June 16, 2015

Barry Lyndon

Barry Lyndon is like one of those prickly old spinsters in a 19th-century novel, one who’s got a reserve of feeling buried deep, deep inside her, beneath all the venom and cruelty (and buried, presumably, in order to bear a lifetime of hardships and disappointments). Stanley Kubrick’s three-hour chamber piece, the meticulously beautiful Barry Lyndon (1975), has garnered a coterie of admirers and detractors over the course of its forty year existence. Lyndon performed poorly at the box office in 1975, and reviewers were generally unkind to it. Pauline Kael wrote that “Kubrick suppresses most of the active elements that make movies pleasurable,” calling the film a “three-hour slide show for art-history majors.”
I must admit, I chuckled over that amusing crack, and to a large extent, I agreed with Kael as I sat tonight in front of this sweeping behemoth of a movie. Critics of Stanley Kubrick almost always point to his cold detachment, and indeed much of Barry Lyndon is both cold and detached. However, I found myself emotionally drawn into the film during the final third, when the consequences of Barry Lyndon’s actions finally come calling on him. This is admittedly a long time to wait for a movie to hit you in the right nerve. It’s also tempting—especially because of the voluminous praise this film has acquired over the years from a number of critics including Jonathan Rosenbaum and Roger Ebert—to be too bowled over by the film’s artistry, to reward Kubrick for spending hours looking for just the right recording of a particular symphony, or congratulate him for fashioning every second of this movie like an 18th-century painting. When we go into a movie, all we have it’s what’s in front of us. And even though film nerds (like myself) are voracious consumers of every detail of a movie’s production, it’s ultimately the finished product we must reckon with, not the hard work or the intent of the director. But is it, as Pauline Kael suggests, denying some vital aspect of the movie-going experience to fall in love with the visuals of a film like Barry Lyndon, even if the movie hasn’t hit you on an emotional level? The answer to that question is entirely personal. My hunch is that people who love Barry Lyndon aren’t just reacting to the film on an artistic level. For them, the movie does connect emotionally. It depends largely on your state of mind throughout the film, and how the tragedies, which line up like dominoes in the last act, affect you as a viewer and where your sympathies lie.

William Makepeace Thackeray, who authored the 1844 novel The Luck of Barry Lyndon, is best known for his Victorian classic Vanity Fair, subtitled “A Novel Without a Hero.” Perhaps the same can be said for Barry Lyndon, and it seems plausible that this idea is one of the things which attracted Stanley Kubrick to the project. The film version ultimately shows us the rot beneath the structure of 18th-century British society, and the opportunistic Irish cad Barry Lyndon, played by Ryan O’Neal, learns how to deftly work within the confines of that structure in order to get what he wants. Of course, Lyndon isn’t exactly rewarded for his caddishness. The film wields an appropriately Victorian disbursement of punishment.

But what’s more interesting than the way the movie punishes its characters is the complexity of those characters. Lyndon is by turns a nasty and a sympathetically stupid character. Sometimes life happens to him, and sometimes life happens because of him, and sometimes death is the consequence. Lyndon at times appears passive, even though he possesses a talent for social climbing and the appropriate absence of moral scruples such movement requires. In the beginning of the movie, Barry is reduced to stupefaction because of his love for his cousin, and when she marries someone else, Barry is humiliated. It’s this betrayal which shapes the rest of Barry Lyndon’s story. Is it the woman’s fault, or is it Barry’s stubborn refusal to accept any kind of rejection?

Ryan O’Neal is somehow perfectly cast in the role of Barry Lyndon, although it is, to borrow a line from critic Michael Gebert, “the best case of miscasting in history.” I mean, who would have imagined Ryan O’Neal, the star of Love Story, as this flawed knave? Yet His moderately hunky American movie star looks work for him. (I kept thinking of Channing Tatum, who is proving himself a viable talent, and who is the kind of modern-day actor people often do not take seriously in dramatic roles, because in their minds they’ve boxed him into a corner.) When O’Neal looks at his ex-lover with those puppy dog eyes, we feel for him. But that feeling soon dissipates as we watch Barry Lyndon cheat and lie and abuse people, and only returns near the end of the film, after several particularly tragic events succeed in giving Barry Lyndon his deserved come-uppance.

The film opens with a duel, shown far away and presented with a comic irony by the narrator (Michael Hordern). Two other duels follow; all three have tremendous weight with the outcome of the characters, and in each one, Kubrick adds some new and interesting critique of a society that tolerated dueling and presented it as something genteel rather than barbarian. The final duel is the most intense, exciting scene in the movie, and Kubrick draws it out masterfully. It’s the duel between Barry and his stepson, Lord Bullingdon (Leon Vitali). That scene encapsulates the complexity of the characters, because our sympathies alternate between the two of them with stunning ease as each gains and loses the upper-hand. Kubrick depicts how the choices of life and the structure of society work to mold people into a confusing meld of angel and demon.

Yes, Barry Lyndon has a certain amount of pompous self-importance to it that is undeniable; but despite all this, and despite the clinical way Kubrick works, it’s still affecting and powerful. The film understands the complexities of the great Victorian novelists (namely, Thackeray, Eliot, Dickens, and Trollope), who used sweeping narratives to expose the social evils of their time and were by turns critical and deeply humanistic when it came to nationalism, class structure, and the effects of progress on the working class. Barry Lyndon doesn’t always connect, but it is shattering at times, and beneath the cold exterior, there is humanity, and occasionally even Stanley Kubrick manages to squeeze blood from a stone. 

With Marisa Berenson, Patrick Magee, Hardy Kr├╝ger, Gay Hamilton, Marie Kean, and Murray Melvin. Cinematography by John Alcott.

June 15, 2015

Jurassic World

Jurassic World delivers exactly what you’d expect. If you want dinosaurs munching on terrified humans, if you’re dying to see a showdown between a T-Rex and a new, hybrid, more-terrifying-than-the-T-Rex monster-dinosaur, you’ve come to the right place. Jurassic World will take care of your needs. Jurassic World isn’t the revelation you might have hoped for (or maybe you didn’t hope for), but it does have some things going for it. It’s easy to like Chris Pratt, and, for those of us who adore the show Parks and Recreation, it’s pretty gratifying to see him suddenly become a movie star. Also, he’s just movie star material. He’s totally sincere, genuinely likable, and projects equal parts toughness and charm. As I was watching him in Jurassic World, playing a raptor wrangler who can communicate on some primeval level with his fearsome, predatory creatures, I thought: “He’s our next Harrison Ford!” And maybe our next John Wayne. Who knows. But he’s also distinct enough to be accepted on his own terms as a legitimate emerging movie star.

Chris Pratt’s likability is enough to carry a mediocre monster movie like Jurassic World. Pratt good-naturedly undercuts the uptight Claire, the executive (played by Bryce Dallas Howard) who runs Jurassic World but, predictably, doesn’t see the dinosaurs as real living things and lacks the proper respect for them. Claire is a woman who’s too dedicated to her work, which means she’s scheduled for a cinematic come-uppance. Her nephews, Zach and Gray (Nick Robinson and Ty Simpkins) are sent to the park ostensibly to teach Claire a lesson about the value of family. Fortunately, there’s quite a good bit of humor written into her character, and she and Pratt have good chemistry together. They’re both good actors making the most out of not-so-good material. As for the movie’s attempts to preach to us about things like family values or the need to respect nature (important lessons no doubt, but hardly credible in a movie that revels in the exploitation of animals and the sadistic slaughter of random humans), the movie only half-heartedly pursues its tired sermonizing, for which I was grateful.

In fact, I think the best thing about Jurassic World is the way it lacks conviction for all those treacly, feel-good moralisms that blockbuster movies push on audiences. One of the coming attractions shown before the movie was that of the adventure film Everest, in which a group of climbers presumably must battle the elements as they descend Mount Everest. Flashing across the screen were BIG THEMES: Love, Family, Passion, Survival. “Never let go” the narrator reminded us, as if we ever had a chance to forget one of Hollywood’s favorite admonitions. Jurassic World plays along with these almost obligatory BIG THEMES, but it never buys into them that much. That’s not because Jurassic World is smart, even though it wants to be. It may simply be a case of lazy writing. Regardless of the reason, in this particular instance, I liked the movie more because it failed to fully endorse those convictions. You get the feeling that someone making this movie—perhaps one or more of the film’s four credited screenwriters, or the director, Colin Trevorrow—wanted to ditch all the standard family schmaltz and just make a sick, depraved monster movie: an ecstasy of Id.

We probably won’t get anything that depraved from a Steven Spielberg-produced blockbuster, since this stuff is always marketed to children. (Not sure I would take a young child to see this one, parents.) However, I will say this about the adolescent characters in Jurassic World: They’re surprisingly not annoying. Nick Robinson is an incredibly likable actor. (If you haven’t seen it, go back and watch 2013’s The Way, Way Back, in which he starred.) And Ty Simpkins is one of the few boys in recent movies to not be either a smart-ass or a completely selfish little monster. He’s believably worried about his parents’ impending divorce, and yet he’s also thrilled/fascinated by the theme park and has obviously read up on dinosaurs before arriving there. In the original Jurassic Park, the kids are incredibly irritating (as they are in most movies of this sort). But you can never feel invested in their well-being, because you know Spielberg won’t actually kill one of them off. They’re safe, and their peril is always just a plot device for the adults to either get killed themselves or “learn something” about the importance of “something.”

One of the things that surprised me about Jurassic World was its blatant theft from James Cameron’s Aliens. Remember the scene in Aliens when the Marines first go into the complex, and we see their vital signs—right next to their names—lapsing on the screen as they’re being bombarded by aliens? Jurassic World duplicates this, twice. Aliens was a much savvier film politically, though. It was easy to see connections to Vietnam, for example. But in Jurassic World, all the talk about “completing missions” and references to the military feels thin. These quasi-political observations have been thrown in for good measure; nobody’s tried to work them into the movie in a thoughtful way.

But I’ll settle for the lightness of tone that we get in Jurassic World. I never felt pummeled or beaten down by it, and the showdown between the two big dinosaurs will deliver for fans of the series. Those of us who could go either way can sit back and enjoy the performances of Chris Pratt and Bryce Dallas Howard, both of whom are far better than their material.  


With Vincent D’Onofrio, Irrfan Khan, Omar Sy, B.D. Wong, Jake Johnson, Lauren Lapkus, Katie McGrath, Judy Greer, and Andy Buckley.

Grey Gardens

Grey Gardens (1975) is a descent into domestic insanity that one isn't likely to forget. I was fortunate enough to catch a screening of it at Sunray Cinema here in Jacksonville. (It's playing this week, so if you have the opportunity, go see it.) This now-cult classic documentary showcases the lives of 79-year-old Edith Beale and her 56-year-old spinster daughter, Edie. They were kin to Jackie Kennedy (I believe Edith was Jackie's aunt on the Bouvier side), and that famous bloodline is the basis of their notoriety in Grey Gardens, because the deplorable state of their living conditions would otherwise be too normal to warrant media attention. 

The film opens by showing us a series of newspaper clippings reporting on the state of the Beales' dilapidated Long Island mansion, Grey Gardens, which is infested with raccoons and overrun by cats (and fleas) and allegedly has no running water. The Beales live an existence that up until then was seen only in campy drama. They are as pathologically stuck in the past as a character in a Tennessee Williams play (namely, Blanche DuBois), or the embittered Miss Havisham in Great Expectations. Edie parades herself around in bizarre apparel, always crowned with a different variety of head scarf, and she rants to the camera with an astonishing lack of self-awareness. Her mother, Edith, always seems more lucid. 

Edie blames her mom for standing in the way of her plans (for a career and for marriage), although old black-and-white photos reveal a once stunning young woman with great presence. Who was really standing in her way? And Edith, who sits enthroned on a lumpy bed piled with junk and always occupied by at least one sluggish cat waiting for some canned liver pate, used to be a singer. She even has records, and she can still carry a tune. (One of her daughter's rants is a slam against the man who did Edith's arrangements, whom Edie apparently disliked with a vengeance.) 

The filmmakers--Albert and David Maysles--captured something quite profound in Grey Gardens. I'm not even sure what that something is. On the surface, watching--or maybe enduring--a movie like this feels tantamount to thumbing through one of the sleazy tabloids you see at the grocery store. But the Maysles brothers never lose sight of the dignity of their subjects. Their intent is not mockery, nor is it vulgar nosiness. I don't know exactly what their intent was, but watching the film, I never felt that they were trying to be unkind to the two Ediths. These women look as though they were plucked from a John Waters movie (Waters' own Edith, the looney, snaggletoothed Edith Massey of Pink Flamingos and Desperate Living, etc, certainly comes to mind), and like John Waters, the Maysles are lovingly fascinated by their subjects. (But, also, probably, aware of their potential marketability.) Waters has always possessed a healthy appreciation for insane people and their behavior. 

The Beales are apparently wealthy enough to live on their own terms, despite the wretched conditions of their estate and the relative reclusiveness they have invited on themselves. And as much as Edie complains about her mother (often threatening to leave), we see a twisted kind of dependence at work here, and that's where Grey Gardens feels particularly relevant, particularly universal. We all know someone--maybe it's ourselves--who is dependent on someone else. The complexity of those kinds of dependent relationships, which so frequently fester among family members, is what gives Grey Gardens such depth. The self-sustaining eccentricity of these ladies doesn't just serve as vile entertainment; it's reflective of so much more: our obsession with success and fame and youth, our often oppositional fears of alienation and dependence, and our inability to be honest with ourselves which (and here's where it really echoes A Streetcar Named Desire) necessarily binds us to a manufactured kind of truth instead. The world of Grey Gardens is a fragmented one, a mosaic of madness, cobbled together out of fleeting moments of sanity, a great many self-lies, the invisibility of being almost-famous, the collective inventory of junk that clutters the mind as well as the home, and hallowed, hollowed memories that reverberate through the mind like spectral sirens. It's a world all their own, and yet, it's a world that could easily be ours too. 

June 10, 2015

Lovers and Other Strangers

Lovers and Other Strangers (1970) is a surprisingly endearing comedy about a groom who gets cold feet three days before his wedding, adapted by Renee Taylor and Joseph Bologna from their play (with the help of David Goodman). The central characters of the film are Mike and Susan (Michael Brandon and Bonnie Bedelia). Mike wakes Susan up in the middle of the night and tells her, “Remember when I asked you to marry me and you said I could take it back if I wanted to? Well, I’m taking it back.” He rants and rants about why they shouldn’t get married, and Susan listens coolly until he’s finished; then she softly reminds him to pick up his tuxedo in the morning while she straddles her fingers peacefully along his back. I love that reaction. Susan doesn’t have a meltdown, screaming “Don’t you love me anymore?” But she’s also not letting Mike off the hook. She simply understands that he’s nervous and that he may very well change his mind again.

The whole movie is a kind of examination of the clash between modern and traditional values and the way married people mythologize marriage, often because they’re so unhappy. When Mike’s parents (played brilliantly by John Castelana and Bea Arthur) offer up countless examples of married couples who are horrible to each other and miserable, they proudly assert that all of those couples are still together. Divorce, it seems, is unthinkable, and total misery is better than ending a marriage.

What strikes me about Lovers and Other Strangers is its comic ease and its well-drawn characters. This is a film very much of its time and absolutely immersed in the sexual politics of the 1960s, but it never feels militant or preachy because the characters are so well-drawn and the conversations they have feel authentic and complex. When Anne Meara, playing Susan’s sister, has to work to get some sexual attention from her husband (Harry Guardino), her needs spark a big fight about their own roles in their marriage. Meara is sexy and intelligent even as she lets her husband think he’s winning the argument, because basically he’s a big child who needs to feel that he’s in control and that his wife submits to him. Meara deftly walks through this minefield, and we marvel at her comic timing and the ways in which she alternately reacts to her husband and manages him.

Mike and Susan’s marriage is also not the central focus of the film. It’s really about the ways various people in their circle grapple with the choices they’ve made and with the urges and impulse they have. One of the funniest threads of the movie involves Mike’s friend Jerry (Robert Dishy) repeatedly trying to score with Susan’s flaky but smart cousin Brenda (Marian Hailey). Jerry hesitantly agrees to take Brenda out. (He only wants a sure thing.) Brenda, who’s shy but has deep reserves of emotion and devotion if only she can find the right guy, keeps quoting the hip books she’s read (like Simone de Beauvoir’s The Second Sex), and Jerry presumably takes a lot of cold showers.

Robert Castellano and Bea Arthur play Mike’s parents, the most miserable couple in the film. And yet, there’s tenderness between them, a tenderness perhaps born of familiarity. Lovers and Other Strangers taps into the mystery of marriage. It also reminds us that one of the worst things we can do is put expectations on other people who are getting married. They have to create their own marriage, and saddling them with demands is really quite selfish. (Mike’s brother, Richie, is taking a lot of heat from Mom and Dad for breaking up with his wife, played by Diane Keaton in her first movie role.) And in the end, it appears that Mike and Susan are best suited for marriage because they walk through life with a sense of humor and a healthy lack of expectation. This is a movie that I really loved, full of spark and insight and surprisingly not dated.


With Cloris Leachman, Gig Young, Joseph Hindy and Anne Jackson. Directed by Cy Howard.

Love & Mercy

Filmmakers take note: Love & Mercy is the way biopics should be made. This study of Brian Wilson, the often unheralded genius behind the unique sound of The Beach Boys, is an exuberant movie about the creative process. It’s not a happy movie—Brian Wilson lived a troubled life from the 1960s to the 1980s (the movie jumps back and forth between the two periods, sort of the beginning and the end of a particularly nightmarish chapter in Wilson’s life)—but it left me feeling giddy about how good movies can be when everything goes right. There’s nothing inherently wrong with trying to tell the sweeping history of a person’s life, but it can often turn a movie into a deadly experience. Director Bill Pohlad rightly zeroes in on a particular chapter and a particular struggle for Brian Wilson, and shapes those moments into a compelling story that feels wonderfully complete and satisfying.

Paul Dano and John Cusack share the role of Brian Wilson. Dano, with his subdued mad-genius quality, is perfect as the Brian Wilson of the 1960s, the guy who had a creative impulse he could not turn off, one which demanded that he stretch outside the admittedly lucrative formula that had served The Beach Boys so well in the first five years of their career. Cusack adds a kind of sharpened depth to the character of Brian Wilson, playing him in the late 80s, when he’s been under the dubious care of an abusive doctor who’s over-medicating him for his schizophrenia.

Love & Mercy achieves a thrilling magnificence during the scenes of Brian Wilson in the recording studio, trying to make Pet Sounds (the 1966 commercially unsuccessful, critical darling that many consider The Beach Boys’ masterpiece) while the rest of the Boys are on tour in Japan. Wilson brings in the Wrecking Crew (the uncredited studio musicians who did most of the instrumentation on The Beach Boys’ albums, as well as a multitude of other records made in the 50s and 60s), and they hammer out the unusual, quirky, rich, vibrant material that, even today, is astonishing.

When I went back and listened to Pet Sounds last fall (after suddenly deciding I wanted to get back into The Beach Boys), I was struck by how evocative this record is. It is the work of someone who’s had his heart broken and then put back together again. It is the work of someone oppressively weighed down by a creative impulse to transcend the glistening, blissfully happy pop ditties from the previous Beach Boys records. And the beautiful thing is, nothing about Pet Sounds or the film Love & Mercy diminishes those great, pure Beach Boys pop songs. If anything, these two pieces deepen that music. When we hear something like “California Girls” or “Surfin’ USA,” we’re hearing the giddy, innocent incantations of an endless summer. The music on Pet Sounds is what happens when that summer does finally end, and the reality of life smacks that previously cherry idealism in the face.

The casting in Love & Mercy is pretty brilliant, too. Not just the casting of Dano and Cusack, who are both terrific and moving in their own distinct ways, but also that of Elizabeth Banks and the guys playing Dennis and Carl Wilson and Mike Love and Al Jardine (Kenny Wormald, Brett Davern, Jake Abel, and Graham Rogers, respectively). Banks plays Melinda Ledbetter, Brian's eventual second wife and the woman who helped rescue Wilson from the clutches of the nutty, controlling Dr. Landy, played to almost too-brilliant perfection by Paul Giamatti. He’s as vile and hate-worthy as the awful jazz conductor in Whiplash played by J.K. Simmons. That kind of voluminous asshole is almost too easy for guys like Giamatti. So you admire it, sure, but you also have to keep in mind the much more challenging subtlety of Banks’s performance, or Dano's or Cusack's. When Dr. Landy is screaming at Melinda through an office door, she just stands there with a smile of superiority, knowing she has gotten him to reveal his true, ugly colors. “Are you okay?” her boss asks, after Landy storms out of the office. “What are you going to do now?” She responds: “I’m going to sell some cars.” What a moment.

Pohlad also keeps a healthy perspective on The Beach Boys’ music and what it represents. There’s a knowing humor throughout the film that their music—especially the early stuff—represented a kind of square, all-American, blissfully-ignorant-of-world-events mindset. There's also the element of savvy, blatantly false marketing attached to the Beach Boys' image. Dennis was the only good-looking Beach Boy. (The rest of them were chubby or balding or just generally not the hunky blond sex idols they were purported to be.) Dennis was also the only one of them who actually surfed. Dennis Wilson was the Beach Boy who actually lived the life of a Beach Boy, only he eschewed the all-American squareness of their early songs for the LSD and sexual liberation that the later half of the 60s provided him so readily. In the movie, Mike Love—or maybe it was Carl—remarks, “Real surfers don’t even like our music!” Brian Wilson never actually surfed until 1976, and only then out of obligation for a piece of reporting being done on him. But even when some of The Beach Boys’ music is pure fluff, it’s incredibly well-done fluff, and those harmonies are heavenly. Love & Mercy gets this complexity: it honors the beauty of music that is essentially pop. It understands that pop music can be complex, and that this music and these lives mattered. This is a story worth telling.

Written by Michael Alan Lerner and Oren Moverman. Based somewhat on the book Heroes and Villains: The True Story of the Beach Boys, by Steven Gaines. 

June 05, 2015

Spy

Four years ago, Melissa McCarthy hit the stratosphere playing the unexpectedly wise misfit Megan in Paul Feig’s Bridesmaids. But the resulting McCarthy vehicles have been largely disappointing until now. The Heat was funny, but totally misshapen, like putting the camera in front of a drunk person at a bar. Letting McCarthy lose it for ten minutes can indeed deliver laughs, but they’re cheap laughs that reduce her to a very limiting kind of crazy-lady “performance.” And the result of this direction has been pretty dismal. (See Identity Thief and Tammy.) Now Paul Feig has returned as director and given us Spy, which is structurally the strongest Melissa McCarthy vehicle thus far. Spy is clever and inventive in ways that her previous films were not, and, happily, this movie lets its star be competent and self-aware. It was so hard to give a damn about Tammy when she was such a heartless moron (quite a needless, even cruel combination for any character). It’s much easier and much more fun to rally for McCarthy’s character in Spy: Susan Cooper, the CIA desk jockey who secretly pines for a more exciting career.  


Cooper plays the virtual wingman to Jude Law’s character, an agent who gets to do all the fun stuff, like infiltrate nuclear arms transactions in Bulgaria. Jude Law feels like perfect casting here: he has a corrupted charmingness about him; you always expect him to be angling for himself even when he’s mostly a good guy. Even as she sits at a computer screen watching Jude Law’s back (“there’s a guy coming down the stairs; there’s three of them coming toward you down the hallway”), Susan Cooper is in command and good at what she does. In terms of characterization, this movie has done a complete 180, because now almost everyone but McCarthy is totally inept. The CIA office is infested with rats, and we keep seeing the little rodents scurrying around the cubicles and climbing up on employees’ shoulders. While Susan repeatedly saves her agent from actual gunshots and bomb explosions, her colleagues sare shooting the shit around the water cooler three feet away from her desk.


But let’s skip ahead, to where McCarthy is unexpectedly pulled into some exciting field work in Paris. She finally gets to be a legit spy, and that’s where the movie gets interesting. Feig’s script actually bothers to surprise us, which is itself a refreshing delight in a world where comedies are too content with mediocrity. Feig stops short of making this Naked Gun 44¼, but he clearly has an affection both for spy movies and spoofs of spy movies. (The opening titles could actually be mistaken for a Bond film; and Spy isn’t afraid to let someone fall flat on his ass for a joke.) I was also surprised by how many people actually get killed in Spy, which is something many comedies are afraid to do, instead taking the Looney Toons “extreme-violence-will-only-temporarily-hurt-you” tack most of the time. But the characters in Spy get beat up and bruised and make fools of themselves and occasionally die.


McCarthy, however, takes everything on her chin, and as her character gets deeper into the film’s loosey-goosey espionage plot, she gets tougher and more comically aggressive. Feig has finally mastered the balancing act of controlling McCarthy while allowing her to pop off just enough to leave us in fits of hysterics. And she’s surrounded by a wonderful ensemble cast, all of whom have been given full characters to play. Jason Statham is particularly appealing as the comically badass agent who’s not nearly as skilled as he thinks he is. Miranda Hart, who may be unfamiliar to American viewers but who has made a name for herself in British television, is a delight as Susan’s co-worker and best friend. When the movie slows and down gives us little bursts of conversation between these two performers, it feels like a gift. McCarthy finally has a full, rich (ish) character to play, and Hart and McCarthy bring out the best in each other. (I did wish that there could have been a little more shaping to their friendship; it doesn’t get quite as deep as it could. But it’s a start.)


And then there’s Rose Byrne. What can I say about Rose Byrne? I am so happy that she is making movies. Byrne is beautiful and glamorous and smart and funny, and it’s always a pleasure when Hollywood actresses get to be all of those things at once. Here she plays the villain, a spoiled, rich Bulgarian woman named Rayna Boyanov who alone knows the location of some nuclear weapon. (It’s the kind of unimportant spy-movie-nonsense that you have to have in these movies.) It’s not evident in the film’s theatrical trailer, but Byrne and McCarthy spend much of the film playing off each other, and their chemistry pops when McCarthy turns up the volume on her aggressiveness, matching Byrne's terrific mean-girl-with-nukes bitchiness.


The best thing about Spy is its shaping. Feig has written an actual story with actual jokes and characters that feel full of life. These qualities allow the humor to grow organically out of the story; it doesn’t feel like someone is just pointing the camera at insanity and hoping for the best. Sometimes that works, sometimes it doesn’t. I’m always grateful when filmmakers take the time to create funny situations and then let their actors breathe life into them. Spy has vitality and spark to it. You have fun with these people who seem like they’re having fun too.


With Allison Janney, Bobby Cannavale, Peter Serafinowicz, and 50 Cent.  

June 04, 2015

Aloha

The controversy surrounding writer-director Cameron Crowe’s latest film, Aloha, is becoming more significant than the movie itself. In case you aren’t aware of the backlash against Crowe, it involves his casting Emma Stone as a character who’s one-fourth native Hawaiian. The argument--which is being raised more and more frequently against Hollywood--hinges on the problem of under-representation in mainstream movies of vital, well-drawn characters who are not white and/or not male. Crowe’s response has been considerably respectful and apologetic, but it may also fall under the old adage, “it’s better to ask forgiveness than permission.” Crowe wrote:


Thank you so much for all the impassioned comments regarding the casting of the wonderful Emma Stone in the part of Allison Ng. I have heard your words and your disappointment, and I offer you a heart-felt apology to all who felt this was an odd or misguided casting choice. As far back as 2007, Captain Allison Ng was written to be a super-proud ¼ Hawaiian who was frustrated that, by all outward appearances, she looked nothing like one. A half-Chinese father was meant to show the surprising mix of cultures often prevalent in Hawaii. Extremely proud of her unlikely heritage, she feels personally compelled to over-explain every chance she gets. The character was based on a real-life, red-headed local who did just that.


I must confess, the issue of Stone’s character’s ethnicity did not strike me as I was watching the film. I figured she was an American Hawaiian: someone of European descent whose parents or grandparents moved to Hawaii; only now do I recall Stone’s explanation of her ancestors, as well as her overzealous appreciation for the mythology of Hawaii. (It feels forced.) As I read over Crowe’s statement, I remembered a scene early in the film in which Stone’s character spells her name out loud, pronouncing it for Bradley Cooper’s character. That’s when she goes into a diatribe about her heritage, but it was lost on me. Crowe’s dialogue, particularly in the first third of Aloha, is muddled and even difficult to understand at times. You feel lost in it: it’s like bad old Hollywood writing; and really, the dialogue in old Hollywood movies was never this convoluted or confusing; it was dreamy nonsense. Crowe’s dialogue for Aloha is striving to be dreamy nonsense, and achieving only the latter part of its goal.


Stone plays an Air Force pilot assigned to shadow Cooper’s character while he’s visiting Honolulu. (The why is still a mystery to me, much like many of the film’s wobbly plot elements.) A romance develops between the two of them, only it’s not really credible, and there’s a half-hearted attempt at a love triangle, because Cooper runs into his ex-girlfriend, played by Rachel McAdams, who is now married to pilot John Krasinski. I adore Rachel McAdams, and she’s very good in Aloha, but she’s often forgotten by the movie, and Crowe does a generally terrible job at resolving the conflict between her and her husband, who’s comically incapable of carrying on a conversation. (His taciturn manner serves as the source of one admittedly genius moment later in the movie, which might justify rushing to theaters to see this movie before it’s gone.)


I think this is the first time I’ve ever felt critical of an Emma Stone performance. She’s uneven in a lot of the movie, but this is really the fault of Crowe’s writing. In the first half of the film, Stone talks too fast, like one of those madcap comic actresses from the 1940s, the way that Mary Astor did in the zizzy Preston Sturges comedy The Palm Beach Story. And Stone kind of looks like she’s doing a Rosalind Russell (His Girl Friday) impersonation. She’s a go-getter and a busybody and she’s as crazily devoted to the integrity of her job and her state as Leslie Knope, the indefatigable parks department director of Pawnee, Indiana. But something about the Stone character’s reference to old Hollywood actresses and old Hollywood comedy doesn’t work, and it certainly doesn’t pay off, because by the time we’ve gotten used to it, she changes back into a modern-day girl, just in time to criticize Bradley Cooper’s character for letting a crazy billionaire send an armed satellite into space.


Aloha is an incredibly problematic film structurally and morally. Crowe introduces a lot of big moral dilemmas for his characters, and somehow manages to bungle them all. Bill Murray plays the mad billionaire who has essentially taken the place of NASA; he and Cooper are the only ones who know of his plans to put weapons in space; but in the end, Cooper walks away with impunity because he sabotages the satellite, and Murray is arrested. Somehow that feels too easy, and moreover, too complicated, for what should have been a simple, enjoyable romantic comedy.


There are other moral issues at stake here. Aloha is trying to do some kind of Hawaiian heritage public relations, but it fails pretty miserably. Go back and watch John Sayles’s wonderful Sunshine State (2002) if you want to see it done right. Sayles tapped into the psyche of Floridians, as well as the pulse of the developers trying to make money off of them; Crowe is trying to do the same thing in Aloha. I knew it was a bad sign when the movie’s opening credits showed us vintage Hawaii imagery in a vacant cultural collage as the names materialized on screen. Crowe is only scratching the surface, and George Clooney’s The Descendants did more to tap into the culture of Hawaii than this movie does. And worse yet, Crowe's attempts to address American imperialism in Hawaii have no depth to them: the Americans are the center of this film, and Hawaii and its people are basically in the way. Cooper is, after all, sent to Hawaii to try and sweet-talk them into letting Bill Murray launch his space program there without any objections from them.


Alas, here’s my problem: I walked away liking this movie a little more than my review indicates. It pushed enough of my buttons (especially that sentimental ending, which I won’t reveal, involving a character and his daughter) to give me a decent time. I loved Rachel McAdams and John Krasinski’s characters. I wanted the movie to spend more time with them, fleshing out their personalities and conflicts. I quite enjoyed the brief onscreen moments of Alec Baldwin as an Air Force commander. I appreciated Crowe’s attempts to understand the implications of a world without NASA. All of these ingredients worked to some degree or another, even if the movie as a whole wasn’t successful. It's one of the strangest movie experiences I've had in a long time. But it has charm and vitality, and amidst its many problems, there is a good movie, hiding, needing to be plucked out.

June 01, 2015

Interiors

Interiors (1978) feels like Woody Allen wanting us to take him seriously, as though making groundbreaking comedies wasn’t good enough. It’s an incredibly conscientious film, shot with skill by Gordon Willis and laden with somber qualities, but it’s also incredibly underwhelming. And not even that original. The problems of the characters have been explored in Allen’s films for his entire career: artistic frustration, fear of commitment, fear of death, etc. Allen has always managed to steal from himself. Some critics would argue that he’s developing several themes over the course of his long career; and if you watch an older Allen film out of context with the rest of his body of work--as I have done, seeing them in a fairly haphazard fashion, starting with, I think, 1993’s Manhattan Murder Mystery and basically working backwards--you do get an unfair advantage. I was, for instance, comparing the three sisters of Interiors (played by Diane Keaton, Mary Beth Hurt, and Kristin Griffith) to the three sisters of Hannah and Her Sisters (1986), and I kept thinking that Allen had done better with his material in that considerably lighter movie.

My mind also drifted to the comparably recent Cassandra’s Dream (2007), another of Woody Allen’s serious pieces, which I detest. Some people adore his dramas, and that’s fine. Allen obviously wants to remind us that he’s scene Bergman’s films, that he’s a well-rounded cinephile, but it’s this need to prove himself that makes Interiors so disengaging. The icy Wasp-mother, played to a kind of heartless, horrifying perfection by Geraldine Page, is so awful that it’s a relief when she drowns herself at the end, except that we know she died a martyr in her own mind. If her neglected daughter Joey (Hurt) can experience some kind of relief in the death of her unfeeling, self-involved mother, it seems somehow trite that Allen turns the event into a device, allowing Joey, the middle sibling who could never express herself like her older sister Renata, the writer (Keaton) or her gorgeous younger sister Flyn, the actress (Griffith), to finally create something fulfilling: a diary. (I must confess I’m guessing on the birth order here; I don’t know that the film makes it very clear, except that Flyn is obviously the youngest.)

With E.G. Marshall as the doctor-father who leaves his wife after 30-plus years of marriage, Maureen Stapleton as the new woman in his life (who has some good moments, the only real air in the whole movie), Sam Waterston, and Richard Jordan.