Friday, August 14, 2015

The Gift


Anyone watching the trailer for the new thriller The Gift might be forgiven for thinking that the film looks like an update of ‘80s and ‘90s genre pictures. You know the ones, films like Pacific Heights, Single White Female, or The Hand That Rocks The Cradle in which menace enters the lives of innocents in the person of a vengeful or mentally ill stranger. What The Gift - written, directed by, and co-starring Joel Edgerton - gets right is the way it challenges our expectations of who the innocents are and where the menace comes from. Simon (Jason Bateman) and Robyn (Rebecca Hall) have relocated to Los Angeles from Chicago for Simon’s job in the security industry. A throwaway line early on reveals that for Simon the move is a sort of homecoming. The fact that he’s from the area is important and the casual nature of the reveal shows the confidence Edgerton has in his control of information. The house that Simon and Robyn move into has plenty of windows and a gorgeous view, and Edgerton is very adept at using the space to create tension. (There’s always a feeling someone could pop up at a window or around a corner.) One day in a store Simon is approached by Gordon (Edgerton, excellently creepy), who says he and Simon went to high school together. Why does Simon seem so nervous?

As Gordon’s gifts and visits become more unsettling, The Gift slowly begins to work on challenging our sympathies. Simon’s abrupt dismissal of Gordon’s awkwardness would seem to mask a deeper problem, while the gradual revelation that Robyn is recovering from painkiller addiction introduces the idea that her nervousness at being home alone is psychosomatic. Edgerton’s script is very well structured, it slides into Scenes from a Marriage and then back again beautifully, but it wouldn’t work if Jason Bateman didn’t commit to playing a jerk. Simon seems to get what he wants - a pregnant wife, a promotion at work - with relative ease, but when the film starts to turn against him the Bateman’s series of small, specific acting choices take on a new meaning. Rebecca Hall is equally good, giving depth to what could have been a one-dimensional role. The final revelations of The Gift are remarkable for their economy; having someone watch a DVD isn’t a standard thriller climax. But the skill with which the film turns tables and settles scores is remarkable in its thoroughness, and I admired the way one character’s sympathies are left a mystery at the end. The roiling emotions of The Gift make for a bracing surprise. Joel Edgerton’s directorial debut is a vital performance of a familiar tune.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Paper Towns/Irrational Man (mild spoilers)



Paper Towns is the latest slice of cinematic earnestness based on the writings of John Green, whose The Fault In Our Stars served as a lesson about death for a generation who can’t quite remember what happens in those middle Harry Potter books. This new film, directed by Jake Schreier, is a pleasant but formulaic piece of work that owes a debt to John Hughes films of the 1980’s in the same way that The Fault In Our Stars owes a nod to Love Story and an apology to Anne Frank. Quentin (Nat Wolff) is a straight arrow Orlando teen who one night joins neighbor and former childhood friend Margo (Cara Delevingne) as she carries out an evening of revenge pranks on her cheating ex and her former girlfriends. Margo Roth Spiegelman - her full name is spoken aloud many times - is a brain with an artist’s soul, one who’s full of maxims about living an authentic life and scorn for her suburban existence. Delevingne can’t really suggest much of Margo’s supposed depth, but she looks good in an aviator’s cap and isn’t on screen that much anyway.

I shouldn’t dismiss Delevingne that bluntly, except that that’s exactly what Paper Towns does. Margo disappears after her night with Quentin, and among the questions Quentin doesn’t ask her when they meet again are “Do you have enough money?” and “Where are you sleeping?”. The character of Margo is meant to talk back to the trope of beautiful and eccentric women opening guys up to life, but the film is actually concerned with Quentin enjoying his last few high school weeks with his buddies (Austin Abrams and Justice Smith, both fresh-faced and funny) as they obsess over Margo’s whereabouts and attending their first party. To put it another way, Margo is a human version of the glowing case in Pulp Fiction. Margo will literally become a myth while Quentin will go on to be slightly happier. I would have had it the other way around.

*** Woody Allen’s Irrational Man is a complete non-starter, a tired recycling of Allen tropes (life’s value, murder plots, age inappropriate relationships) constructed around a preposterous performance by Joaquin Phoenix. Phoenix plays a philosophy professor who existential despair is cured by the attentions of a student (Emma Stone) and by his use of murder as self-actualizing tool. I’ve rarely seen a good actor look less invested than Phoenix does here, but I’m even more concerned that Woody Allen has lost the ability to tell a story in a dialogue and images. Both Phoenix and Stone’s characters have on-the-nose voiceovers which elide almost every bit of spontaneity and surprise in their scenes. Was it just cheaper to tell the story from a recording booth? Only Parker Posey, as a faculty member after Phoenix, has anything fun to offer. Posey’s brittleness is well-used here and her scenes are the only time that the film feels like it could go somewhere worthwhile. Emma Stone is wasted, and Irrational Man winds up as a limp disappointment.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Ricki and the Flash



Meryl Streep doesn’t seem comfortable in the early scenes of Jonathan Demme‘s Ricki and the Flash. Streep plays Ricki (real name Linda), a L.A. bar-band musician whose dreams of stardom led her to leave her Midwestern family years before. When Ricki gets a call from her ex-husband Pete (Kevin Kline) that their daughter Julie (Streep’s daughter Mamie Gummer) has been left by her husband, she returns to Indianapolis and a to a family that had given her up. If Ricki and the Flash were a different, lesser movie it might have revealed Ricki’s hidden genius or led to a scene of deep reconciliation between Ricki and her children, but writer Diablo Cody isn’t one for taking the easy way out. That discomfort Streep plays is true to Cody’s script, because Ricki isn’t very good at life.

Ricki and her band (“The Flash”) have settled into a steady house-band gig; they have a way with classic rock covers - not so much with “Bad Romance” - and Ricki has even edged into a tentative romance with her guitarist Greg (Rick Springfield). Demme and Cody treat Ricki’s L.A. scene with affection, but her life isn’t romanticized. There’s a regular crowd of dancers and drinkers at Ricki’s bar. Jonathan Demme hasn’t lost his eye for casting odd-looking faces, but he also doesn’t shy away from Ricki’s shabby apartment or her demeaning job at “Total Foods”. But the heart of Ricki and the Flash is in the Indianapolis scenes, and it’s good to see that Cody hasn’t lost her taste for trolling what she sees as emotionally stultifying Midwestern life. As good as Streep is, my favorite thing in Ricki and the Flash is Mamie Gummer as Julie, who - wearing an X T-shirt and drinking kombucha - has an first scene worthy of Gena Rowlands in a Cassavetes film. Later there’s a spectacularly awkward family dinner that Julie disrupts with truth-telling; Gummer is so raw I’d almost believe she’d been directed to improvise. Ricki and Julie seem to be making progress, but the Indianpolis idyll (which includes a pot-smoking scene involving Kline’s Pete) is interrupted by the return of Pete’s new wife Maureen (Audra McDonald). Maureen is the most formulaic thing about the film, she exists solely to threaten Ricki’s new connection to her family and even McDonald can’t do much with so little screen time.

The last act of Ricki and the Flash involves Ricki’s attendance at the wedding of her son (Sebastian Stan). It’s to Cody and Demme’s credit that there’s genuine tension over whether or not Ricki will misbehave or be driven out of town by uptight country-clubbers. Compare the wedding scenes here and in Demme’s Rachel’s Getting Married. The scowling faces that greet Ricki’s toast are, the film seems to suggest, are of a world that Ricki’s son and his bride are orbiting whether either know it or not while the wedding in Rachel is a multicultural group hug. All this to say that Ricki and the Flash is that rarest of films, one with a strong writer’s point of view. Cody is emotionally honest enough to write a script about two people who never should have gotten married, except they did. The film ends with a small triumph while also not shirking the fact that more complications lie ahead. Ricki and the Flash is, finally, the marriage of three of cinema’s great humanists - Demme, Cody, and Streep. Also, you can dance to it.

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.