October 29, 2014

John Wick

There are so many elegant little touches in John Wick that it would be tempting to dismiss them as out of place in an intensely violent revenge picture. There’s a scene in a cemetery early in the film, and the tombstones in the foreground are thrown into relief by the skyscrapers of New York in the background, so that the buildings really just look like taller tombstones. Yes, one can read a lot of symbolism into this shot, but it’s better, perhaps, to think of it as simply an artful shot, conceived by a director (Chad Stahelski) and a cinematographer (Jonathan Sela) who love movies and love what they can suggest visually in movies. This isn’t an attempt to be showy or pompous, it’s just exuberant filmmaking.

It’s precisely that exuberant filmmaking that our popular genres have been missing for so long. The skillful ways that Stahelski elevates the visual elements of John Wick set it apart from the rest of its ilk, and that’s a wonderful, refreshing surprise. It’s the only action movie in recent memory that actually cares about being a movie. (Except Skyfall. And maybe a few others.) The violence is so exciting, so well-staged and suspenseful, that you might forget just how brutal it would be in real life. (I did feel overwhelmed at times, but I’m not an aficionado of this genre per se.) Viewers who have been made to sit through so much garden variety action crap may find their appetites wetted for a renewed standard of quality, one that they had forgotten after years of being mediocritied to death. (No, that’s not a real word.)

This is a perversely beautiful movie, which is just the right kind of beautiful for a “mindless” action thriller. Even the performance of Keanu Reeves—who is nothing if not a spotty actor—adds to the film’s panache. He doesn’t have a lot of speaking lines, and Stahelski uses this to his advantage, pointing up Reeves’s look: He’s a lean, fit, poised killing machine, and if anyone imagined that at fifty Reeves was less capable of ass-kicking, John Wick offers ample proof to the contrary. Actually, Keanu Reeves is one of those actors whose badness somehow translates into goodness.

When Reeves shouted “I am an FBI agent!” in Point Break, I laughed hysterically. Then I recorded the sound clip with my phone and made it one of my ring tones. I don’t suppose it will sound sincere, but I like Reeves’ acting as it is. He never seems insincere, but he often struggles to sound believable as an actor. But you admire him for trying, and it’s hard not to be impressed with his physical presence on the screen. Even now he can grab an audience in a way that seemingly more magnetic stars like Johnny Depp or Leonardo DiCaprio cannot. He’s more believable as an everyman than Depp, and more in touch with his physicality than DiCaprio.

The first half of John Wick has a murky atmosphere that suits the mood of the title character, who’s grieving the death of his wife and completely alone. But then something happens that ignites Wick’s sense of vengeance, and he goes after a group of Russian mobsters with the full force of his hatred and his considerable skills as a professional killer, one whose services the mob frequented before he retired. In one scene, a group of masked men working for the Russian mobsters raids Wick’s house, but he takes them on with enjoyable ease and an impressive degree of cold skill and smarts.

We’re usually treated to fight scenes that are virtually incomprehensible because of the rapid camera movement and editing. John Wick shows off its star’s abilities and its filmmakers’ too—letting us see fighting that is masterfully staged and actually, you know, visible. The suspense from those scenes is organic, never forced by flashy editing. In a later sequence—a big showdown at a nightclub all glossed out in neon reds, greens and pinks, Stahelski is at the peak of his powers: the violence hits an all-time high in its indefensibleness, and the visual beauty—all the colors and the exciting ways that the actors inhabit their bodies and the choreography of their brawling—combine into a riveting display of sheer vainglorious mayhem. After a while you begin to feel exhausted by the intensity of it, but never numb, and as the film is mercilessly short at 98 minutes, you’re not there long enough to resent the movie for its carnage. And the movie is still very tame if you compare it to something like a Tarantino film. It’s violent but not excessively gory. John Wick is intense, funny, well-mounted kung fu, only with machine guns.

With Michael Nyqvist Alfie Allen, Willem Defoe, Dean Winters (hilarious as the Russian mobster’s non-fighting right-hand-man), Adrianne Palicki, Bridget Moynahan, John Leguizamo, and Ian McShane. Written by Derek Kolstad.

October 27, 2014

The Birds

Perhaps Alfred Hitchcock was out of ideas after Psycho. Has there ever been a more arbitrary plot in a movie than in The Birds? It's one of the most obviously artificial plots among Hitchcock's body of work. (And it lacks the smart humor of some of his best films.) However, the world of Bodega Bay, where The Birds is set, is interesting enough, and the bird attack sequences are suspenseful. Tippi Hedren plays Melanie Daniels, a spoiled rich girl who becomes attracted to Rod Taylor after he's rude to her in a bird shop. She's so infatuated with him that she buys his kid sister some birds and then treks all the way to his small hometown to deliver them personally. Thus she becomes embroiled in small-town politics, namely with Taylor's mother (Jessica Tandy) amidst an unexpected war waged by the birds. And it's especially convenient that during one attack on the town, there's an ornithologist on hand in the local diner. (Not that she does any good.) With Veronica Cartwright and Suzanne Pleshette. Based--very loosely--on a short story by Daphne du Maurier. 1963.

Fright Night Part II

A lesser sequel to Fright Night, duplicating the basic formula of the first film but missing much of the humor that endeared the first one to audiences. This time, it's set in a college where Charlie Brewster, the hero from Part 1, is visited by a seductive vampiress named Regine (played by Julie Carmen). 

There's a really crummy attempt at humor in which the vampires go bowling, and there are some glaring inconsistencies, namely Charlie's transformation (after being bitten) from human to half-vampire, which comes and goes in an illogical fashion.

It's all handled routinely, but there are some amusing performances: Carmen is a lot of fun playing the sexy vampire, and it's always nice to see Roddy McDowall at work, reprising his role as the TV show host Peter Vincent, the sort of Van Helsing of this franchise. (Charlie and Peter Vincent killed Regine's brother, the vampire played so wonderfully by Chris Sarandon, in the original, so she's out for revenge.) 

And Jonathan Gries gives an enjoyable turn as a vampire who's trying to hit on Charlie's girlfriend Alex (Traci Lind), a psych major who undoubtedly wants to help Charlie overcome his demons, which he now believes were not real, only imagined. Alex, incidentally, speed reads Dracula in the library after Charlie recommends it, and it's the beginning of a memorable chase sequence. (And Traci Lind was always my favorite girlfriend in the Fright Night movies--no disrespect to Amanda Bearse.) So, if you're a fan, Fright Night Part II is enjoyable enough. Directed by Tommy Lee Wallace. 1988.

Dear White People

Dear White People is a little gem of a movie, the feature debut of writer-director Justin Simien. It’s ostensibly a satire on race in academia (and America), in which Simien explores the experiences of four black students who attend the fictional Winchester University. If you have friends who say, “America can’t be racist anymore since we have a black President,” tell them to go see Dear White People. And go see it with them.

I was surprised that the multiplex showing Dear White People had given it a larger theater, not one of the tiny ones in the back where they normally stick little movies. Were they afraid that stashing it in one of the tiny houses might constitute racism? Or did they really expect a smart satire on race relations to be a packed house when—to quote the movie—“we live in a world in which there is a Big Mama’s House 3”?

The second thing that got me thinking before the movie even began was the coming attractions: They were all movies featuring black performers, all being marketed to black audiences (except for a Will Smith thriller that will surely be branded as a cross-over). I’ve never been more aware of the segregation in the movie theater than at the screening of Dear White People, especially in terms of marketing. Of course, this doesn’t mean that the theaters themselves are always so segregated. And yet… I felt that I was seeing an alternate universe of movie trailers that are not shown before films where a mostly white audience is assumed.

So, here’s some tricky logic: Dear White People is a movie featuring a cast of mainly black people that purports to be a direct message to white people but is being marketed—at my local theater giant, at least—exclusively to black people. I assume this because the coming attractions are never accidental, never arbitrarily selected. Suddenly, it felt like the movie’s point was being made before it had even begun.

Dear White People is worth seeing, and not just because of its heavy, important subject matter. This is one of the first movies in recent memory that rejects the idea that there can only be one “black experience” in this country. The movie has a lot of bones to pick with the subtle racism of privileged white people, but it’s also determined to show us a multiplicity of stories, all about real human beings. And that’s where Dear White People really won me over, in its depiction of characters about whom I found myself really caring. They’re flawed, they have certain insecurities and fears, they’re funny, they’re alternately confident and confused, and ultimately just very human.

One of the main characters is Lionel (Tyler James Williams), whose big shock of afro is a constant source of amusement for white girls who want to play with it. Lionel isn’t sure how to tell them no, but he isn’t sure that giving himself a buzz cut will amount to anything more than selling out. Lionel’s main aspiration is to be a writer, but he’s being shuffled around campus because of incompatible roommates, one of whom gay-baits him to the point of genuine harassment. But when offered the option of living in the traditionally all-black fraternity, Lionel turns that down too. It’s just one more label, one more prefab identity that has been manufactured for him. I suppose in some ways Lionel is a bit of a hipster. But he doesn’t have the arrogance of a hipster. He’s trying to find out who he is, and afraid that “choosing” one particular identity over another might cause him future regret. He also just wants to be accepted, and he’s been burned so much in the past that he doesn’t trust any of the groups being marketed to him.

Samantha “Sam” White (Tessa Thompson) is another student, and the deliberately provocative host of a college radio show—bearing the title of the movie—in which she satirizes the “black experience” at Winchester. Sam feels a particular burden to fight back against both white ignorance and black acceptance of the new cultural norms that have calcified within a seemingly fair new system, one that allows a black man to be a dean, so long as he defers to the white president. Sam doesn’t make friends easy. Even some of the black students tell her she’s too extreme, too “black.” So she vents her frustrations with a wry sense of humor on her radio show. (She says things like, “the minimum requirement of black friends needed to not seem racist has just been raised to two; Sorry, but your weed-man, Tyrone, does not count.”) Yes, Sam has a chip on her shoulder, but it’s understandable in a world where black people are always expected to initiate the race conversation and white people simply ignore it until it becomes a problem that might negatively affect them.

As for the new system at Winchester University, the black dean—played by Dennis Haysbert—has a son named Troy (Brandon Bell), also a student at Winchester, who’s been raised to be the poster child of the prestigious black over-achiever. He’s got political aspirations, and is running for re-election as head of Armstrong-Parker, the black house on campus. But when Sam unexpectedly defeats him in the election, he sets his sight on becoming class president, and proving to the white hegemony that he’s not interested in rocking the boat like Sam. The drama comes to a head when a frat house throws a party encouraging guests to dress in stereotypically black apparel, and includes snacks such as fried chicken, watermelon, and “purple drank.” (These, mind you, are inspired by real stories in college campuses across the country.)

There are moments when you feel the many intertwining narratives getting away from Justin Simien. He has so many stories, so many characters, that often they feel interrupted by each other. I wanted more time with Lionel than I got, more development in him perhaps. And even Sam sometimes felt relegated to the background so that the movie could tackle other subjects, other characters. But there’s a kind of gleeful recklessness to Dear White People that we haven’t seen much of lately. It’s as if Justin Simien had somehow mixed the styles of Spike Lee and John Waters, giving us a Do the Right Thing-Hairspray combination set in modern times.

Indeed, it’s hard not to notice a kinship to the films of Spike Lee. The camera angles—often slightly off—capture that same anger that fuels Do the Right Thing. And the sheer exuberance of the characters and the way Simien sometimes packs lots of faces into one single frame—gives Dear White People a very in-your-face flavor that both Lee and Waters are so adept at creating. But it’s also good-natured in a way viewers might not expect. White people going to see Dear White People shouldn’t feel threatened by this movie (unless they should…), because it’s really about these specific characters’ various awakenings as they navigate what remains a hard subject in public life. That’s not to say that white people are off the hook from seeing the mirror turned on ourselves. The movie makes no apologies for demanding a conversation about race. But I found Simien’s pointed humor delightful and well-timed, not offensive or one-sided.  

Maybe the biggest selling point for me was that the friend I dragged to see this movie—who was very skeptical about it—came out liking it. Moreover, the five of us in the theater all seemed to enjoy it. But it’s sad to think that if the movie playing that night were Big Mama’s House 4, the theater would have been packed. Dear White People might appear to be medicine for us, and yet, it’s essential viewing for people who care about questions of race in America. It’s also essential viewing for people who want fresh, energetic, funny narratives from filmmakers who refuse to give us the same old thing.

With Teyonah Parris, Kyle Gallner, Marque Richardson, Justin Dobies, Brittany Curran, Peter Syvertsen, and Brandon Alter. 

October 22, 2014


There are few horror movies as good as Alien (1979). That’s probably why the director of Alien, Ridley Scott, made Prometheus. He wanted to revisit one of the highlights of his career. But unfortunately, Prometheus was a big, shiny, beautiful failure, and by comparison Alien looks better and better with every passing year. As an example of effectively deliberate pacing, Alien remains unmatched. And as an example of a scaled-down, good, old-fashioned scare movie, it’s in a very elite camp with maybe nine other horror pictures. Even though some of Alien’s depictions of technology seem out-dated or just plain off, its keen awareness of the computer as control freak marks the film as a perennially relevant piece of horror filmmaking. (And...Sigourney Weaver.)

If we put Alien in context, we see that it was somewhat responsible for starting a new cycle of big monster movies from Hollywood. This is probably not a good thing, ultimately, as most of them are crap. But it’s at least a testament to Alien’s power as a film. (I hope…Perhaps it’s merely a testament to Alien’s box office success.) What were the noteworthy science fiction and horror films that immediately preceded Alien? Going back to 1968, there was Stanley Kubrick’s pretentious but magnificent 2001: A Space Odyssey, with its many self-congratulatory shots of futuristic man and his interstellar voyages. And more recently the genre was being re-routed with space operas and reverential aliens-are-wonderful-and-mysterious flicks such as Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Really, Alien was the first big-budget monster film of the modern era. The only other movies that compare are Jaws (1975) and the remake of Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1978) by Philip Kaufman. Kaufman’s movie is a masterpiece in its own, but for some reason it’s Alien that has stuck around in the culture. (That’s a shame. You should absolutely go and watch Body Snatchers `78 because it’s fantastic and it stars Brooke Adams, an under-appreciated leading lady of the period. It also stars Veronica Cartwright, who went on to play Lambert in Alien.)

Alien is certainly a throwback to the classic monster films of the 50s, but featuring the up-to-date-with-a-vengeance special effects of the 1970s. The great horror/scifi films from this period remind us how convincing practical effects can be, even when CGI is technically “better” looking. Somehow, there’s always something unreal about CGI. For some reason.

There’s an excellent documentary on Italian filmmaker Mario Bava that discusses in some detail how Alien essentially ripped off his 1966 film Planet of the Vampires. The documentary posits that director Ridley Scott likely didn’t know of Bava’s film, but that Alien’s writers, Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Shusett, did. If you watch just a few scenes of the astronauts—in funky 60s-style space suits that were later copied in Prometheus—exploring the vampire planet, you can recall the images of Tom Skerrit, John Hurt, and Veronica Cartwright as they investigate the alien spacecraft that lured them onto a lonely planetary system while their spaceship the Nostromo drifted peacefully towards Earth.

But Ridley Scott’s film may be the first outer space movie that genuinely scared the living daylights out of people. There are other greats, such as the Howard Hawks-produced The Thing From Another World (1951), and Don Siegel’s original Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956). Some people have likely made the Hawksian connection to Alien because it features a strong female lead, Ellen Ripley (Sigourney Weaver), but actually Hawks may be more ahead of his time than Scott. Hawks’s female leads were tough and smart and sexy and they knew it. The characters in Alien don’t really have biographies or that kind of awareness that characters do in a Howard Hawks movie (such as The Big Sleep). There is a deliberate attempt in Alien to reduce the characters to the bare bones as a way of comparing them to the machines that operate much of their lives on board the Nostromo. The computer that ultimately runs the Nostromo is called Mother (a clever tribute to HAL in 2001). When Tom Skerrit goes into the little control room, which is dotted with yellow lights from ceiling to floor, he types the question, “WHAT ARE MY CHANCES?” into the computer. He’s about to go into the air ducts of the ship to try and corner the slimy, shape-shifting alien creature that has boarded the craft. “Mother” responds with “does not compute.” And then we realize how helpless they are at the hands of their modern technology. It sounds all too familiar.

The humans are almost dehumanized for much of the film, and yet there are scenes of real feeling between them and for them. Much of Ridley Scott’s work is somewhat cold and calculated, but this quality kind of works in Alien, and the actors are still able to convey something of a sense of camaraderie between the crew members, even if they don’t all like each other all of the time. Besides, how could you not feel bad for people trapped in outer space by a slimy, sharp-toothed alien that bleeds acid and has a habit of harvesting babies inside human stomachs?

Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley is credited as the first genuinely modern female character in a horror movie. That’s probably true, and yet I’m not sure how much it did to advance women in movies, or horror movies, or society. I’m certainly happy that Ellen Ripley is strong, and even happier that Sigourney Weaver gained a career by her tough-as-nails performance. There were plenty of films that followed Alien’s lead. George Romero did in his 1985 Day of the Dead, finally offering up a tough female character, but this was also an apology for setting the women’s movement back several decades with his catatonic female lead in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead.

Sigourney Weaver is a marvel. She carries this picture--her first starring role--with grace and strength and confidence, and is the heart and the soul of Alien. And near the end, when Weaver is walking around the escape pod in her panties, it feels like a cheap reversion to some old-fashioned male chauvinism until she dons a spacesuit and goes head-to-head with the alien creature. Perhaps they knew what they were doing, or perhaps it was just a happy accident that the makers of Alien--and Weaver herself--gave us such a strong performance. I am inclined to think that Sigourney Weaver knew what she was doing. 

But there are still a lot of dumb characters in horror movies, and in fact, there are some dumb characters in Alien. As fantastic as this movie is, it relies on several cheap tricks to generate quality death scenes, like when Harry Dean Stanton is searching for the cat, or when two other crew members encounter the alien and—in customary Italian splatter movie fashion—stand absolutely still in sheer, passive terror. It’s a marvel that somebody thought to make Ripley as tough as she was, considering how ineffective most of her crew members were in a crisis.

But it’s hard to begrudge Alien for its little faults. It’s such a fun piece of outer space trash, so expertly made (capped by that subtle, sinister music by Jerry Goldsmith) and so deliciously rotten in a way, with all its cynicism and its nasty characters. And no, Aliens is not better.

With John Hurt, Ian Holm, and Yaphet Kotto. 

October 21, 2014

Kill the Messenger

Why do I feel so ambivalent about Kill the Messenger? I think it’s because Kill the Messenger is trying to be both a riveting journalistic thriller and a tribute to a daring reporter. It doesn't always succeed at the former, although the problem may be a case of bad marketing. At any rate, I'll say this: Jeremy Renner is worth the price of admission. He plays real-life reporter Gary Webb, who wrote for a small paper in San Jose, California and who, in the mid-90s, began investigating a story of chilling implications about drugs and the U.S. government. 

It’s pretty obvious that Renner, who co-produced this project, wanted to do a service to a man who, if the film is accurate, had his name and credibility dragged through the mud after he began reporting on the CIA’s alleged involvement in drug trafficking. The movie traces a seemingly tenuous connection between cocaine distribution in large American cities such as Los Angeles and political unrest in Central America in the 80s and 90s.

In the movie, Webb is handed this tantalizing story by the girlfriend of an accused drug dealer. She has conveniently saved a transcript of a drug dealer’s confession that implicates the CIA in allowing cocaine to be sold in this country. The motive? Supplying our political allies in Nicaragua with sophisticated weaponry. These are indeed alarming accusations, and when Webb’s story goes live, he’s met with a real firestorm of rage and hostility from the government and various other media outlets (most of whom are jealous that they didn’t get the scoop first, and then eager to prove Webb’s story a lie by undermining his sources).

Kill the Messenger is a solid piece of entertainment. It generally avoids the more dramatic temptations of a journalistic thriller. (If this had been made in the 90s, when the events actually take place, the filmmakers would likely have given this the full John Grisham treatment). The director, Michael Cuesta, wants to look at the man Gary Webb and the effect that his story has not just on the world but on him and his family. The film is hell-bent on humanizing Gary Webb, and at times feels less like a crackling thriller and more like a documentary about him. There are meek attempts to give us the John Grisham treatment, but they’re always suggestions, such as the scene when Renner sees someone prowling in his driveway in the middle of the night. He scares the man off and calls the police, but we never find out who it was. Some sneaky possible CIA goons worm their way into the house while the police are there and begin rifling through Webb’s stuff; this is the heart of the scene and the prowler is a mere device to get us there.

The film also struggles to be consistent at times. When Webb’s story first emerges, he’s quickly hailed as the reporter of the year by his peers. But then we see almost everyone in the journalism world renege on their praise: the bigger papers question the veracity of Webb’s sources and—possibly due to efforts of the CIA—raise doubt about Webb’s own integrity. After all this reversal of opinion about Gary Webb, the film (near the end) cuts to a scene of his big award night, as though none of the doubt or criticism has taken place, including the skepticism of Webb’s own editor (played by Mary Elizabeth Winstead, whose performance is at times lifeless).

Despite all Cuesta’s attempts to make Kill the Messenger an almost-exciting thriller, the most compelling scene involves Webb and his family. It’s when Webb is confronted by his teenage son, who has just found out about an affair his father had several years back. The actor, Lucas Hedges, shows us the gut-wrenching feeling of seeing your father no longer as a superhero, but as a flawed man. That moment does more to humanize Kill the Messenger than anything else. It’s also a turning point, where the movie becomes more interesting. But I should note that the “Gary Webb: Family Man” moments are not always successful, and Rosemarie DeWitt has little to do as Webb’s long-suffering wife. (The women in this movie are all pretty lifeless, come to think of it. The director doesn’t seem to know what to do with them.)

There are also compelling bits of documentary footage thrown into Kill the Messenger, of politicians like Maxine Waters and John Kerry decrying the CIA’s shady dealings with cocaine dealers and their detrimental effects on the black community in South Central Los Angeles. There’s a scene in the film where Webb and the assistant district attorney drive to South Central, and Webb gets out of the car and walks around for a moment. It’s one of those neighborhoods where white people feel unsafe because everyone there is black, and it’s clear the movie wants us to understand the very unsavory attitudes at the heart of the drug war: We just don’t care if it doesn’t affect “our own people.” It’s not unlike how Gone Girl points out the way rich white women who disappear are given far more media coverage than their black or Hispanic counterparts.

Kill the Messenger is somewhat hampered in its effort to be so many things to so many people, but it features a typically strong performance by Jeremy Renner, who’s always reason enough to see a movie. Renner lets the emotions his character experiences build and build, and watching him explode a little is kind of powerful, exciting. He’s a strong actor even when he’s not doing anything overtly grandiose or “explosive.” And in its defense, Kill the Messenger is a smart film that doesn’t go for cheap thrills or cheap drama. The emotions may be somewhat manipulative, but they’re also credible and honest. And the questions this movie raises are difficult to shake off. The ending is also surprisingly touching: it’s understated where so many films of this kind would go for something big and showy.

With Barry Pepper, Ray Liotta, Paz Vega, Oliver Platt, Michael Sheen, Andy Garcia, Robert Patrick, Michael K. Williams, and Joshua Close.

October 12, 2014

Hannah and Her Sisters

Woody Allen’s Hannah and Her Sisters (1986) has a lot going for it: winning performances by Mia Farrow, Michael Caine, Barbara Hershey, Dianne Wiest, Maureen O’Sullivan, and Max von Sydow; a wonderful soundtrack of jazz music that almost deflates the problems of the people in the movie; and a surprisingly grimy portrayal of New York City. To my recollection, it didn’t have any wide shots of the Big Apple, and most of the times the city is shown under a gloomy grey sky or at night, making many of the larger, dirty old buildings seem forlorn and almost Victorian in their gloom, as if they were exported from a Dickens novel about poor people. It feels like a more honest depiction of living in a big city, especially New York in the 80s.

But there is one lovely scene of New York in which Michael Caine—who’s fallen in love with his sister-in-law, Lee (played by Barbara Hershey)—goes with her to a bookstore. Caine retrieves a volume of poems by e.e. cummings and buys it for Lee, insisting that she read the poem on page 112. (Later, we hear a voice-over of Lee reading it, and it’s one of the loveliest moments in the film.) That bookstore was truly heavenly with all those books stacked up, up, up and everywhere. And the romantic complications of Caine and Hershey’s unanticipated love for each other are dealt with relatively lightly, which is a good instinct on the part of Woody Allen.

Woody Allen in many of ways was my biggest problem with Hannah and Her Sisters, and yet, he’s also responsible for much of the good in this very charming, very amusing, film. Allen plays Mickey, the ex-husband of the title character Hannah (Mia Farrow). Micky is the usual Allen type: neurotic, obsessive, whiny, hypochondriacal. And he grates on the nerves in the usual Allen way. But there are some funny bits that he very generously gives himself. For instance, after various medical tests Mickey believes that he’s dying, but when CAT-scan results prove the opposite, he’s left with the reality that eventually, he will die, and that life is rendered meaningless in the light of this fact, especially if there is no God. Mickey, born and raised a Jew, then begins a spiritual quest that leads him to the Catholic Church for a time, and then to the Hare Krishnas for an even shorter time.

But Mickey’s story, which is interwoven with the stories of Hannah, her sister Lee (Hershey), and her other sister, a struggling actress named Holly (Dianne Wiest), is self-indulgent. Although it is funny some of the time, it’s also a constant reminder of the director’s arrogance. Why does it have to be about Woody Allen all the time? Hannah and Her Sisters really shines in some moments, but Mickey’s constant whining about the meaning of life sometimes feels like a buzz kill.

Still, there are so many lovely moments in Hannah and Her Sisters that it’s difficult to dislike the movie just because of the Mickey scenes and their tendency to grate on one’s nerves. Maureen O’Sullivan (mother of Mia Farrow in real life) is another highlight, playing the three sisters’ mom, who still likes to flirt with young men and drinks too much at parties (a tricky combination). She and her husband (played by Lloyd Nolan) have an argument somewhere in the second half of the movie, but it all melts away when he sits down and plays the piano. There’s a scene shortly after at a Thanksgiving gathering they’re hosting, where he sort of introduces his wife by telling a story about her from when they were dating: the men used to be so distracted by her beauty, they would drive their cars into the sidewalk. She smiles and then he plays the piano some more. How lovely that a man can recall such flattering memories of his wife and make her the star of the show with just his words.

Hannah and Her Sisters ends on a problematic note: Mickey begins dating Holly, the failed-actress-turned-struggling-writer, and after they’re married she announces that she’s pregnant. It’s as if Woody Allen was the secret to happiness, because after she writes a play and reads it to him, they begin dating. It seems quite clear that her attraction to him is based on his lavish praise of her writing. (Earlier, the movie shows us a date between them years before where they did not hit it off and vowed to themselves never to see each other again.) It feels phony and hampers the film, which up to that point, at least tries to deal honestly with relationships.

With Carrie Fisher, Julie Kavner, Daniel Stern, Sam Waterston, and Julia Louis Dreyfus. 

October 06, 2014


Suspiria (1977) is a film for which the word ‘garish’ could have been invented, a wacky thriller from Italian director Dario Argento—some call it his masterpiece—about a dance school in Germany that’s run by witches. The main character, an American student named Suzy Bannion (played by Jessica Harper) arrives at the school in the dead of night during a thunderstorm (a perfectly logical time to arrive at a dance school in Germany) and is confronted by ominous howling sounds and a disturbed fellow student fleeing the academy in terror. Slowly, as Suzy becomes assimilated into the school, she begins to suspect that the teachers are witches with agendas far more insidious than forcing young women to wear tight-fitting clothes and dance around on their tiptoes for hours.

How is it that a movie as dumb as Suspiria is considered such a classic? Well, it’s because of the film’s beautiful color and lighting and its nightmarish atmosphere. It feels as though it were conceived in the unconscious mind of a painter. Almost every scene is thrown into relief by bright reds and yellows. The sets are ornate, even when they’re supposed to be purely functional rooms. The music by the band Goblin—a sinisterly playful xylophone refrain set to throbbing drums—pounds away with devilish persistence. The film’s aesthetics do not cancel out the stupidity of the plot or the often ludicrous lack of logic. But they make Suspiria seem somehow brilliant. It’s as if Argento has deliberately pitted a dumb script against a marvelous visual design to see which one would win.

Right after introducing us to Suzy at the beginning of the film, Argento’s camera leaves her and follows the other student, the girl who’s running from God knows what through the woods and eventually to a mysterious hotel/apartment building to her friend. This is all setup for the most gruesome murder set-piece in the film, in which this poor girl is stabbed repeatedly and then dropped through the glass ceiling of the hotel with a noose around her neck. It’s been said that Dario Argento put the “gore” in gorgeous. Well, he certainly has a way of making terrible death scenes seem elegant. If this had been made by an American director, it would have felt sleazy. Somehow, the artistry elevates the material and you feel that you’ve truly entered into a visceral, vividly colored nightmare that’s being orchestrated perhaps by Picasso and Alfred Hitchcock.

Argento punctuates his gorefest with little odes to Alfred Hitchcock, like when a bat flies into a room and terrorizes the heroine (a la The Birds), or when his camera zooms in on water circling a drain (as in Psycho). But this film is far too batshit to be a rip-off of Alfred Hitchcock, and Argento has his own visual style that, while comparable in some ways, is far different. He doesn’t give a hoot about things making sense, which is maddening, and he doesn’t care all that much about continuity or motivation. Sure, it’d be nice if little details could be consistent. But it’s apparently no big deal if they are not. (Suzy tells someone she arrived at the school at 10 o’clock; then later she says it’s 11; when she is turned away at the school that first night, it’s never clear where she goes; when she comes back the next morning, she has no luggage and we never know how she even got there, nor does she make mention of these things to any of the teachers or students.)

Perhaps it’s a fault in the viewer (myself included) for wanting more consistency, more sense. If you take the movie as a dreamlike horror experience, you’re likely not to care as much about these things. The best scenes in this movie are remembered for their exaggerated expressionism. The final confrontation with the head witch is quite strange and yet entirely appropriate for a movie this bizarre. It’s sort of the splatter movie equivalent to Mario Brothers, when Mario finally gets to fight King Coopa in his castle after traversing many lands full of lesser goonies and underlings. The witch is quite a sight to hear and see with her deep, husky, gravelly voice and hideous burnt skin.

As for the supporting cast, most of the girls in the school are extras, and very few of the teachers register either. But, there are two well-cast parts among the teachers: Joan Bennett projects a venal confidence as Madam Blanc. You know she’s pure evil, but she’s also a woman of elegance, and her husky voice and her tightly wrapped hairdo and her smart attire make her seem like an aging movie star. It’s as though Olivia de Havilland is running the school. And Alida Valli plays Miss Tanner, a teacher who rigorously works the girls and plays up the stereotype of the strict, unflinchingly severe German instructor.

With Stefania Casini, Flavio Bucci, and Miguel Bosé.

October 03, 2014

This Is Where I Leave You

Although there are moments when This Is Where I Leave You is charming, funny, interesting, even poignant, it’s generally a mess. In fact the movie is such a mess that it's tempting to think that the makers confused narrative drama with dramatic structure, and therefore found it perfectly natural to let the structure be as loose as everything else in the movie. There are insane things that happen in this movie, and they seem to be happening for the sheer insanity of it. It’s about four adult siblings who come together after the death of their father. The matriarch—played by Jane Fonda—gathers them together in her large New England home for Shiva, the seven-day period in the Jewish faith during which family members officially mourn the passing of a loved one.

The film has an attractive cast: Jason Bateman, Tina Fey, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Corey Stoll, Connie Britton, Timothy Olyphant, Dax Shepard, Ben Schwartz, and of course the great Jane Fonda. But in order to have so many big names and big stars, you need a lot of big parts. And that’s probably where This Is Where I Leave You loses its way. It has too many characters, all of whom are required to have multiple scenes of inner-crises spilling out into the open.

For instance, Jason Bateman’s character, Judd, who walks in on his wife and his boss during a vigorous round of love-making in his own bed. (The wife later finds out she’s pregnant, but that it’s Judd’s baby, not the boss’s.) Wendy (Fey) is the bossy big sister who possesses a sometimes charming, sometimes grating, know-it-all quality. She too has problems: namely a husband who’s too busy with work to pay attention to his wife and children. Paul (Stoll) is the responsible eldest sibling. He and his wife Anne (Kathryn Hahn) are having trouble conceiving. And then there’s Philip (Driver), the baby sibling who never grew up. The actors are adept enough to make it work at least half the time, but these are pretty tried-and-true character types torn right out of the pages of a sitcom script.

That’s another problem. This is a sitcom comedy-drama movie, and it represents an increasingly distinct genre of films that typically have mixed results. They do give traditionally comedic actors a chance to cry on screen and look puffy and unattractive. And, like any well-behaved sitcom, the serious moments are always punctuated with something funny. It’s not wrong to do that, but it also seems sort of cheap to stifle every dramatic moment with an easy laugh (frequently derived from Jane Fonda’s enormous breast implants, which trigger intense anxiety in all of her children, especially as she presses their faces against her plastic bosoms while consoling them, as she is wont to do). Then again, these dramatic moments aren’t so important or revealing or original that they can’t be improved with a little comedy.

Actually, the saving grace in this film is the dippy character played by Rose Byrne. She’s a girl from Judd’s past, and their relationship is rekindled in the usual ways you expect from this kind of thing: boy meets girl, boy remembers girl from adolescent years, boy and girl have good memories of each other, boy shows up at girl’s work—a skating rink—where they skate and talk while Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time” spills over them from the speakers above. It’s not a particularly original romance, but it’s sort of enchanting to see Jason Bateman and Rose Byrne just hanging out, especially when the rest of the movie feels like a competition to see how many problems can be crammed into two hours of film.

This Is Where I Leave You isn’t really offensive in its quest to be the latest dramedy (or a light-hearted version of August Osage County), but it is disappointing. The director, Shawn Levy, and the screenwriter, Jonathan Tropper (who adapted his own novel), seem to be clutching at fragments of two different genres and then cramming them onto the same canvas. It helps if you’re a fan of Jason Bateman and Tina Fey, although it may not help to see them wasted in middling material. But Bateman carries the film well, and Fey is capable of real pathos. It’s perhaps most depressing to see Jane Fonda turning such tricks in a movie theater. She’s funny, but she hardly gets to do anything that isn’t surface-level, lowest common denominator humor.

Adam Driver has probably the most appealing part, but then that makes sense: he’s the stereotypical fun-loving youngest sibling, the one who’s also a perpetual screw-up. And of course, he’s vested with lots of unintentional bits of wisdom, all of them obliviously aimed at teaching the other siblings that their lives are just as messy as his. But if the film weren’t so careful in its adherence to certain character types, it might be funnier, more inventive. As it is, it’s a predictable, sometimes even boring, family drama that’s bolstered by the appeal of its considerable talent.

Gone Girl

How well do we really know the people we live with? What little disappointments or changes, what dashed hopes buried within, turn into something big, something dangerous, and when does that terrifying transformation begin? David Fincher’s latest film, Gone Girl, which was adapted to the screen by Gillian Flynn from her novel, peers into the darkness of the glass, into the inner-lives of two people living side by side as perfect strangers to each other. 

Gone Girl has all the trappings of the great “novel of sensation,” Wilkie Collins’s The Woman in White, which was published in 1860 to something like an exhilarated obsession among the reading public. It was all the rage in Victorian London--there was even Woman in White perfume-- and became something of a touchstone for the mystery novel. Collins would later write what is considered the first English detective novel (The Moonstone) and we can trace every modern murder mystery in literature and film to these two seminal works. The Woman in White (and all the imitations that followed it) had wonderfully, delectably sinister ingredients like murder and madness and forged wills and people being held prisoner by their own relatives. Collins had tapped into the inner-workings of the British social sphere and shown it for all the darkness it contained (or could contain under the right circumstances), and right at a time when social issues such as murder and divorce were being widely publicized by the increasingly popular newspapers to the increasingly literate populace. (This was also right around the time that an official police force was established.)

In its own way, the film adaptation of Gone Girl is a piece of sensation fiction, and moreover, a savvy commentary on the sensationalism that our current news media dishes out with giddy, morbid fervor. Gone Girl  is ostensibly about a man named Nick Dunne (played by Ben Affleck) whose wife Amy (played by Rosamund Pike) disappears without a trace from their quiet suburban Missouri home one perfectly un-sinister morning. Naturally, Nick becomes the prime suspect when investigators thoroughly search the house and find suspicious things like blood spatter, a recent fire in the fireplace (in July), and signs of struggle that appear to have been staged. Soon the media waltzes in and pounces on Nick, questioning his apparent non-grief, diagnosing him as a sociopath, and turning him into the most hated man of the hour.

But that’s just the beginning.

The movie interacts with the missing wife in flashback. We see the two of them meet. In that scene the dialogue is maddeningly difficult to discern. But the music and the camera are in sync and the exchange between Affleck and Pike is lovely. Their chemistry is so good that you find yourself thinking, “How could this have happened? When was the day that he suddenly became able to kill her?” There’s a wistful feeling about those early years in their relationship, and the camera feeds it to us. Their conversations are of two charming, intelligent people, perhaps too self-aware for their own good. When they both purchase the same gift for each other for their anniversary, Pike’s character jokingly mocks them for being too cute. They comment on their own lives as though they were on camera, perhaps some inane reality show but one featuring clever people saying witty things. Many of those flashback scenes involve Pike writing in her diary, and her style is personal, funny, again very self-aware. She writes in an offhand way so as not to be accused of being overly sentimental or unaware. And when the problems start—after two layoffs and a dying parent happen in rapid succession—they become obsessed with not resorting to any of the common defense mechanisms of struggling married couples. “We’re not going to be the couple that has a baby to save the marriage,” they keep telling each other (and themselves).

David Fincher should have earned our respect as a filmmaker by now. His 2007 Zodiac may be the great film of the previous decade. (At the very least, it’s in the top five.) And more recently, Fincher impressed with both the Facebook biopic The Social Network and the thrilling American version of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. So we should expect nothing less than good work from him (and from Gillian Flynn, who deserves so much credit for spinning such a fascinating, disturbing, riveting story.) In the previews, Gone Girl is packaged as an upscale version of a Law and Order episode. And the film wants you to see the Scott Peterson resemblance in Ben Affleck’s character and let your mind do the rest. But there’s much more to Gone Girl than any previews might suggest. There will be no spoilers here. This is too good a movie to ruin. The pleasures of this kind of well-crafted potboiler are so rare in movies these days, that anytime we do get something this good, it feels almost miraculous.

Ben Affleck may have the hardest role in this film. His character is quite tricky: he’s an imperfect man to be sure, possibly a truly evil man, and Affleck manages a delicate balancing act. When he goes before the press (and the public), people read his inability to display credible signs of grief as a big guilty sign. (It’s a startling commentary on how news stories are disseminated and how public opinion can be shaped—quite arbitrarily—by appearances.) Yet we find ourselves torn between wanting to crucify him and wanting to save him from his own inability to package himself in an appealing way. Indeed, so much of what we see in Gone Girl is reflected through the eyes of people or events that are open to interpretation. That is where once again this film truly echoes those novels of old, many of which were organized as a series of documents (letters, diary entries, newspaper articles, police reports, etc), organized (and possibly edited) by a supposedly objective party.

Who is truly reliable? Is the media really trustworthy in its alleged pursuit of truth? Or is it simply chasing a story that it invents in the process? Gone Girl adeptly aims its arrows at this very process of taking an ongoing story and turning it into the trashiest kind of grisly entertainment, heightened by a network news talk show host named Ellen Abbott (played masterfully by Missi Pyle) who goes after Nick with the boldness of a shark and worries little about actual tangible evidence.

Kim Dickens plays the unwavering detective, a scrappy, smart, modern-day version of the Sergeant Cuff in Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone. Dickens gives her a sense of humor and a sense of proportion: She seems to be the only one who’s interested in looking at facts. Tyler Perry is dead-on as Nick’s lawyer, Tanner Bolt, who’s notorious for defending the obviously guilty husbands of the world, and Carrie Coon delivers an at times stunning performance as Nick’s sister Margo, the only one who believes in Nick’s innocence. Because of her somewhat thankless role as Nick’s protector and champion, she may not get the credit she deserves for her fine work. But then, everyone in this movie is good.

And Rosamund Pike seals the fate of this film with her performance. As we delve into this couple’s complicated relationship, we begin to see new sides to Amy. Pike is an actress who hasn’t gotten the notice she deserves, despite a number of good performances, including her part in 2009’s An Education. She is a true chameleon as an actress: by turns glamorous and cool, sexy, smart, manipulative, pathetic. In parts of the film she looks like a movie star, and in others, like someone who walked out of a Flannery O’Connor short story: a forlorn, dowdy nobody with a scar or a limp or some other classic O’Connor deformity.

Gone Girl leaves you with questions. The film is certainly satisfying, but its characters are complex enough, its plot bizarre enough (yet somehow truthful too), that you can’t help but feel obsessively curious about every minute detail. Fincher is a director who successfully layers his movies with the minutia of human existence without losing sight of the grander story being told. And the details always add to the story. His movies have, since Zodiac at least, almost always felt in touch with the human emotions and inner-conflicts at work under the surface. There’s nothing cheap or obvious about Gone Girl, and while the many lurid revelations of this film’s plot may at times feel overwhelming, it’s hard not to be taken in by such a fascinating, thrilling piece of entertainment. It leaves you thinking, “Is anyone really safe?” Indeed, the problems that this movie explores and the questions it asks may be answered, but never totally understood, never completely solved. Do we really know another human heart? We fear the interiority of each other because it puts us on the outside, completely void of control, and Gone Girl is ultimately about the politics of control. Who gets to tell the story? And how do you know whom to believe?

With Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit, Casey Wilson, Sela Ward, Lisa Banes, David Clennon, and Scoot McNairy. Music by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. Cinematography by Jeff Cronenweth.