Thursday, June 23, 2011

The Devil's Double ('11 Lee Tamahori)



A sadistic but engaging Muslim leader takes an instantaneous liking to a soft-spoken outsider. They usher them into their inner sanctum, lavish them with gifts, riches and a taste of a better life they could only dream of. They treat their new friend as a toy, becoming intensely possessive towards them and act like a violent, petulant child when their dancing marionette tries to cut free of their strings.

That’s the premise of The Devil’s Double, but it could just as easily refer to the 2006 film, The Last King of Scotland which won Forest Whitaker a Best Actor Oscar for his performance as Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. In some respects, Dominic Cooper’s performance in The Devil’s Double eclipses Whitaker’s; degree of difficulty aside, you’d be hard pressed to find a performer on screen *more* than Cooper is here.

A gimmick in the best sense of the word, British actor Cooper (An Education) plays both Uday Hussein, entitled party boy and eldest child of Iraqi president Saddam Hussein and Latif, Uday’s reluctant double, employed to make pesky public appearances and draw assassins fire while the real McCoy is off getting laid and doing mountains of coke. Forced into servitude by fear and threats against his family, Latif watches on in ever mounting horror as Uday uses his autonomy to rape, torture and murder all the while grinning like the world is his own private sandbox.

Like Whitaker, Cooper makes a three course meal of the part, masking his sociopathic behavior behind a giggle and a twinkle in his eye. Uday is all id; shrieking about his hatred of Jews and Kuwaitis in one moment and in the next standing in the middle of the street loudly proclaiming his love for a part of the female anatomy using a word that’s best not spoken in polite company. The character is defined by a lack of barriers and absence of self-control. Whether gutting an associate of his father for embarrassing him or forcing his party guests to strip naked for his amusement, Uday remains a remorseless monster yet easily recognizable as the spoiled rich kid who grew up never hearing the word “no.” It’s a fantastically hammy performance by Cooper and every time Uday is on screen The Devil’s Double possesses a live-wire quality, as though we’re watching someone live out their wildest Scarface-inspired dreams.

The problem with The Devil’s Double though, as it was with The Last King of Scotland, is that this isn’t the story of the charismatic despot (or in the case of this film, son of a despot) but rather that of the decent but unmemorable commoner who serves as our window into the madness. And here’s where praise for Cooper gets tricky: as fascinating as his performance as Uday is, that’s how much of an onscreen wet blanket Latif is. Working from an overly literal script by Michael Thomas, director Lee Tamahori (Once Were Warriors) and Cooper depict Latif as a saint, passively judging his hedonistic doppelgänger while (almost) never succumbing to the temptations of unchecked power and wealth. In mistaking Uday and Latif for opposite sides of the same character, the film robs both creations of dimension and subcutaneous desire. It’s as though the filmmakers don’t trust the viewers to differentiate between the behavior of the two men without creating a complete and total contrast.

Which is unfortunate as The Devil’s Double is at its best when it attempts to blur the line between Uday and Latif as the increasingly unreliable former cedes more of his responsibilities to the latter. We see Latif practicing hate rhetoric in the mirror and rallying the Republican Guard more convincingly than Uday ever could (as one perceptive on-onlooker points out, the real Uday would have been drunk and foaming at the mouth). Uday uses Latif as the ultimate form of self-love; a version of himself that he can hug and party with. After Latif’s hand is crippled in an ambush, a panicked Uday rushes to the hospital and berates the surgeon to save his double’s digits… but only so he himself won’t need to lose a finger to continue perpetuating his ruse.

Taking a break from big studio work for hire, Tamahori’s stages Uday’s life like the world’s greatest party that’s in constant danger of being interrupted by a shoot-out. Often set to a gaudy 80’s pop music (one sequence staged to Frankie Goes to Hollywood’s “Relax” calls to mind, appropriately enough, DePalma’s Body Double), The Devil’s Double relishes in carnal excess, whether its Ludivine Sagnier grinding on the dance floor for Latif’s (and our) benefit or the ease in which a carving knife disembowels a man, there’s an unblinking amorality to its depiction of Uday’s lifestyle as sex, drugs and violence all begin to bleed together.

Yet the fluidity of morality only goes so far, hitting a brick wall whenever it deals with Latif’s short-lived internal struggle between right and wrong. Rarely taking action against his captor, the character is instead a modern day Bartleby, the Scrivener, sitting in a chair politely refusing to murder on Uday’s behalf. Eventually the film falls into a predictable rhythm of Latif attempting to break free of Uday’s grasps, only to be thwarted and reluctantly roped back into the fray. Uday rapes and pillages while Latif looks on in the role of the stern taskmaster, remaining above the fray without providing any counteraction. Ultimately, the two Coopers serve as a perfect metaphor for the film itself: half exhilarating, half finger wagging.

The Devil’s Double opens in limited release on July 29th.

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Playing Cops and Robbers: Ben Affleck's The Town



Note: This article addresses specific plot points in the film, The Town.

I first saw The Town back in April as part of an unpaid test screening and, partially out of indifference but mostly because of the vaguely threatening non-disclosure agreement I was forced to sign, didn't have much to say about it. It struck me as a facile but harmless genre film; the latest attempt from film producer/financier Graham King to reposition working class Boston as a modern day equivalent of gangland Chicago or the wild west (The Town is King's third "crime picture" in four years set in Boston following The Departed and Edge of Darkness from earlier this year). Mostly what stood out for me was how ineffective co-writer-director-star Ben Affleck was in the lead role of Doug McRay, a lovable lug of a bank robber who lives a straight and narrow existence where he's insulated (for maximum audience sympathy) from most of the dirty business that's usually associated with being a career criminal. Over the past decade, Affleck has receded from dramatic leading roles, focusing more on attention grabbing supporting performances in films like Hollywoodland and Extract and directing his younger brother Casey to some of the best reviews of his career in Gone Baby Gone. As far as I was concerned, The Town was a reminder of how little Affleck the romantic leading man was missed.

A few months go by and, frankly, I'd forgotten about the film. But when it was selected to play both the Venice and Toronto International Film Festivals I became both confused and a little intrigued, especially once this workmanlike procedural became a huge word of mouth hit. Having personally seen films take shape and improve during the test screening process I was curious to see how the filmmakers had worked around and repaired what I saw were some fairly glaring problems with the film.

I skipped the film's theatrical release, but with The Town due out on Blu-ray and DVD later this month (and with unemployment giving me an unwanted abundance of free time) I thought I'd take another look at the film to see whether I'd missed the boat the first time or whether this is simply the latest example of people automatically equating "dropping your r's" and colorful profanity with gritty authenticity.

By the way it's the second one.

Slightly longer than the version I originally saw--with additional scenes between Affleck and Blake Lively as Doug's would-be baby mama as well as a final shot which only further cements comparisons to The Shawshank Redemption--the finished version of The Town still suffers from the same fundamental problem at its center which is that it isn't remotely believable. I don't believe that these characters (any of them, really) exist in this world, which is problematic when the film seems to pride itself on glamorizing the violent, clan-like behavior of Irish criminals in Boston as though it were lifting the lid off of America's best kept secret. The film seems to be caught in a time warp, torn between two worlds, one of which only existed in the imagination of fiction writers forty years ago. The film depicts modern day (as in 2010) Charlestown as the bank robbery capital of the world; a place where no one bats an eye at one four-man crew knocking over a bank, an armored car and a fucking baseball stadium in the span of a few weeks, leaving a trail of burnt-out cars and bullet-punctured guards and police officers. It's merely business as usual, like the Sox bullpen blowing a late lead or Mayor Menino getting tongue-tied.

What motivates these guys to risk decades in prison and a bullet in the head? Money obviously although it's unclear to what end. The Town is built around three armed robbery sequences, which for convenient dramatic purposes take place in the first, second, and third acts. In the first of these robberies Doug and his crew successfully make off with $90,000 a man.
Essentially little boys still in their mid to late thirties, Doug and his cohorts (which includes Jeremy Renner as Gem, a variation on the wild man, "Johnny Boy" role DeNiro personified in Mean Streets) get lit up, eat fast food, go to the strip club and then return to their rundown houses and crappy jobs while dreaming of their next score. Doug, who is in recovery and therefor the only one with an eye towards a future outside "the life," begins romantically pursuing Rebecca Hall's Claire, the bank manager they took hostage who never saw the masked Doug's face during the robbery.

Despite being a violent thug, we're meant to accept that Doug is deep down a good guy because his stalking of Claire is disguised as chivalry and he makes self effacing jokes to defuse the emotional trauma he unwittingly caused her during the robbery ("I like to have a good cry at the nail salon" is just one of and by no means the worst of several groaners worked into the screenplay by Affleck and co-writers Peter Craig and Aaron Stockard). He may throw a fuck into Lively's Krista character from time to time, but his love for Claire is exactly the sort of motivation he needs to move away from a place and its people that do nothing but bring him down.

Yet time and again we see Doug being dragged back for the proverbial one last job, in large part due to a long unpaid debt owed to Gem that's teased out long past the point anyone remembers or cares why these two knuckleheads are friends. Gem, like the other two guys on the crew, is dramatically short-shifted; a simpleton mook who wants nothing more than to prevent Doug from ever abandoning him. We have no idea what he does with his money or when it will ever be enough for a guy living in the same house he grew up in without any aspirations of leaving it or his low-rent neighborhood behind. In other words, this character serves no purpose beyond making sure the Affleck character has to keep participating in violent and reckless shoot-outs and car chases and the audiences gets what it paid its $15 for.

Gem isn't the only character Doug is indebted to though. The story takes a brief detour for Doug to visit his lifer father in prison played by Chris Cooper in a one-scene cameo. Doug's followed in his old man's footsteps and Cooper's character is not only meant to serve as a cautionary tale for Doug, but also to further humanize him by alluding to the tragic circumstances surrounding the disappearance of Doug's mother when he was only six.

As an aside, I should take this opportunity to mention that the accent work in The Town is atrocious, particularly in the scene between Affleck and Cooper. This is all the more surprising as both actors are either former or current longtime Massachusetts residents and are clearly putting on hammy, affected "Southie" accents. The film should serve as a reminder to actors that not everyone who lives in Boston sounds like Diamond Joe Quimby.

But the missing mom story isn't merely to lend gravity to the Doug character, but rather to establish that behind every petty stick up man is a lip smacking, truly *evil* mastermind (in the instance, one played by Pete Postlethwaite who gets to de-thorn rose stems while projecting quiet menace) we can project our collective hatred upon. Postlethwaite's Fergie is not only indirectly responsible for Doug's mom killing herself but he threatens to kill Claire unless Doug agrees to rob Fenway Park in broad daylight. In a set piece which manages to be effective in the moment while still something of a missed opportunity, Doug and his crew get into a machine gun shootout in the bowels of an empty Fenway with Boston police officers that allows Affleck to live out every teenage boy's dream of staring in their own version of Heat.

Tasked with bringing this crew down is the bored-looking John Hamm's Agent Frawley (on paper, the film has a dream cast yet every performances, with the exception of Lively's, comes across as sleepy or apathetic) who gets to deliver "bad ass" speeches about personally hooking Doug up to a lethal injection machine for a Federal murder charge (the federal government's only executed three people in the last forty years, but nevermind). But for all his glowering and tough talk, he's as inept as a keystone kop. Constantly one step behind the meticulous Doug, we get a glimpse of this character's sharpened instincts at a crucial point late in the film: with Claire under FBI surveillance, in the hopes she'll convince Doug to come by her apartment where the Feds are waiting, Frawley literally stands behind her in front of a *giant* bay window, never considering that Doug (or for that matter anyone with working eyes) might see him from a safe distance away.

The screenplay for The Town has a lot on its mind, as it tries to reconcile generations of criminal behavior and the effect it has on young men born into it as well as dramatizing the changing face of Charlestown. The film was adapted from the novel Book of Thieves by Chuck Hogan and there's a rumored four hour cut of the film which may see the light of day eventually; it's likely either of these outlets treats these issues with more insight than the lip service they receive here. Overlong at more than two hours, the film is indifferently plotted, spinning its wheels between its crackerjack bank robberies without ever getting beneath the surface of a group of guys who turned to crime because it's all they knew. Nor does film have anything compelling to say about the emotional toll being the significant other of a bank robber can take on a person. The script is clunky and unsubtle, shoehorning plot devices and psuedo-profound lines of dialogue which grind the story to a halt for no reason other than the implicit promise that they'll be relevant later on in the film. The film especially suffers in comparison to Peter Yates' great Boston bank robber film of the early 70's, The Friends of Eddie Coyle which depicted the life of a criminal as a lonely game of musical chairs, only when the music stops you either end up dead or in jail.

No, Affleck's real agenda here seems to be in making a Michael Mann-style crime epic for the under-40 set (the earlier version of the film featured a scene where Doug zoned out in front of a television where the aforementioned Heat played, an instance of gilding the lilly that was wisely cut). But The Town lacks the breadth, style and attention to detail found within Mann's best films. Affleck the filmmaker can't bring himself to sympathize with the Frawley character to make him a worthy opponent and the relationship between Claire and Doug remains disappointing on the surface, as though being a violent criminal who kidnapped you at gunpoint is a "meet cute" that can be smoothed over by an earnest apology and a diamond necklace. For all its overtures to authenticity (which extends to casting pock-faced locals and the production reportedly embedding itself in the world of real criminals and drug addicts), the film feels like a bunch of kids playing cops and robbers.

Which brings me back to me original point: believability. Between The Town and Gone Baby Gone, Affleck has seemingly anointed himself the preeminent dramatist of white, working class South Boston. Yet there's always been something disingenuous about the routine, particularly if you recognize Affleck as a well-off middle class kid from an affluent suburb, posturing because he supposedly speaks the language. Of the two films, I actually enjoyed Gone Baby Gone as, for whatever its flaws, it captured some of the sadness and quiet desperation of being unable to escape one's situation. But Affleck strikes me as an artist desperately in search of street cred and seemingly unwilling to leave behind the safety net he created when he co-wrote Good Will Hunting back in the mid 90's. Anyone who's ever heard Affleck speak or read an interview with him, particularly about politics or filmmaking, can attest that he's an incredibly intelligent, self deprecating guy a million miles away from the sensitive lunkhead he plays here. I'm interested to see whatever he directs next but more than anything I wish he'd stop performing this Southie minstrel show of his. It's time to take his talents to one of the other 49 states.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Greenberg



With its half-filled swimming pools, under-attended open mic nights and huddled masses of struggling actors, writers and musicians hovering around the city like day laborers outside of a Home Depot, Los Angeles has come to represent the place where dreams go to die as much as it does glamor and fame. It's where everyone begins their life as a wistful optimist but invariably ends up jaded or bunt-out. There's a lost souls quality to the people who live there, struggling and failing to live up to what they thought they'd be when they're surrounded by success and cruel reminders of the class and social divide. The characters in Greenberg, the new film from writer-director Noah Baumbach, have all, to varying degree, made their peace with the lives they've given up on and dreams they've abandoned in order to survive. It's a film about compromise and grudging acceptance.

The film stars Ben Stiller as Roger Greenberg--an asshole in the strictest, The Royal Tenenbaums, sense of the word--a single 40-year-old man housesitting in Hollywood while his successful and well adjusted brother spends six-weeks in Vietnam on vacation with his family on the sort of third third world jaunt that only the super-affluent consider a lark. At one point an up and coming musician, Roger now works, although seemingly not out of necessity, as a carpenter following a stint in a mental institution (this is the only part of the character which rings false; like Nicholson in As Good as it Gets, the film is trying to provide a medical explanation for a character who is, at his core, a self absorbed piece of shit).

Roger isn't an Angelino specifically. He grew up in LA then moved east and his time back on the west coast feels fleeting. Spiritually though, he fits right in. He's adrift, floating in between his old life and a next chapter he doggedly refuses to begin writing. It's as though Benjamin Braddock has aged twenty years but still can't be bothered to get out of the pool (in an ironic twist, Roger is a horrible swimmer). Returning to Southern California 15 years after blowing up his music career, his relationship with his ex (Jennifer Jason Leigh, also serving as one of the film's producers and story contributors) and his best friend Ivan (Rhys Ifans, a hollowed-out shell of a man, too lethargic to hold a grudge), Roger will tell anyone who will listen how happy he is "doing nothing," oblivious to how counter-intuitive that is to everyone around him. Having created a status quo where no one expects anything of him, Roger's entire life seems dedicated to professing his superiority to everyone else, despite scant evidence to back this assertion up.

Like a younger, furrier Larry David, Roger is a casual misanthrope and cruel observer of the human condition, calling out behavior and conversation that fail to adhere to his lofty standards, even when no one's asking for it. Receiving the brunt of Roger's unsolicited opinions is his brother's personal assistant Florence (Greta Gerwig), a gawky bundle of low self-esteem wrapped in vintage cardigans and worn-thin leggings. Florence inexplicably takes an interest in the open sewer of a man, despite being fifteen years his junior and most of his seduction attempts ending in unwarranted ridicule and passive aggressive criticism.

Florence views Roger as vulnerable and a wounded soul, but there's more to her attraction than pity. Herself an aspiring singer, reduced to running personal errands for someone else's family, Florence at 25, is compromised and confused, and perhaps a little damaged from her time spent alone in an indifferent city. Throwing herself at any man who shows her the slightest bit of attention and lacking the filter to keep inside all the overly sincere feelings she has, Florence recognizes in Roger a sense of confidence in who he is, even if who he is is a snarky, barking monster. In a place where everyone's trying to make it, is there value in someone who's comfortable with having already given up?

Greenberg slowly peels back Roger's unearned sense of entitlement, revealing it for all its laziness and selfishness; it's a cynical form of self-awareness cannibalizing itself until you can hardly remember what you're disaffected against. Roger feels about for reasons to douse his burgeoning relationship with Florence, ranging from lack of sexual attraction (equating her to someone who's pretty at the office but less so outside of it) to merely not wanting to put the effort into it. Yet there's a fumbling, messiness to their awkward trysts (the film contains, perhaps, the least erotic instance of cunnilingus I've ever seen), as though Roger can barely contain himself emotionally and physically when he's with her. As the film progresses, Roger's cruelty towards her seems less emblematic of his worldview than it is in response to allowing himself grow close to someone.

Greenberg follows Baumbach's The Squid & the Whale and Margot at the Wedding as his latest film about the awful things acidic, overly-educated types do to the people they love, and it's arguably darker than both of those films. Roger's anger feels genuinely born of disappointment and self-preservation but the film isn't interested in forcing redemption upon him. Instead Greenberg settles for an impasse between Roger's overworked id and the realization that he's alienated everyone around him. Like Baumbach's earlier films, the writing here is precise in the way language can draw blood. There's nothing cute or tittering about the film's verbal assaults and I'll confess to viewing large portions of the film hiding behind my outstretched fingers, as though I were watching a horror film. There's an integrity to the film, in allowing its lead character to be so unwaveringly unpleasant, but that in no way offsets the feeling of watching a slow motion car wreck.

Stiller has spent the better part of the past decade selling himself as a family friendly leading man, but anyone who's seen his brief stint on "Curb Your Enthusiasm" or hasn't forgotten that he directed the much loathed Jim Carrey misfire The Cable Guy, will instantly recognize a lacerating arrogance often barely held at bay. Similar to Adam Sandler in last year's unfortunately overlooked Funny People, this is brave, unsentimental work from a talented comedian rarely called upon to do more than act opposite cgi creatures and frequently mug for the camera. For those of us who have watched Stiller stand outside of material that appears beneath him for years now, it's something of a revelation to see him finally laid bare and fully engaged with his subject.

But the final word on Greenberg belongs to Gerwig, a mainstay of the "mumblecore" genre, here receiving the widest exposure of her career. The actress lacks the polish and photo-shopped veneer of a conventional starlet, instead lending the film an earnest gravity and earthy sexuality. Perhaps the greatest compliment I can pay the young actress is that there doesn't appear to be an actual performance taking place; Gerwig simply inhabits the role, forgoing all affectation or technique and flattening out the character's big emotional moments. It's an incredibly internalized piece of acting as we witness a woman entirely defined by her role as a submissive. A submissive to her career, a submissive to her surroundings, and ultimately one to her heart. Florence deserves better than Roger although seems unlikely to realize it. Roger recognizes that he doesn't deserve Florence; it's to his credit and the film's that he stops using this as an excuse.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

The Runaways




I guess I'll be the one to ask the question: why The Runaways? Why an entire film dedicated to the short-lived exploits of a band that barely charted in this country thirty five years ago, has had arguable lasting appeal (readers under the age of 30, name a song by the band other than "Cherry Bomb," and no cheating) and minimal influence on our current music landscape when digging out an old episode of Behind the Music would more than suffice. Both Blondie and The Go-Go's were performing during the same period in history, wrote more memorable songs and, if VH1 is to be believed, generated far more R-rated drama and in-fighting, so what exactly is the appeal here of a group of pubescent, unsupervised girls getting high, playing loud music and occasionally have sex with each other and whatever roadie or fan that gets pulled into their gravitational pull of teenage debauchery? Geeze, I just don't see it.

The Runaways the film, like The Runaways the band, is a calculated grasp at the forbidden fruit of teenage female sexuality hiding behind a flimsy fig leaf of feminism. Dramatized here as literally plucked from a crowded club because she had the right look to front an all female band, Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) seemingly ascends to the level of rock goddess before it's established whether she can carry a tune. Such is the appeal of a 15-year-old who looks like Bardot meets Bowie with no hang-ups about writhing on stage in a corset and stockings. After first laying eyes on Currie, Michael Shannon's suitably creepy record producer Kim Fowley screams "jail fucking bait!" and it's not hard to imagine the producers of The Runaways thinking the same thing as they lined up a murderer's row of barely and not-at-all legal starlets to appear in the film.

Fanning, a spookily-self aware performer from an unfathomably young age, made headlines a few years back after appearing in Hounddog, a little-scene independent film where her character was raped on screen. But the real coming out party is The Runaways where the actress, only now old enough to drive as of this writing, gets to strut, growl, grind and have PG-13-safe make-out sessions. Currie, spit up and chewed out before she was old enough to legally buy cigarettes, seems less born of parents than of rock and roll cliches. Never shown as being moved by the music and often annoyed by the attention lavished on her by the media, Currie's just as driven to escape humdrum suburbia as she is to sob for the return of life at home with her supportive older sister and sick father. The character is aimless, lost in her own story, and Fanning is helpless to find purpose behind those wide and sad coked-out eyes.

The Runaways attempts to balance Currie's vacantness with bandmate and beating heart of the band Joan Jett (Kristin Stewart in an ink black mullet and bored expression) who resents the perception that the band is a gimmick act and wants to rock just as hard as the boys do. Visually, Stewart perfectly resembles a young Jett, returning to her pre-Twilight form as sexually androgynous and snarly lipped. Yet the actress remains, as ever, a passive and indifferent performer, suitably aping the guitar licks but little of the rebel spirit. The film is framed as a star-crossed romance between Currie and Jett, even ending with Jett's cover of "Crimson and Clover" as the duo make-up long distance after years of resentment, yet it seems unwilling to fully commit to their sapphist tryst as anything more substantial than teenage puppy love.

The disconnect between Joan's "I Love Rock and Roll" ideals and Cherie's cover girl ennui would make for an interesting take on the material. So, for that matter would be the way female musicians are marginalized by the male-driven media, placing their sexuality before their talent. The film toes the line of exploring the creepy cultural fixation on sexualizing young women before their time, a ticking clock of obsession that seems to expire the second a woman becomes of legal age, yet it curiously depicts most of the band's screaming fans as young women, flying in the face of Fowley's titillation battle plan for rock domination.

Instead writer-director Floria Sigismondi (a first-time filmmaker but a music video mainstay for decades) forgoes a point altogether, trotting out every music biopic chestnut, from drugged-out hazes, to band squabbling, to splashing unattributed headlines and magazine covers across the screen to assure us, the dubious viewers, that this sonically limited act did, at one point, matter. Most egregious of all, the film commits the same sin it's theoretically criticizing, focusing on Currie and Jett at the expense of the rest of the band, denying them characters, secondary personality traits or even perfunctory title cards at the end of the film to explain what happened to them after the band broke up.

Watching The Runaways, I was reminded of another, better musical biopic, 2007's Control about the late singer Ian Curtis of Joy Division. Control never presumes Curtis' or the band's influence or importance, nor reduces them to a series of on the nose sound bites and "oh, so that's how that song was written" moments. It had genuine pride and respect for the process of making music and the tormented artists who made it, and lets that speak for itself. It lacked the cynicism that permeates The Runaways which does as much to promote the talent of the band as a beer commercial featuring their songs would and treats its cast as underage pin-ups. As the film was co-produced by Jett and adapted from Currie's memoir, it has the odd side-effect of an artist proving their naysayers correct. Congratulations ladies: you can be as much of a soulless marketing tool as men!

Monday, January 11, 2010

The Best of 2009

2009, was in many respects, a year of disappointment, both personally and globally. Right around the time the post-election hangover kicked you realized that your job was probably no longer secure (assuming you were lucky enough to still have one), our country was still mired in two wars and the only one who seemed to be happy were the CEO's of Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns who used your tax dollars to buy another gold toilet for their yachts. It's only appropriate then that film in 2009 reflected that anxiety; it was though even a trip to the movies served as a reminder of just how scary it was outside.

Nowhere was this more evident than in Jason Reitman's Up in the Air which featured George Clooney as a corporate axe-man, criss-crossing the country, firing people while offering a pithy pat on the back to those going home to families that depend upon them. Only along the way does he comes to realize his insular, lone wolf existence (dedicated to the asinine, yet strangely relatable, goal of attaining 10 million frequent-flyer miles) is merely a shell game put in place to prevent him from establishing any real emotional attachments. It's a testament to Reitman and Clooney (who's never been better) that not only is the film dazzling, old Hollywood-style entertainment filled with beautiful people being charming, but also one of the great existential crisis movie of our time. How, in a world where it's become easier than ever to stay connected, is it we've become more self-contained and shut-off from our fellow man?

Of course the economic crisis had a funny way of rearing its head in the most unexpected of places. Sam Raimi's low-tech, comedy-horror-extravaganza Drag Me to Hell not only satiated the long held demand for a fourth Evil Dead film but gave audiences the perverse pleasure of watching a pretty, young (but cravenly opportunistic) loan officer (Allison Lohman) spit up gobs of black bile, be tossed around by a decrepit old crone and have large chunks of her hair torn from her head after kicking an old gypsy woman out of her home. The film finds Raimi at his most impish, teasing out scares and playing the audience like a harp; you won't know whether to shriek or giggle but that's pretty much the point. Of course, no film was more terrifying than Chris Smith's Collapse a doomsday documentary that makes an Inconvenient Truth look like a bedtime story. Essentially a ninety minute long sit down interview with former police officer turned reporter, Michael Ruppert, the film explains the concept of "peak oil" and that an economy built upon it (like for example, our own) is doomed to topple much sooner than later. It's the sort of film where you find yourself praying that Ruppert is a crackpot simply because the alternative may cause you to lose sleep. Or buy a gun.

The war in Iraq may have lost space on the front page this year to the economy but it finally became the subject of a great film. Two of them actually. Kathryn Bigelow's The Hurt Locker has already been feted by most major critics groups so I'll simply add that the film remains one of the most intensely visceral films I've ever seen and features a star making performance from Jeremy Renner. Iraq is never explicitly mentioned in Armando Iannucci's In the Loop (an adaptation of the BBC series "The Thick of It") but that's about the only thing that isn't said in an explicit fashion. Showing the maneuvering and scrambling on both sides of the pond in the days leading up to a US invasion of Iraq, the film wields verbal dexterity and creative profanity like a saber, depicting both sides of the war debate as opportunistic fumblers and slimy schemers. The whole film plays like a 1930's screwball farce, only everyone's talking about cunts, scrotums and lubricated horse cocks.

The two best character studies of the year were both films about immature Jewish men confused by love (and no, I'm not talking about A Serious Man, although I was pretty fond of that film as well). James Gray's Two Lovers starred Joaquin Phoenix in the performance of the year as a thirty-something Brighton Beach man torn between the excitement and passion inspired in him by a beautiful fair-haired temptress (Gwenyth Paltrow, reminding people that, before she was a blogger and Chris Martin's wife, she was a hell of an actress) and the security of a plain-looking (by Hollywood standards anyway) Jewish woman from the neighborhood, achingly played by Vinessa Shaw. Bracingly perceptive in depicting arrested development and the behavior of fickle young men, Two Lovers had the misfortune of being known as the film Phoenix was promoting when he had a public meltdown/decided he wanted to pull a Borat-like media stunt. A box office misfire as a result, time should be much kinder to it. However, the most misunderstood film of the year is Judd Apatow's Funny People which seemed to alienate star Adam Sandler's fan base of frat boys and meatheads as well as most critics who failed to recognize what a revelation the film was from both its star and director. Calling to mind both James L. Brooks and Eric Rohmer (only with dick and fart jokes), the film is a turbulent and overlong yet wonderfully human story of a man who, when faced with death, goes through the motions of change but never actually does becomes a better person.

Speaking of death, how we carry on in the wake of losing a loved one (and what we do with what they leave behind) was a surprising reoccurring motif this year. The French film Summer Hours, from prolific by wildly inconsistent filmmaker Oliver Assayas, shows the way three siblings react to the sale of their family estate after the passing of their mother. Attuned to the way we project memories and sentimental value onto the keepsakes and possessions of our childhood, the film finds deep reservoirs of understated sadness as the liquidation of assets and relocation of heirlooms feels as tragic as the death of a parent. Less understated (at least in my experience) in its sadness is the animated film Up from Pixar and director Peter Doctor.
Ostensibly the story of an old man and a little boy who fly off to South America in a house hoisted by thousands of balloons, the film has the capacity to reduce me to a sobbing mess (several times throughout) every time it addresses the death of square-jawed curmudgeon Carl Fredricksen's wife, Ellie, initially dramatized in a much lauded musical interlude depicting their lives together, from courtship to her death. It's a curious jumping off point for a kid's film about high adventure and talking dogs but it's essential to keep the film emotionally (..erm...) grounded and a reminder that we often can't begin our new lives until we let go of our old ones. But lest all this death stuff get too heavy, we'll always have Bobcat Goldthwait (yes the guy with the dumb voice from the Police Academy movies). Goldthwait's World's Greatest Dad was marketed as the latest sickly sweet comedy from Robin Williams, but don't believe it. Working a pitch black comedic vein, World's Greatest Dad explored the way the dead are canonized by those left behind, often rewriting history and riding roughshod over who they really were to bolster the living's own sense of self worth. It's the rare comedy that would have us find humor in suicide notes and tragedy in masturbation mishaps.

Ten Best of '09:(*)
1. Up in the Air (Jason Reitman)
2. Two Lovers (James Gray)
3. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow)
4. In the Loop (Armando Iannucci)
5. Funny People (Judd Apatow)
6. Summer Hours (Olivier Assayas)
7. Collapse (Chris Smith)
8. Up (Peter Doctor)
9. World's Greatest Dad (Bobcat Goldthwait)
10. Drag Me to Hell (Sam Raimi)

Honorable Mention:
The Brothers Bloom (Rian Johnson)
Revanche (Götz Spielmann)
A Serious Man (Joel & Ethan Coen)
Star Trek (J.J. Abrams)
Fantastic Mr. Fox (Wes Anderson)
Sugar (Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck)
In the Electric Mist (Bertrand Tavernier)
Inglorious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino)
The Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans (Werner Herzog)
District 9 (Neill Blomkamp)

(*) In the two weeks between writing this article and it's eventual posting, I finally saw the documentary The Cove from filmmaker Louie Psihoyos and my mind was suitably blown. If I were less lazy I'd rewrite this whole thing to incorporate the film into my top 10 but in addition to being a pain in the ass that's not in the spirit of reflecting my mindset at the end of 2009. Needless to say, in addition to the films written about at length here, you should definitely check out The Cove as well.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Belated Defense of Funny People




I saw Judd Apatow's Funny People for the first time last May at a test screening a few months before its release. Even in an incomplete form (although aside from a few excised lines, I'd be hard pressed to identify any real changes between the version I saw and the final product) I knew right away that the film was something special and an evolutionary leap forward from a filmmaker who I'd felt had been puttering around for the last couple years at a safe reserve. Apatow is of course the mega writer-producer witch a credit on seemingly every major American comedy of the last six years who was coming off the critical and financial success of his last directorial effort, 2007's Knocked Up, a film that has always made me ideologically queasy in spite of the fact that it's undeniably funny.

But Funny People was something different. It represented a bracingly mature departure from the filmmaker, albeit one that still found room to incorporate roughly a hundred to a hundred and fifty dick and balls jokes into the proceedings. Yes, the film was another overlong, shaggy-dog tale of perpetually immature men being forced to grow up while slumming through Southern California. Yet the film stubbornly refused to ignore the consequences of this behavior, following callow self-destructive acts to their natural conclusion no matter how uncomfortable or absent of catharsis they might be. More than anything, the film reminded me of James L. Brooks' seminal, mid 80's workplace comedy Broadcast News which deftly balanced mortifying, awkward social comedy with all too prescient assaults on the changing face of the media and an understated love triangle. If Funny People doesn't quite reach those heights it's at least aimed in that direction.

Yet, for as much as I loved the film, my hands were tied to talk about it. In addition to the standard non disclosure form I had signed before seeing the film, I was also assaulted by an overzealous goon from the research firm that was conducting the test screening who not only recognized my face but indicated that he'd been monitoring me online through various social networking sites that I belong to (you always dream that you'll be cyber-stalked by some overly-invested cute girl but in actuality it's almost always the dude who's currently dating your ex or some creepy, middle-aged, corporate stooge). After being told, in so many words, that I was being watched and would be punished if I talked about the film, I kept my mouth shut. And once the film was released my mouth remained shut, because clearly I was in no mood to do anyone any favors.

Sadly, Funny People probably could have used my voice (it certainly wouldn't have hurt it). The film opened to less than $23 million despite the presence of Adam Sandler and only went on to gross roughly twice that in this country. The standard knock against the film was that, for as funny as the first hour and a half were, the left turn the film takes when Sandler and Seth Rogen's characters depart for a weekend in Marin County to visit Sandler's ex (played by actress Leslie Mann, who also happens to be Apatow's real life wife) took the film in a direction that fans of the genre were unprepared and unwilling to go to. Essentially the film dials down the frat boy backslapping and inside baseball for more low key, situational humor. It's as though the film starts as Superbad and grows into Sideways, laying bare the human toll of Sandler's self-absorbed actions and skewing the audience's loyalties into a series of ever changing permutations. It's an incredibly bold departure by Apatow at a time where audiences have shown they want nothing more from comedies than to serve as extra bawdy, ninety-minute-long episodes of "Two and Half Men."

So is it any wonder the film tanked with the very same crowd that turned Knocked Up into a sensation? Knocked Up you'll remember adhered to the tried and true, young man comes of age formula, with all the hard earned life lessons hastily cut together into a montage to leave more room for Vegas drug freak outs, pop culture digressions and gratuitous crowning shots. No less an authority than ESPN's The Sports Guy, Bill Simmons (who's far from a refined film-goer but is a fair arbiter of taste for men of a certain age and interest), spent the whole summer working disparaging references to the film into podcasts and columns: oh but if only the film could have hewed more closely to the profanity strewn world of night clubs and bullshit sessions without changing midstream into a touchy-feely, midlife ennui, mope-fest of marital disappointment and hurt feelings.

Watching the film again on DVD I was struck by just how funny the first two thirds of the film still are. So much so it's almost understandable how people could find the transition to more sedate material so jarring. Apatow and his cast are too effective at crafting an unforced comedy of hazing and aggressive (passive and otherwise) free form riffing all while carefully observing insular, fickle human behavior (mostly of the young male variety). Apatow may not be a filmmaker with enormous range but he clearly knows his sweet spot. Having spent years as both a comedy writer and an aspiring stand up, Apatow gifts the film an air of casual authenticity, in particular the way Rogen's character, Ira, limps along the poverty line, living in the shadow of his vapid but more successful housemates.

Like Cameron Crow's Almost Famous, Funny People is a comedy about those who exist alongside the rich and famous, exploiting the wealth and access of their glamorous buddies so long as they never overstep their role and judge the demonstrably flawed celebrity they're joined at the hip with. Ira idolizes Sandler's George Simmons, having grown up watching such terrible-looking (yet oddly plausible) films as "Merman" and "Redo." In Ira, George has a walking cheering section who will validate his puerile behavior, weather his emasculating insults, chuckle at his lame jokes and more than anything desperately aspire to be like George. It's only when Ira tries to relate to George as a contemporary and friend, refusing to look the other way at the older man's selfish tendencies, does George bristle.

George (who we are quite consciously meant to interpret as a slightly skewered version of Sandler's persona via the use of archival footage of a younger Adam doing stand-up and goofing around in his dorm room throughout the film) is a manipulative demigod of self loathing not above using his fame to bed women half his age (while always acknowledging that they'll come away disappointed) or turning a Thanksgiving toast into an opportunity to work out new material on a group of fawning twenty-somethings.

The performance reminds me of Mickey Rourke's much lauded and similarly revealing work in last year's The Wrestler. Awards not withstanding though (and unfortunately, Mr. Sandler will be receiving none) I actually think this is the greater achievement. Sandler's work as George is lacerating in its self-assessment, painting the picture of a selfish, short-tempered, lonely man who is conscious of his wealth and fame (perhaps the most off-putting thing about the character is how quickly he resorts to talking about his money on stage as a crutch; at a time when seemingly half the country is unemployed, George bemoans how his possessions mostly make him miserable) and as a comedian knows exactly what to say to cause the most emotional harm to those around him. A scene late in the film where Ira, stuck in a moving vehicle, is personally and professional eviscerated by George in as punishing a verbal assault as I can remember in a recent film not written by Labute or Mamet. This is a deeply unsympathetic performance by Sandler. It exposes Sandler's fans to oceans of insecurity and rage in a performer known predominantly for making shitty family comedies while building on and expanding upon the promise shown in Paul Thomas Anderson's Punch Drunk Love and James L. Brooks' Spanglish.

There's a Norma Desmond quality to Sandler's performance in the film. We see him isolated and friendless, puttering around his tomb-like mansion, reliving his glory days by watching his young comedians' special and crummy cgi-heavy movies on a wall of flat screen TV's. George relies upon his domestic staff for day-to-day human contact (Ira ultimately falls into this category, tasked with such menial jobs as calling the cable company because George can't find the Cavaliers game on). When he does venture outside the house he's surrounded by burnt-out cronies to lavish attention on him (Paul Reiser and Norm McDonald cut almost as pathetic a figure as Buster Keaton and H.B. Warner). Funny People doesn't quite paint a disparaging picture of fame but it would seem to argue that there's a an emotional toll to being a construct existing for the amusement of others. Or put another way, it's hard to imagine anyone coming away from the film with a new-found desire to become a stand-up comedian.

If I've neglected to address the actual plot of Funny People it's because, like the film itself, I recognize the importance of laying groundwork. As the trailer regrettably spoiled, George is diagnosed with a rare form of cancer that forces him to re-evaluate his life, only to be miraculously cured. The catch is, as Ira points out, George learns nothing from this experience despite claims to the contrary. George uses his sickness as simply the latest excuse to justify his cowardly grasps at self fulfillment, consequences be damned. Weaseling his way back into the life of Laura,Mann's scorned ex-girlfriend, George finds her now married to a philandering businessman (Eric Bana, incredible in a very difficult role) with two young children. Sensing a fissure in their domestic bliss that he can exploit and bust apart, George seduces the unappreciated Laura, inserting himself into the absent husband and father role while a horrified Ira is forced to look on and deal with the emotional fall-out as it splashes back on Laura's children (played, by Apatow and Mann's actual daughters, Maude & Iris Apatow).

And it's here that Funny People loses some people. For ninety minutes, like Ira, we've grown comfortable with George's actions; his needy vying for attention and wild mood swings are placed within a consequence-free context of what is ostensibly a buddy comedy. We like George because Ira likes George and because Sandler possesses an easy charm; he's like the older brother who calls you an idiot, gives you a noogie then throws you the keys to a new sports car. Yet placed within a family dynamic of dinner time and music recitals George's behavior clangs loudly. In one of the film's best scenes, we watch George as he compulsively checks his text messages while the proud Laura weeps at her daughter's performance of "Memories" from Cats, only for him to try and defuse the situation by claiming his stoner buddy would have found the whole thing hilarious.

Because we've been conditioned to believe Sandler is our hero and because Bana has been cast in the role of typically boorish jock--that Bana uses his actual Australian accent for some reason only further paints him as a jerk--standing in the way of George attaining what he believes is true love, there's an uncomfortable disconnect between what we want to happen and what we deep down recognize should not. Sandler lacks the patience and empathy to truly love anyone but himself; he goes through the motions of supporting Laura and pledges to be a father to her children yet its obvious that he'll only betray and disappoint them given enough time. The tension of the last act now arrives from whether Ira will be able to prevent Laura from dissolving her marriage from a flawed but decent man to be with the raging asshole we like to call our protagonist.

That, my friends, is one brave goddamn choice and Apatow had to have recognized that audiences would have difficulty embracing such an unconventional approach. Stand-up as an art form is built upon instant gratification and immediate approval (if you do well, you get laughs) yet Funny People isn't a film about a comedy, it's a film about comedians. That the film is initially so successful at generating laughs early on is a plus, but it's almost beside the point. There are no lessons learned or happy endings here, just a bunch of adults who make a mess of their lives then have to go about the process of putting them back together.

If there's a consistent flaw to the film, it's Apatow's tendency to pander to the audience, over-explaining that which should be plainly obvious. Apatow writes in a female love interest for Ira ("Parks & Recreation's" Aubrey Plaza, hiding behind Tina Fey glasses) who seems to exist for no reason other than to mirror his own starfucking tendencies. Similarly, Laura tells us on two separate occasions how much Bana's Clarke is like George. Apatow is also still something of a clumsy filmmaker, too reliant on montage and allowing his characters to riff at length about their penises and whatever pop culture phenomenon of the moment catches their fancy.

Still, this is uncommonly ambitious filmmaking for a mainstream, summer comedy staring one of the world's biggest stars in a role well outside his comfort zone. Shortly after the film's release I told a friend that I was worried the film was destined to be Apatow's Jackie Brown. To wit, Tarantino's Pulp Fiction follow up was not only perceived to be a failure in the eyes of the public but was also, like Funny People, a mature new direction from a director who could do no wrong provided he did the same thing over and over again. Tarantino has spent the past decade steering his career away from the kind of heartfelt, unadorned stories found at the center of Jackie Brown and I fear that Apatow's first taste of directorial failure will also send him scurrying to safer territory. I hope I'm wrong and that Apatow's internal compass will continue to point him towards more personal, adult material. In the meantime I can only do my small part, however late as it may be. Funny People is a special film, one filled with human weakness and regret and a willingness to depict its characters as emotionally vulnerable and susceptible to temptation. These are not attributes one usually associated with "laugh riots" and that's sort of the point. Funny People deserved better and I can only hope, like Jackie Brown, it becomes re-appreciated by audiences down the road. In the meantime, at least I'm on the record about it. Funny People is one of the best films of the year.

Saturday, November 7, 2009

AFI 2009 coverage - Bad Lieutenant, Precious, & Fish Tank

The AFI Film Festival returned to Hollywood this year, where it has been based for over three decade, albeit in a slightly diminished capacity. Proving that no one is immune to the economic downturn of the past few years, the festival relocated from the palatial Arclight Cinema at Sunset and Vine to the decidedly more econo-class Mann's Chinese 6 at Hollywood and Highland (as well as a couple days in Santa Monica to coincide with the feeding frenzy known as the American Film Market).

It's not simply location that's different about this year's edition though. Showcasing a streamlined selection of titles that leans heavily on films that premiered at Cannes and Toronto, AFI has been re-baptized as a "festival of festivals" which is something of a plus and a minus. For film fans who haven't had their passports stamped in France and Canada this year, the festival serves as a summation of many of the art films sure to litter year end best of lists while giving Oscar contenders a showy gala unveiling at the neighboring Grauman's Chinese theater. The downside however is that AFI becomes the latest festival to turn its back on showcasing unheralded, smaller films that lack prior festival cache.

But the show must go on and there are still films to be seen and appreciated. And free films at that! In one change of policy that everyone can get behind AFI has decided to forgo a traditional box office and has given away tickets to all of their screenings, including their gala events, relying upon sponsorship dollars to off-set the cost of lost ticket sales. It's an admirable acknowledgment of people's shifting priorities even if it has resulted in the strange occurrence of frequently half empty auditoriums and non-existent rush lines.

As for the films themselves? They remain, as with any film festival, a mixed bag.

The festival finally gave me an excuse to see Werner Herzog's lovingly batshit Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans. Ever since a hastily edited trailer was leaked online this summer, introducing the expression "lucky crack pipe" into the vernacular and promising wall-to-wall Nic Cage scenery chewing, the film has been anticipated with bated breath from a certain segment of the film community. Specifically those who needed to find out whether Herzog had, in fact, turned Abel Ferrara's uncomfortably primal and guilt-ridden tale of a morally bankrupt police officer at crisis into a Tommy Wiseau film.

It comes of something of a relief and with a major honking caveat that the film is all I could have hoped for: a straight up hijacking of a direct-to-DVD vehicle by two singularly insane artists who don't care about your preconceptions or how many European territories the distributor has pre-sold the film to.

First of all, dispense with all attachments to Ferrara's original; the two films have as much in common as National Lampoon's Animal House and National Lampoon's Senior Trip. Cage stars as Lt. Terence McDonagh, a homicide detective with chronic back problems an escalating gambling debt and a high class hooker girlfriend (Eva Mendes) who all too happy to help him scam her johns out of drugs and cash. McDonagh gets roped into a multiple murder investigation and all that comes with it including an on edge partner (Val Kilmer, doing God knows what, then thankfully departing for much of the film) reluctant witnesses, meddling bosses and pesky Internal Affairs officers.

On paper there really is not much here. The script by cop show veteran William Finkelstein is so moldy it borders on kitsch; the film actually finds room for variations of both the weary black captain telling our antihero "his cowboy antics won't work this time" as well as McDonagh being ordered to turn over his gun because he's on suspension. Yet Herzog and Cage treat the script as merely an excuse for someone to sign their checks and the set as their own personal playground to explore whatever dimensions of the character fits their fancy that day.

Cage feels like switching to a different accent halfway through the film without provocation or explanation (it sounds somewhere between Jimmy Stewart and Al Pacino from the first Godfather after Michael's had his jaw broken)? Go for it! Herzog is in the mood to go off on a 90 second tangent where we view the action from the point of view of a couple of (imaginary) iguanas? Hey we've already hired the animal trainer, might as well get some bang for our buck! Entire scenes seem to exist exclusively as private jokes, employing bizarre linguistic shorthand or playing out in canted angles as though they were downloaded from an alien mother-ship and loosely re-translated. I'll put it another way: it's the kind of film that you a) fully expect Michael Shannon to show up in an uncredited role and b) when he does he's one of the more lucid characters in the film.

Frequently coked out of his mind and a slave to various nefarious masters pulling him in every direction, Cage gives a swinging from the chandeliers performance of slowly unnerving insanity that's a joy to behold if for no other reason than it's completely impossible to tell what he'll do next. It's the sort of role where simply shaving with an electric razor carries as much comedic menace as cutting off an infirm, elderly woman's oxygen.

Herzog treats the story with what could be charitably called an efficient perfunctoriness (the film's brusque resolution is sure to enrage most people) forcing you to set it aside and dig for a larger meaning. What emerges is the tale of a man driven by his demons to madness; unable to turn back or escape he is forced to plow forward. Bad Lieutenant by all traditional standards isn't "good" per say but it's never boring. A letter grade for this one feel almost beside the point, but let's go with a B.

Lest Bad Lieutenant corner the market on comically over-long titles there's also Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire. The darling of the festival circuit (the film has won audience awards at Sundance and Toronto amongst others), the film is being positioned as this year's little film that could; an out of left field indie sensation that announces itself as not only a critical favorite but as a legitimate awards contender. And in hindsight this makes complete sense, because, as are most little indie films that could, it's a complete and total fraud.

Part Dangerous Minds part minstrel show, all manipulative button pusher, Precious tampers down the phony uplift under mountains of suffering and ugliness yet the redemptive, rise up formula is firmly in place. It's a film for people who equate squalor with integrity and can make it through Paul Haggis' Crash without doubling over in laughter.

The film stars newcomer Gabourey Sidibe as Clareece Precious Jones an illiterate, morbidly obese black teenager living in Harlem in the mid 80's. Precious (even the poor girl's name falls into the cruel irony category) lives well below the poverty line with her shrieking harpy of an abusive mother (comedian Mo'Nique who appears to have only been given the direction of "act like a dragon") who in addition to berating her daughter and frequently hurling heavy projectiles at her head is dependent on her daughter for the welfare checks she commands (casual racists are gonna have a field day with this one). Precious, only 16 and already held back several grades in school is pregnant with her second child, both children the result of being raped by her now absentee father. I could go on with the indignities she's forced to endure but clearly the point has been made, that life for this girl could be better.

But into all of this darkness comes a little light (literally) in the form of the beautiful Ms. Rain played by Paula Patton. Mrs. Rain teaches at a remedial school--the kind often filled with colorful cut-ups and flunkies who can serve as the film's version of the Sweathogs--and seems to take an honest to goodness interest in Precious, building up her self confidence and finding a place for her to live after she escapes her mothers clutches. Yet with so many outside factors weighing on Precious, is there any chance she can escape and start a new life?

In the first of *many* groaners found within the film, the opening credits for Precious are in hand-written scrawl of misspellings and child-like scribbling, setting the tone nicely for the pandering and on the nose melodrama that's to come. More importantly though it contains the wholly extraneous subtitle which sums up what makes Precious so odious in the first place. This is not a faithful retelling of a real person's life, honoring every horrible detail as it happened. This is a complete work of fiction now in its second iteration, ladling on human misery and degradation so that the upper middle class white people in the audience can feel alternately superior to and horrified by the living conditions of poor blacks.

The film is a Takashi Miike film for the Oprah Winfrey crowd (who not coincidentally is one of the film's executive producers and biggest champions), twisting human suffering into a game of unblinking one-upsmanship, feeding upon the stunned gasps of audiences: not enough that her mother just berated her and threw a heavy object at Precious' head? What if we make her fall down the stairs... while holding a newborn infant... then drop a television on their heads from above?

No ugly cultural stereotype goes untouched in painting a picture of Precious' hardship. Precious resents her skin color, fantasizing herself as a skinny pretty white girl and daydreaming about a light skinned boyfriend. It must be something of a perverse joke on director Lee Daniels' (Shadowboxer) part that instead of the typically white savior who usually shows up in these films to lift up our black hero, Precious is populated with attractive biracial guardians (including Patton and musicians Lenny Kravitz and Mariah Carey) who stand up for her instead.

Daniels wallows in the more unsightly details of Precious' life: the dank, decaying walls of her apartment, a crock of bubbling pig's feet cooking on the stove, a hunk of fried chicken hanging from Precious' face (I swear to God, I'm not making this stuff up). This is all the better to contrast them with Daniels' stylized, brightly lit fantasy sequences where Precious envisions herself at movie premieres and photos shoots. The film intends for these sequences to serve as a form of escape (in one instance the results of an STD test are abruptly pushed to the side to make way for a daydream about a modeling session) but they ultimately come across as mocking and disingenuous.

Precious rewards the audience for clucking its collective tongues on cue and feeling empathy for a young girl whose suffering falls somewhere just short of Jesus-on-the-cross level martyrdom but to what end? Is there anything to take away from this experience other than, yes, it's conceivable that one person can endure this much sorrow? Precious is fiercely well acted and will no doubt find its fans far outweighing its detractors. Everyone involved may end up with an Academy Award for their troubles. But make no mistake, the film is misery porn no matter how big a bow you tie around it. My grade: D+

A far less histrionic but much better film about a teenage girl in crisis is Fish Tank from Scottish filmmaker Andrea Arnold. Arnold isn't quite a household name in the world of art cinema despite racking up an Academy Award and two jury prizes from Cannes in the past six years, but she's already building an impressive reputation and comparisons to the likes of Mike Leigh and Ken Loach for her films about working class modern day Britain, albeit from a specifically female point of view.

Fish Tank follows in the footsteps of 2006's Red Road and it serves as an amplification of that film's strengths as well as weaknesses. Like Precious, Fish Tank centers around a poor 15-year-old girl, Mia (first-timer Katie Jarvis), living with a self-involved single mother (Kierston Wareing, tellingly only 12 years older than Jarvis in real life) as well as a disarmingly foul-mouthed younger sister (Rebecca Griffiths) in a cramped apartment. Mia's an angry young woman who fights with her mom and sister constantly. She seems to have isolated herself from all of her friends and has flunked out of school; her only release is to practice hip hop dancing by herself in an abandoned apartment in her complex.

But into all this unchecked estrogen enters mom's new boyfriend, Colin (Michael Fassbender, last seen too briefly in Inglorious Basterds). Colin represents something of an enigma, to both Mia and the audience: free-swinging and juvenile enough to be mom's new boy toy but also sensitive and considerate, encouraging Mia when no one else seems willing. Mia, likewise feels conflicted by the presence of the new man in the house, lashing out at him in one instant, then sweetly asking him for money or help as it becomes apparent he's one of the few people who seems to care. Yet the longer he remains in the house the more the barriers of their relationship are tested, placing the two of them onto a messy collision course that arrives in a predictable place but not in the way we expect.

Much of Fish Tank's strength is derived from the ever shifting interplay between Jarvis and Fassbender, feeding off of the queasy sensuality Arnold cultivates throughout the film. Thematically similar to but far less chaste than An Education, Fish Tank simmers with tension as the anxiety of impropriety looms over nearly every scene. Even the most tender of moments (Colin carries a pretending to be asleep to Mia to her bed, slowly removing her shoes and sweat pants before tucking her under a blanket) pulses with unease as two people, one who clearly should know better, seem destined towards transgression.

In fact Arnold does such an exemplary job of building and maintaining this tension (which technically is "sexual tension" but I feel dirty even referring to it as such) that by the time she finally addresses the issue head on, the film utterly deflates. Unfortunately Fish Tank continues for another half an hour after that, which is where it loses its way. A gifted director but mediocre screenwriter, Arnold relies upon clumsy plot mechanics and too-obvious-by-half symbolism (the last shot in particular is a howler) which equates a lot of strum and drang but not much progression or enriching of the characters. Fish Tank climaxes with a good deal of frenzy and angst but it seems to have been imported from a blunter, far less carefully observed film.

This may dull the overall impact of the film but doesn't quite negate it. Filmed in 4x3 Academy ratio, the film emphasis claustrophobia and tightly composed frames as though Mia can't even escape the small box she's been placed in on screen. It's a household where everyone lives on top of each other. Where everyone shows up to the breakfast table in various stages of undress and thin walls barely disguise the lovemaking in the next room. Arnold's unadorned style consisting of long, peering takes places us in the role of the voyeur, catching stray moments of both sadness and humanity as they unfold.

Jarvis gives a raw, animalistic performance, like a beaten dog backed into a corner. It's a performance built around rage and distrust and the film's at its most touching when we see Mia able to let down her guard enough to merely peacefully coexist with her family. But the story of the film is Fassbender who, I suspect, will not be a secret for much longer. With soft eyes and a boyish grin, Colin lets his thoughts run away from him, relating to the insecure and feral Mia as his contemporary as opposed to the burden her mother views her as. There's a decency to Fassbender's performance in a very difficult and complicated role; Colin is unmistakably acting inappropriately in the film yet it's easy to see how both he and Mia could fall into this trap. Between his work here, in Basterds and this past winter's Hunger, Fassbender has become the break-out actor of 2009, a performer who seemingly can do anything well.

Arnold has enormous upside as a filmmaker and her work with actors is second to none but I do wish however she'd gravitate to someone else's material. This is now the second straight film from her that derails in the last act as she struggles to incorporate unwieldy tonal shifts and dramatic plot turns, when her gift is clearly for understated character drama. Still, Fish Tank is a film to keep your eye out for; it opens early next year. My grade: B

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

An Education (09 Scherfig C-)




Films like An Education exist to remind us how spoiled Mad Men has made us.

Here we have a film set in England the early 60's, on the cusp of various youth-driven revolutions; where the old guard barely held back a wall of social, sexual and cultural liberation that we recognize is only a few years away from busting through. Furthermore it's a film swathed in lovingly recreated period detail. Every costume, automobile and strand of hair feels picture perfect, evoking a time where the beautiful people seemed to radiate casual glamour. The film would seem to do for swooning Anglophiles what the gang at Sterling Cooper does for their American cousins every week.

Yet for all it superficially gets right, An Education falters in breathing energy and passion into what is ostensibly a swirling, turbulent affair at its center, or for that matter placing it in a larger social context. It is first and foremost a museum piece, safely tucked away behind glass with all those pesky emotions neatly compartmentalized. Aggressively middlebrow and ultimately cowardly in its revisionism, the film never transcends mere nostalgia for the era, only finding reason for existence in the chaste nuzzling between anointed star in the making Carey Mulligan and Peter Sarsgaard as her older, morally compromised lover.

Based on a memoir by British journalist Lynn Barber, Mulligan stars as Jenny a 16-year-old school girl destined for higher learning at Oxford at the gentle yet firm prodding of her middle class parents (Alfred Molina and Cara Seymour). A bright student frustrated that her appreciation of the arts and culture is to be limited to one of cello lessons and stuffy school recitals, Jenny is understandably smitten with David (Sarsgaard), an older, well-travelled man in a sports car who she meets while waiting on a bus in the rain. David says all the right things and has glamorous friends and exotic interests. He quickly seduces not only Jenny but her initially weary parents, who come to see him as a shortcut for their daughter into affluence and high society.

Yet all is not quite what it seems. As David sweeps her off her feet, whisking her away to night clubs and trips to Paris (much to the consternation of the teachers and administrators at her school, here embodied by Olivia Williams and Emma Thompson) he keeps much to himself like where he actually lives and how exactly he makes his money. Could this dashing man, who's shown to be an especially gifted liar, be misleading the naive young girl who has fallen hopeless in love with him? Or for that matter, is there any way the film's title is not meant to be taken in a forehead-slapping ironic way?

An Education was adapted by British novelist Nick Hornby (High Fidelity, About a Boy) whose works are often defined by a knowing specificity of pop culture and the ways in which it defines his characters, a specificity that's distractingly absent here. Jenny frequently extols the exciting films and music she's experiencing, yet the film remains oddly noncommittal in embracing the politics and culture of the era. Instead the film offers up a shrug and offhand dismissal in response to the civil unrest of the time, while discretely name checking classical music as an example of how a teenage girl chooses to cut loose.

The only thing that seems to excite the film and its characters are the post World War II London costumes and art direction, rendering the film as antiseptic and detached as an episode of Masterpiece Theater. Danish filmmaker Lone Scherfig (Italian for Beginners) beautifully frames Ms. Mulligan in puppy dog sweet tableaus while nestled in the arms of Sarsgaard, dolling her up to resemble Audrey Hepburn in the flesh (a visual echo that has lead some misguided male critics to equate their talent). Yet both Jenny's passion and disappointment are strictly of the stiff upper lip variety. Mulligan feels like a passive voyager on this journey, whisked along by the events of her life, alternating between wide-eyed wonder and stunned sadness. The actress never really sells the giddy excitement of being fawned over by a wealthy older man nor the sense of betrayal at uncovering the truth about the life that he's kept from her.

Yet it's ultimately the audience that suffers the greatest betrayal. The film feels confused as to how much of a feminist statement it's willing to make about what it means to be a self-sufficient woman of the world. In the end, the film rewards Jenny for her fickleness and the abandonment of her dreams with nary a hint of lasting consequence. In essence, An Education ends up embracing the patronizing mentality it seemingly sets out to dispel. Ultimately the film is comfort food for The Reader crowd where all that matters is that everyone feels like they've comes away having learned an important life lesson for their troubles. So why is it I'm the one who feels like I've just had a ruler whacked across my knuckles?

Friday, October 2, 2009

Zombieland (09 Fleischer C-)

Republished at Gone Cinema Poaching



How much empathy should I have for Jesse Eisenberg at this point? Lanky, mop-topped and stammering his way into girl's pants, the actor has turned into the Michael Cera of the indie world, delivering variations on the same performance for the better part of the past decade. Introduced in 2002's Roger Dodger as the naive foil to Campbell Scott's motormouthed cad, Eisenberg creatively peaked with 2005's The Squid & the Whale which is still on the Mount Rushmore of myopic, self-involved behavior films.

But them returns be diminishing, calcifying with this spring's wet dream of mid-80's apathy and longing Adventureland and having finally spoiled with the similarly titled Zombieland opening this weekend. Now in his mid-20's, Eisenberg is once again coming of age, here chasing after that elusive girl who "gets" him while simultaneously pushing him away. In Adventureland he had to compete against a Lou Reed quoting Ryan Reynolds; I'm not sure whether the zombie apocalypse is considered an improvement.

Brightly lit, cheerfully violent and never afraid to run a joke into the ground, the brisk Zombieland gives us the neurotic and allegedly virginal Eisenberg as an unlikely survivor of an outbreak which has rendered the entire population of the country undead brain-eaters and littered our highways and byways with abandoned vehicles, downed airplanes and gutted corpses. But persevere Eisenberg has, surviving due to the anal retentive rules he's followed and his lack of human attachment. And we know this, because we're told this. Repeatedly.

A few weeks back Steven Soderbergh's The Informant! was tickling a certain segment of film fans who've long loathed the convention of voice over narration as an exposition device. Digressive, meandering and usually disruptive to the story it was ostensibly telling, the narration in The Informant! found Matt Damon's character expounding on any number of deep thoughts ranging from the hunting techniques of polar bears to tie patterns. It was as though it were thumbing its nose at the lazy habit of piping in a character's explanation of what they're feeling in relation to what's going on in the story or even what's happening on screen at that very moment, like the world's worst DVD commentary.

Which is exactly what Zombieland does, wallpapering over all the gaps in logic, story and character development inherent in writers Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick's screenplay. Eisenberg's droning monotone, often vocalizing things we're seeing on screen in LARGE TEXT, is as omnipresent as all the 80's ironic rock chestnuts on the soundtrack. Watching Zombieland is like having someone sit behind you, reading aloud from the film's official novelization while you watch it.

But here I am talking about voice over and a drippy protagonist when there's zombie killing to discuss. Where is my head?

Picking up the hyper-agressive torch thrown down by Zach Snyder's widely liked (although not by me) Dawn of the Dead remake, Zombieland depicts a world where killing zombies stems less from a need to survive and more out of boredom. A place where our band of heroes--which also includes Woody Harrelson as an ammunition-loving redneck in the ass kicking business (and as the film proudly proclaims, "business is good") Superbad's Emma Stone as our smokey-voiced love interest and Abigail Breslin wearing out that precocious stage of her career--often lobby for coveted "Zombie Kill of the Week" a stat that's still apparently documented and spread throughout the land despite the fact that all other forms of civilization have ceased. No kill is too grotesque or too creative, no witty bon mot delivered after the fact too glib. The entire cast seems to be preening for our amusement, investing little into their own story as better to make wisecracks while mowing down waves of the undead.


Zombieland
has drawn comparisons to the other comedic zombie film of the past decade, Edgar Wright's Shaun of the Dead, but the gives the former far too much credit and makes the latter seem criminally slight. Missing here is Shaun's restlessness and waves of empathy that gave dignity to its characters even as they battled zombies by flinging Prince records at them. There's no one likable here; real emotions are footnotes and punctuation to stoner gags and already dated pop culture references (at one point Eisenberg's character says the best thing about the end of the world is no more Facebook updates, making his casting in the upcoming David Fincher film, The Social Network, either inspired or terrible timing).

Everyone here is doing shtick and first time director Ruben Fleischer encourages his cast to play it to the rafters as though that's the only way they'll stand out amongst his more garish filmmaking flourishes (ie: lots of sloooooow mo). Even when the film does stumble into gold, it has no idea what to do with it. At one point our survivors hole up in the "abandoned" home of a Hollywood celebrity only to find that the place isn't quite as empty as they'd thought (ruining this surprise cameo has turned into a sport on the net, but I'll obviously refrain). Yet the film can't be bothered to actually find something interesting to do with the scenario, making lame art deco jokes and mostly standing around as star-struck as its characters.

One doesn't go into these films looking for logic but the absence of consequence in the face of near-certain death is especially grating. This is how we end up with a detour to an abandoned amusement park where the characters are shocked (SHOCKED) that the noise and lights of the park might draw unwanted attention. If our characters can't even be bothered to care about their survival, then why the hell should we?

But what do you expect from a film that makes the threat of being torn limb from limb secondary to whether or not our hero is able to overcome his anxiety and convince the only of-age female in the Western Hemisphere to make out with him? It's been pointed out to me that while I've seen this routine from Eisenberg several times now, Zombieland represents his most public of offerings. This means after Zombieland he has potentially millions of new people who can be irritated three films hence. See you when you get there.