November 29, 2014

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay-Part 1

In this review, I’m assuming you’re somewhat familiar with the overall plot of The Hunger Games series, so while I do discuss plot points, I’m not going to bother explaining all the rules of the franchise’s milieu.

The trouble with movies like Mockingjay Part I is that they demand so little of the film medium. They’re not interested in being good movies, merely filmed readings of the novels, visual valentines to the devoted readers of the book series who want to expand their excitement and their experience of the fantasy. Harry Potter wasn’t content to be a well-told book series or even a film series. It eventually became a whole world unto itself at Islands of Adventure. And Hunger Games may one day have to follow in HP’s footsteps to give the fans what they truly want. Perhaps a Hunger Games-themed paintball park? No one is interested in adapting the series in a way that feels truly cinematic, although director Francis Lawrence does make some efforts with Mockingjay. But the movie is ultimately tethered to the book series in a way that ensures it will be a boring set-up for the finale. And viewers may likely find themselves restless with disinterest, but unwilling to criticize the movie since it’s part of a larger whole. How can we really even rate a movie like this, when it’s incomplete?

Even the great Jennifer Lawrence isn’t enough to save this movie. It’s partly her very quick rise as a respected actress—an ascendance that actually started before The Hunger Games—that has made her performance as Katniss Everdeen seem labored and gradually too familiar, too repetitive. Jennifer Lawrence already had an Academy Award nomination under her belt by the time she made the first Hunger Games (for the unsettling, murky meth-noir Winter’s Bone). Off the top of my head, I can’t think of any other actors who were Oscar nominees before they were stars of hugely popular young adult movie franchises. Now that Lawrence has won an Oscar (for 2012’s Silver Linings Playbook) and a third nomination (for last year’s American Hustle), her presence in Mockingjay Part I—the first half of the conclusion to The Hunger Games—is a little bit like a 22-year-old being stuck at the kids’ table at Thanksgiving. The other grown-ups have legally recognized her adulthood, but they’re still treating her like a child. Of course, Lawrence has obligations to fulfill, and this series is her bread and butter. But Mockingjay Part I is a real yawn of a movie, and for people who look forward to what Lawrence can do on the screen, it represents a dull speed bump for an actress who has shown such promise.

It’s especially hard to watch an actress as good as Jennifer Lawrence be so inactive. Katniss Everdeen never felt more passive than in this movie. She sits, she waits, she reacts. She’s occasionally enlisted to shoot propaganda videos to rally the districts, which are fighting a losing battle against the Capital. She waits for news of her beloved Peeta (Josh Hutcherson), who’s a prisoner of the Capital being used as a puppet to denounce the civil war between the districts and the Capital as radical and self-destructive. The alleged love triangle between Katniss and Peeta and Gale (Liam Hemsworth) has no momentum, especially since Peeta is seen through a glass screen for most of the film. (And how crummy is it to be Gale at this point? Always doing things for the woman he knows will never love him back the way he wants her to.) She chats with the leaders of her district—Julianne Moore and Philip Seymour Hoffman—about strategy. She chats with Woody Harrelson (her alcoholic mentor). She chats with Elizabeth Banks. But none of the conversation, none of the characterization, adds up or amounts to much.

There’s also not much of a strong villain presence. The only really tangible bad guy is the face of the cold, ominous President Snow (Donald Sutherland) who’s mostly seen on big TV screens and thus needs desperately to be petting a white cat on his lap. He’s too larger-than-life to feel very threatening, and the movie drones on vaguely about the Capital in a way that never make the threats of the Capital seem real or genuinely tense. Even the big scenes—such as an air raid by Capital bombers—fails to show us the weight or the impact of the struggle. We see lots of terrified district folks running for shelter as the building around them shakes. But we don’t see the bombers and the scene is rendered ineffectual. It’s stagey in the worst way, like when the actors in a play look out the window and report on what they see since we the audience cannot actually see it. Moore and Hoffman are stern and unfeeling and dull as the leaders, always vaguely unaffected by the many setbacks and tragedies going on around them, and too noble to be capable of any real feeling.

I haven’t read any of the Hunger Games books. I saw the first film, but skipped Catching Fire. About fifteen minutes into Mockingjay, I was wishing I had skipped it too and waited for the finale, which is sure to be more entertaining (one hopes). This silly trend of expanding the final entry of series into two movies is peculiar and, I think, antithetical to movies and what they are. (Studios, of course, cannot pass up an opportunity to squeeze as much money as they can out of their pet franchises.) Even fans of the series seemed largely underwhelmed by this installment. The theater wasn’t even crowded. (Granted, it was the middle of the afternoon.) And nobody seemed excited. When I went to the final Twilight movie on opening night, half the fun was observing the audience. Those fans were having the time of their lives. The movie was a bummer—although entertaining for what it was—but the fans’ energy made it worth seeing. This latest Hunger Games entry felt lifeless.

The film is technically well-made. The director, Francis Lawrence, makes an effort to give the movie some visual feeling. In an early scene, we see Katniss emerging from a circular hallway into a large bunker, and the shot is kind of elegant. Many of the scenes in Mockingjay are visually tied together in a way you don’t expect from this kind of series. And the movie doesn’t pound you over the head with ending after ending. (I suspect that will come with Part 2). No, this film’s problem is that it’s a place-holder, and there’s so much being withheld that it’s hard to care. Even the one big advancement in the film’s plot (involving Peeta’s eventual release from the Capital) feels too little too late.

November 25, 2014


Julia (1977) explores the dubious friendship of playwright Lillian Hellman (Jane Fonda) and her eponymous childhood friend Julia (Vanessa Redgrave). (It's disputed that Julia even existed.) According to Hellman, Julia fought against the Nazis, and even roped Hellman into her cause by having her smuggle money from Paris to Berlin (in a drawn-out but tense sequence on a train). It’s hard to imagine this is the same actress that gave such a groundbreaking performance as the worldly wise call girl Brie in 1971’s Klute. It’s not that Fonda is bad, but she spends most of the time taking orders from other people and acting mildly nervous. The only life in her performance comes when we see her as Hellman the tormented playwright, pounding away at the typewriter to no avail. (In one scene she even chucks it out the window in a fury of writer’s block.) She's also pretty good in the last act, when she's given a little bit more of an active role in her movie. (It's not called Lillian for a reason: this movie is about one person's obsession with another person. But I don't mean to use that word in a suggestive or sensationalistic way. And the film dances around suggesting that Julia and Lillian's friendship was something deeper.) Fonda gives the same tense, uptight performance she would later reuse in 9 to 5, when she was clearly upstaged by the sharp Lily Tomlin and the bubbly Dolly Parton. In Julia there’s no one to upstage her. Everyone is deadly serious because this is a serious movie about a lot of serious themes. The tasteful direction of Fred Zinneman—from a script by Alvin Sargent—is fine, but nothing in Julia really stands out. Fonda narrates, breathing mournful intonations over Zinneman's camera. The scenes, which are well-constructed, aren’t vivid or powerful, and given the subject matter, Julia should have been more affecting. It’s also not particularly strong as a study of a friendship, as it purports to be. We’re never sure why Lillian and Julia are friends: Julia seems to put up with Lillian, whose worship of Julia doesn’t transcend to the level of an equal. And Vanessa Redgrave, who’s a fine actress, doesn’t do much to warrant the Academy Award she got from this. Some of the flashback scenes of the girls wandering the English countryside are attractively done, even haunting, but they don’t linger either. The film is haunting too, but it feels incomplete, dramatically undercooked. With Jason Robards as Dashiell Hammett (Hellman’s long-time beau), Maximilian Schell, Hal Holbrook, Rosemary Murphy, John Glover, and, in her first film, Meryl Streep.

November 23, 2014

Raising Arizona

In the overrated Raising Arizona (1987), two desperate hicks steal a baby from a wealthy couple who have just given birth to quintuplets and try to raise it as their own. The second film from the Coen Brothers (following 1984's Blood Simple) is very much alive, but despite all the verve in its images, and the earnest performances of Nicolas Cage and Holly Hunter as the career criminal and police officer (respectively) who unexpectedly fall in love, there isn't much of a movie here. Or maybe there's too much movie, not enough coherence. The film is technically very impressive, the kind of work that film students might do and fool everyone into thinking they had made something truly good because of the imaginative style of their visuals. But actually, the film isn't compelling and the action doesn't add up to much. In fact, it's more than a little sadistic in that there are multiple scenes of horrible tragedies narrowly being averted: A car slams on the brakes right before running over a baby, two cars barely escapes a head-on collision, etc. The violence in Raising Arizona is cartoonish, but somehow nowhere near as funny as it is in a Merry Melody. (And even Merry Melodies had a kind of structure to them, where Raising Arizona is a hot mess, very loosely conceived.) With John Goodman, Frances McDormand, and Randall "Tex" Cobb. 


Audrey Hepburn’s fame is so divorced from the actual movies she made that it’s likely many people who think they adore her haven’t even taken the time to watch Roman Holiday, Sabrina, Funny Face, or Breakfast at Tiffany’s, to see for themselves just how boring they all are. Of those four, the one I can tolerate is Sabrina, but after re-watching it this weekend, I felt strongly that the nearly two-hour film was twenty minutes too long. Sabrina showcases Hepburn’s natural charm and her unusual, captivating screen presence, as well as her striking fashion choices, via French fashion designer Givenchy. But the movie lumbers along at a much too contented pace as Sabrina woos—and is wooed by—two brothers, played by Humphrey Bogart and William Holden. (Bogart was thirty years her senior, while Holden was just eleven years older.) Sabrina is the daughter of their chauffeur, so the movie gets to “examine” the class structure. (It’s not all that convincing.) By the time Sabrina made up her mind, I was frankly bored and not too thrilled with her choice. But the first half of the film has a lot of lovely moments. The director, Billy Wilder, knows how to create a mood. Sabrina is lit beautifully, capturing the enchanting quality of studio films of the 1950s. It’s also kind of a somber reflection on unrequited love up to a point, a sort of 1950s take on what it was like to be Juliet, only Sabrina doesn’t commit suicide (she tries), and she eventually does get what she wants. She’s so obsessed with William Holden’s character that when she returns from a two-year stay in Paris (for culinary school) all dolled up and all grown up, she wants to recreate his romances with other girls, the ones she would spy on from a tree-top when she was a girl. Maybe there’s a little of Fatal Attraction in there, somewhere. There’s also a distressing kind of cultural and economic prophesying in this movie: The corporation the two brothers work for (which is owned by their father) is developing all kinds of plastics, which are indestructible even to fire, and Bogart mutters with a perverse sense of pleasure that some day soon they’ll probably be able to eat the plastic. How naïve we were then to think we weren’t hurting ourselves—and our planet—with our inventions of convenience. Come to think of it, many romantic comedies of the 1950s were about mildly-career-driven women (like Doris Day) dating men who worked for big corporations making strange new inventions that are strangely normal to us now.

November 20, 2014

I Am Divine

I Am Divine explores the life of director John Waters' most conspicuous product, the 300-pound drag queen Divine. Fans of John Waters will surely enjoy this, and people who are interested in underground movies of the 1970s will likely find it very interesting too. I discovered John Waters in a book on midnight movies when I was around 14 years old. At the time I was obsessed with George Romero's Night of the Living Dead. This book, which I stumbled across at a wonderful used bookstore in Jacksonville, had a chapter on Night, so naturally I bought it. Once I had gobbled up the chapter on Romero's film, I slowly became interested in the other chapters, each of them dedicated to a different cult classic: The Rocky Horror Picture Show, El Topo, Eraserhead, and Pink Flamingos. I was too young to seek any of these movies out at the time, but I filed them away in my head and planned to eventually see them. (Well, I still haven't seen El Topo or Eraserhead, but I'll get around to it some day.)

It's kind of amazing how something can open up a door to a whole world. Being a fan of Night of the Living Dead is what got me interested in how movies are made. It also inadvertently turned me into a John Waters fan. I don't really like Pink Flamingos. Aside from the unsavory content (including Divine's famous scene where he eats actual dog shit), the movie is actually kind of boring. It's cheaply made (although this is one of its charms, in a way) and stagey. But it's also angry in a very exciting, entertaining way, and Divine, all done up in that red fish-tail dress and that big Elizabeth Taylor wig and that excessive, scary eye makeup, is quite a sight, the biggest and best production value of that film.

What's heartbreaking to discover is the fact that Divine (also known as Glen Milstead) was tormented as a child and a teenager, constantly being harassed and even beaten up at school. He was lonely until he discovered a group that accepted him. The film explores all the ways Divine tried very hard to be loved, to be the center of attention. He wasn't just a drag queen. He made fun of drag queens by becoming the exaggeration of a drag queen. And he also didn't wear his costumes outside of work. When he was off camera, he was wearing regular men's clothing. 

I Am Divine is a difficult movie for me to evaluate critically because I'm so interested in the people involved, and because I am such a fan of John Waters. I'm not sure how someone who isn't into Waters' movies, or someone who is maybe put off by Divine's brash, gaudy mock-offensiveness, would take this loving documentary. And it's extremely hard to objectively say whether I Am Divine is successful as a doc. Seeing all the people who contributed to this, including Divine (via archive footage) and Waters, Tab Hunter, Mink Stole, Mary Vivian Pearce, and Pat Moran, feels like some kind of cult movie family reunion. 

Now available for streaming on Netflix. 

November 16, 2014


If you like jazz, you need to go see Whiplash. Whiplash is the second feature from writer-director Damien Chazelle, who expanded the material from his 2009 short film. It is one of the most energetic, exciting, funny, and intense movies of the year. Rarely these days do we get a music-themed movie that isn’t some heavy, boring biopic. (Although some of them are quite good, it’s true.) Perhaps because Whiplash is fiction, it’s focused less on prestige and more on capturing the intensity and the energy of music—jazz in this case—as it’s experienced by a musician striving for greatness. Its central character is a young drummer named Andrew (Miles Teller, whose very name sounds like that of a great jazz musician), who is currently attending the fictitious Shaffer Conservatory, the top music college in New York (and thus, the world). His dream: to be known as one of the best, right up there with Miles Davis and Thelonious Monk and Charlie Parker.

Earlier this year Miles Teller gave a fine performance as a mean, pissed-off teenager in director Gia Coppola’s lovely, heart-breaking film adaptation of some James Franco stories, Palo Alto. In Palo Alto Teller’s character vented his anger by abusing other teens and living recklessly. We rarely saw any vulnerability in him, but we knew from the look of anger tempered by anguish on Teller’s face that he was hurting. In Whiplash there is more of that vulnerability, mixed with a kind of unbridled obsession. Miles Teller, who looks like a young John Cusack, is very good.

Teller pours himself into the role of Andrew, and we vividly experience the blood, sweat, and tears of being a musician, and of wanting to be the best musician he can be (which still isn’t good enough). (The camera often cuts to his nasty bloody callouses or the sweat spraying the drum kit while Andrew rehearses in a claustrophobic little cell for hours on end.) At the beginning of the movie, Andrew is plucked from the middling first-year jazz band by the terrifying Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons, who's marvelously mean and hysterically funny), the conductor of the best jazz band at Shaffer. (He’s like the musical genius version of the drill sergeant in Full Metal Jacket.) Fletcher woos his musicians with his charming, fatherly demeanor, and then in a flash he berates them with a constant stream of profanity-laced verbal shish kabobs, jabbing at their personal lives, their appearances, anything and everything he can to make them feel very, very small. At one point in the film, he humiliates a young man ostensibly because his instrument is out of tune. He gets right in the young man’s face and screams, “Are you out of tune or not?” The man—who is now a boy beneath all that screaming and belittling—is sent out of the room with his tail between his legs, and then Fletcher reveals that the guilty musician was someone else, but that not knowing one way or the other was worse than actually being out of tune.

Under Terence Fletcher’s tutelage, no one is safe. Fletcher doesn’t care about feelings or dignity or whether students stayed up all night practicing or if they are going to be crushed under the weight of his insults, or worse, destroyed by the destiny-altering pronouncements he makes. But there’s a twisted yet valiant old-fashioned logic behind Fletcher’s often abusive language: He’s looking for the musicians who will stop at nothing to earn their place among the giants. Maybe there’s something inherently arrogant about this, and maybe it’s the work of a sadistic bully who happens to be a brilliant conductor with too much power in his hands. Terence Fletcher is the professor you dread taking in college, but he may also be the one who pulls something out of you that you didn’t know you had. (He may also drive you to self-doubt and self-harm.)

One of the greatest strengths of Whiplash is its keen awareness of the complexity of human emotion and intention. Neither of the main characters is completely good or bad. Andrew isn’t the perfect golden boy who wins our unmitigated affection, even though we do care about him and we do root for him. Our sympathy for Andrew is tempered by the realization that he needs to be taken down a few notches because of his arrogance. He’s from my generation—the generation that was told we were special and that we could do anything. We’re also the generation that got a prize just for showing up. Whiplash plays with that tension, too. Andrew doesn’t really know how to deal with criticism, and encountering it for the first time from Fletcher is like a five-year-old trying to learn how to read with a copy of Foucault’s Discipline and Punish. Fletcher is from the “old school” of sucking it up and not stopping until you’ve reached your goal. We can see the disdain he has for modern civilization and the idea that worth and talent are assumed, not earned. According to him, “the two most harmful words in the English language, are ‘good job’.” He has a point.

Whiplash has one major flaw. There are no strong female characters in it. This movie exists in a self-made masculine world where women barely exist, and always only on the periphery. The one female character we spend any length of time with is Andrew’s girlfriend, Nicole, played by Melissa Benoist, who’s charming and real in the few scenes we get with her. There’s a scene halfway through the movie where Andrew breaks up with Nicole because, as he puts it: he’s too driven to be a good boyfriend, she’ll come to resent his lack of attentiveness, he’ll come to resent her for standing in his way, and they’d eventually break up anyway. Nicole is justifiably hurt, but she’s also smart. “You’re right,” she says. “I should not be dating you.” She gets up and walks away, and it’s probably the best decision she’s ever made in her young life.

Andrew’s break-up speech is piercing and difficult to stomach. It reveals his passion, his selflessness and his selfishness, all at once. He is saving Nicole from some major heartbreak, if everything he’s told her is really the truth. But it’s supremely shitty to assume your girlfriend will stand in the way of your all-important drive to be the world’s next great jazz drummer. It’s also proof that Whiplash doesn’t understand women at all, which may be why Damien Chazelle doesn’t include a single woman in the top jazz band at Shaffer. (I guess girls aren’t allowed to be as good as Charlie Parker.) Andrew hides his selfishness behind a kind of admirable faux-honesty, and it’s this condescending, patronizing non-apology that makes Andrew very human in an unlikable way. It also makes some of the shitty things that happen to Andrew seem less pitiful. It distances us from him in a healthy way, so that we’re not unabashedly championing him during his fantastic drum solo. We know Andrew is kind of a jerk, even though he’s brilliant and in some ways a perfectly nice guy.

And about that drum solo. All I can say is, I wished my good friend Ben, who’s no longer with us, had been there to see it with me. He was a drummer, and I think he would have loved this movie. If you care about music, see Whiplash. If you want to take your kid to a good movie, and he or she is old enough to hear a lot of profane outbursts from a scary music teacher, take your kid to see Whiplash. Kids need movies that are full of energy and wit and complex emotions, and in this one they might actually learn something about the thrilling and wonderful danger of wanting something bad enough.

(And remember that girls can play instruments too. And maybe Damien Chazelle will remember to include girls in his next movie.)

With Paul Reiser (as Andrew’s dad), Austin Stowell, and Jayson Blair.

November 14, 2014


Michael Keaton has never really gotten his due as an actor. His insanely bizarre (and wonderful) performance in Beetlejuice was followed by a subdued, underwhelming turn in Batman (although it’s my favorite Batman movie to be sure) and then, despite some good performances, he just sort of disappeared into the morass of very good but slightly forgotten character actors. Birdman is sure to grab Keaton an Oscar nom, and Keaton’s performance is strong, but the movie is not the masterpiece people think it is. It’s a pretty good study of an actor’s neurosis, but more than anything it feels like a gimmicky show-piece, tailored for awards season, featuring a sort of greatest hits collection of actor moments. Everybody gets to shout and cry and have a nervous breakdown, which will make things easy come Oscar time when they have to pick a scene to showcase the nominee(s).

The film follows Riggan Thomson, a washed-up actor whose main achievement was playing a superhero in a film series called Birdman. Now Thomson is making his triple-threat Broadway debut, directing and starring in a play he adapted from the Raymond Carver short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson is fraught with self-doubt and plagued by the voice of Birdman, who picks at him relentlessly at times, criticizing his every move and urging him to rekindle the Birdman flames by doing yet another sequel. This constant inner-critic may be quite real, especially for actors, and the movie suggests that every character in Birdman who is an actor is plagued by some sort of constant, nagging, demeaning voice inside. What’s more, Riggan Thomson himself is endowed with actual superpowers. He can move objects with his mind—Carrie-style—and he can even fly. Well, it’s never clear if these are really super-powers or if Thomson is simply hallucinating like Russell Crowe’s character in A Beautiful Mind, but  to the film’s credit, it allows this mystery to stay mysterious.  

The director of Birdman is Alejandro Iñárritu, whose previous credits include the Brad Pitt-everything-is-connected drama Babel (2006) and the awards darling Biutiful (2010). Iñárritu seems to enjoy putting people together who are ready to tear into each other and then stepping back and letting the sparks and wigs fly. (This is theater after all, and everyone is always on one side or the other of hair and make-up.) Iñárritu is fascinated by the inner-workings of the theater, and he obviously thinks we are too. But his fascination begins and ends with the pet neuroses of his characters, the actors. The non-actor characters in Birdman (except for Emma Stone’s character) are basically invisible. Actors acting is the main attraction, put on display like a sideshow attraction at a traveling circus. It’s like watching the autopsy of a play, or more likely, the autopsy of the art of performance. It feels all the more “behind-the-scenes-ish” because of the camera, which treats Birdman like a documentary.

Birdman feels fluid and alive because the director of photography, Emmanuel Lubezki (Gravity), is fond of shooting in long takes and letting the camera move around the set like a person. Most of the film takes place inside an old New York City theater, and the camera travels its narrow halls and invades it little claustrophobic rooms—as well as the main stage—like a nosy bystander recording every scene with a cell phone. Lubezki’s camera-work gives Birdman a certain visual style that has the ability to “wow” audiences because it’s very different from what they’re used to. And the movie bounches with energy as a result, even though that energy isn’t particularly organic. As interesting as the camera-work is, it feels like the movie’s chief gimmick, a hollow, obvious attempt to avoid feeling too stagey, too theatrical.

That’s the real issue I have with Birdman. Its many gimmicks don’t add up to anything substantive. There are lots of scenes of actors playing actors acting. And there are lots of scenes of actors playing actors having meltdowns or panic attacks. Iñárritu has identified all the well-known idiosyncrasies of artists who are terrified of failure and success, and who can never believe in their own talent. Naomi Watts, playing one of the stars of Thomson’s forthcoming play, has a moment when she realizes with utter disillusionment that she’s finally made it to Broadway and that the experience, one which she dreamed about most of her life, isn’t as satisfying as she’d imagined it. Or rather, it’s hugely crushing and ambiguous because it’s a giant success that’s riddled with frustrations and smaller disappointments. She longs to be validated by Riggan, who himself is seeking validation too. Watts is good, but there’s very little in her character beyond “self-obsessed neurotic actress,” which might easily have been written into the stage notes introducing her character if Birdman were an actual play.

There’s little dimension to most of these characters. Most of them are emotional wrecks, and the two characters who are supposedly the most dysfunctional are actually the most stable. One, played by Edward Norton, is a notoriously unpredictable theater actor named Mike Shiner, and the other, played by Emma Stone, is Riggan’s daughter, Sam, a recovering junkie. I could never quite buy her as a wreck because she seemed so much more together than the rest of the group. And Norton’s character, who shocks his co-stars by taking big risks on the stage, turns out to be the film’s voice of reason. He shouldn’t be, because he’s a jerk, but Iñárritu always allows him to make more sense than anyone else right after he’s done something to justifiably enrage them. He too is a kind of gimmick in this movie. The first time we see him, he strips down naked without a hint of shyness so the costume designer can fit him. He’s not afraid of being naked on the stage, you see. He’s a real actor who’s already done the work of feeling comfortable within himself and with his body. Fear of nakedness—physical or emotional—is for naïfs. Later, during a bed scene in the play, he tries to get Naomi Watts’s character to actually sleep with him, to make it more real. 

There is too much shouty, dramatic acting in Birdman and too much excessive neurosis. The movie is self-important, and maybe too aware of the fact that it has so much “going for it” in a sense. It does have a fine cast and parts that any actor would covet. Plus, it gets to play the literary game by referencing Raymond Carver, darling of the creative writing circuit, in almost every scene. But the Carver obsession feels self-indulgent. (Although that might just be my aversion to his writing.) The Raymond Carver we get in Birdman feels like straight Tennessee Williams: spare, ultra-male middle-class dysfunction, a less-bewitching, more economic version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

But, there are worse things than Birdman. It’s fascinating at times, and the drum score by Antonio Sanchez is pretty fantastic. It’s the most energizing thing about this movie. With Zach Galifianakis, who’s quite good as a prissy, anxious producer; Amy Ryan, as Thomson’s ex-wife and the calmest figure in the movie, Andrea Riseboroguh, Merritt Wever, and Lindsay Duncan.

November 10, 2014

Obvious Child

In Obvious Child, Jenny Slate plays Donna, a young comedian living in New York whose brand of comedy mixes brutally honest confessional storytelling with frequent bouts of scatological humor. Donna makes enough fart jokes to fill several Nutty Professor dinner scenes. The film is trying to prove that girls are allowed to be as disgusting as men who enjoy fart jokes. (Point: It’s certainly true that we still expect female comedians to be “cleaner” than male comedians.) After Donna’s boyfriend is hurt by one of her confessional moments, he reveals he’s been cheating on her with one of her friends. Their relationship ends and soon after, Donna discovers she’s pregnant, from a post-breakup one-night-stand with a guy named Max (Jake Lacy).

Max turns out to be a really good guy, but Donna shrinks in fear anyway. Donna sees her unplanned pregnancy as a huge risk, even a threat, to her burgeoning career, and even though she kind of likes Max, she’s not sure she likes him well enough to suggest forging a long-term relationship together for the sake of a child. Donna is still a child herself, navigating the life of perpetual adolescence that hits modern 20-somethings, who want to be treated like adults and taken seriously, but are also afraid of the big changes everyone has to face. (I’m not sure if it was really easier for previous generations, or if they just didn’t have the time—or the freedom—to make choices about their lives like who they would marry, if and when they would become parents, etc.)

Obvious Child has a lot going for it. It’s funny—if you can forgive the bathroom humor, which becomes tiresome quickly—and it’s also revealing and vulnerable, in the way Frances Ha (my favorite film of 2013) was. The difference between Frances in Frances Ha and Donna in Obvious Child is that Donna is visibly a wreck. While Frances tries very hard to hide the fact that she’s not all together, Donna promotes it (even though she’s secretly ashamed of it). She’s about to lose her job because the used bookstore she works at it closing. She has a tense relationship with her mom (Polly Draper), a successful academic who subtly lords her good life choices over her daughter. And she’s trying to be a comedian, which, if you didn’t know already, is an incredibly thankless, painful career to break into. Here she is at 25, still in many ways operating like a confused teenager.

But Obvious Child never lets onto to the fact that Donna isn’t a very nice person. She humiliates her boyfriend. She humiliates the very nice guy who’s trying to court her. She’s never called out for her sometimes unacceptable childishness, except by her patronizing mother (Polly Draper). Donna’s best friend Nellie (played by Gaby Hoffman) is unfailingly supportive, always blaming other people for Donna’s problems. She’s the best worst best friend, telling you exactly what you want to hear. On the other hand, I must admit I loved their friendship and the way Nellie was so loyal and loving to Donna. So I can’t completely fault this aspect of the movie. I think I just wanted someone to lovingly shake Donna into reality. (Also, I love that Gaby Hoffman is back in movies again.)

[Spoilers ahead]

Obvious Child is a mostly enjoyable comedy, but I did have some moral problems with the ending. When Donna finally reveals her pregnancy to Max, and the fact that she is going to get an abortion, I wanted the clichéd ending where they get together and decide to raise the baby. But instead, Max accompanies Donna to the abortion clinic where she goes through with the procedure. There’s a poignant moment when Donna is sitting in a room after the procedure with a bunch of other girls, all of them strangers to each other, all of them silent, all of them feeling strangely connected by this surreal experience they’ve just had, this seemingly magic antidote to an unexpected, unwanted pregnancy. I could not help but feel that the movie was sending a mixed message about life. It’s easy for me to say that women in this situation shouldn’t abort, since I’m a man and will never have to face that decision so directly, but I felt like Donna was missing a huge opportunity, especially when the father, I think, would have jumped at the chance of raising the child with her.

But even Max refuses to question Donna’s reasoning or her decision. Is he respecting her wishes, or just afraid? Donna emerges as this somehow always right character, and nobody ever questions her except her mom, who’s kind of a jerk. But, there is a wonderful scene between the two of them which bonds them together, when Donna’s mom reveals that she too had an abortion. It’s wonderful because Donna, at the end of her rope, gets into the bed with her mom and asks for comfort when she’s not sure she’ll get anything but shame. And her mom responds not with scorn but love. Actually, there’s a funny exchange here. After Donna delivers the news of her pregnancy and her plans to get an abortion, her mom says, “I’m relieved. I thought you were going to say you were moving to Los Angeles.”

The point of Obvious Child is that women need each other and they need to talk about these unmentionable things with each other. But I also feel the movie elevates the cult of choice that we worship in the Western world. We’re so in love with our own freedom that we want to imagine our lives free of consequences. But as romantic comedies go, Obvious Child is a lot more interesting, a lot bolder, and a lot saltier, than anything you’re likely to find from a major studio.

Written and directed by Gillian Robespierre. With David Cross, Gabe Liedman, Richard Kind, and Paul Briganti.

November 05, 2014


This is my theory: One wintry evening by the fire, writer-director Christopher Nolan was reading Madeleine L’Engle’s A Wrinkle in Time to his kids when suddenly he realized his next movie project was right in front of him. In A Wrinkle in Time, three children travel through space by basically bending time in half to cover the same distance much more quickly. (Remember the Tesseract?) The novel even includes a handy diagram of how this works as it’s explained to the children by three old women named Mrs. Who, Mrs. Which, and Mrs. Whatsit. (They are actually shape-shifting star-goddesses that later turn into magical talking unicorns.) Yes, we may in fact have Madeleine L’Engle to thank for Interstellar, which plays like a grown-up version of her supremely odd children’s novel but fashioned for a 21st century audience. Nolan's characters somehow manage to loop time too, only there isn't a giant talking brain controlling everything in Interstellar. (Actually, this might have been an improvement.)

Inception, Nolan’s last non-superhero project, wrung high praise from movie-goers who felt that their beloved maestro had borne unto them a mind-blowing cinematic experience. The same expectation is in the air for Interstellar, as the breathless, exhilarated tweets and blurbs from certain critics and fans indicate. But I wonder how many of them will admit that what Nolan offers in both Inception and Interstellar is really just mass confusion. As a director, Nolan is fond of grand themes and big concepts, but he falters in his efforts to knit them all together into one cohesive piece of filmmaking. Interstellar is much too thin in places while being far too thick in others. And regardless of how the film was incepted into Nolan’s mind, I wish his editor, Lee Smith, had taken some garden shears to it. At 167 minutes, it’s a magnificently overblown plod through the tedious infrastructure of space and time.

(The next three paragraphs contain mild spoilers.)

The plot of Interstellar isn’t quite as bonkers as that of Inception, but its concepts are equally faux-complex and misguided. The film is set in the not-too-distant future when a worldwide blight has pressed the human race for so long that extinction looms like an ominous shadow on the horizon. A former engineer and pilot (played by Matthew McConaughey) who’s now a farmer in some Midwestern location, accidentally stumbles across NASA, which was secretly restored by the government in order to mine other galaxies for livable planets.

So McConaughey, three other scientists, and two robots (who talk and crack jokes and look like rectangular Rubix cubes) embark on an unprecedented journey that may or may not save the human race from total extinction. Apparently, the real point of Interstellar is to bring new validation to the space age because it represented such a strong mythic tradition for certain generations.

We’re meant to believe that Matthew McConaughey’s accidental meeting with NASA—which quite literally launches him into a space quest—is some kind of cosmically ordained event. But later, we find that he’s not really the key to it all. It’s his daughter, who’s played as a child by Mackenzie Foy, as a grown-up woman by Jessica Chastain, and eventually as an elderly woman by Ellen Burstyn. There’s a scene near the end of the film where McConaughey hurdles through space only to find himself inside time represented as a physical dimension. There he can see the past unfolding again, and communicate with his daughter, now a grown-woman, in the present. The explanation for this and other ideas in the movie is always a bit fuzzy, just like it was in Inception.

As much as Nolan—who wrote the screenplay with his brother Jonathan—claims to love and appreciate the film medium, and as much as he pontificates about making movies for people who love movies, it’s remarkable how little Nolan has learned about the whole process of telling a story cinematically. Interstellar is technically well-made and has scenes of grandeur and beauty, but it doesn’t actually tell its story visually. The Nolans’ script relies stubbornly on clunky dialogue to move the film along. The script is full of seemingly complex ideas that apparently have no way of being explicated except through scenes of endless prattle between characters.

It’s hard not to compare this movie to Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which is overrated but still worth seeing. One can certainly see the Nolans reaching for the same level of transcendence. But where 2001 succeeds is in its stubborn resistance to dialogue. There are long moments of nothing but the film’s ostentatious visual grandeur and the equally high-minded concepts beneath the visuals. 2001 is showy but beautifully made, the story is relatively simple, and despite some long and boring parts, Kubrick’s film works on a level that Interstellar does not. Looking at 2001 might evoke boredom, awe, wonder, terror, annoyance, and fear. I never felt any of these things in Interstellar. I wasn’t really even bored with it, just uninvolved.

Where 2001 imagines big, self-important themes visually (and thus, somewhat more subtly), Interstellar pounds away at them in the writing. There are whole chunks of textbook-sounding dialogue or big pronouncements from characters revealing to us the film’s noble themes: heroism, love, life and death, and, perhaps most importantly, the unmitigated majesty of the space program. We get repeated grumblings about the good old days of space exploration such as, “We used to look up at the sky and wonder…Now we just look down.” The film achingly longs for the past, and it’s tempting to read this as coming directly from the Nolans, as though they’re two curmudgeons bemoaning the dismantling of NASA as the end of the American ability to dream and wonder.

The film does have exciting moments, tense moments, powerful moments, but they are delivered with a very heavy hand. It’s as though every scene in the movie requires those penetrating gongs from the 2001 theme, and we’re supposed to erupt in a chorus of weepy-eyed excitement and applause. The emotions in this movie are big and grand too, and they’ve been paired with a race-(against time) -in-space plot to elevate them. Big, noble themes require a big production and a sweeping, life-or-death journey. There’s no room for anything small here. Even when the movie goes dead silent, it’s a ruse. We’re waiting for the next gong to sound, or the next emotional wallop.

As I sat through Hurricane Interstellar, I remembered the feeling I got during Inception four years ago: I just didn’t care about its silly overcomplicated plot, and I felt disconnected from the movie because of how insipid, how exhaustingly “over-thunk” its concepts were.

Jessica Chastain is, for me, the only breath of fresh air in the movie. Anne Hathaway feels wrong for her part as the ambitious scientist, one of the crew members who accompanies McConaughey on a ship called Endurance. (Presumably an allusion to the ship that became trapped in the snow in Antarctica in 1914.) Hathaway exudes a certain brattiness when she needs to appear tough. (It makes one really appreciate Sandra Bullock’s performance—and screen presence—in Gravity.) And the movie’s only way of humanizing her is in making her out of the loop. (She finds out she was tricked about something major, which I won’t mention here for the sake of spoilers.)

McConaughey is fine, but he doesn’t really connect, as much as he tries to. There’s a scene in the film when he watches 23 year’s worth of video messages transmitted from his kids—who are getting older while he has remained the same age—and he dissolves into a blubbering mess of tears. The movie wants us to feel for him, but the scene isn’t affecting. There are multiple scenes of this kind, and it becomes clear that the filmmakers are just cruel to their characters, forcing them to suffer so that they can experience emotional torture and “connect” with the audience. It feels like a cheap, manipulative play for affection. Nolan is going for catharsis in space, but the humanity and the emotions in Interstellar feel forced and calculated, striving for importance with their bigness. 

With Michael Caine, David Gyasi, Wes Bentley, Bill Irwin and Josh Stewart as the voices of the two robots (neither of these character registers the way HAL or R2D2 do), Casey Affleck, John Lithgow, Topher Grace and Matt Damon.  

November 01, 2014


In Nightcrawler, Jake Gyllenhaal looks like the creepy guy you move away from at a bar (to borrow a line from John Waters). With his hollowed-out eyes, and with his stringy, matted, unkempt hair (sporting a little top knot serving as the cherry on top of the sociopath hairdo sundae), Jake Gyllenhaal gives a performance you never imagined he could give. Nightcrawler will surely register as a noteworthy moment in his career, although it would be a mistake to elevate Gyllenhaal as a “serious actor” simply because he turns creepy. In my mind, he already was a serious actor, capable of real feeling and able to elicit genuine empathy from the audience. But Jake Gyllenhaal must have been looking for something different, something to counter his quasi-typecasting as the perpetual boy scout. So, he takes a risk with Nightcrawler and goes against one of his best, most natural gifts—his goofy, amiable charm—and zeroes in on one of his others, that quiet, invisible-to-the-world-around-him quality. Admittedly, in the past his invisibility has made him blend into scenes, so that we’re more likely to notice the other actors. But it’s also one of the reasons I like him as a performer. Jake Gyllenhaal isn’t constantly “doing”, the way that some actors are.

To wit, David Fincher’s 2007 true crime opus Zodiac, in which other more noticeable actors like Robert Downey Jr. jockey for the spotlight and steal the show; Gyllenhaal, as the humble cartoonist who obsessively takes on the Zodiac Killer, appears quiet and persistent. He’s compelling without demanding our undivided attention, so his may not be the face or the voice or the character we remember when we think back upon the movie.

There’s always a touch of cynicism in the air when actors try something different, or when they go ugly for cinema. Who would have imagined that this boyishly handsome actor could look so freaking creepy? Gyllenhaal’s Louis Bloom performance in Nightcrawler feels totally authentic, an unexpected yet natural progression of his acting abilities.

Nightcrawler is about a raving sociopath who goes from one money-making scheme to another. In the beginning, we see him in the dead of night stealing copper wire and other supplies from a construction site and fatally choking a suspicious security guard without hesitation. Thankfully, Nightcrawler isn’t a movie about serial killing, which would have made it far less worthwhile. But it certainly dwells in a netherworld of seedy characters who exist in perpetual darkness. But unlike the unwatchable American Psycho, the people in Nightcrawler aren’t living in a pretend world of good manners by day, only to go out hacking up unsuspecting victims by night. There’s no artifice here, just a portrait of a twisted man who learns how to make a living with his dead conscience in an equally twisted mileau: the world of local news media.

The inexorable Louis Bloom doesn’t necessarily need to kill people to get his jollies. (Most of the violence on film is recorded by Louis, not instigated by him.) He finds an outlet for his darker urges when he buys a camera and a police radio and begins racing to crime scenes and traffic collisions, filming as much as possible and then selling the footage to a Los Angeles news producer (played with real moxie by Rene Russo, all dolled up and imposing in probably one of her finest portrayals).

As Louis Bloom descends into the carnage of his newfound career, he finds ways of keeping an edge over the competition, even if it means manipulating a crime scene or withholding evidence from the police in order to bolster his own success. And the gorier the better, according to the demands of shock media. If the news producer can take Bloom’s disturbing footage and create a story that will sell, she’s all for it, journalistic ethics and integrity be damned. That’s where Nightcrawler aims all its arrows. It shows us what we already know: how vile our news media system can be. It’s disturbing to imagine that our media organizations might have created a system that depends upon our ids, or that the Louis Blooms of the world might be enticed to supply the carnage, conscience-free.

I didn’t love Nightcrawler. At times I felt cold to it, disconnected. But I liked it a lot, and there were several truly outstanding sequences that make it worth seeing. There’s very little to temper the id of this film, except in the case of Bloom’s unassuming sidekick (Riz Ahmed), who slowly begins to question Bloom’s methodology. And I don’t think I need to see it again. But the appeal of Nightcrawler, which is admittedly a fascinating, well-made film, is that it’s riddled with bad people who don’t care that they’re bad. They don’t even try to defend themselves. They don’t have crises of conscience. They just want what they want, and they’ll do anything to get it.

Written and directed by Don Gilroy. With Bill Paxton and Ann Cusack.