Sunday, January 25, 2015

Cake



There is a sense of people being up in arms about Cake, the new film in which Jennifer Aniston plays a woman with mysterious scars who is addicted to pain medication. Words like "terrible" and "unwatchable" have been thrown around, especially after Aniston received a Golden Globe nomination. Cake is not unwatchable, but nor is it "good" by any reasonable definition. Critical upset over the film, directed by Daniel Barnz, has more to do with its transparent nature as an Oscar-bait project and to some degree with the way we think about Jennifer Aniston herself.

Aniston plays Claire, whom we meet in the middle of offending the members of her chronic pain support group. Claire is divorced from a kindly lawyer (Chris Messina) we meet in one scene and she has only Silvana (the very good Adriana Barraza) as maid and chauffeur. We don't learn the cause of Claire's injuries until later in the film, and first we assume they are somehow connected to the suicide of fellow support group member Nina (Anna Kendrick). Claire's hallucinations of Nina - who urges Claire to kill herself - point to a dark secret, and why is Claire tracking down Nina's husband (Sam Worthington) and young son? When the answers are revealed Cake turns out to be a schematic movie about loss, grief, and recovery. Claire must come out the other side in order to face her life whole again, and this is how she does it. So, why all the fuss?

Jennifer Aniston plays entitlement very well, and as Claire she turns her natural haughtiness into something off putting. The way that Claire alternately depends on and harangues Silvana points to the idea that somewhere in here there was a better film about class and the way that domestic workers feel about their employers. Cake isn't that film though, save for a scene of Silvana with her own daughter and a trip to Tijuana that turns into one of Claire's kinder moments. Aniston gives a performance here that is probably about as good as she is capable of. She is believably emotionally bruised and dryly funny in a self-lacerating way. The problem with Cake is that about the third time that Anna Kendrick's character shows up a sense starts to take over that the film is putting Aniston through the wringer. Once the ground rules of Claire's suffering are established there is only direction the film can go, and the feeling of a woman's life in free fall is replaced by one of a screenwriter pulling strings. If you don't like Cake that's fine, I don't much either, but Aniston shouldn't be faulted for attempting a role that asks more of her than stuff like this. What is she supposed to do? The lack of roles for women in their 40's isn't a problem that's going away soon, but until that time Oscar season will continue to feel something like this film does.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

Wild



A woman named Cheryl (Reese Witherspoon) lies on the floor of a cheap California motel. Cheryl is being pinned to the floor by a huge hiker's backpack, the pack that she must struggle to put on and then carry with her on a 3-month hike along the Pacific Crest Trail. The image of Cheryl under her pack foreshadows much of what's to come in Wild, the film based on Cheryl Strayed's bestselling memoir, but more crucially it also gets at why I felt more warmly towards Jean-Marc Vallee's film than I did towards its source material. Reese Witherspoon plays Cheryl as barely hanging on, overcome by memories of her beloved late mother (Laura Dern, making the most of a little screen time), and not too far removed from a divorce and subsequent period of drug abuse. Strayed's book was told in alternating chapters, jumping from her adventures with too-small boots, eccentric fellow hikers, and that pack into memories of a tumultuous childhood and her mother's battle with cancer. It isn't right to begrudge another person their grief, but it is fair to talk about the way they choose to share it with us. In the book both Strayed's grief and her guilt over the failure of her marriage to the kindly Paul (Thomas Sadoski) were worried over and shined to a high gloss, presented as shining examples of those two emotions. Strayed's style becomes tiresome after a while, especially since in the alternate chapters we're reading about how her naivete as a hiker almost got her killed.

Wild is an example of not knowing to whom to give credit for what you like about a film. The basic structure of the story is kept to, but do we have Jean-Marc Vallee to thank for the stream of consciousness style? Memories flow in the present with in quick, jagged cuts that mirror Cheryl's mental state. At one moment we're in Cheryl's tent and the next moment in her mother's kitchen or in Paul's car after he has rescued her from a heroin-fueled interlude. Screenwriter Nick Hornby and editor Martin Pensa must have to do with the film's vision too, though it isn't a surprise to learn Vallee also edited under a pseudonym. Cheryl's emotional fragility is played against the sheer, cleansing effort that her journey requires. There are rivers and rocks to cross and a tent to manage and water to filter and a thousand other things, to say nothing of the natural conditions (from desert to snow) that must be dealt with. Just like Cheryl we are humbled by the journey and that's the point, but what plays as an outdoor adventure story for us was for Cheryl a trip that had to be taken. Of course Wild is an emotional journey as well, but the film never tacks towards pure sentiment until a late scene when Cheryl hears an old song sung by a child (Evan O'Toole) she meets on the trail. It's a moment (taken from the book) that could seem contrived, but Reese Witherspoon saves it with some gorgeous underplaying. Witherspoon produced Wild and her performance along with her turn in Inherent Vice marks a turn towards complicated characters that could serve her well. Wild is a grown-up film about growing up that has much on its mind, and it works because its producer and star proves her worth in both roles.

Sunday, January 18, 2015

Sunday Music: Sleater - Kinney "No Cities To Love"



Articles about Sleater-Kinney are thick on the ground recently, but this one at Pitchfork is my favorite in terms of charting the arc of their career, hiatus, reunion, and new cultural cachet. While you wait to by the album please enjoy this celebrity laden video.
There was supposed to be someone else, some other band that blazed through the path Sleater-Kinney made, some fiery young upstarts who took up that banner and made us true believers, set the awful world right, stamping and railing under those stage lights, loosing that feminist fury, and earning the right to rule upon us in hot waves of punk pummel. Instead, we were left with a Sleater-Kinney-shaped hole in our musical cosmos for nearly a decade. Like Fugazi, Nirvana, or Bad Brains before them—so singular a force, so powerfully perfect—there was no replicating what or who they were.

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Foxcatcher


(Foxcatcher is based on real events. If you don't know the story going in then skip this until after you've seen the film.)

Foxcatcher runs about two hours and 15 minutes, and to live inside the film for that time is be in a curious place. Bennett Miller’s film is the story of the brothers Schultz, Mark (Channing Tatum) and David (Mark Ruffalo). Both Mark and David won gold medals in wrestling  at the 1984 Olympics, but as we meet them three years later Mark is scratching out a living and the more settled David is working as a coach. Foxcatcher is the story of what happened when the Schultz brothers met John E. du Pont (Steve Carell), the heir to the du Pont family fortune and a self-styled patron and “coach” to American wrestlers. John du Pont murdered David Schultz in 1996.

It feels strange to say this about a film that ends with a murder, but Foxcatcher should have been funnier. There was ample opportunity for satirizing the Reagan-era, a time when the slavish restatement of “American Values” began to be turned into political currency. The way those values filter into sport is also a rich subject, but the film considers du Pont and his world with a total lack of irony and a cool distance. Steve Carell plays du Pont as a dead-eyed fish, a man completely incapable of casual social interaction who is unable to conceive of a world where someone can’t be bought. It is an impressively committed performance, but one that in the end is more about mannerism than soul. (Carell’s best moment involves du Pont’s cocaine-fueled delivery of the words “ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist.”)   There is a dry humor in the way du Pont delivers cliché-ridden speeches to the wrestlers who come to train at his “Foxcatcher” estate, but the script goes back to this well over and over because du Pont as a character lacks psychological depth. Only when du Pont is with his mother Jean (an underused Vanessa Redgrave) does the mask begin to slip. Jean dismisses the sport of wrestling as “low” and quizzes John about a childhood train set, and it seems the film’s conception of du Pont is nothing more complex than that of a little boy who never got enough love. Was du Pont insane or a true believer who crossed a line? The filmmakers aren’t sure and neither are we.

The best thing Foxcatcher has going for it is the performance of Mark Ruffalo as David Schultz. David is the older brother, a natural teacher and a figure able to move easily within the U.S. Wrestling establishment. Ruffalo plays David as filled with a deep love for his wife (Sienna Miller), children, and brother, but as also possessed of a pragmatism about what’s best for the people in his life. The early scene where David and Mark warm up together is remarkable both for the physical effort of the actors and for what it says about the brothers’ connection with each other. If only Channing Tatum had as much to work with as Mark. As written Mark is an empty vessel and neither Tatum nor the movie can fill him. To put it another way, the movie’s Mark isn’t smart enough to be interesting. Mark’s lack of reflection is of a piece with the movie’s cold recounting of events, with its refusal to engage with the way that class has twisted du Pont’s idea of the meaning of words like “excellence” and “winner”. If Bennett Miller and his writers want the audience do the work that’s fine, but given the public nature of the events being depicted it is fair to ask why this film was made if the artists involved were going to so understate the effort to figure out a larger meaning. Foxcatcher would very much like to be a film about America writ large, but it doesn’t get nearly far enough off of John du Pont’s estate.

Friday, January 16, 2015

The Imitation Game


Thoughtful viewers may well be of two minds about The Imitation Game, Morten Tyldum’s film of the life of British mathematician Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch). Tyldum and writer Graham Moore (working from a book by Andrew Hodges) have dramatized what is important about Turing - his code breaking activities for England during World War II - in a conventional manner, complete with flashbacks to childhood and end titles that put his achievements in perspective. Turing is hired to join a team working to break the German “Enigma” code, a thought to be unbreakable cipher which prevented the Allies from anticipating German movements. Through a combination of ability and arrogance Turing is soon in charge of the team, much to the displeasure of his commanding officer (Charles Dance) and colleague (Matthew Goode). An effort to bring in new staff introduces Joan Clarke (a spiky Keira Knightley), who is chafing at being limited by her gender and who soon becomes Turing’s chief confidant.

If you are intrigued by the previous paragraph and you don’t know Turing’s story then you may want to stop reading. The Imitation Game works well enough as a story of the War years thanks mostly to Benedict Cumberbatch, who finds a way to make palpable the sense that Turing is overwhelmed by the speed of his thoughts even as he struggles to relate to those around him. It’s a carefully worked out performance and one that reveals new sides of Cumberbatch’s talent. The more delicate task is to tell the rest of Turing’s life. The World War II story is framed by Turing’s 1950’s prosecution for “indecency”, or in other words for his being a homosexual. The word “gay” is never used in The Imitation Game, and the best choice that that makers of The Imitation Game is the one to not make Turing a precursor of the self-aware, politically conscious gay characters we know today. (Alan Turing killed himself in 1954 and homosexuality was illegal in Great Britain until the late 1960’s.)  Turing’s sexuality (made public after a botched robbery at his house) is something he half understands and deeply fears, and it is the juxtaposition of Turing’s intellect with his fundamental needs that gives the film its poignancy.

The Imitation Game is a film about othering. As a child young Alan (the very good Alex Lawther) is an outcast due to his intelligence and his feelings for a classmate (Jack Bannon). As an adult Alan has trouble connecting with his fellow code breakers. Joan is set apart because no one believes a woman can be an elite mathematician, and it’s only through her bond with Alan that she finds a way in. A plainly stated message of the film is that unlikely people can do great things, but there is also an implicit point made about the folly of the ways we choose to set people apart from each other. The fact that The Imitation Game received multiple Oscar nominations is no surprise. There is plenty of talent here and a prestige year-end release courtesy of The Weinstein Company,  but the film is also animated by an urgency about its subject that biographical films like this often lack. A better film might be made about Alan Turing the scientist, but it is hard to imagine a more honorable one about Alan Turing the man.

Saturday, January 10, 2015

Inherent Vice


Paul Thomas Anderson has made the most open-hearted film of his career with Inherent Vice, a sprawling and funky detective story that turns the through-line of Thomas Pynchon’s 2009 novel into something with a different flavor. Anderson follows the novel’s complex (but not incoherent) plot closely, but where Pynchon focused on the end of ‘60s ideals and what came next Anderson has something simpler and a little sweeter on his mind: Somebody misses their ex. The change in tone is marked by the character of Sortilege (Joanna Newsom), a minor figure in the novel who serves as narrator and as a sort of controlling spirit in the film. It’s 1970 and Larry “Doc” Sportello (Joaquin Phoenix) is a private detective in the seaside town of Gordita Beach, California. Doc’s former girlfriend Shasta Fay (Katherine Waterston in a star-making turn) visits him out of concern for her new boyfriend, the married real-estate developer Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts). Shasta Fay is worried that Mickey’s wife (Serena Scott Thomas) wants to commit him to a mental hospital and take his money. From there we’re off on a twisty road involving tax-dodging dentists, a bizarre new age retreat center, and a boat called the “Golden Fang” that may lie at the heart of the mystery.

As busy as Inherent Vice is, at the center there is an idea that every now and then two people might find themselves going in the same direction. There are Doc and Shasta Fay, but also a saxophone player named Coy (an affecting Owen Wilson) and his wife (Jena Malone). Coy is presumed dead but is in fact a law enforcement snitch who can’t go home. Even a drug-addled Doc is touched by Coy’s plight, and the most “hippie” moment in the film might be the scene in which Doc is offered the world by an adversary and chooses to help Coy instead.  Shasta Fay is as much an enigma as any good femme fatale, but Katherine Waterston grounds her with a sadness over dreams not realized that both breaks Doc’s heart and makes her irresistible. Doc himself is something of a pot-happy Don Quixote, a good P.I. whose head can be turned by a pretty woman or a good story. Joaquin Phoenix gives a committed performance of masterful control as Doc, playing the disassociation perfectly but also giving Doc a keen intelligence. There is so much going on in Inherent Vice that this review can’t do justice to characters played by Martin Short, Reese Witherspoon, and Benicio del Toro, but attention must be paid to Josh Brolin as Detective “Bigfoot” Bjornsen. With his close shave and flattop haircut Bigfoot at first appears to represent “The Man”, but he’s as uncomfortable in the LAPD as Doc would be at a Republican precinct meeting. Brolin and Phoenix have some of the film’s funniest scenes together, but the laughs always come from the characters rather than the drugs they’re consuming. Bigfoot should burnish Josh Brolin’s reputation for giving depth to characters we think we understand, he did it in Milk and does it again here in a very different part.

Inherent Vice was shot on film with Robert Elswit serving as director of photography. If you haven’t seen a movie shot on film recently then you should, the experience will do you good. Elswit gives a texture and a creaminess to this world, even to the light itself, that is both immersive and evocative of movies we remember. The level of visual detail is heartening, but if the material being shot didn’t work then of course it wouldn’t matter. There isn’t a filmmaker working whose next film I’m more excited to see that Paul Thomas Anderson. Inherent Vice is more proof of Anderson’s ability to combine directorial flourish with a love of actors, and it’s also another chapter in his history of American dreamers. In bringing Thomas Pynchon to the screen for the first time Anderson has dug out the parts that mattered to him and then made the most of them. What more can we ask from a singular American voice?

Selma


Here, at last, is Selma. Ava DuVernay’s film about the planning and execution of the 1965 civil rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama arrived at the end of a year when Americans found themselves shaking their heads over seeming systemic indifference to black deaths at the hands of white police officers. Selma opens around the country at the start of 2015, and this bracing film is a much-needed reminder that the Civil Rights Movement was more than just integration, sit-ins, and the changing of laws. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. (David Oyelowo in a superb performance) and his associates were putting forth a moral imperative about the meaning of America, and the energy and bravado of DuVernay’s film keeps King’s message alive like no dramatic work I have ever seen.

Selma opens with King receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964. King and his wife Coretta (Carmen Ejogo) remark on how pleasant it is to briefly “be away” from the struggle back home, and the honesty of that assessment is a sign of things to come. Ava DuVernay (working from a script credited to Paul Webb) is interested in Martin Luther King, Jr. the man, and Selma gives us a King who is by turns scared, calculating, angry, funny, and magnetic. DuVernay has found an ideal creative partner in David Oyelowo, the two first worked together on DuVernay’s film Middle of Nowhere. Oyelowo doesn’t put a foot wrong here, and he is equally as good at playing King joking with Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo) and others in a Selma kitchen as he is at delivering a eulogy at the funeral of a murdered protestor (Keith Stanfield). Some of the best moments in Selma show King as politician, smoothing over the angrier SNCC (Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee) as he explains the strategy behind  non-violence. The film is very detailed about why King does what he does, including a moment where he declines to press an opening that Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) appears to have provided. When King is called out by a SNCC member (Trai Byers) for not starting the march when given a chance it is the only time in the film that he doesn’t have an answer and the scene points up just how moment-to-moment the Movement must have felt despite King’s strength.

The initial attempt to stage a Selma-to-Montgomery march resulted in the “Bloody Sunday” of March 1965, when Alabama state troopers blocked the bridge to Montgomery and then assaulted the marchers. This scene is DuVernay’s strongest set piece, with the fleeing marchers filmed against the nightmarish white smoke of the troopers’ tear gas. When we see marchers like John Lewis (Stephan James) and Amelia Boynton (Lorraine Toussaint) being beaten it brings home the point that the Movement had a real human cost, one that King (in the film’s conception) was keenly aware of. If only Selma had been as strong in its treatment of President Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson). Much conversation about Selma has centered around whether the film is “fair” to Johnson, but while the assertion that the Selma march was Johnson’s idea seems obviously false almost all scenes involving Johnson are played as broadly as a TV movie. Johnson is portrayed as having no grasp of the moral dimension of the Movement, and indeed as being behind the surveillance that J. Edgar Hoover (Dylan Baker) has the FBI perform on King. Selma is broken up by titles that suggest FBI tracking of King, and I wonder if the focus on the government’s reaction to King isn’t misplaced. Surely the fact that elements in the U.S. government considered King dangerous is the least interesting thing about him now? I don’t know if there’s a historical basis for the scene where King and Coretta hear a surveillance tape of King with another woman, but Oyelowo and Carmen Ejogo both underplay marvelously in what could have been a maudlin moment. I wanted more time with King, Abernathy, and the others. (including characters played by Ruben Santiago-Hudson and Wendell Pierce) , as I was fascinated by the way these leaders of the Movement behaved when there were no cameras around. Selma is at its best when it depicts the work of organizing the Movement, and the joys, anxieties, and fatigue that its leaders experienced. Ava DuVernay and her collaborators have made a vital, important work of American history, a film that holds lessons that we need to keep learning.

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

"It takes time to find out what you want."


HBO's Looking is back for Season 2.
The tweaking went further than just adding more skin: The tart fan favorite Lauren Weedman, who plays Dom’s best friend, Doris, has become for all intents and purposes a regular and even gets her own love interest (Bashir Salahuddin), while all sorts of flare-ups from the first season are being addressed, including ­Patrick’s unprotected sexual encounter from the season-one finale. And as the scope of the show grows and new characters come onboard, more physical types have been added to a cast that was ­heretofore either white or Latin and pretty much exclusively gym-fit. “We’ve done Q&As with people who had seen the show,” says Groff, “and this older bearish gentleman raised his hand at one, on the verge of tears, and was like, ‘I really enjoy the show, it’s been great to watch, but I’m not seeing myself in it. This is about a group of gay men, but I don’t know them.’ And for me, the biggest thing about the reaction to the show was a reflection of just that: There were obviously people dying to be heard and to be seen.”