Tuesday, October 21, 2014

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


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.


Also saw:


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.


Tuesday, October 07, 2014

"Gone Girl" hits nerve, does justice to book


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.


Also saw:


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.