Monday, July 27, 2015

Ant-Man (mild spoilers)


Ant-Man is a light-footed and winning superhero movie, one with human-sized stakes and a sense of its own silliness that’s too often lacking in the genre. If only the writers (including Edgar Wright, Peyton Reed directed) didn’t have to tie the story into the larger Marvel Universe, because it is the Marvel scenes that bring Ant-Man to Earth and promise a less interesting future for the character. Comics fans will know that the Ant-Man character has a long and busy history, but the rest of us may be surprised to know that Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is the second man to don the shrinking suit. Lang is a just paroled burglar with a do-gooder streak, and it’s only desperation that brings him to the home of original Ant-Man Doctor Hank Pym (Michael Douglas). No superhero movie would be complete without at least one scene of pseudo-scientific mumbo jumbo, and Douglas pulls off the explanation of the shrinking - due to something called the “Pym particle” -  like he was born to it. The plot involves an attempt to prevent Pym’s former protégé Darren Cross (Corey Stoll) from selling the shrinking technology, but the pleasures of Ant-Man come from watching Rudd’s Lang discover his inner hero.

The visual wit on display in Ant-Man might be due to Peyton Reed, or Edgar Wright, or some combination, but it’s definitely the best thing about the movie. Pym teaches Lang how to control ants, and the sight of a shrunken Lang interacting with ants like they were farm animals is just one of many delightfully off-kilter images. The final fight between Cross and Lang takes place in the bedroom of Lang’s daughter Cassie (Abby Ryder Fortson), and Cross and Lang fighting on Cassie’s toy train is worthy of a William Joyce children’s book. (There’s also a great sight gag in this scene involving a well-known children’s character.)  The sequence in which Lang, with the help of Pym and Pym’s daughter Hope (Evangeline Lilly), trains to break into Cross’s lab is full of visual jokes. I especially liked the image of Lang  popping through the soil in Pym’s back yard like a mutant gopher.I’d happily watch a movie with Paul Rudd, who plays Lang as a well-intentioned rogue with a soft spot for his daughter, as the leader of some kind of hip Ocean’s 11 gang. Michael Pena is very funny as Lang’s motor-mouthed sidekick and the two montages of exposition his character narrates are gentle mockeries of laborious genre storytelling.

But of course we’re in the Marvel Universe, and Lang must fight with a second-tier Avenger while the post-credits scenes signal Ant-Man’s involvement in future movies. There’s a prologue relating Pym’s departure from S.H.I.E.L.D  and a certain villainous collective pops up. All of this is necessary for the larger Marvel project, but that’s no reason to look forward to Ant-Man getting subsumed into The Avengers. Ant-Man is a charming intermission between acts of Marvel’s ongoing space opera. Enjoy it, but don’t get used to it.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Amy


Before seeing the new documentary Amy I thought of Amy Winehouse as a tragedy of excess, another artist whose addictions overwhelmed their creative impulses and whose life ended up being a cautionary tale. It is to the great credit of director Asif Kapadia that Amy doesn't whitewash Winehouse's substance abuse while at the same time reclaiming her as a major talent who became a casualty of the celebrity business. Winehouse is without question among recent pop stars the one least temperamentally suited to be famous, and Kapadia's film asks us to think very hard about what we should expect from the artists we admire.

 Amy begins with Winehouse as a teenager singing "Happy Birthday" to a friend. Kapadia weaves together home movies, TV broadcasts, unused promotional footage, still photos, and many, many shots of Winehouse being followed by paparazzi. The effect is immersive; Kapadia is describing the arc of a life without vamping on the lurid details. Off-camera narration is provided by a large cast of friends, family, and peers who without question speak of their love for Winehouse and the way that the singer's demons tore their relationships apart. Images of Winehouse in various states of intoxication are placed over interviews with people who either couldn't help Winehouse or didn't think there was a problem. The lack of interest that Winehouse's parents displayed in her self-professed bulimia is shocking, and indeed if Amy has a villain it is Winehouse's father Mitch. After leaving the family when Amy was a girl, Winehouse re-entered his daughter's life and in Kapadia's telling viewed her as an asset to be tapped. There are many disturbing moments in Amy, but none perhaps more so than the moment Mitch interrupts his daughter's (relatively) sober idyll in St. Lucia with a reality television crew. With such a father, did Winehouse ever have a chance?

 Kapadia's film doesn't attempt to elide the fact that Winehouse was an addict, she used prodigiously with her husband Blake Fielder and wasn't easily convinced to seek help. But always there was the music. Winehouse's first love was jazz, and it's suggested that a career performing in small clubs would have suited her just fine. There are numerous examples of Winehouse's vocal abilities in the film, but the most remarkable moment comes late. While recording with Tony Bennett for Bennett's Duets album, a cleaned-up Winehouse frets about wasting her hero's time. Neither Bennett nor Winehouse could ever have imagined this conversation would be seen - they probably forgot it was being filmed - and so there's nothing affected about the way Bennett reassures Winehouse that they'll keep working until they get it right. Bennett viewed Winehouse as a peer, and the scene points to just how much Winehouse saw herself as a student of music. The last months of Winehouse's life were filled with ideas for new projects, and the film suggests that Winehouse's final spiral was the result of being forced to sing songs she was tired of at contractually obligated concert dates. Implicit in Amy is the idea that there was a moment when Winehouse could have been saved, but by then she was already a punchline (as a painful montage points out) and neither her father, her manger, nor the rest of us were willing to again let her be that girl who sang "Happy Birthday".

Monday, July 20, 2015

Trainwreck


There are two voices in Trainwreck, the new comedy directed by Judd Apatow that Amy Schumer wrote and stars in. Schumer plays Amy, a Manhattan men’s magazine writer assigned by her editor (an uncomfortable Tilda Swinton) to profile a sports surgeon named Aaron (Bill Hader). The title Trainwreck doesn’t refer to the way Amy practices journalism, the script’s interest in Amy’s abilities as a writer could politely be called casual. It is Amy’s personal life that’s at issue, she has a nominal boyfriend (John Cena) but also hops between boozy one-night stands. The roots of Amy’s behavior lie in her father (Colin Quinn), whose opening flashback monologue ends with him leading his young daughters in a chant of “Monogamy isn’t natural!” The dramatic stakes of Schumer’s script revolve around whether or not Amy’s old ways will undo her even as her attraction to Aaron deepens.

The professionally accomplished and sexually confident woman Amy Schumer plays in Trainwreck initially seems of a piece with both Schumer’s TV persona and her recent media self-presentation. So I’m not sure what Schumer is trying to say when so much of her script seems intent on sanding down her character’s edges. Amy’s happily married sister (the very good Brie Larson) is presented as the model of a different set of choices, while Amy’s relationship with Aaron increasingly tacks towards romantic comedy conventions. (To be fair, Schumer points out and mocks some of these tropes in voice-over.) The ending involves Amy performing with the New York Knicks dancers, and while it’s wittily executed - there’s a great sight gag involving a trampoline - it hews pretty closely to the idea of the Climactic Grand Gesture we’ve come to know from a thousand lesser films.

It’s in the arc of Amy’s story that I thought I detected the influence of Judd Apatow, who’s a good match for Schumer’s bawdiness but who also is biased towards sweetness and convention in a way I’m not sure Schumer is. I can’t believe Schumer wrote the unfunny scene in which Aaron, whom Hader plays in a way to suggest that Aaron loves Amy but doesn’t always like her, receives relationship advice from a quartet of celebrities led by Matthew Broderick. LeBron James plays himself as one of Aaron’s clients, and though James ably handles the acting the fact of his presence feels like a trick or an extension of James’s brand. Trainwreck is just over two hours, and while it doesn’t feel as baggy as Apatow’s other films it does share the overall shape of a push towards maturity. I’ve never felt Apatow’s hand in Lena Dunham’s Girls as much as I do here, and there is no scene in Trainwreck as moving as Hannah and Adam’s final conversation in Girls most recent season finale. Amy Schumer is a better actor that I expected, she plays vulnerability very well and she will have more opportunities to act and write due to the success of Trainwreck at the box office. I did enjoy Trainwreck, there are plenty of laughs, but I look forward to Schumer unfiltered.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Quick reaction to Wilco's Star Wars



Anyone of a mind that Wilco's music has become mannered, post-rehab rock for the microbrew crowd will get a shock from Star Wars, which opens with 75 seconds or so of guitar skronk ("EKG") before moving in to the fuzzy, textured "More...", in which Jeff Tweedy sings about someone who wants "...more than there is, more than exists." This new album can't provide all that of course, rather it feels like a detour back to the energy of Being There and Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. The most immediately appealing track is "Random Name Generator", which celebrates "a miracle every once in awhile" and suggests that the band is content not to be what you expect but rather to continue a path of restless exploration. Star Wars also makes a strong argument for the idea that after Tweedy the most valuable member of Wilco is guitarist Nels Cline. (For more evidence, watch this.) Cline's guitar lends even the more laid-back songs ("Where Do I Begin", "Cold Slope") a sense of adventure, a feeling that the song could take off in an unexpected direction at any moment.

Star Wars is a brief album, only one song ("You Satellite") runs over 5 minutes, and its energy and looseness make me want to revisit Tweedy's Sukierae album. That project, which Tweedy made with his son Spencer, had a similar in-the-moment feeling even though Jeff Tweedy played most of the instruments himself. The words "language is losing" appear in the song "Cold Slope", and those words both summarize the album - most of the lyrics are inscrutable - and suggest a direction for Wilco in which words, sounds, studio effects, and Tweedy's natural desire not to get too comfortable could combine to create something entirely new. If that's the goal, then Star Wars is a good first step.

Thursday, July 09, 2015

Magic Mike XXL


If you come to Magic Mike XXL not having seen the original Magic Mike, don’t worry. Within a few minutes Reid Carolin’s script sets up the situation. Three years later, Mike (Channing Tatum) isn’t working as a stripper. Mike is single and owns his own small furniture business, and in a nod to authenticity Carolin includes a scene in which Mike apologizes to his one employee for not being able to provide health insurance. After Mike’s fellow strippers - the former “Kings of Tampa” - turn up there’s a brief scene that explains why Matthew McConaughey’s Dallas isn’t in the movie. Then, we’re off.

Magic Mike XXL, directed by Gregory Jacobs, is a sequel that no one ever thought would exist. While the obvious choice might have been to gin up the melodrama and create lame conflict, Carolin goes the other way. XXL is plotless and baggy to such a degree that Robert Altman might have been interested in making it, but it’s also great fun and a gentle scoping out of American masculinity in 2015. Mike impulsively joins his old colleagues to travel from Florida to Myrtle Beach for a “last ride” at a Stripper Convention. The movie we’re watching is their journey, a chance for each man to contemplate unrealized dreams and a new chapter in their lives. Tarzan (Kevin Nash) is an artist, while Tito (Adam Rodriguez) wants to start a frozen yogurt business. Ken (a scene stealing Matt Bomer) is trying to resurrect his acting career, and Richie (Joe Manganiello) is looking for love. Jacobs stages a series of bro moments as the men roll across the South in Tito’s food truck, and after a while I realized I was watching a movie about Where American Men Are At. The Kings of Tampa are performing a fantasy of masculinity while going through desperate uncertainty in their real lives, and the result is surprisingly winning. When Richie does his routine for a convenience store clerk in order to win a smile I braced for condescension, but the scene is sweet and funny and just as awkward as Mike’s attraction to a lost soul (Amber Heard) he meets along the road.

Magic Mike XXL is also a movie about people at work, and the “let’s put on a show” story leads to the Kings’ final performance at the Stripper Convention. (The sign outside the venue says “Stripper Convention”.) Jada Pinkett Smith plays an old love of Mike’s named Rome, and there’s a long interlude when the guys stop at the high-end pleasure palace Rome runs in Savannah. Mike needs Rome to serve as M.C. for the Kings’ performance, but while we’re waiting for Rome decide we watch her affirm the beauty of the “queens” (the women) who patronize her club through Oprah-like exhortations and the help of a positive rapper played by Donald Glover. Mike and the Kings also spend a great deal of time boosting each other’s self-esteem and that of the people they meet, including a Charleston divorcee (Andie MacDowell) and her houseful of boozy women. Indeed the Kings’ final performance is a giant act of affirmation, as the hundreds of women in attendance - a few get very special attention - are driven to a frenzy by the men whose routines amount to more burlesque than overt sexuality. The end of Magic Mike XXL owes something to Soderbergh’s Ocean’s 11, we’re moved by the fact the men have reached the height of their craft - by rejecting clichéd routines for new material - at the end of their careers. Magic Mike XXL isn’t the most inventive movie of this summer, that honor goes to Inside Out, but it considers the American soul like no movie I’ve seen in a very long time.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Dope



People who throw around the phrase “geek culture” probably aren’t thinking about the three high schoolers at the center of the new film Dope. Malcolm (Shameik Moore) lives with his mother (Kimberly Elise) in a rough part of L.A. known as “The Bottoms”. Malcolm wants to go to Harvard, and when he isn’t turning in application essays about ‘90s hip-hop he’s playing in an art-punk band and trying to avoid losing his shoes to a bully (Keith Stanfield). It’s all Malcolm and his friends Jib (Tony Revolori of The Grand Budapest Hotel) and the lesbian Diggy (Kiersey Clemons) can do some days to make it home without running afoul of gangs or drug dealers.

What sounds like the setup for a drama of overcoming one’s circumstances is fact the ingredient list for a comic but pointed tale of self-discovery. Malcolm crosses the radar of a drug dealer (A$ap Rocky) whose girlfriend (Zoe Kravitz) also wants to go to college. When Malcolm winds up with a backpack of drugs and in the sights of rival dealers he must unload the product to protect his friends and his future. Writer/director Rick Famuyiwa  doesn’t lose sight of the stakes for Malcolm while filling the film with exuberant cross-talk about everything from classic hip-hop (the soundtrack is a winner) to President Obama’s drone policies to why white people can’t use the n-word. Famuyiwa’s script plays with our expectations nicely, there’s a jarring act of violence in the first few minutes while we’re still getting used to the narration by producer Forest Whitaker. Later Malcolm points a gun at someone and it’s played as an act of genuine desperation as opposed to a scene of Malcolm discovering his inner killer. Famuyiwa throws twitter feeds, Bitcoin, hacking, memes, hoodies, and a probably too soon Aaron Swartz reference into the mix and comes up with something fresh, a film where everyone (including the main character) is a quarter turn from what we’re used to.

Dope ends with a declamatory speech to the camera by Malcolm, it’s supposed to be a last-minute rewrite of his Harvard application essay. The speech is the kind of sequence that Spike Lee would have filled out with a mournful Terence Blanchard score and some snazzy editing, but Famuyiwa is working with fewer resources and so we just get Malcolm. A teacher calls Malcolm “arrogant” early in the film, and this summing up is arrogant enough to critique the tropes (drug dealers vs. innocents, celebrations turned into shootouts, single motherhood) of the film we’re watching. Dope bends ‘90s “gangsta” (I use the term with caution) films through filters of irony and sadness, all the while asking us to think about how we watch. Dope is too good for summer.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Love & Mercy

Brian Wilson was the creative engine and guiding spirit of The Beach Boys, and he's also arguably more deserving of a biographical film than any other American rock musician this side of Dylan or Presley. Love & Mercy, directed by Bill Pohlad, does an honest day's work in telling Wilson's story by telling two stories: Wilson in the 1960's (played by Paul Dano) taking his music and his bandmates in ever more baroque directions as mental illness sets in, and Wilson in the 1980's (John Cusack) when under the control of the psychologist Eugene Landy (Paul Giamatti). The 1960's scenes begin with a splash of California sun, as The Beach Boys (who weren't surfers) promote their early hits and Brian experiences a breakdown that causes him to stop touring. When Brian retreats into the studio - he's creating the Pet Sounds album to keep pace with The Beatles - Love & Mercy encounters the challenge common to all biographical films about artists. How does one dramatize creativity? The film (scripted by Oren Moverman and Michael Alan Lerner) comes up with an answer that works.

There's a cliche about relative amounts of inspiration and perspiration that Love & Mercy uses to its advantage. For every shot of Brian with arms outstretched and waiting to hear the call of his muse there are five shots of him working with studio musicians to create the sounds he hears in his head. The film doesn't shy away from the start-and-stop-and-try again process of recording, and in my favorite shot Pohlad travels through the studio while Wilson works with two musicians to show the tedium that his perfectionism could create. (The script also clearly states that the other Beach Boys had nothing to offer musically except their voices.) That tedium proves too much for singer Mike Love (Jake Abel), who wants the band to return to its earlier poppy style after Pet Sounds sales go flat. Love's commercialism is presented as an irritant to Wilson, but the emotional and physical abuse Wilson suffered at the hands of his father (Bill Camp) did real damage. Camp plays Murry Wilson as a self-absorbed monster who never let go of his resentment of Brian, and the script makes their relationship a major issue in Brian's slow breakdown. Paul Dano's performance as Brian is a tricky job of navigation, since Wilson was as in conflict with his own mind as he was with those around. The doughy, sensitive man Dano plays here is a long way from the firebrand preacher whose milkshake got drunk in There Will be Blood. Dano is completely convincing as both a genius and man losing touch with himself.

The 1980's scenes of Love & Mercy are a touching but more conventional arc of recovery and redemption given life by the performances of John Cusack and Elizabeth Banks. The overmedicated 1980's Wilson is a long way from the highly verbal, darkly funny men we're used to seeing Cusack play, but he's more than up to the task of portraying how out of touch Wilson must have seemed to those around him. In the film's telling Wilson is saved by falling in love with Melinda (Banks), a woman he meets (and would later marry) while car shopping. Melinda is a conventional role given shading thanks to Banks's personality, it's she who helps Wilson free himself from the predatory Landy. We perceive Melinda only in terms of how she feels about and reacts to Wilson, but she and Cusack have an easy rhythm together and Cusack beautifully underplays his surprise at both loving and being loved. The scenes with Landy, who is written and played by Giamatti with no subtlety, might have worked better if we saw how their relationship started - the men met during Wilson's dark 1970's - but then that would have been a different film. I could have done without a dream sequence near the end that too neatly restates what has come before, but that's quibbling. Love & Mercy honors its subject by telling Brian Wilson's story with as much light and darkness as the music he made.