September 25, 2016

'Snowden' isn't paranoid enough to be interesting.

Nothing excites in Snowden, the latest film from Oliver Stone, for whom the Edward Snowden case seems a rather obvious next step in a career spent shedding light on America’s demons—or at least pointing to the darkness in which they skulk like ever-present Boogeymen. Stone’s movies, as we all hopefully know by now, aren’t meant to be treated as historical documents. (For that matter, neither should any other director’s movies, no matter how “based-on-a-true-story” they claim to be.) Rather, the best of Stone’s work (such as his mesmerizing masterpiece JFK), asks us to question the status quo, to remain skeptical of what we’re told by the powers-that-be. That’s where Stone shines as a director, even when his thesis feels practically emblazoned on the screen like a permanent caption, or like the opposite of something you’d see with those dark sunglasses in They Live: QUESTION AUTHORITY. 

Joseph Gordon-Levitt tries his damnedest as Edward Snowden, the CIA contractor who in 2013 released classified intel about the NSA’s troubling surveillance practices, and who now resides in Russia, because if he returns to the U.S., he will face charges—of espionage and other crimes—that will likely put him in prison for the rest of his life. But both Snowden the man and Snowden the movie fail to generate any heat as a subject: While the real Snowden remains a significant news story and an important—and controversial—figure in contemporary history, he’s essentially a pasty middle-class computer nerd, and the things he discovered can only be dramatized by distilling often inscrutable computer jargon. Watching someone type things on a word processor, or transfer files from a computer to a chip, just isn’t that exciting, even if in reality human lives across the globe are held in the balance.

When Oliver Stone made JFK, he was in full command of the medium. JFK runs around three hours, yet it speeds along like the best kind of crackling, tingling pot-boiler. Stone used actual footage (including the famous Zapruder film of the actual assassination) and intertwined it with dramatizations, following every kooky conspiracy rabbit trail down into its respective, labyrinthine rabbit hole. What Stone created was a movie equal parts truth and fiction, but brilliantly fused together with Stone’s sharp eye for detail and the best kind of bombastic performances. (Even Kevin Costner seemed alive in JFK.) But where JFK rivets, Snowden languishes. 

Like JFK, Snowden implores us to pay closer attention to our government’s actions, but this time Stone is going through the motions. The film would benefit from a more paranoid, eerie sensibility, like those great conspiracy thrillers of the 1970s (e.g. All the President’s Men, a movie in which we constantly feel a sense of impending dread, and in which the subject, an ominous and paranoid President Nixon, is ultimately more interesting than pasty, friendly, Charlie Brown-esque Edward Snowden). There’s only one scene that comes close to this style: When Snowden is speaking to his superior (played by Rhys Ifans) via telecast, and the man’s face is framed by the enormous screen so that Snowden stands like the meek silhouette of a chess pawn in the wake of this sneering, scowling, terrifying countenance, which represents government overreach and duplicity at their worst. It’s worth noting that Joseph Gordon-Levitt speaks at a lower octave than usual, apparently imitating the real-life Snowden, and that this monotone, dulled-out effect on his voice represents a metaphor for the rest of the movie. We’re dulled out too, even if the movie does raise extremely important questions about the nature of surveillance and the ways in which our government monitors other countries, not to mention its rationale for so-doing. If Stone is right, then we’ve ostensibly used the War on Terror to justify our own fascistic agenda, and that is indeed something to worry about. But Oliver Stone has lost momentum: there’s no vitality to this movie. Even the exchanges between Gordon-Levitt and Shailene Woodley, who plays his longtime girlfriend Lindsey, feel uninteresting: They fight essentially about the same thing over and over again: He can’t communicate (because he’s bound to keep silent about his work with the CIA), and what he knows is eating him up. But their skirmishes feel like the stuff of bad soap operas, and Woodley is reduced to playing the nagging, concerned wife, a role that Sissy Spacek had in JFK (although Spacek made it work better than Woodley.)

Stone’s intentions may be admirable, but this kind of juiceless dramatization of real events is inherently un-cinematic, at least when it comes to narrative film. I don’t think anyone else could have done much better. Nixon made for great cinema because of, well, Nixon, not to mention Deep Throat and the aids sneaking through the Watergate hotel, and eerie scenes in dimly lit parking garages, and because there’s something more dramatic and exciting about hard-scrabble journalists sniffing out a story and pounding away at typewriters. Moreover, while Snowden has a clear hero (assuming you take up Stone’s side of the argument, which is the only side you’ll get from this movie), the villain isn’t quite as clearly shaped. It’s the impersonal face of bureaucracy, without a Nixonian head, a King Coopa to destroy once you get to the hellish castle. All of these may be reasons to see instead CitizenFour, the Oscar-winning Snowden documentary that Laura Poitras directed. (Poitras, incidentally, figures into this film too: She’s played by Melissa Leo.)

With Zachary Quinto, Tom Wilkinson, Scott Eastwood, Logan Marshall-Green, Timothy Olyphant, Joely Richardson, and in a glorified cameo as a Snowden prototype, Nicolas Cage. Written by Stone and Kieran Fitzgerald. 

September 19, 2016

'The Meddler' features Susan Sarandon's best performance in years, and the movie is the undiscovered gem of the summer.

The Meddler is the undiscovered gem of the summer movie season, in which Susan Sarandon plays Marnie Minervini, a New York export living in Los Angeles, recently widowed, with too much time on her hands and more money than she knows what to do with. She’s come to L.A. to be near her daughter, Lori, a TV writer who’s played by Rose Byrne. But Lori feels stifled by Marnie’s nagging. The film opens with what seems like an introductory voiceover, with Marnie talking all about her new life in Los Angeles, which she describes as “like living on Main Street in DisneyLand.” Then we realize that Marnie is actually leaving her daughter the world’s longest voicemail. Marnie is the Queen of Nagging, and Lori, who’s just suffered a painful breakup, wants nothing more than to be left alone in her bed to cry.

At first, The Meddler seems like a cartoonish bit of fluff, a one-note kind of movie about an aging woman who’s become obsolete now that her family no longer needs her. (And the title is really unfortunate: it sounds like the name of a bad Batman villain.) But The Meddler is so much more than fluff. The film quickly becomes a thoughtful, moving, and funny portrait of a woman who must reinvent herself. Like the recently divorced Jill Clayburgh in An Unmarried Woman, or, like Blythe Danner’s character in last year’s delightful I’ll See You in My Dreams, The Meddler is a celebratory poem to women who’ve been suddenly discarded by the youth-centric, male-centric culture that has aged them out of importance. But this is not an act of cinematic pity for dowdy, aloof older women. It’s a challenge to reconsider the possibilities in life. 

Marnie is quite pathetic in the first third of the movie as she clings to Lori for some semblance of a social life, and more importantly, a source of need. But then Marnie starts getting out. Granted, the budding social life she creates for herself doesn’t feel totally healthy. She offers to fund a wedding reception for one of Lori’s girlfriends, then scouts out the location, the decorations, and the catering herself. She strikes up a friendship with a young man at the Apple store, convinces him to go to night school, and winds up driving him to his classes three times a week. She volunteers at the hospital, spending time with an elderly woman who appears to have suffered a stroke. She forces herself to be busy. But Marnie’s busyness seems like a cover-up. We sense early on that she’s never really gotten over the death of her husband Joe. But she can’t talk about her grief, and she can’t bring herself to date. (When two men get close to her, Marnie freezes up, then panics, and in one particularly funny and surprising moment, clocks a likable would-be suitor (played by Michael McKean) right in the crotch and runs away.)

When Marnie barges in on Lori’s therapist, fishing for info about her daughter, Marnie's obviously nosy questions reveal more and more about her own dependent personality. The therapist wonders: Why do you spend all this money on people you barely know? What is Marnie getting out of these acts of charity? But as crazy as Marnie’s actions seem to us—she’s like a post-ghost, Jewish Ebenezer Scrooge—there’s something completely endearing about Marnie’s new project of self-sacrifice. “I think Joe would want me to do some good with all this money,” she tells the therapist. And sure, Marnie’s motivation for acting like a menopausal Robin Hood may be wrapped up in all kinds of unhealthy emotional hangups, but the more she gives, the more those hangups diffuse.

Susan Sarandon has always had a terrific command of the screen. She’s at her best playing tough women, as in Thelma and Louise or Dead Man Walking, but she has a soft side too, and The Meddler manages to bring out both of these elements in Sarandon’s performance. Sarandon can play dotty, but she gives Marnie an undercurrent of intelligence that becomes increasingly stronger with time, as though Marnie is slowly finding herself again, and with this new discovery comes a revitalization of her senses. (And no one rocks a red dress like Sarandon does in the wedding scene.) 

Writer-director Lorene Scafaria is clearly fascinated, head-over-heels even, with the character of Marnie, which is why Scafaria doesn’t allow her to be pathetic for long. The film suggests that mothers become “meddlers” because they’re so used to being needed, that when their kids grow up, they don’t know what to do with themselves, and float around in a fog. Marnie has been floating for too long, and become totally addle-brained. At times I was worried the movie would diagnose her with early stages of Dementia. (In one scene, she crashes into another car because she’s distracted by a sign.) Thankfully, Scafaria doesn’t resort to cheap sentimental ploys.

The relationship between Marnie and her daughter Lori is equally as complex as Marnie herself. Lori is in some ways the typical adult whose mother drives her crazy. After practically screaming at her mother and slamming the door in Marnie’s face, Lori whispers meekly through the door, “I still need a ride to the airport tomorrow.” Marnie loves her daughter unconditionally, and it’s when she begins to create a fuller life for herself that their relationship regenerates into a friendship of two grown-ups. 

Movies are often terrified of older women, and they’ve always loved to show them losing their grip on reality (Sunset Boulevard, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane, Fatal Attraction, etc.) The Meddler is about a woman finding her grip, and it showcases probably the best Sarandon performance in the last decade. That’s why we should celebrate movies like I’ll See You in My Dreams and The Meddler: they give rich, well-drawn characters to delightful actresses who’ve only gotten better with age. Marnie Minervini may be a little nuts, but she’s also funny, romantic, kind-hearted, and sexy. And everywhere she goes, she brings bagels. 

With J.K. Simmons (in one of his most enjoyable performances as a retired cop who becomes a love interest for Marnie), Lucy Punch (as one of Lori’s very L.A. girlfriends), Jason Ritter, Casey Wilson, Jerrod Carmichael, and Cecily Strong. 

September 18, 2016

If you like to be jolted out of your seat, 'Don’t Breathe' should do it for you.

More than any other genre, horror movies give filmmakers permission to indulge their Id, which may be the reason that even some of the worst horror movies have interesting—and often alarming—things to say about the world. Don’t Breathe, a new horror-thriller from Ghost House Pictures (co-founded by Sam Raimi), isn’t one of the worst, but its vision of the world is plenty alarming and, plenty believable, because the film taps into so many unsettling truths about our society. It’s set in Detroit, and concerns three young thieves who break into the ramshackle house of a blind Gulf War vet who, allegedly, has a significant stash of cash inside. The trio—their names are Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto), and Alex (Dylan Minnette), assume the job will be easy, since their victim (played with ominous calm and exactitude by Stephen Lang) is blind. But the Blind Man is no dupe, and he’s got every inch of this old, dark house memorized. And let’s not forget, the man is a war veteran: Blindness hasn’t taken away his considerable observation skills or his warrior strength.

With all its economic misery and urban decay, Detroit has become an ideal setting for horror movies, including the freaky, if overrated, It Follows (in which Daniel Zovatto also appeared) and the languid vampire flick Only Lovers Left Alive (although itself not a proper horror film). The Blind Man is the only person left in his Detroit neighborhood, which has become a modern-day ghost town: houses boarded up, yards overgrown with weeds and tall grass, streets empty and eerily silent. The decayed city becomes a tapestry on which the movie can project its themes. Capitalism has failed, and in its wake are poverty, crime, and underwater mortgages; the war, of which this victim/predator is a veteran, never really ended. Tragedy begets tragedy, and all the bad things in Don’t Breathe, including every criminal act, are linked to a chain of other preceding bad things. 

Ultimately, the real horror isn’t a madman chasing you through his house with various weapons, or a dungeon full of terrifying secrets, but the failure of economic systems to keep us financially stable, the truth that war never sustains any lasting sense of power (especially for the soldier, a mere pawn, whose skillfulness, adept though it may be, is rewarded with the loss of his sight). Encroaching decay lives all around us, and Don’t Breathe makes smart use of such bleak realities. The fact that the three kids are thieves at all (this burglary attempt is, they’re hoping, the final score, the one that will set them up for life), is because they see it as the only way out of Detroit, out of failed dreams and a lifetime of poverty. Rocky lives with a neglectful mom who sits on the couch and chain-smokes. She’s promised her young sister that the two of them will move to California one day, and the money she nets from this burglary will fund the move.

Rocky proves to be resiliently focused on the money, even when the three kids become trapped in the house, and even though it quickly becomes obvious that the Blind Man isn't going to let them go. He’s a vengeful spirit inhabiting a powerful, agile body, and his house is fitted with all kinds of secrets: narrow little passageways, a maze-like basement, hidden compartments under the tile floors. Not to mention the fact that they’re totally isolated, and no one will hear any cries for help. But also, they can’t really cry for help because of the whole robbery thing. 

As a thriller, Don’t Breathe works us over effectively. And while it has its share of “jump scares,” the director, Fede Alvarez (whose directing debut was the 2013 Evil Dead remake) also knows how to use silence to his advantage, ratcheting up the tension with nary a sound. For this reviewer, who grew up loving horror films of the 70s and 80s, Don’t Breathe is probably the best of its modern-day ilk, but it’s still unpleasant and grim, except for the occasional perverse touches, ingeniously concocted by Alvarez and his co-writer Rodo Sayagues. (I can’t reveal them without spoiling.) Perhaps I’m lost in a nostalgic haze that’s been scored by John Carpenter and photographed by Dean Cundey, but I wish Don’t Breathe had been more fun. Fun or not, it is, however, plenty scary.

September 14, 2016

The Scottish epic 'Sunset Song' experiences emotions on a grand scale, and it's one of the strongest films of the year.

Sunset Song begins and ends with its gaze fixed on land. The movie might have been lifted from the pages of a George Eliot novel in all its poignant, hard, poetic realism, and its closeness with nature. It’s based on the classic novel by Lewis Grassic Gibbon, and it has been a pet project for writer-director Terence Davies, who’s been trying to make an adaptation of Gibbon’s novel for some time. Sunset Song is set in Scotland, but thankfully it doesn’t fetishize Scottish culture the way movies like Braveheart, which is essentially Scottish nostalgia fan fiction, have in the past. Sunset Song isn’t about the reverie of victory, or the ways that war constitutes and augments the male identity. Instead, it’s a meditation on the cold indifference of life, and the fact that we creatures comprise but an instant in the grand sweep of time. And unlike the films of Terence Malick, Sunset Song conveys this idea while always keeping its finger on the pulse of human beings, on the private tragedies and revelations and joys that make and mark our days.

In a sense, Sunset Song liberates Scotland from all the macho mythologies we Westerners have projected onto it, whether that means identifying in some primal way with Braveheart or flying a Scottish flag in our houses because we have an indeterminate measure of Scottish blood in our veins. It's a thing here in the South, at any rate. (Full disclosure: I have two Scottish flags in my classroom, because I do hail from Scottish roots, or at least I think I do, so I’ll acknowledge my hypocrisy now.)

The film opens on a brown husk of farmland, all crackling and peaceful, where a teenage girl named Chris Guthrie (Agyness Deyn) emerges from where she’s been lying in the peaceful field, enrapt by the outside world like Alice before drifting off to Wonderland. The wind is as loud as the ocean, and Chris feels most at home in the embrace of the winds and the fields and the sun; Chris presides over the land at the end too, while a piper plays the bagpipes, the one moment in which Davies indulges us. If he were trying to milk the tears out of us, those bagpipes would have been the entire score of this 135-minute film. Instead, Davies restrains himself, and offers up an unassuming, focused epic about Chris as she matures into a woman.

We expect sprawling family sagas to manipulate us, to shrewdly and skillfully juice the tears out of us as though we were dried-up orange peels, so it’s almost a shock to the system that Terence Davies shows as much restraint as he does. Plenty of tragic things happen to Chris, and the film is never unsympathetic, but it also doesn't marinate in the tragedy. Chris’s world is a broken cup: she has an abusive, fanatically religious father (played to perfection by Peter Mullan) who pumps his wife full of children despite the fact that she’s clearly depressed and exhausted; Mr. Guthrie uses his religion to goad his wife into compliance. And because of his volatile personality, everyone in the house walks around in bleak fear of upsetting him.

When Will, Chris’s dear older brother (played by the stoically captivating Jack Greenlees) mockingly calls him “Jehovah,” Mr. Guthrie horsewhips Will in the barn. Later, we see Will, a tower of toughness, melting into the arms of his sister in nearly inaudible tears. Chris, like a monolith, silently takes everything in, speaking up only once against her father’s ill temper, and waits for time to pass, for things to change, for the authority to act as she pleases, to put an end to this kind of mistreatment.

In a particularly Thomas Hardy-esque moment, Chris’s mother poisons herself and her twin infants, leaving Mr. Guthrie and the four older children, two of whom (younger boys with barely any screen time) are pawned off on Chris’s aunt and uncle. That leaves the cranky, misanthropic father and Chris, because soon Will has had enough and finds work in a neighboring city. Mr. Guthrie is the kind of wretched old man who is likely to die slowly, all the better to torment Chris, his caregiver. But finally he does die, leaving Chris the land. Chris is her own woman, free to make her own decisions.

The biggest decision comes in the form of Ewan (Kevin Guthrie), the charming young man Chris marries. But their love is so tender and joyful that you know it’s doomed. World War I is beckoning, after all. The film bristles with outrage about the war, and all the countless lives wasted by the designs of greedy, self-serving politicians. In particular, the war changes Ewan. Shell shock, or some internal demon, makes a monster out of him: He becomes Guthrie Part II, and Chris must relive her painful childhood all over again; only now she’s less willing to make do with the abuses of a man. And she has capital, in the form of land. 

When Scarlett O’Hara’s father opined about the land in Gone with the Wind (“It’s the only thing that counts, Katie Scarlet,” he pontificates with his Irish brogue), we knew that Scarlet was going to lose everything but Tara. It’s the kind of obvious foreshadowing that haunts sprawling family epics. But in Sunset Song, this knowledge is a foregone conclusion: The film assumes that life is inherently tragic, or at least, indifferent. We are tossed cruelly about by circumstance and the economies of the world. 

Agyness Deyn, as Chris, has the austere-rural-woman look down pat. Deyn has an earthy quality about her, which suits the rural life her character has been born into. She works the fields right alongside her brother; she cooks and cleans; she goes into a fierce storm to rescue the terrified horses, in the middle of the night. Chris, though always measured and careful, can fight back: When Ewan comes at her like a maniac (after a furlough from the War), she brandishes a kitchen knife at him: "I'm not afraid of you!" she declares, almost as much to herself as to him. (This is after he rapes her, though, in a scene in which Chris is too terrified and taken aback to put up a fight.) Deyn's sincerity, which so often seems passive, springs to vibrant, violent life in unexpected moments. And Ewan's tragic change is magnified by actor Kevin Guthrie's sheer likability. When Ewan first spies Chris, he gazes at her with those big puppy dog eyes and we're in love with his love for her; when Chris is in the throes of an excruciating labor, we see him tormented by his inability to be of help. It's easy to see why Chris would fall for him; and it's all the more heartbreaking that Ewan undergoes such a terrible transformation.

Will viewers buy this film's sincere, austere story? It's hard to say. We've, been trained to trust only the shallow emotions we feel in movies, the obvious plot points and developments, the happy resolutions, the sitcom endings. Sunset Song is a film that feels wholly and unashamedly on a grand scale. But that might be a hard sell for some.  

September 13, 2016

'Love and Friendship': A Jane Austen adaptation with teeth.

When you look at Jane Austen’s novels through the movies that have been adapted from them, Austen’s world seems frivolous and saccharine, like something out of a Hallmark movie, in which the romance has been bled out, neutered, tamed beyond any semblance of passion. Not all of the adaptations are guilty of this, but inevitably, all of them contribute to our view of Jane Austen as a “lady writer” concerned with only the most inconsequential matters. Real readers of Jane Austen, on the other hand, know better. They know that Jane Austen’s wit and acumen remain matchless, that her precision of language continues to surprise even the most perennial of readers. That’s why Love and Friendship (which is based on the novel Lady Susan) is such a breath of fresh air. It was directed and written by Whit Stillman, and if you’ve followed Stillman’s career, this match seems a long time coming.

I became a fan of Stillman several years ago when I watched Metropolitan (1990), a film about New York debutantes living in an age that has outgrown, or perhaps de-classed itself out of a need for such traditions. The characters in Metropolitan speak in complete sentences, voicing strong opinions about art, politics, culture, and the dynamics of their particularly alien (to most viewers) social structure. Sounds very Jane Austen. 

Love and Friendship concerns an opportunistic and devious woman named Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale), who comes to visit the family of her late husband, ostensibly out of a desire to gratify his memory, but really because she’s in dire straights. Susan remarks to her teenage daughter, Frederica, “We don’t live; we visit.” Whatever she must do, Susan will do, to ensure a roof over her head and some level of comfort and respectability. What viewer can resist Susan’s ruthless opportunism, and the clever and skillful ways in which she ingratiates herself with various members of the household (particularly the kind-hearted and gullible young Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel), who falls in love with her?) 

Love and Friendship is, finally, a Jane Austen adaptation with teeth. Stillman respects, indeed adores, Austen’s writing enough to adapt it honestly and faithfully. (I haven’t read Lady Susan, but I mean that Stillman gets the Austen spirit and humor and tone more than most, and remains true to it throughout the film.) There’s an early scene where DeCourcy’s parents are reading a letter from their daughter, who’s distraught that her brother is associating with Susan, a woman with a reputation. The elderly Mr. DeCourcy keeps paraphrasing the letter for his wife, whose eyes are strained from a cold, until his wife begs him to simply read it to her; but then he does so quite literally, naming every mark of punctuation with the dedication of a telegram. “Stop! My eyes have recovered,” she cries, “I can read it myself.”

Later, when Susan and her American confidant Alicia are walking, they are greeted by a gentleman who keeps trying to communicate with Susan. She rebuffs him as though he were propositioning her. “Did you know him?” Alicia asks. “Of course,” replies Lady Susan. “I would never speak that way to a stranger.”

Kate Beckinsale plays Susan with pluck and relish: She has a natural frothiness. She can be sweet as icing and cold as stone in the same breath. Chloe Sevigny, as the American Alicia, turns in an equally funny performance. Alicia herself is a devoted opportunist, and you have to admire both of these women, using the gifts they have to survive in a world that fabricates hypocrisies to exclude them. Their friendship acts as a kind of center for the movie: Susan continually narrates her latest successes and failures to Alicia, who serves as a willing accomplice whenever she can, but who must protect herself from her suspicious and imposing husband (Stephen Fry), who keeps threatening to send her back to the States. 

What’s perhaps most amusing and fascinating about this story is Susan’s own caddishness toward her daughter, Frederica (Morfydd Clark). She wants to aid her daughter’s future, but never at a cost to her own designs on marriage and social-climbing. She even encourages her daughter’s marriage to a bumbling fool named Sir James (Tom Bennett), an awkward, foolish man whom Reginald describes as a peabrain. When in a discussion about the Ten Commandments, Sir James mistakenly refers to them as the Twelve Commandments. Reginald’s father corrects him: “I believe there were only ten.” “Oh wonderful,” James replies, quite sincerely asking, “Which two shall we leave off?”

The Commandments play a significant role in Love and Friendship. Susan invokes them at her convenience, mainly the fifth one, about honoring your parents, whenever she needs to manipulate her daughter into carrying out her own wishes. When Frederica asks a curate about this commandment, he provides his own interpretation: Our parents have cultivated a beautiful mansion for us, not a savage wilderness, and we must honor them for it. But it’s clear that the world of Love and Friendship is a savage wilderness indeed: a place where opportunity and survival are rewarded, if only you can use cunning and feminine wiles to achieve them.

With Emma Greenwell, James Fleet, Jemma Redgrave, Justin Edwards, and Jenn Murray. 

September 11, 2016

Ira Sachs' delightful new film "Little Men" understands how friendships are shaped (and altered) by outside circumstances.

When adults talk about how “complicated” life is, they’re almost always talking about money, whether or not they realize it. And while it seems obvious that money has a powerful influence on our lives, Little Men, the latest film from director Ira Sachs, gives a face to the otherwise impersonal specter of economics. (He did the same thing, under different circumstances, in 2014's Love is Strange.) This delightful, sad, yet somehow hopeful film explores the budding friendship between Jake (Theo Taplitz) and Tony (Michael Barbieri), two middle-school boys growing up in Brooklyn, and how the money troubles of Jake’s parents drive a wedge between their two families. The boys meet because Jake’s parents have inherited an apartment above Tony’s mother’s dress shop. Both the apartment and the shop belonged to Jake’s grandfather, and Jake’s parents, Brian (Greg Kinnear) and Kathy (Jennifer Ehle), are forced to triple the rent to help them stay afloat financially. (Brian is an actor, and he makes very little money, so Kathy, a therapist, provides most of the family’s income.)

I’m not an expert on the cost of living in New York, but it’s easy to imagine that when it comes to raising a family in the city, two incomes are better than one. And while Kathy is supportive of Brian’s acting career, Brian feels guilty about not contributing financially. Upping the rent on the shop will help him appease a certain amount of unaddressed inferiority he feels. Leonor (Pauline Garcia), Tony’s mother, takes an angry jab at Brian late in the film: “Your father was embarrassed that everything in your house was paid for by your wife.” Leonor cannot afford the rent increase, and will not only have to close her shop, but suffer financially, because Jake’s grandfather kept the rent low as a token of friendship to her. 

Afraid afraid of becoming destitute, Leonor tries repeatedly to remind Brian of how much she meant to his father, that she visited him daily, and spent more time with him than his own children. Kathy tries to reassure Leonor: “We’re not the rich people moving into the neighborhood; we’re struggling too.” But a lesser form of greed, one forged out of the desire for contentment and security, does motivate them, even if they aren’t willing to admit it. 

The problems of the adults, while complicated, seem solvable, even petty, in light of their boys’ friendship. Friendship, when you’re 12 or 13, is often both elusive and ephemeral. Kids in middle school are still kids, just on the cusp of adolescence, and they haven’t totally been funneled into the groups they will identify with in high school. The friendship between Jake and Tony is delightful to behold: Tony encourages Jake in his artistic ambitions, and Jake encourages Tony’s wishes to become an actor. Both of them talk about going to an arts-centered public school next year, and Tony even takes some acting classes. (There’s a wonderful scene between Tony and an acting teacher in his 50s, both of them repeating various lines with increased emotional intensity, and it’s clear that acting thrills Tony: he comes alive as he shouts at his instructor, who is himself buoyed by Tony's enthusiasm.)

If Hollywood during the Golden Age of the 40s and 50s nurtured unrealistic ideals, and hocked silver linings like a used car salesman, then surely we’ve entered a new age of cynical honesty about “following your dreams.” Brian warns Jake about the pitfalls of the artistic life. You don’t always find success, and not every talented person is made to be a real artist. But Brian’s advice to Jake rings true, and feels like advice you could actually give someone: Don’t practice too hard; trust your natural abilities; know when to relax and when to work hard. It’s the balance of the two that determines who can succeed and who cannot. Brian himself is living proof that our dreams often elude; and yet he seems okay with it. His life hasn't ended because he's not a famous movie star.

Little Men also maintains that New York isn’t just a mecca for idealistic painters and actors and writers to come and find success. That’s not the reality for everyone. New York may be the city where those aspirations can be realized, but it is also a halfway house full of broken dreams, unfulfilled wishes, altered plans, and reality checks. And yet, in the midst of all the struggles to succeed and to find happiness, and the concerns about money, and the possibility that your plans might not work out the way you want them to, there are friendships, however fleeting, that sustain us, that enable us to dance in the minefields of life. For what seems like a mere moment, Jake and Tony get to share in each other’s wonderful, goofy, starry-eyed boyhood. And that is what makes Little Men not just a realistic look at growing up and finding yourself, but a celebration of the mixed bag that is life: It's a surprising movie, one that doesn't provide easy answers or convenient resolutions, and I loved every minute of it. 

September 09, 2016

The new restoration of 'Multiple Maniacs' offers yet another insane vision from the mind of John Waters.

This week, Jacksonville’s Sun-Ray Cinema is screening a restored print of John Waters’ 1970 anti-establishment film Multiple Maniacs. Waters, who’s somehow become a household name, of sorts, despite—or perhaps because of—his eccentricities, is best known to mainstream audiences as the director of Hairspray (1988), Cry-Baby (1990) and Serial Mom (1994) (all of which I’ve reviewed on this blog). Multiple Maniacs is his ode to the Manson family, so-to-speak, a movie that’s tickled with its own transgressiveness. Waters was so fascinated and disturbed by the murders of Sharon Tate and six others (in August 1969) at the hands of the infamous Manson cult, that he attended the trials of guru Charlie (aka Jesus Christ) and his followers, including the three girls who are forever burned in our memories with their shaved heads and the crude crosses engraved on their foreheads: Susan Atkins, Lesley Van Houten, and Patricia Krenwinkel. The film suggests that they've got the wrong people, as Divine later hints that her boyfriend is responsible for the crimes, and even holds up an actual newspaper that reads “Arrest Weirdo in Tate Murders,” just to scare him. (In reality, Waters has become a friend of Lesley Van Houten, who was recently recommended for release by the California Parole Board, only to be turned down by Governor Jerry Brown. You can read about their long correspondence and friendship, and Waters’ convincing argument for why Lesley should be released from prison, in his book Role Models.)

Multiple Maniacs follows The Lady Divine (played by Divine), a woman who dreams of having real success in the performing arts even as she “headlines” off-the-wall free shows featuring “homosexuals, druggies, and freaks.” The M.C. (David Lochary), who's also her (frustrated) boyfriend and manager-of-sorts, stands outside a white tent, shaming passers-by until they break down and enter this traveling carnival of sickos, where they can see horrible things. (You can see the mixture of disgust, fascination, and curiosity in every last one of these ordinary onlookers, even as they snicker and make fun of the freaks on display to them.) Once this troupe of exhibitionist weirdos has accumulated enough audience members, they tie up the terrified crowd with rope and steal their money and jewelry. (Not before concession girls pass out hamburgers for a buck each.)

But there's also a pretty alarming erotic scene in a Catholic Church, where Divine is propositioned by a woman (Mink Stole) who fines confession good for the soul, but not just the soul. If you never got why The Passion of the Christ was ultimately about sado-masochism, Waters will happily offer Multiple Maniacs as another visual aid. 

But even as John Waters venerates bad taste, and exhibits mockery of traditions, he cannot resist reminding us of his considerably wide appreciation of the arts. The makeshift sets (houses of family and friends in Waters' Baltimore hometown) display various movie posters (many of them art house fare from the likes of Ingmar Bergman). John Waters is a man who appreciates the ways that bad taste subverts good taste, even though he's secretly a snob himself. (Well, he's more upfront about it these days, if you pay any attention to his books and interviews.) Waters reads literary fiction voraciously, doesn’t own a television set (or at least, doesn’t watch any TV), and boasts an extensive art collection. You see, John Waters has always maintained a healthy love for the whole spectrum of art and trash, which is why he was born in exactly the right time and place. Multiple Maniacs, a movie that jokingly glamorizes the dregs of society, drags the respectable and the conventional people of the world, kicking and screaming, into its lair and confronts them with what they cannot accept on their own: their own banality, perhaps, or maybe the fact that their form of culture isn’t any more valid than what they consider garbage. 

Multiple Maniacs isn’t likely to be everyone’s cup of tea. At 82 minutes, the movie somehow feels too long, because Waters, when he was making his early films, didn’t always know when to cut a scene. The movie has static moments, but it’s a sight to behold all the same. Divine was always a devoted star, even when his performances registered as mostly amateur work. (He got better and better though, and in Multiple Maniacs his Elizabeth Taylor-vamping occasionally turns surreal.) 

What’s most exciting about Multiple Maniacs, besides the fact that it was the penultimate step toward Waters’ crowning filth-de-resistance, 1972’s Pink Flamingos, is that this movie provides a window into the insanity of the 1960s. All that sizzling, lunatic rage against society has been captured for those of us who can only experience the 1960s by proxy. If the Manson murders drove a dagger into the heart of the Peace and Love movement, Multiple Maniacs was there to record the fall: John Waters has always been able to tap directly into the bloodstream of the here and now: He knows what’s going on in the world, and he filters it through his own deliriously happy vision. The anger and the humor and the irreverence have lost none of their power. Multiple Maniacs is stabby and proud of it. 

With Mary Vivian Pearce.

September 07, 2016

It may be smart satire, but 'The Lobster' left me feeling cold.

The Lobster imagines a world in which single people are sent to a posh hotel in the English countryside where they must pair up or be turned into animals. Once guests arrive at the hotel, they have 45 days to find a mate. But they can earn extra days, by hunting each other—with “tranquilizers”—in the woods at night: the more people you shoot, the more days you accumulate. The hotel has strict rules discouraging anything done solo, and they even stage dull little one-act plays, showing people the danger and, nay, the immorality of being alone. The hotel’s manager is a severe and matter-of-fact schoolmistress of a woman (Olivia Colman); in the evenings, she and her husband entertain the guests with songs, which are sung as monotone as their everyday speech. The movie follows one guest named David (Colin Farrell), recently widowed, who eventually flees the hotel and his society’s totalitarian dating policy, only to fall in love with a fellow rebel (Rachel Weisz), who lives in the woods with a secret group of like-minded marriage holdouts. 

The Lobster is a canny satire of our militantly pro-marriage culture, directed by Yorgos Lanthimos (who co-wrote the script, with Efthymis Filippou). His conception is like something out of The Hunger Games, if it had been written for adults: a dystopian world that has been fragmented into little groups of underlings struggling for power. The hotel staff, apparently, have more power than the residents (at least those who don’t end up with a significant other by the end of their stay); and there’s a grim awareness that some kind of death (even if being transformed into an animal isn't really dying) awaits, like a vague specter. Talk about pressure to mate for life. 

Visually speaking, The Lobster reminds me of Stanley Kubrick’s films, perhaps because Kubrick was always trying to be English, and since this film takes place mostly in an expansive, antiseptic-looking English hotel, The Lobster feels like The Shining during tourist season: the Overlook Hotel is open for business, and OK Cupid is in charge of recreation. And, like every Stanley Kubrick movie, The Lobster is somber and arty and more than a little pretentious. But unlike the best of Kubrick’s films, The Lobster doesn’t grab hold of you. It’s so deadpan and uninvolved that it doesn’t even sell itself. 

Call this artistic integrity on the part of the director. Apparently, the only way Yorgos Lanthimos knows how to make his point—that marriage is a hegemonic institution— is to create a world as drab and tedious as the deadest mausoleum-marriage. Everyone speaks in monotonous, emotionless tones like the pod people from Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and likewise the dialogue is mindlessly ordinary and stiff: “I got you a rabbit; thank you very much; I like rabbits; I knew you did; that’s why I got you one.” (I’m paraphrasing, but that’s pretty close to reality.) The whole world of this movie has been lacquered in the beige of banality in order to advance The Lobster’s thesis. And I agree with the argument, but this brand of cultivated, polished satire leaves me enervated and completely checked out. 

It’s particularly frustrating to see good performers reduced to merely reciting their lines. At his best, Colin Farrell can be exuberantly pathetic or commanding, as in his performances in In Bruges and the Fright Night remake (where he played the sexy vampire-next-door). But here, both he and Rachel Weisz (also capable of real feeling and empathy) are hollowed out for the joke. The Lobster is a hipster’s version of satire: it lacks vivacity and madness, two things you need for a movie like this. And while its premise may be daring, the movie isn't. When John Waters was making all of his truly insane movies against the establishment, he at least was having a good time, even if those movies didn’t always hang together. (And of course, LSD was involved.) The Lobster hangs together too perfectly, like a stilted photograph of a dreary London factory, all its satire meticulously thought out and orchestrated. I felt nothing. 

With John C. Reilly, Ben Whishaw, Jessica Barden, and Ashley Jensen.