Tuesday, April 07, 2015

Mad Men 7-8: Severance

“Is that all there is?”

Only “Mad Men” would have the balls to frame its final (half) season premiere with a song lyric that could also serve as a perfect query for the show. Not that it matters. Because the answer to that question, it’s always been strongly implied, is “yes.”

For these people at this time—yes.

But maybe for us, too?

There’s a tendency to see “Mad Men” as a form of anthropology, or at least an objective deconstruction of a bygone era. I don’t think it would exert the power it does, though, if viewers didn’t feel a more immediate connection tying us to its characters and their quest for self-fulfillment. After six and a half seasons, we know these people, their dreams and disappointments, their most and least appealing qualities, more intimately than we might know some of our friends. We take an interest in these exquisitely styled fictional creatures, not because they’re sympathetic (for the most part they are not particularly, something I rarely tolerate in TV shows), but because they could be us. Strip away our sense of presumed superior self-knowledge, our historical hindsight and cultural enlightenment, and most of us will find the same struggle between the desire to live a better life and the inertia of our habitual desires, our learned patterns of behavior, our own worst, most self-destructive tendencies.

Still, you’re far from alone if you're shaking your head as you watch our Mad Men and women cycle yet again from elation to deflation, from comity to friction, from generosity to pettiness and spite. Most of us at least subconsciously expect TV drama characters to progress in a cleaner, clearer fashion than ourselves. “Mad Men” doesn’t just subvert such expectations, it couldn’t care less about them. There are few shows in which the arc of a character’s development is so long it’s not clear it’s bending towards…well, anything, for good or for ill. Certainly not towards justice.

Take Don, for instance. Everything about his life, or at least the decade of it we’ve observed, could be encapsulated in his brief, marvelously telling interaction with Rachel’s sister. She knows who he is, or rather who he was to Rachel, and has no reason to think kindly of him. Nor does he have anything to show for the intervening years that would prove her wrong. As he admits, he’s had two marriages fail since he and Rachel parted ways. His eyes say Rachel was important to him, maybe more important than either of his ex-wives, but what is that to her (or himself) now? He hadn’t spoken to her in years, he was with a different woman the night before and he’ll be with a different woman the night after, and he’s seeking a connection with a mysterious, evasive brunette. The more things change…

And yet, some things have changed. In the diner, he’s willing to tell a story from his childhood – Dick Whitman’s childhood. Certain details are excised, but, as Roger notes, not the fact that he came from a dirt-poor background. And we’re reminded that this background, the shameful secret that prompted his disastrous attempt to run away with Rachel so many years ago, is now out to the world. Has he become reconciled with his past? Possibly. But he still doesn’t appear to know how to be happy with the present.

Then there’s Peggy and Joan, each seemingly at the peak of her career, only to find that its most precious fruit, professional respect, can still be snatched away and cavalierly tossed around by a roomful of leering cretins from McCann Erickson. (That scene was almost cartoonish in its awfulness: it’s as if the McCann boys’ club never got out of season 1.) Rather than uniting in the face of such piggishness, the two women lapse into old, familiar mutual resentments: Joan seething at being “appreciated” for all the reasons, Peggy frustrated at not being appreciated at all, each bitterly convinced the other will never, ever understand what it’s like to be her. And let’s face it, they don’t and perhaps can’t understand each other’s grievances because they’re too different; their entire lives, as we’ve witnessed, have been a study in contrasts. They’ve always been more allies of convenience, or frenemies, than true friends, and at this point it’s hard to see that dynamic changing.

Whether they can at least change how they see themselves is a more open question. There’s some hope for Peggy judging from that delightfully giddy date, where she discovers she can be both very much herself and someone quite other than herself—the kind of person who would fly to Paris on a whim. But she wakes up hung over, back to being the Peggy who blanches at the idea. Joan, meanwhile, finds some solace in the fact that she can now buy the kind of luxuries that she once could only receive as gifts from men. She surely hasn’t forgotten, though, that the path to her newfound purchasing power included a calculated decision to sell herself at a critical juncture. How can she forget, when she’s still constantly reminded that to many a male eye she’s nothing more than a body to be possessed?

And finally, there’s Kenny Cosgrove, once one of the more likable figures on the show, who’s been edging towards the rancorous darkness ever since he lost an eye for (to?) the Man. Now, shoved unceremoniously out of the firm by a McCann exec with a long memory (longer than mine – I’m still not clear on whether we’re supposed to know what Ken did to piss him off), he seems poised for a fleeting, glorious moment to seize the freedom his wife envisions for him and return to the sunny-tempered yet contemplative, fiction-writing Ken we once knew. Alas, given the choice, he chooses revenge instead. That, at least, is a new character development for him, as his career-induced PTSD from last season gives way to the gleeful bomb-throwing cynicism of someone with nothing left to lose. It should be entertaining to watch. It doesn’t, however, offer us much hope for the “life not lived” he was so ready to celebrate. Perhaps the life not lived was never anything more than an illusion. Perhaps the life being lived, however well or poorly, is all there is.

Random observations:

-Holy facial hair! We’re now in 1970, and does it ever show, in the increasingly unfortunate fashions (why, oh why, were houndstooth checked jackets ever a thing?) and even more unfortunate hairstyles of the men folk. Roger’s and Ted’s mustaches, while magnificent, both pale next to the showstopper that is Stan’s head of hair, which now resembles nothing so much as a lion’s mane. Don, of course, ever old-school, remains clean-shaven.

-Don’s interaction with Diana, the sullen waitress, had a distinctly surreal, almost David Lynchian vibe. But on a more prosaic note, I wonder if Roger’s joking callout to “Mildred Pierce” has any implications for her relationship with Don. Then again, it’s entirely possible we may never see her again.

-If you’re wondering why Devon Gummersall, the actor who played Peggy’s date, looks vaguely familiar, you may remember him as Brian Krakow from “My So-Called Life” – the Ducky to Angela Chase’s Andie.

-Wonder of wonders, Meredith is still Don’s secretary. Even more wondrous: she actually seems almost competent now!

-That last shot of Don sitting alone at the diner counter was very Edward Hopperish.

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Oscar predix - 2015

Whew, this year is a tough one for Oscar prognosticators. Well, maybe no more so than usual - as in other years, plenty of the awards are locks (including three of the four acting slots), and it's not at all unusual to have close races for both Best Picture and Director, with the final result being a split between the two. But I can't remember the last time that it was so uncertain which way the split would go or whether there would even be a split at all. And so it's with something much less than my usual confidence that I present my predictions for this year's major awards.

BEST PICTURE and DIRECTOR

Nominees for Picture: Boyhood; Birdman; The Grand Budapest Hotel; The Imitation Game; American Sniper; Selma; Whiplash; The Theory of Everything.
Nominees for Director: Richard Linklater, Boyhood; Alexander Gonzálex Iñárritu, Birdman; Wes Anderson, The Grand Budapest Hotel; Morten Tydlum, The Imitation Game; Bennett Miller, Foxcatcher

What Will Win: I'm taking these two awards together because, as I see it, there's about

30% chance of Birdman for Best Picture, Boyhood/Linklater for Director
25% chance of the reverse - Boyhood for Best Picture, Iñarritu for Director
20% chance of Birdman getting BOTH Picture and Director
15% chance of Boyhood getting BOTH Picture and Director
10% chance of both splitting the vote with neither getting Picture, but one of them is definitely getting Director (50/50 shot between them in that scenario)

Even though Boyhood has been the sentimental favorite for a while now, and beloved by everyone I personally know who's seen it, Birdman has won all the recent Guild awards (Producer, Director, Screen Actors) and seems to be resonating more with the likely Oscar voter population because it deals so directly with the stress of being in show business, the hunger for recognition, and the fear of obsolescence. The Artist won just a few years ago for likely similar reasons. As for Director, it comes down to whether voters were more impressed by Linklater's incredible 12-year labor of love or Iñarritu's technical finesse (the whole single tracking shot thing).

Upshot: Some combination of Birdman and Boyhood; at this time, I'm going with Birdman for Picture and Boyhood for Director, but it could just as easily be the reverse - with only a slightly lesser chance of Birdman taking both awards.

What Should Win: Well, my personal favorite of this group is Whiplash, but I would be pretty happy with a Boyhood win for both Picture and Director.


BEST ACTOR

Nominees: Michael Keaton, Birdman; Eddie Redmayne, The Theory of Everything; Benedict Cumberbatch, The Imitation Game; Steve Carell, Foxcatcher; Bradley Cooper, American Sniper

Who Will Win: Another tight race between Keaton and Redmayne; Keaton has a lot of goodwill going for both him and Birdman generally, but it's hard to bet against actors who play real-life people with serious disabilities - and play them as well as Redmayne does. I'm giving the edge to Redmayne.

Who Should Win: Redmayne. His performance was more than a technical impersonation of Stephen Hawking (though an uncannily accurate one); he really inhabited the man emotionally, through and through. That said, there is a part of me that hopes Keaton will get it.


BEST ACTRESS

Nominees: Julianne Moore, Still Alice; Marion Cotillard, Two Days, One Night; Rosamund Pike, Gone Girl; Reese Witherspoon, Wild; Felicity Jones, The Theory of Everything.

Who Will Win: Moore. This one you can take to the bank.

Who Should Win: Moore. I've seen all five performances and it's a strong lineup, but there's a reason Moore's a lock beyond the fact that she's way overdue. She's fantastic.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTOR

Nominees: J.K. Simmons, Whiplash; Ed Norton, Birdman; Ethan Hawke, Boyhood; Mark Ruffalo, Foxcatcher; Robert Duvall, The Judge

Who Will Win: Simmons. 100% certainty on this one, too.

Who Should Win: Another strong lineup, although I haven't seen The Judge (and frankly have zero interest in seeing it). Among the rest, Simmons' is the most bravura performance and deserves all the accolades it's been getting, but I also really loved both Norton and Ruffalo - one all high-wire energy, the other understated, intelligent, and wonderfully nuanced.


BEST SUPPORTING ACTRESS

Nominees: Patricia Arquette, Boyhood; Emma Stone, Birdman; Keira Knightley, The Imitation Game; Meryl Streep, Into the Woods; Laura Dern, Wild

Who Will Win: Arquette. Another lock.

Who Should Win: I agree with the consensus - Arquette was very moving and believable as an all too human mom just trying to do her best. But Emma Stone did have that one killer scene.


BEST ORIGINAL SCREENPLAY

Nominees: Birdman; Boyhood; The Grand Budapest Hotel; Foxcatcher; Nightcrawler

What Will Win: Grand Budapest Hotel. The Academy is finally ready to reward Wes Anderson's quirky ways.

What Should Win: Eh, I don't think any of these movies were so remarkable for their script as for other things, so I guess I'll just go with the one I thought worked best overall - Boyhood.


BEST ADAPTED SCREENPLAY

Nominees: The Imitation Game; The Theory of Everything; Whiplash; American Sniper; Inherent Vice

What Will Win: The Imitation Game, though Whiplash has an outside chance of an upset.

What Should Win: Whiplash. It's not perfect, but it's by far the tightest and packs the most punch.


Friday, January 30, 2015

Top Ten Movies of 2014

2014 was a solid year in film—meaning that I saw a lot of movies I liked, but not so many that I truly loved. Which actually made this list more of a challenge, as there wasn’t that significant a gradient in how I felt about most of the movies that ended up on it. That’s particularly true for those in the lower half and the ones that just missed the cut; depending on my mood or how recently I saw the movie, the ranking order could be different on a different day. But for now, here are my favorite movies from 2014:

1. LIFE ITSELF

This one’s personal for me, as someone who grew up watching Siskel and Ebert and continued to follow the latter as he transitioned seamlessly to the “Everyone’s a critic” Internet age. The only published movie critic of our time with household name status, Roger Ebert used that status not to separate himself from the larger moviegoing population but to engage them in ongoing dialogue, even as he fought the cancer that would cost him his jaw and his ability to speak—but not his voice. “Life Itself” beautifully captures how that voice, and the man behind it, developed and endured.

2. WHIPLASH

What’s most striking about this firecracker of a film is its intense energy. Even in its quieter moments, you still feel it, like a tightly wound coil about to spring, all emanating from the push-pull of a single relationship between a gifted pupil (Miles Teller) and a teacher (J.K. Simmons) whose demands and expectations border on sociopathic. (The other, gentler relationships in the film serve only to throw the main one into sharper relief.) Is what we’re seeing true to the spirit of jazz or art, probably not; does it stretch plausibility at times, definitely; is it abuse, plain and simple—well, it’s abuse all right, but there’s nothing simple about it. Some may view the ending as a tacit endorsement of the abuse, but I see it more as the culmination of a power struggle that, in the process, produces something truly electrifying. It helps that both Teller and Simmons deliver propulsive, career-making performances that play off each other brilliantly.

3. IDA

Although it’s not a historical film per se, there’s a whole lot of post-WWII Polish history and national psychology packed into Pawel Pawlikowski's film about a young Catholic novice in 1960s Poland who discovers that she’s Jewish by birth. Her quest to learn more about her family history is short in duration and modest in scope, yet it offers a thoughtful examination of survivor’s guilt, religious faith, and the ability of an individual (or a society) to move past a painful legacy. Exquisitely shot in black and white, “Ida” is a quiet film – almost too quiet, marked by minimal dialogue and remarkable emotional restraint – but don’t be fooled: beneath its austere surface lies a deep well of feeling.

4. BOYHOOD

While all of Richard Linklater’s films feel like labors of love, this one takes his brand of experimental “let’s see where this goes” filmmaking to a whole new level. It isn't so much new in terms of its filming method, which definitely borrows a page from the “Up” documentary series, but new in how it subtly infuses that extra tinge of authenticity into what’s already a naturalistic, episodic chronicle of growing up. Emotional authenticity married to narrative discursiveness is a Linklater hallmark, but their combination here feels especially personal and, by that token, rings especially true.

5. THE IMMIGRANT

What does director James Gray have to do to get noticed? Sadly, I fear the answer is to be less subtle, less contemplative, less anthropological-on-a-small-scale in his approach to his subjects—yet those are precisely the qualities that make his films so memorable. They’re in full force in this early 20th century tale of a young Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) who steps off the boat at Ellis Island only to find herself confronted with a barrage of impossible choices on which her survival depends, including her complicated entanglement with a pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) who’s obsessed with her. That sounds more melodramatic than it really plays, and in fact the movie’s strength lies in how quietly and convincingly it presents what could be melodramatic situations. Much of the credit belongs to the actors, especially Cotillard, who manages to be haggard and luminous (but not saintly) at the same time.

6. A MOST WANTED MAN

Despite featuring one of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s final performances (and an extraordinarily good one at that), this adaptation of a late John le Carré novel appears to have been virtually forgotten already; the perils of a summertime release? Or maybe the movie’s jaundiced view of post-9/11 counterterrorism geopolitics was just too bleak for audiences to embrace. Nonetheless, that bleakness is the source of its power, as embodied by Hoffman’s character, a classic le Carré protagonist—the jaded intelligence agent who still latches onto a thread of rectitude beneath his protective layers of cynicism and moral compromise. When that remaining thread is finally snapped, the effect is devastating.

7. INTERSTELLAR

So, to those of you who thought “Interstellar” was too long, too slow, too dumb, too sappy, or all of the above: I feel you. Chris Nolan’s biggest movie yet was also his most polarizing, and as deeply flawed as it was ambitious. There were times when I was a little bored, and other times when I was reminded—not in a good way—of “Signs,” the first of many M. Night Shyamalan disappointments. But there were also times I felt genuinely transported, both visually and emotionally, and those are the parts that stayed with me. Granted, seeing the film in 70mm IMAX probably helped. A lot. Still, it had a soulfulness and, dammit, a grandeur that you don’t see often these days, and that I’d like to see more often.

8. ONLY LOVERS LEFT ALIVE

A vampire movie for people who can’t abide vampire movies – both the classic horror and the “Twilight”/Vampire Diaries variety. Indie stalwart Jim Jarmusch takes an amusing, if silly and paper-thin conceit – vampires as eternally cool artistes (a perfectly cast Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston) who feed as much off the finest fruits of human civilization as they do off human blood (immortal hipsters, if you will) – and parlays it into a wonderfully languorous mood piece that flirts with melancholy without ever really succumbing to it. Actually, it’s just as much a comedy, albeit a gentle one, particularly once it introduces trouble in the form of Mia Wasikowska as a younger, less sophisticated vampire with raging appetites and virtually no impulse control. But it’s Swinton who holds the movie together, with her unearthly pale beauty and her air of having lived centuries (she did once play Virginia Woolf’s Orlando, after all) – if nothing else, the movie’s worth seeing just to hear her elegant drawl dismissing traditional vampiric feeding methods as “so fucking fifteenth century.”

9. CAPTAIN AMERICA: THE WINTER SOLDIER

Pure popcorn, but who doesn’t love good popcorn? The tightest, best-constructed, and most all-around entertaining of the Marvel franchise movies, and that’s no small feat. Chris Evans continues to impress as the superhero who struggles to be a beacon of moral clarity in a hopelessly corrupt world, and he’s well-paired with Scarlet Johansson as his much more morally enigmatic ally. (The movie also happens to feature the best elevator fight sequence you’ll ever see.)

10. Tie: BIRDMAN and SELMA

Here we have the “experimental” movie vs. the “great man/historically significant event” movie. “Birdman” is a trip to watch, especially for theater lovers, and features crackling performances from all its major players, but ultimately tries to fly a little too high (literally, and not just because it features a fictional superhero called Birdman). By contrast, “Selma” stays successfully grounded in depicting how the famous civil rights marches unfolded with a gripping immediacy and fluidity that, unlike, say, Spielberg’s “Lincoln,” sometimes makes you forget you’re watching a movie. It's also anchored by David Oyelowe’s riveting turn as an all too human MLK who’s as much canny political operator and strategist as stirring orator and civil rights hero, and who’s also racked with moments of weakness and doubt. The one fly in “Selma”’s ointment is Tom Wilkinson’s dour portrayal of LBJ, whom the movie somewhat unfairly characterizes as more hostile to MLK’s move for voting rights than he was in reality. (Still, it bears noting that the amount of dramatic license taken with that bit of history is no more than what many other highly acclaimed historical movies get away with on a regular basis – see, e.g., “The Imitation Game.”)

Honorable mentions:

The Imitation Game – despite playing fast and loose with historical facts and cleaving to a tried-and-true Great Man Oscar Bait formula, it’s an eminently watchable, surprisingly affecting film; a good example of why and when the formula works.
The Two Faces of January – wannabe Hitchcock, but oh how gorgeously executed
Begin Again – forgettable music, but memorable charm
The Skeleton Twins – well received when it came out, it, too, seems to have been largely forgotten. It shouldn’t have been: Kristin Wiig and Bill Hader are magic together.
Frank – a little too much quirk (even for a movie about a musician who wears a giant paper-mâché head at all times), but it’s grown on me rather than fading away; the final couple of scenes really stick with you
Gone Girl – skillful adaptation of a hard-to-adapt novel
Dear White People – bracingly funny, fresh, and irreverent take on what it’s like to be young, black, and matriculating
The Lunchbox – at first glance, a cute Indian rom-com, but what’s stayed with me is its quietly poignant portrayal of loneliness in a big city.

And yes, I liked “The Lego Movie” and “Guardians of the Galaxy,” but not quite enough to put on this list. In a weaker year, they’d likely have made it.

Monday, November 03, 2014

"Birdman" glides on Keaton's wings

BIRDMAN

Directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu
Starring Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Emma Stone, Zach Galifianakis, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, Amy Ryan, Lindsay Duncan

Let’s face it: most of us will never know what it’s like to be famous. Most of us will also never know the strange joys and travails of putting on a professional theatrical production, much less a Broadway premiere. On the other hand, most of us do know what it’s like to have a relationship falter or fail, and to be haunted by whether we could have saved it.

Somehow, and for the most part successfully, “Birdman” brings together all of these disparate threads in the story of Riggan Thompson (Michael Keaton), a movie star who’s staking what remains of his celebrity status on a self-written, directed and produced theatrical adaptation of a Raymond Carver story that's about to open on Broadway. The play, as Riggan admits in an unguarded moment, is more than a vanity project: it’s his last-ditch attempt to reassert his cultural relevance, which has diminished sharply since his decades-ago decision to walk away from the blockbuster superhero franchise that made his name.

Unfortunately for Riggan, the wheels seem to be coming off his dramaturgical bus as opening day draws near. One of his lead actors has to be replaced at the last minute by a brilliant but difficult theater star (Ed Norton) whose ego threatens to hijack the entire production. One of the female leads (Naomi Watts), who’s dating Norton’s character, seems perpetually on the verge of a nervous breakdown, while the other (Andrea Riseborough), who's also Riggan’s girlfriend, informs him she may be pregnant. Meanwhile, Riggan’s daughter (Emma Stone), whom he’s ill-advisedly hired as his assistant, can barely speak a civil word to him; his anxious lawyer/agent (Zach Galifianikis, playing it completely straight) informs him they’re running out of money; and through all these setbacks, Riggan is repeatedly visited by the specter of Birdman, his superhero alter ego (voiced by Keaton, naturally, and hilariously), who mercilessly mocks the entire enterprise.

It's a potentially grim situation, but “Birdman” has a verve and comic energy that’s a welcome change in M.O. for director Alejandro González Iñárritu, up till now best known for the gritty “Amores Perros” and cosmic misery-fests “21 Grams” and “Babel.” Here, he vividly captures the peculiar behind-the-scenes universe of a Broadway play, its fluidity heightened by impressive camera technique (courtesy of the great Emmanuel Lubezki, previously seen performing his magic for directors Alfonso Cuarón and Terrence Malick) that makes the entire film look like it was shot in one long, continuous take. Iñárritu underscores that sense of hyperrealism verging on surrealism with moments in which Riggan, left alone to vent his frustrations, manifests seemingly superhuman (surely imaginary?) powers. Not coincidentally, Birdman almost always makes an appearance—vocally, if not physically—in these scenes. Are such moments signs of a mental crackup, or mental clarity, or maybe, paradoxically, both at the same time? Is anything we’re seeing actually happening outside of Riggan’s mind? The film resolutely, and maybe a little irritatingly for some viewers, declines to answer these questions.

“Birdman” has already been hailed as both a huge comeback for Michael Keaton and a meta-commentary on his own Hollywood career, even though Keaton has said in interviews that he doesn’t personally identify with Riggan, Batman/Birdman comparisons notwithstanding. That may be true. But it’s nice to see Keaton playing in the big leagues again—although, in another quirk of parallelism, or life-imitating-art-imitating-life, he’s very nearly upstaged by his co-star, Ed Norton, who’s a delight to watch as the prima donna Riggan comes to regard as an interloper trying to take over “his” show. Emma Stone, too, vies for most valuable supporting player, taking what could have been a thoroughly grating, clichéd character and rendering her unexpectedly sympathetic. It helps that she has great chemistry with both Norton and Keaton; but then Emma Stone seems to be one of those rare actresses who has chemistry with any co-star, whether it’s Jonah Hill, Ryan Gosling, or Colin Firth.

Still, the movie turns on Keaton’s performance, and Keaton delivers. However staunchly he may disavow the parallels between himself and Riggan, at some level he must understand – and certainly conveys – the bittersweet brew of feelings that drives any man who has lingering regrets as he approaches his twilight years. For all its high-wire technical virtuosity and flirtations with both fantasy and satire, the film’s emotional core is a familiar one. It’s not so much about fame as it is about mortality and its obverse - the desire to leave one’s mark, correct one’s mistakes, reaffirm connections with loved ones, before it’s too late. As such, it leaves open to interpretation whether Riggan succeeds in finding the validation he craves, in an ending that’s sure to divide audiences and that I had to think about for a while before deciding I liked it. It reminded me a little of the ending of Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon: In some dimension, on some plane of existence, in someone's (perhaps our collective) consciousness, the Birdman learns to fly.

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

"Dear White People": Enjoy this movie. Really!

DEAR WHITE PEOPLE

Written and directed by Justin Simien
Starring Tessa Thompson, Tyler James Williams, Teyonah Parris, Brandon Bell, Kyle Gallner, Dennis Haysbert

Faced with a title like “Dear White People,” you—yes, you, dear reader and occasional moviegoer—are wired to react in one of two ways. To some degree, either you’re intrigued or you’re turned off. Piqued or pique: which is it gonna be? Sadly, the people who bristle the most defensively are the ones who most need to see this movie and, by the same token, are least likely to see it.

Because the truth is that “Dear White People” is not a polemical anti-white screed. What it is: a sharp but fairly gentle satire of the state of black-white relations among the educated class, as well as a smart, funny, and provocative conversation-starter for those willing to have an honest, open-minded conversation about race. It’s also a remarkably nuanced and self-aware portrait of black people’s conflicted attitudes towards the subject, as reflected—and refracted—in the intertwining stories of the four major characters, all black students at the fictional Ivy Leagueish Winchester University.

There’s Sam (Tessa Thompson), film major and black rights activist who uses her radio show to campaign against the perceived tyranny of the white establishment, but whose own background and internal emotions betray much more complicated feelings about white people. There’s Troy (Brandon Bell), the affable president of the sole black-majority residential college within Winchester—the kind of black guy white people love, whose dad (Dennis Haysbert) also happens to be the dean of students at Winchester and is actively grooming his son to be the next Obama. There’s Coco (Teyonah Parris, who plays Dawn on “Mad Men”), the outwardly dainty, inwardly hungry girl who’d sooner die than have people think she might be from the ’hood, but whose lust for fame proves stronger than her desire to fit in among her peers. And finally there’s Lionel (Tyler James Williams, aka Chris from "Everybody Hates Chris"), the shy misfit with the giant ’fro who likes boys, sci fi, and white rock music but who can’t seem to find a group, black or white, straight or gay, or a house that will accept him without using or abusing him. All of them, in different ways, help set in motion a chain of events that leads to the climax of the movie: an epic fight at a racist-themed campus party (modeled after the real-life “Compton Cookout” party at UCSD in 2010) that’s billed as a race riot in the news.

I think it's fair to infer that the four protagonists, all well drawn and engagingly acted, embody varied aspects of writer-director Justin Simien’s own personal experience. What they share in common is a constant tension between who they are to themselves, in private, and who they are—the role they fill—in public. Such tension obviously isn’t restricted to black people or even minorities. But in this context, for these characters, it carries an unavoidable extra charge and burden from being black (and in Lionel’s case, gay as well). Which isn't to say that the movie is heavy in its tone; quite the contrary, it maintains a wry, clear-eyed detachment and lightly satirical wit, tempered by genuine compassion for all its characters, that somehow underscores rather than underplays the seriousness of the issues.

“Dear White People” isn’t without flaws. Perhaps deliberately, in a “shoe’s on the other foot” way, it features very few white characters, only one of whom is remotely sympathetic; the others are so one-dimensional that two of them verge on cardboard-cutout villain territory. That one of them is the president of a prestigious university and is simultaneously anxious about diminished funding and unabashedly, openly racist in front of his black dean and black students, stretches plausibility to the breaking point. So, too, does the lack of non-black minority students. As an Asian American, I couldn’t help thinking: come on, Justin Simien, what kind of Ivy League school is this, where the number of Asian faces can be counted on one hand? (Answer: a fictional one; Asians only go to the real thing. Boom!) Joking aside, there’s only one Asian American character with an actual speaking part, and it’s only a couple of lines; as far as I can tell, there are no Hispanic or Native American characters.

To be sure, this can be partly explained by the fact that most of the action takes place within the university’s black community. And it’s arguably not fair to fault Simien for being primarily interested in that community and how it deals with being coopted by white-dominated culture and power structures. He may have decided, understandably, that expanding the movie’s racial landscape would have muddied its focus. But the near-complete absence of other minorities leaves one to wonder what part, if any, they would have played in the lives of his characters. As friends, allies, strangers, competitors, opponents, all or none of the above? There’s a whole trove of potential material there, as rich, complex, and contradictory as that explored by “Dear White People.” Perhaps it just needs another movie to give it shape. Perhaps it’s waiting for the next Justin Simien.

N.B: Speaking of raising uncomfortable racial consciousness, I'm not sure what it says about me that while both Tessa Thompson and Kyle Gallner (who plays one of the obnoxious white characters) had recurring roles on the show "Veronica Mars" (Wallace's snooty girlfriend and Beaver Casablancas, respectively), I immediately recognized the latter but didn't remember the former at all; or that it wasn't until after I saw the movie that I realized where I'd seen Teyonah Parris before ("Mad Men"). At least I didn't have any trouble pegging Dennis Haysbert. Still, that's not a very impressive ratio for someone who prides herself on having an excellent memory for faces.

GRADE: B+


Also saw:

THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY

Directed by Hossein Amini
Starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac
Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith

If you're in the mood for a stylish Hitchcockian thriller, look no further. Based on the novel by Patricia Highsmith, "The Two Faces of January" follows the strange and fraught adventures of a young con man (Oscar Isaac) in 1960s Athens who's drawn into the orbit of a well-heeled American businessman (Viggo Mortensen) traveling with his much younger wife (Kirsten Dunst)—first as a tour guide, then as an accomplice when the couple gets into a serious jam. The younger man’s motives for helping them remain enigmatic: he’s obviously a hustler, a kind of proto-Ripley, and seems attracted to the wife, but also comments that her husband looks like his estranged father (notwithstanding the lack of physical resemblance between Isaac and Mortensen). Viggo’s character is less of a riddle than Isaac’s, at least as written, but as played is far the more interesting of the two—turning on a dime from charming to brutish, from enraged to more subtly menacing, as only Viggo can do. He may not be as crafty as the other guy, but he may be more dangerous.

Not surprisingly, the story soon focuses on the dynamic between the two men (somewhat at the expense of Dunst, who’s adequate but not given a lot to work with), each trying to gain the upper hand even as they remain inextricably connected, like the two faces of Janus. There isn't anything especially shocking in the way their Freudian struggle plays out, but what it lacks in mystery it makes up for in good old-fashioned suspense and drawn-out tension, with two particularly standout sequences set in the tombs of Knossos and the Athens train station. The film’s also worth watching for its cinematography alone, as it deftly captures not only the surface beauty of the scenery and the actors, but also the fundamental duality of the characters and their growing sense of entrapment. Overall “January” is a polished, assured work that hearkens back to a bygone style of filmmaking - not at all a bad thing when it’s done this well.

GRADE: B+

Tuesday, October 07, 2014

"Gone Girl" hits nerve, does justice to book

GONE GIRL

Directed by David Fincher
Starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Carrie Coon, Tyler Perry, Kim Dickens, Patrick F
Based on the novel by Gillian Flynn

Like the book, “Gone Girl” is a hard movie to talk about without giving away too much. Suffice it to say that the dark, twisty bestseller about a marriage gone bad and a wife gone missing, possibly murdered, has been deftly adapted for the screen by the novel’s author, Gillian Flynn, and directed with style to burn by David Fincher. It helps, of course, that both Flynn and Fincher have plenty of experience painting the blackest corners of the human soul. The film also benefits from excellent casting not just of the two leads, Nick (Ben Affleck in hunky lunk mode) and Amy (Rosamund Pike, in a career-defining role), the former golden couple who’s fallen on hard times, but the key supporting players who elevate what could be stock roles: the supportive sister (Carrie Coon, in her breakout role), the slick defense lawyer (Tyler Perry, surprisingly good), the world-weary, appealingly down-to-earth cop (Kim Dickens, unsurprisingly good); even Neil Patrick Harris, who initially seems miscast, manages to convey a convincingly creepy vibe as the ex-boyfriend who’s still obsessed with Amy. Other characters, while more thinly drawn, contribute amusing shots at our national fixation with violent crimes involving photogenic white women, aided and abetted by social media and the 24-hour infotainment industry.

But make no mistake, this is first and foremost the Nick and Amy story—a fairy tale turned nightmare long before the day Nick comes home to find Amy has disappeared. Their relationship is the core of “Gone Girl,” which shifts at about the halfway mark from unsettling mystery to lurid, increasingly preposterous thriller, and their relationship is what keeps the material a cut above pure pulp. In this, the film is faithful to its original source, preserving the basic he-said, she-said counterpoint structure of the novel (in part by relying on voice-over narration from Amy—a device I normally dislike but that’s unavoidable in this instance and, to Fincher’s and Flynn’s credit, used as effectively and as sparingly as possible). It should shock no one that neither Nick nor Amy, nor their relationship, turn out to be exactly as first presented; what is shocking is the lopsided imbalance between what they’re each hiding, as well as their respective abilities at hiding it. That imbalance is a fundamental weakness of the narrative that the film can’t quite finesse, and undercuts any meaningful discussion of the potentially fascinating gender and power dynamics underlying Nick and Amy’s battle for the last word. Even so, none of these flaws dilutes the movie’s impact in the moment, no matter how much they may bug the viewer on later reflection. Like the book, “Gone Girl” is the kind of movie that gets under one’s skin.

GRADE: B+


Also saw:

THE SKELETON TWINS

Directed by Craig Johnson
Starring Kristen Wiig, Bill Hader, Luke Wilson, Ty Burrell

More a dramedy than a comedy despite featuring two well-known former SNL stars, “The Skeleton Twins” may be the best American movie to focus on a brother-sister relationship that doesn’t involve Laura Linney (“You Can Count on Me,” “The Savages”). Kristen Wiig steps into the Linney role as the sister who outwardly seems to have it together but really, really doesn’t, while Bill Hader reveals impressive dramatic chops as the screw-up brother who comes back into her life, after a decade of never-fully-explained estrangement, when he botches a suicide attempt. Although it never quite reaches the sublime heights or depths of YCCoM, a film it borrows heavily from, “The Skeleton Twins” offers a surprisingly poignant, emotionally rich, and wryly funny portrait of two deeply damaged but deeply simpatico individuals linked by both blood and shared psychological baggage. It wouldn’t work as well as it does were it not for the terrific chemistry between Wiig and Hader. One can easily believe they were siblings in another life, and it’s a tribute to both the actors and the writing that one quickly ceases to see them as anything else in this one.

GRADE: B+

Monday, September 01, 2014

Fall movie preview

Labor Day has come and gone, the kiddies are back at school, but somehow it doesn't feel like summer is really over. Meteorologically, of course, it isn't fall yet - and on the movie front, Hollywood hasn't yet shaken off its late-August doze. But it will soon enough.

If the recurring theme of last fall's movie lineup was "based on a true story" (12 Years a Slave, Captain Phillips, The Wolf of Wall Street, Dallas Buyers Club, Philomena, even American Hustle to a degree, sort of), this fall looks to be particularly packed with movies based on bestselling books. Or maybe I'm just noticing it particularly this year since I've read a fair number of the books and am interested to see how they've been adapted.

In order of release date, here are the ten films I'm most looking forward to this fall:

THE DISAPPEARANCE OF ELEANOR RIGBY: THEM (Sept. 12) and HIM/HER (Oct. 10)
directed by Ned Benson
starring Jessica Chastian, James McAvoy, Viola Davis, William Hurt, Isabelle Huppert, Ciarán Hinds

Originally conceived as a pair of films chronicling a relationship from first the guy's and then the girl's point of view, "Rigby" has since been reworked into a single movie - but the "combo" version apparently isn't going to be the only or even the last word on the subject. "Them" will be released first, in September, followed by "Him" and "Her," to play together, in October. I have several issues with this approach, namely, (1) I'm not sure the world needs three different versions of the same movie, (2) given that the juxtaposition of the male/female perspectives is what attracted me in the first place, I'd rather see "Him" and "Her" before "Them," but (3) not necessarily in one 3+ hour sitting. However, I'm curious enough to give it - them - a try.


THIS IS WHERE I LEAVE YOU (Sept. 19)
directed by Shawn Levy
starring Jason Bateman, Jane Fonda, Tina Fey, Corey Stoll, Adam Driver, Rose Byrne, Connie Britton
based on the novel by Jonathan Tropper

I remember thinking, when I read this dysfunctional-family comedy for my book club a few years ago, that it felt more like a movie than a novel, would probably work better as a movie, and played like a movie in my head. But whether it actually works as a movie will depend on how appealing the actors can make their characters, who were funny but not always all that endearing on paper, and how much chemistry they have together. The quality of the cast has me reasonably optimistic on both points.


THE TWO FACES OF JANUARY (Sept. 26)
directed by Hossein Amini
starring Viggo Mortensen, Kirsten Dunst, Oscar Isaac

I don't know much about this film except that it has a stylish noir vibe, is based on a Patricia Highsmith novel, and features three excellent actors, one of whom is Viggo Mortensen. That's enough to get my attention.


GONE GIRL (Oct. 3)
directed by David Fincher
starring Ben Affleck, Rosamund Pike, Neil Patrick Harris, Patrick Fugit, Kim Dickens
based on the novel by Gillian Flynn

If you've read the book, you know why I want to see the movie. If you haven't, what are you waiting for?


INTERSTELLAR (Nov. 7)
directed by Christopher Nolan
starring Matthew McConaughey, Anne Hathaway, Jessica Chastain, Michael Caine, others

Nolan & co. have been pretty tight-lipped about this one, and the teaser trailers haven't revealed much except to confirm that the movie stars McConaughey and Hathaway as space explorers, appears to take place in the future, and involves traveling through wormholes. Here's hoping it's more "2001" and less "Contact," though my guess is it will be not much like either film - except in that it's probably more interested in metaphysics than in space battles.


FOXCATCHER (Nov. 14)
directed by Bennett Miller
starring Steve Carell, Channing Tatum, Mark Ruffalo

A hit at Cannes, this strange-but-true story features a nearly unrecognizable Carell as an eccentric millionaire who sponsored a pair of Olympic champion wrestler brothers (played by Tatum and Ruffalo) and (spoiler, but not really unless you count history as a spoiler) eventually killed one of them for unknown reasons. Looks rather dark and a bit creepy, but Miller has proven to be good at capturing dark, creepy true stories without sensationalizing them (see, e.g., "Capote").


THE IMITATION GAME (Nov. 21)
directed by Morten Tyldum
starring Benedict Cumberbatch, Keira Knightley, Matthew Goode

The star of BBC's "Sherlock" and unlikely Internet heartthrob takes on the meaty, Oscar-baity role of Alan Turing, the brilliant British mathematician who helped decrypt the Nazis' communication codes during WWII and lay the foundations of modern computer science, only to be later convicted of (and punished for) homosexuality. Cumberbatch is probably hoping the film meets with a warmer reception than last fall's "The Fifth Estate"; it should help that Turing is a much easier figure to root for than Julian Assange.


WILD (Dec. 5)
directed by Jean-Marc Vallée
starring Reese Witherspoon, Laura Dern
based on the book by Cheryl Strayed

The title of the book is a bit clunky - Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail - but the story it recounts is surprisingly compelling, a kind of mash-up of Eat Pray Love and Into the Wild, only with a more sympathetic protagonist. Fundamentally it's as much a tale of letting go of real, palpable, soul-crushing grief (as opposed to the usual vague, diffuse malaise/white First Worlder discontent with modern society) as it is of surviving in the wild despite a woeful lack of preparation. I'm not sure how effectively Strayed's spiritual journey can be conveyed on film, but Reese, a capable actress who hasn't been challenged enough lately, should give it her best shot. At the very least, the scenery should be beautiful.


INHERENT VICE (Dec. 12)
directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
starring Joaquin Phoenix, Josh Brolin, Owen Wilson, Reese Witherspoon, Jena Malone, Benicio del Toro, Martin Short
based on the novel by Thomas Pynchon

Pynchon's brand of southern California noir is one of a kind, as is the hero he created for Inherent Vice, Doc Sportello: think Philip Marlowe reimagined as a permanently stoned hippie. As an actor Phoenix seems a bit too introverted for the part of Sportello, but I've no doubt he's got the chops to make it his own, and Josh Brolin is pretty perfectly cast as his nemesis, "Bigfoot" Bjornsen. Can't wait to see what director P.T. Anderson - who lord knows has plenty of experience filming oddballs and misfits - will do with them and the rest of Pynchon's wacked-out characters, not to mention his byzantine Chandler-on-acid plot.


INTO THE WOODS (Dec. 25)
directed by Rob Marshall
starring Meryl Streep, Johnny Depp, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Emily Blunt
based on the musical by Stephen Sondheim

Confession: I've never seen Into the Woods. Assuming the movie does at least reasonable justice to the musical, it seems like the easiest way to address that deficiency. Plus Meryl Streep is awesome.


Other movies I'm keeping an eye out for: BIRDMAN, wherein confirmed miserabilist Alejandro González Iñárritu (aka man whose films make me want to shoot myself) tries his hand at comedy - or at least dramedy - with help from Michael Keaton, Ed Norton, Naomi Watts, and Emma Stone; ROSEWATER because it's Jon Stewart's labor of love; THE HUNGER GAMES: MOCKINGJAY - PART 1 because the first two movies were good, even though dividing up the last one into two parts still annoys me no end; SELMA because we need to be reminded of that history; UNBROKEN because I heard the book was good, even though I never read it.