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.