiced by Scarlet Johansson. Now, in 2014's Transcendence, Rebecca Hall falls in love with her dead husband (Johnny Depp), whose brain has been uploaded into a computer. He's HAL with heart, or Her but only, you know, Him. They're both scientists--named Will and Evelyn Caster--working on inventive new ways to merge humans and technology. They've got big, wide-eyed goals for ending poverty and healing the planet, and they see our coming evolution and the advancement of technology as two interwoven strands of the same all-consuming trajectory. But when Will is killed by some militant anti-technology types (who ironically use technology to carry out their terrorist schemes), Evelyn, in a fit of grief, decides to try and code his consciousness, making him come alive again on a computer screen. But of course, is that really him? Or is it merely a simulacra? How can anyone really be transferred from bodily and conscious and spiritual form to...virtual...form?

Transcendence purports to be a heavier look at the direction in which our technology is taking us. I say heavier because it appears to be standard science fiction action fare from the advertising, but in actuality it's going for the cerebral, prestige-picture aura of a 2001 or a Solaris. The movie is frustratingly talky, meandering for two hours (which seem much, much longer) as we watch the relationship between Will and Evelyn morph from one that is loving and intellectually robust into something truly menacing and disturbing. After Will becomes a computerized being, he develops seemingly boundless powers, including the ability to heal others and stop anyone or anything that gets in his way. Basically, he's magic. It makes everything so easy for this movie. Indeed, Transcendence adorns Will with some pretty convenient abilities: he hacks into Evelyn's bank account to fudge the numbers in her favor, then the two of them buy out a small, dying town in the desert where they set up a solar-powered underground operations center. Here Will can achieve the full magnitude of his powers. Unfortunately, they go to his "head" (which now has the ability to hack into any computer database and instantaneously heal any person or object under its control), and the dream of making a perfect world is transmuted into one of unmitigated authority over the planet and everyone on the planet. (This is why we just need to throw these damn computers out and go back to quill pens and horses.)

Yes, Transcendence is in some ways a welcome surprise: it's not a harrowing, dizzying type of movie that needs to move at a million miles a minute to keep viewers interested. I was on board with its desire to be deliberately paced. But The heavy ideas that director Wally Pfister and screenwriter Jack Paglen explore--which are interesting initially--weigh the movie down like millstones. Pfister is Christopher Nolan's director of photography, and this is his directing debut. This is also Jack Paglen's first writing credit that I'm aware of. Between the two of them, Transcendence is a murky affair indeed. There's no levity, no verve, no chemistry between the actors, and no feeling of empathy for them. Depp is so boring, so calm, that he really is just a newer version of the HAL computer from 2001. And even though Rebecca Hall registers well (she's a lovely actress), her character becomes increasingly irrational and unable to see the danger of Will's new role in her life. Because we're stuck primarily in her head, it's more than a little exasperating. (As another note of praise for Rebecca Hall, I instantly perked up when I realized she was in this movie. Sadly, the film around her is mostly a disappointment.)

I wasn't particularly enamored of Will Caster before his tragic death, let alone after. His emergence as a superhuman computer villain doesn't in fact change his tone or his demeanor. He's always vaguely disinterested and unfeeling, like Marlon Brando's Jor-el in Superman. (I don't know how Johnny Depp keeps getting these crummy roles: he's either reduced to playing yet another version of Jack Sparrow or this: dull and duller. Go watch him in Cry Baby or Ed Wood and see him come alive in a totally different way.)

And the supporting cast, which includes Morgan Freeman and Paul Bettany as Will and Evelyn's colleagues, Cillian Murphy as an FBI agent, and Kate Mara as one of the "terrorists" fighting the perceived technological takeover, doesn't get to do much interesting work. They fill their characters' shoes with bland competency. Morgan Freeman's presence in movies nowadays seems like a kind of strange penance from Hollywood to the audience. Freeman is less and less required to act or be interesting. He and Michael Caine have become the grand old gentlemen of the cinema, presiding over "important" Hollywood product to guarantee a certain return in revenue. (Come to think of it, this might be Christopher Nolan's fault.)

In the process of trying to be so heavy, Transcendence loses any sense of fun or wonder. Then again, is there any sense of wonder about the technological age? Isn't it essentially privileging "information" over mystery? The mysteries of how we got here and whether or not there's a god, and whether or not we have souls, and what happens to us when we die, are only tangentially addressed in this movie. Pfister and Paglen either don't know how or don't want to attend to them.

Speaking of Scarlet Johansson and attending to the mysteries of life, I managed to catch a screening of the terrifically bizarre new film Under the Skin, which is everything that Transcendence is not: mysterious, erotic, strange, beautiful, grotesque, horrifying, creepy, hypnotic. It's also confusing if you're trying to find your way through the narrative. Scarlet Johansson plays a Scottish woman named Laura. Well, actually, she's something more than a woman. Laura lures men into her apartment, ostensibly for sex, where she consumes them. It's a bit hard to define exactly what happens to the men, but we see it in several dreamlike sequences, each revealing a little bit more than the previous one: the men follow Laura's lead, removing items of clothing as they follow her like mindless sex-hungry zombies, until they are submerged into an invisible pool of water, which is where they remain indefinitely. All of this pulsates to some labored staccato violins and the blaring of a seamy synth. (The music is by Mychael Danna.)

You can't not be affected by this movie. As oddball as it is, it commands you to watch. I haven't seen a movie this visually arresting in a long time. Yes, I wanted more clarity, but I also appreciated its stubborn refusal to give things away. Is "Laura" some kind of martian? A psychic vampire? A little of both? It's all vaguely reminiscent of, among other things, Philip Kaufman's version of Invasion of the Body Snatchers, as well as a very obscure Victorian horror novel called The Beetle.

Under the Skin is the first sci-fi movie in a long time (that I can think of) that doesn't explain itself to death. It doesn't explain itself much at all. And while this was at times maddening, it was also kind of freeing. You watch Under the Skin, and you experience it, in a far more authentic way. It's crazy, ambiguous indie trash, and I couldn't take my eyes off it.

Based on the novel by Michael Faber. Directed by Jonathan Glazer, who co-wrote the script with Walter Campbell.

April 20, 2014

Identity Mongering: 'The Grand Budapest Hotel' and 'Divergent'

I've been lost in a whirlwind of books. It's as though the crippling pall of academia has finally been lifted and I am struggling to keep up with my newfound desire to just read, read, read. Yes, I was an English major and an English graduate student who hated being forced to read books. It took me about a year and a half to get into the discipline of reading for pleasure. Since January, I've finished eight books, including John Steinbeck's East of Eden, Shirley Jackson's Hangsaman, Evelyn Waugh's A Handful of Dust, and Tab Hunter's autobiography, Tab Hunter Confidential. I also gave up on one: Emily Bronte's Wuthering Heights, which was truly the definition of dismal reading.

The movie watching has suffered as a result I'm afraid. I've been thinking about this blog and what it means. Whether or not I want to continue it, whether or not I want to be a film critic. I've been thinking about this whole internet life we lead, and how it's not working for me. This need to put myself out into the online world for all to dissect and consume. It doesn't satisfy. So, dear readers, I don't know what that means for Panned Review. I'm not going to make any big statements because I'm likely to change my mind in two weeks. But there is a stirring in me to leave this big technological monstrosity behind, or at least, to take a few steps back and get to know the person who doesn't need to stare at a screen for some semblance of an identity.

For now, let's talk about the two movies I did see in theaters this month, The Grand Budapest Hotel and Divergent. As for Grand Budapest Hotel: I'm not in any way a Wes Anderson fan. I remember watching The Life Aquatic with my good friend Neal in pure agony. He was laughing at it, I wasn't. I didn't, I don't, I probably never will, get it. Moonrise Kingdom only reinforced this feeling about Wes Anderson movies for me. I fell asleep. The reason Wes Anderson annoys me is the reason he annoys everyone else who finds him annoying: His movies are just so precious, so cutesy, so meticulously storybook, as though Anderson had stumbled across a myriad of dollhouses and toys in his attic and breathed some kind of pompous auteur's life into them. He's the puppeteer who can't decide if he finds puppets amusing in a sentimental or an ironic way. He probably wants it to be both.

That being said, I enjoyed The Grand Budapest Hotel. At first, there was the same cutesy-ness and the same stultifying flawless-beauty aesthetic that permeates his other work. But then the story grabbed my attention, and the film's quick adventurous tale transcended all the obviousness of Wes Anderson-land. The story is about a hotel clerk in-training who becomes the protegee of Liam Neeson, a wise and seasoned concierge at the titular hotel. Neeson's character is named Gustave H., and he maintains emotional and sexual relationships with many of the hotel's elderly female guests. One of them (played by Tilda Swinton, entombed in aging make-up so that she looks like poor, shriveled Bette Davis did in the late 1980s) croaks and leaves him a priceless work of art which her son (Adrian Brody) tries to keep for himself. He employs a murderous thug to aid him in this endeavor. Eventually, Gustave is arrested when the angry son accuses him of murdering his mother. Thus the young hotel clerk (Tony Revolori) is enlisted to help bust Gustave out of jail.

Grand Budapest moves with verve and comic charm, and even when I rolled my eyes at Wes Anderson laying his usual bag of tricks out on the table and then parading them around the room with the kind of hipster-reverie that only Wes Anderson can exhibit, I couldn't help liking it. It was fun. Maybe he's just worn me down and my defenses are so low that I'll take anything remotely enjoyable. I think this may be the Wes Anderson film that the non-initiated can finally get behind. (It may also be our last.) With Saoirse Ronan. Featuring cameo appearances by Jude Law, Willem Dafoe, Jeff Goldblum, Edward Norton, F. Murray Abraham, Harvey Keitel, Bill Murray, Jason Schwartzman, Owen Wilson, and Bob Balaban.

And then there's Divergent (directed by Neil Burger) the latest trend in pop young adult dystopian story-telling. It's based on the book series by Veronica Roth. I liked it, but are we ever going to be released from the prison of dystopian craptacularness that permeates popular movies and literature? This kind of gook is somehow highlighted as the catalyst to a reading revolution among young people. I recently read in the book The Dumbest Generation that what's actually happening--with successful book series such as Harry Potter and the like--is that most kids who read them read nothing else. They read these books to be in on the cultural event that they perceive is taking place and dare not do so without them on board.  The author, Mark Bauerlein, points out how many people under 30 are proud of their anti-literate sensibilities. They're too worried about pop culture, too obsessed with engaging social media to keep their social lives alive. This may be cynical, but it's certainly compelling. I imagine that there are plenty of people who read widely. They're the ones who aren't on social media 24/7. That's why we think they're non-existent. They aren't making any noise because they're reading. Right now. Let's join them, shall we?

Okay, back to Divergent. The basic structure of Veronica Roth's futuristic, post-apocalyptic world had me laughing inwardly. Everyone is divided into one of five factions, according to their gifts and personalities. Once adolescents come of age (i.e. when they become old enough to theoretically figure out who they are), they are allowed to choose one of these identities. The trouble is when someone doesn't fit in just one box. That's where Beatrice Prior (played by Lindsay Lohan-ish looking Shailene Woodley, a compelling young actress who impressed me in The Descendants) finds herself. She fits into multiple categories. The community has a word for people like her. (Any guesses?): Divergent. Divergents are seen as a threat to the stability of the community, so the villainous Kate Winslet, head of the faction of smarties known as Erudite, has basically issued death warrants for any Divergents who might be wandering around. It's kind of Blade Runner mixed with The Hunger Games mixed with The Giver mixed with Every Other Futuristic Movie/Book Ever Made.

On the plus side, Divergent is an interesting movie, once you get past the inane set-up and the inevitable message of "being yourself" and "not letting people put you in a box." (These two slogans comprise the messages of 97% of all high school yearbook inscriptions.) The whole training program that Beatrice undergoes when she makes her choice is quite absorbing. (She's pretending to be one of the athletic, super-energetic, comically over-the-top Dauntless people, who are basically like a bunch of hot young things on steroids who protect the city from danger.) There's a little romance between Beatrice and one of the Dauntless trainers, a guy who's imaginatively named "Four" and played by hunky Theo James. (He manages to keep his shirt on most of the time, and even when he removes it, it's not gratuitous ala Taylor Lautner in Twilight.)

Also, it's somehow very gratifying to see Kate Winslet play the heavy. Has she ever played the heavy before? Her performance was cool and collected, smoothly and elegantly evil. She reminded me of Jodie Foster in the wretched Elysium. Foster was the wicked wasp queen keeping the dregs of society away from the privileged. And while Foster's performance didn't really work for me, the general idea is the same: a revered screen actress taking on the part of a couth, clean, polished Cruella Deville. Winslet's quite a natural at it. And Shailene Woodley holds her own.

With Ashley Judd, Zoe Kravitz, Mekhi Phifer, and Miles Teller.