Thursday, December 31, 2015

Puppet Show: ANOMALISA


Anomalisa is a small movie set mostly in one hotel room over the course of one night, focused claustrophobically on one man’s self-important feelings of loneliness and dejection. It also manages to be a story that could only be told through animation. That’s certainly not a pair of cinematic ideas you see every day. Call it stop-motion mumblecore, I suppose, if you’re fumbling for a taxonomic foothold. It follows intricately manipulated puppets, human figures at once totally obviously fake and uncannily real, flickers of subtle emotion and natural gestures behind soft textures and noticeable seams. The main character is a motivational speaker (David Thewlis) who is deep inside an impenetrable fog of sadness and melancholy, solipsistic narcissism mixed with downbeat misery. We watch as he stays in a hotel, a perfect dollhouse recreation of humdrum quotidian details, trying to avoid contemplating his unhappiness.

He has ceased engaging with the world outside his head in any meaningful way. Part of his problem is seeing everyone else as an undifferentiated sea of boring people hardly worth considering as individuals. Driving the point home, every other puppet has the same face, and speaks with the voice of Tom Noonan, sounding unusually soft and dull. The fog threatens to lift when the speaker meets a shy woman who passes the time chatting with him, first in the hotel bar, then in his room. She’s not like everyone else in his eyes. Her face looks unlike the others’. And her voice is not the dry monotone of strangers and family alike, but a hesitant and warm lilting Jennifer Jason Leigh speaking. They stay up talking and drinking, drawing closer and more intimate as the night goes on. They may be animated, but they connect on something like a human level.

And so the movie proceeds as a tiny, contained talky character piece with subtext laid out on the surface through consciously artificial but fairly low energy style. Written and co-directed by Charlie Kaufman (whose tangled, layered, high-concept screenplays looped so strangely and pleasingly in Being John Malkovich, Adaptation, and Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind) the film represents his most restrained narrative ideas – a simple night of connection temporarily curing loneliness before an ultimate relapse into disconnection – told through obvious metaphor. Like his directorial debut, Synecdoche, New York, a wild, sprawling, and odd contemplation of mortality and thwarted ambition, Anomalisa has a precisely calibrated feeling of tracing endlessly through a man’s troubled mind. However, it’s much smaller, more contained, less strange – an unfolding emotional and psychological breakdown, but one of quiet desperation.

Working with stop-motion director Duke Johnson (probably best known for two claymation episodes of the unsustainable sitcom Community), Kaufman creates a film that’s alive when the man and the woman have their alone time together in conversation that’s tender and surprisingly real. The disjunction in seeing puppet people share convincing and adult emotional terrain together is both weirdly touching and a little funny, never more so than in a sweet a cappella rendition of a Cyndi Lauper song. But as Kaufman backs away from a more literal flavor into something more abstract – listen for Noonan’s voice filtering through in a sad fading of individuality – the movie becomes both more and less interesting.

Hermetically sealed and quietly felt, it’s a movie most true in moments between two people talking, and most false when it’s all supposed to match up with the overarching metaphor. Asking questions about what it means to be human through the plastic visages of unreal people, it finds only elaborately produced overfamiliarity. The whole thing is filled with awkward silences and padded with tedious normal tasks laboriously realistically portrayed. The imagery is so spare and normal it could be unusually detailed animatics for a live action shoot. It’s strange, a lot of work to detail and animate a world that’s basically like our own, for no reason other than to support the elaborate metaphor for self-inflicted misanthropic isolation on display. Tom Noonan playing all but two characters, every man, woman, and child, simply wouldn’t fly in live action, but here erodes any sense of connection to emotional reality anyway. It's mixture of real fake locations and fake real emotions left me cold.

It’s a movie concerned with a man’s sadness, and finds it all very poignant how he can’t even selfishly use a woman’s company on a business trip to break him away from his dull suburban family life, when really he’s self-absorbed. I was sold on the dispiriting soul-crushing mood, but not so much on why it’s supposed to be inherently interesting to find a man trapped in his own sad circle of cold detachment. Sad sack misanthropic self-help expert can’t help himself. Oh, the irony. There’s only so much sad puppet man moping I could take. Ultimately, Anomalisa is one of those movies that is exactly and completely the thing it wants to be. That thing just isn’t for me. It drifted away from my interest as it followed its hollow obsessions into emotional tedium.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

The Deadly Companions: THE HATEFUL EIGHT


Quentin Tarantino’s films are unfailingly concerned with using impeccable craft – sharp widescreen blocking, showy camera moves, nesting doll narrative structure – to show off his video store savant chops. Each new effort is an excuse to raid the cabinets of his genre knowledge: gangster pictures, heist movies, blaxploitation films, kung fu cinema, spaghetti Westerns, World War II epics, car chase actioners, and Grindhouse exploitation flicks. He loves the idea of movies almost as much as actually having made a movie. His latest is The Hateful Eight, a blending of a Sergio Corbucci snow Western and an Agatha Christie locked-room mystery. It’s also easily identifiable as a Tarantino picture, not just in its predictable mixture of inspirations, but in concerning itself with secrets and revenge, violence and profanity, chatty killers and Rubik’s Cube plotting tied up in a bow made from faux-vintage 70’s tics. By now you should know exactly what to expect out of his films.

A Tarantino film always features long talkative sequences of deferred suspense slowly building to shocking outbursts of violence. It forms the backbone of his best pictures. (Inglorious Basterds, for example, is a cascading collection of perfectly structured chatty setpieces.) With The Hateful Eight he makes an entire picture out of one enclosed talkathon. Set in the years following the Civil War, at a remote roadhouse in the middle of nowhere Wyoming, a bounty hunter (Kurt Russell) and his captive (Jennifer Jason Leigh) are trapped in a blizzard. Stuck waiting out the storm with an eclectic group of strangers – a rival bounty hunter (Samuel L. Jackson), a stagecoach driver (James Parks), a hangman (Tim Roth), a cowboy (Michael Madsen), an elderly Confederate veteran (Bruce Dern), a Mexican proprietor (Demian Bichir), and an unpersuasive rookie sheriff (Walton Goggins) – he’s convinced one of them is secretly scheming to spring his prisoner. Each is an opposite of some sort to another, a tangle of conflicts and grievances ready to boil over.

The ensemble is Tarantino’s most derivative, from Jackson as essentially an older, chattier Django Unchained to Roth in a role that sounds written for Christoph Waltz. They, and the rest, are types and remain so, conduits for Tarantino’s words and pawns in his plot. At least the cast is made up of dependable character actors who are relishing the opportunity to speak elongated, dense, complicated paragraphs of chewy dialogue. The performances are crackling, but it’s Tarantino’s shaggiest, emptiest script, his thinnest idea stretched across three hours. Maybe that part won’t feel quite so acute years from now, removed from the elaborate White Elephantine presentation and promotion, conspicuously hyping connection to canonical old school epics like Ben-Hur through its 70mm format and reviving (sort of) the roadshow concept, from overture and intermission to the commemorative booklet. It’s less and more than all that, some of his sharpest direction married to his most hollow story.

Set almost entirely in a small indoor space with a raging blizzard outside, there’s a great sense of claustrophobic paranoia (echoes of The Things, emphasized with an ominous Morricone score) as the tough men size each other up, and the captured woman quietly looks for a way out of her chains. She knows who’s there to help her, but she doesn’t let on, both to keep his cover and to keep the audience’s guessing game going. It’s fun watching the other characters try to figure it out for themselves, a neat little mystery primed to explode. Cinematographer Robert Richardson (in his fifth collaboration with Tarantino) executes tight and elegant formal control, staging varied and interesting angles within the confined space, juxtaposing it with blindingly white vistas of howling winds and galloping horses. It breathes with lengthy takes and long looks, not exactly slow cinema, but of a relaxed pace that recalls, say, Blake Edwards’s unusual 1971 film Wild Rovers in its easygoing Western danger. Nothing like a Tarantino picture to make one want to scrape the back of the brain for obscure genre comparison points.

My attention did not drift once during the extended runtime. He’s too good a craftsman and has too good a cast trapped in a gripping hook for that to happen. But I did find myself questioning why I had to be watching it. All Tarantino films deal with “edgy” material, that is to say uncomfortable subject matter (the holocaust, slavery, and so on) used for genre ends and political points, loaded up with bloodshed and profanity in overtly movie-ish ways. But Hateful Eight is barely engaging in any serious ideas beyond “people can be awful,” and isn’t using any of the inherent subtextual tensions to meaningfully add to the suspense or the drama. It’s merely cheap offense muddying an otherwise engaging and entertaining experience.

Despite a black bounty hunter and Confederate veterans cooped up together, it has only fleeting serious thoughts about race, and despite the one woman in the bunch being a villain (we’re told she’s bad, but never why until late in the game) gender rarely overtly enters the question. It’s a movie that’s just out to tell its simple, nihilistic little story (everyone has their hateful moments) in a complicated, drawn-out way, exploiting hot-button ideas with no intention of using them for more than uncomfortable shocks. At least the plotting is reasonably compelling, and the mystery engaging enough. It’s sometimes fun, and other times nasty, but the two were mostly mutually exclusive here in my eyes. But being so long and so well constructed it had plenty of time after nearly every instant that lost me to win me back.

The film has a wicked mean streak, with slurs spat out for comic effect, a woman repeatedly battered for punctuation and punchlines, and an extended rape anecdote staged for queasy laughs. (That it probably didn’t really happen, and is instead a story told to make another character mad, doesn’t blunt the cackling glee with which the devastating act is visualized for our benefit.) The movie is willing to toss aside any possible avenues of empathy in order to go for a brutal moment. It’s an unserious lark with serious violations and sadism on its mind, feinting at heavy ideas to fill the bitter hollow pit in its core. The movie wraps up with Tarantino’s usual gnarly violence, cartoonish and self-satisfied gobs of gore spraying out from the cast members one by one. It’s a long-delayed payoff – half exciting, half disturbing – for so much talky, sick tension.

A release of a sort, predictable but vivid and full of his typical surprise kills, the climax also deflates suspense and danger, especially as many fatal shots are played for cruel jokes (even when it happens to characters we’re basically rooting for). It matches the amped up ugliness of the subtext, and the relentlessness with which most of the gooiest gore effects are inflicted upon women and people of color in the cast (most of them in a depressing mass murder flashback). The Hateful Eight is disturbingly easy, and often entertaining, to watch, but hard to indulge, playing with painful cruelty for light distraction. Unlike his last few films, where violence is modulated and contained within a moral and pointed context, here it is unmoored, grotesque, deadening. The movie is compelling but difficult, a pointed display of American bloodlust and prejudice that ends up grooving on such nastiness.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Smell of Success: JOY


Joy is an inventive young woman with her dreams on hold, a real George Bailey with no angel coming to her rescue. She’s single-handedly holding her family together at the expense of her own ambitions. She wants to make useful things, objects that’ll be admired and owned by everyone, but in reality she’s stuck in a dead-end minimum wage job, having skipped college to help her parents. They’re all just barely getting by. But, when inspiration strikes, she scrapes together her courage and resources to build a prototype of a self-wringing mop. (It’s also machine washable, a nice feature.) This Miracle Mop could be her ticket to success. A capitalist parable as feminist empowerment, David O. Russell’s Joy, loosely based on the real mop’s inventor, is the sort of story we’re used to seeing men enact. Take Citizen Kane, or The Godfather, or countless other canonical classics of business acumen and its costs. But here the narrative is a woman’s, a perspective that’s long existed in this area, but gone woefully underrepresented in movies like this.

We meet Joy through the eyes of her grandmother (Diane Ladd), a kind and encouraging woman who tells her little granddaughter that she’ll do great things with her life. Ladd narrates the film, giving it a slightly unreal glow, like a heartfelt business biography picture book read with grandmotherly warmth. By the time Joy is a young woman (played by Jennifer Lawrence), she’s trying to run a sprawling, eccentric household with meager emotional and financial support. Her mother (Virginia Madsen) is a soap opera addict who stays in bed all day. Her father (Robert De Niro), a small-business owner long divorced from her mom, was kicked out of his latest wife’s place and moved into the family’s basement. That’s also where Joy’s ex-husband (Édgar Ramírez) lives, unable to afford his own house on a mostly-unemployed lounge singer’s income. They have two young kids who are caught up in this harried maelstrom of chaotic family life, including a condescending step-aunt (Elisabeth Rohm) who offers criticisms but little help.

Lawrence’s commanding performance – her best grown-up role yet – is driven with determination. In the opening scenes of family drama she’s harried, rushing around trying to fix everyone else’s problems – from cleaning up spills and planning kids’ days to ripping up floorboards and working on the plumbing – while trying to make ends meet. Once she decides to try to bring her invention to market, she ignites her frazzled energy into swaggering determination, albeit still cut through with self-doubt and ever-present financial and familial pressures. She’s too motivated to quit, gambling on her skills and talents. As a result, she’ll either end up wealthy or bankrupt. There’s not much room for middle ground in this endeavor. The film is an intimate American epic of domestic chambers and boardrooms, factory floors and TV soundstages, as she tries to get her mop manufactured and selling. Failure is definitely an option, and Lawrence brings a great energy, halfway between self-confidence and nagging doubts, as she strides into difficult situations.

The entrepreneur’s dream is not an easy one. She’s just as likely to be ground under by others who don’t share her vision, or who view her as an easy target. Joy’s story may come from the Shark Tank business school, or Horatio Alger stories, but her lean in isn’t uncomplicated. Russell, working from a script by Annie Mumolo (Bridesmaids), creates a film keenly aware of the razor’s edge, the stomach-dropping plunges into debt as Joy struggles to get taken seriously, gain recognition, avoid getting taken advantage of, and realize her product’s potential. (That Russell fought Mumolo for writing credit on such a story is a sad irony.) Joy finds her family a doubting chorus, and everyone in the business world trying to be a bigger success, a more glamorous person, thinking they can get there through hard work and delusion. A buyer (Bradley Cooper) sees himself as a studio mogul. A wealthy widow (Isabella Rossellini) thinks her inheritance is a measure of her business savvy. Money is essential, but getting it is not a panacea.

Intermingling paperwork, finances, factories, and salespeople with family squabbles and pains, Russell stages scenes with a variety of moving plot parts and competing characters’ motivations in close-quarters drama played at comedy speed. Russell specializes in ragged and heightened amusing melodramas about squabbling families (Flirting with Disaster, Silver Linings Playbook, The Fighter). Unlike his last film, the pretty, but fundamentally phony American Hustle, he keeps Joy’s comic and dramatic incidents spinning through a variety of tempos and film stocks, making its inconsistency its consistency, animating Joy’s sense of hard-charging ambition and precarious insecurities. Intensely felt with a booming soundtrack of unexpected needle-drops and smooth, emphatic camera movements (director of photography Linus Sandgren dancing amongst the lively cast), the unusually unstructured story (a conventional three-act structure told with a loose rambling quality) pushes forward with relentless momentum. I was invested in its medley of tones and terrifically sympathetic hero from her first frame.

Tidily untidy on the surface – with theatrical flourishes, elaborate visual metaphors, dream sequences, flashbacks, cameos, and even a musical number – Joy takes, well, joy in broad characters and boisterous performances, showy filmmaking and layered writing. I found it gripping and moving, an involving business story smashed up against an affecting family drama, peppered with lovely touches – a warm voice from beyond the grave, an exquisite Christmassy sales call montage, a low-key mother/daughter bond over crayons and blueprints, and a dance of fake snow flurries accompanying a strut towards victory intercut with a melancholy flash-forward. It captures the real and unreal aspects of self-mythology, the inherent falseness of singular up-from-bootstraps triumph, and the odd flukes that lead to both setbacks and success.

Joy emerges as a great character, an exhausted woman always with a stain on her blouse from helping others, who decides to become something more, slowly coming alive and into her own in the spotlight. The movie surrounds her with endlessly entertaining complications, and great actors (each a total delight) wonderfully filling in their characters’ eccentricities and peculiarities. Funny and moving, exciting and sad, it sees the promise and artifice of the American dream, and the fortuitous incongruities (like a shopping network in the middle of Amish country) that can lead to accomplishment. It simultaneously celebrates her hard-working attempt to turn her great idea into a big business, and also realizes money won’t fix her family’s problems.

Saturday, December 26, 2015

Head-On: CONCUSSION


Ironically, for a movie intending to raise awareness for the dangers of football-related brain injuries, Concussion proceeds to beat the audience over the head with the trauma. We see montages of hard hits, often with jocular sportscasters’ commentary and ominous medical slides and scans, thudding horrified score sawing away underneath. There’s no doubt football is a dangerous sport, and the NFL, clinging to a lucrative and popular business model that makes a lot of people very wealthy, has done all it can to downplay, deny, and intimidate anyone who’d raise serious questions about long-term health effects. The movie includes harrowing scenes of several former football players succumbing to mental stresses of one kind or another: rage, severe depression, self-harm, and suicide. It’s a scandal and an outrage that the corporation minting money off of their physical strain continues to ignore, obfuscate, and abdicate any responsibility for this strenuous work.

It’s nothing you couldn’t read about in any number of places – The New York Times, Sport’s Illustrated, GQ, and so on – but Concussion does what only a Hollywood production can to signal boost the important information. The resulting film has good intentions, carrying a message with moral outrage, but does so with a narrative muddled and grey. It tells the story of Dr. Bennett Omalu, the man whose research led to the discovery and diagnosis of CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). It’s a rare brain disorder disproportionately affecting professional football players, brought on by long-term and repeated concussions which leave those afflicted with brain damage causing all manner of psychological and mental problems, contributing to untimely deaths. Omalu, an optimistic, hard-working Nigerian immigrant with several medical degrees working as a coroner in Pittsburgh, is presented as a man who simply did the right thing by reporting what he discovers. He can think of no more American thing to do, and is sad to discover an organization out to discredit him because of it.

Omalu, played by Will Smith with a gentle accent, is presented as an outsider capable of seeing the game for the violence and strain that it causes on the human body because he has no stake in the game itself. We see a team doctor (Alec Baldwin), NFL officials (Luke Wilson, Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje, Hill Harper), and even medical professionals who are simply huge football fans (Mike O’Malley) who bristle at the idea that anything could be wrong with these players, especially if that problem arises from their sport. Evidence mounts, and it becomes harder to deny. Helpful supporters are targeted for intimidation, like Omalu’s kind but tough boss (Albert Brooks), while the good doctor is run out of town and then ignored. It’s all rather downbeat, as it should be, slowly and sadly contemplating a self-interested system of bureaucracy, capitalism, nostalgia, and politics conspiring to ignore scientific evidence for the sake of keeping a sport going unchanged at the expense of the health of its players.

For the passion and importance behind the film, it’s lifeless in execution. As it hits its marks, while leaving strange half-complete implications (why did an NFL chairman resign?) in its wake, actors don’t have much to room to maneuver. Smith plays well off all the white men in suits, projecting exhausted decency, while occasionally playing out a malnourished romantic side-plot with Gugu Mbatha-Raw. She’s asked to be a figure of warmth and compassion helping him onward, but is really just there so he has someone not in his profession to talk to between scenes of autopsies and intimidations. Somehow they both left their charisma behind the camera, deciding to play scenes of light flirtation, deep compassion, and heavy heartbreak with the bare minimum of energy.

Interesting without involving, writer-director Peter Landesman crafts a movie that leaps through the investigations on display to get to conclusions faster, shortens processes for the sake of staring at outcomes. Little time for character nuance, the people speak in informational exchanges. Omalu discovers CTE in a montage. Minds are changed, or not, in the space of wonky expositional dialogue. Tragedies play out on the sides of the frames, hinted at by the damage left in their wake – player’s deaths felt with the grim march of news footage and mourners. This is no Spotlight, patient and methodical in portraying the steps by which a cover-up was exposed. Instead, we get dribs and drabs of information, and are left to fill in gaps. What, exactly, did the NFL do to dismantle Omalu’s professional life in Pennsylvania? And what are we to think has been accomplished by the end, with notes of victory and uncertainty placed side by side?

Landesman’s approach to the material lands it squarely between impassioned op-ed and inspirational biopic, leaving it unsatisfying and unfinished any way you look at it. He doesn’t juggle the jargon with any precision, relying on rapid-fire montage and assumptions to power that plot of professional discovery and moral urgency. Meanwhile, the characters don’t come to life in any meaningful way, spouting facts and discussing right out in the open what other filmmakers might leave as subtext.  The subject matter is dispiriting enough without the movie feeling so incomplete, heavy-handed and full of miss-matched synaptic connections and half-finished thoughts. Maybe the movie itself has been concussed one too many times. Omalu’s story is far more intriguing, and his research far more vital, than the movie manages to portray.

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Married Life: 45 YEARS

45 Years accumulates its power so slowly and quietly that it reaches an emotional crescendo in its final seconds, the calm of the end credits broken by the trembling reverberations of so much left unsaid, of powerful feelings just beginning to flicker across a character’s face before the last cut to black. The film stars Charlotte Rampling as Kate, a woman busily working on the final preparations for an anniversary party. She’s been married to her husband Geoff (Tom Courtenay) for nearly 45 years (hence the title) and we get the impression that it’s been a largely happy life. Decades of pleasant matrimony are suddenly cast in new light, however, when Geoff receives a letter from German authorities: they’ve found his ex-girlfriend’s body, perfectly preserved in the glacier on which she perished 50 years prior. Kate plunges forward into her daily routines while keeping an eye on the approaching festivities. Geoff loses himself in the past, haunted by the idea of a young woman he loved and lost frozen forever at the point he loved her most.

In telling this story of an elderly couple in slow-motion crisis, writer-director Andrew Haigh, whose previous feature, 2011’s Weekend, was a humbly observational modern gay sort-of-Brief Encounter, and who created the short-lived HBO series Looking, a casually precise view of fumbling relationships among young city dwellers, brings his hands-off compassionate eye to a very different demographic. Adapting a short story by David Constantine (titled “In Another Country”), Haigh allows rich interiority to be provided through subtle cues and two tremendous performances of the sort older actors are rarely called upon to deliver in mainstream movies that’d rather view them as talismanic wise elders or cutesy anachronisms. Without a deluge of exposition about their long marriage, Rampling (one of our finest performers for over five decades now) and Courtenay (ditto) are able to suggest a relaxed ease and cautious sadness. They know each other so well, and yet are still capable of surprise as they learn new aspects of the other’s inner life.

What better time than an anniversary to reflect upon mortality and the passing of time, especially when given such a shocking report? The recovery of a literal long-lost love’s remains is the impetus for both Kate and Geoff to contemplate their decisions. Would he have married this other woman? Would she, then, have found a different path if she’d never had the opportunity to meet him? Does the death of this other woman, the reminder of which so vividly shakes Geoff up even now, mean she’d been haunting their marriage all this time without Kate’s awareness? When they first broach the topic, Geoff is sure he’d told his wife all this before. Kate thinks not. Haigh ratchets up some of the sound design in the house, emphasizing, together with Lol Crawley’s cinematography’s icy refinement, closed off corners and wide windows’ airless soundscapes, or the dull thudding footsteps of a husband rummaging in the attic for old photographs of the young dead woman he loved, loves, and can’t quite forget. It’s like four-plus happy decades have been greeted with the ghosts of doubt. How happy were they? Are they?

All this is treated so delicately and tenderly, with great compassion in its chilly, unshowy quiet. Haigh doesn’t ramp up the melodrama or bring on the waterworks, steering deftly away from any overt explosions of emotional conflict. Instead, 45 Years lingers evocatively in its silences, in small gestures – a hand on a chest, an impulsive viewing of old slides, a comfortable cuddle, a sudden flash of tears on an unreadable face. It’s a deliberate movie, closely observed and yet generously spacious, allowing its performers to conjure a whole relationship’s ecosystem in the unspoken closeness and spaces between them. When Kate goes to check on the hall they’re renting for the party, the proprietor tells her it’s “full of history, like a good marriage.” But what makes a marriage good? Is it merely longevity, or something else entirely?

This movie, circling big questions without finding easy answers, becomes a restrained picture about the stories couples tell themselves about their lives and the decisions that made them the people they now are, and how one new piece of information can either create or revive old confusions and doubts. Then, like a finely crafted short story, it snaps shut with ambiguous finality, moving in its resistance of conventional closure. This is a relationship movie, intelligent and reserved, painted not in optimism or pessimism, but in a sort of Rorschach test naturalism, ripe for analysis and conversation. Two fine-tuned performances – a subtle and brilliant acting duet – are enough to send one out of the theater eager to interpret the feelings within.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Doing It For Themselves: SISTERS


Two adult siblings learn their parents have sold the family house when they’re told to show up and pack up all the junk left in their childhood bedrooms. Sad to let the last vestiges of youth go, the pair orchestrates one last party, a raucous blowout to remember the good old days. If this plot – thinly developed and overfamiliar – was the engine for a movie called Brothers and starred any two generic bros it would be insufferable, one more man-child comedy indulging carousing until reluctant maturity arrives. But it’s called Sisters (no relation to the DePalma of the same name), and stars Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, a great pairing for a fine gender swap of the usual potty-mouth party movie. The result is an injection of fresh perspective into a tired formula, a mix of sex talk and sentimentality that’s energized by its leads.

Only Fey and Poehler’s second film together in leading roles (after 2008’s pleasant Baby Mama), they’re a fine comedy duo. With a fizzy improvisatory approach to line readings, turning every punchline and extended bit into agreeably off-the-cuff coziness, they have sharp timing and a believable sisterly dynamic. Fey is the older sister, louder and irresponsible, freshly fired from a salon job, kicked out of the apartment where she’d been staying. Her careless approach to life has led to her teen daughter (Madison Davenport) pushing her away. Poehler is the little sister, an overeager perfectionist who has thrown herself into micromanaged routines as a way of avoiding stewing over a divorce, and worrying about their elderly parents (Dianne Wiest and James Brolin). Each sees a bit of what they wish they could be in the other – Fey wants a smidge more structure; Poehler wants to loosen up – but they cant say so. Instead, realistic levels of sibling rivalry manifest as admiration and antagonism going both ways.

Reunited in their hometown, under the same roof, they hatch their partying plan, to recapture good times they feel have slipped away. They have to go backwards to go forwards. The script by Saturday Night Live and 30 Rock writer Paula Pell sees the women’s immaturity without condoning it, allowing for a loose and agreeable non-judgmental atmosphere, especially as the house fills up with their former high school classmates, the ones who never left town and just settled down. They see right away these folks (Maya Rudolph, John Leguizamo, Bobby Moynihan, Rachel Dratch, Samantha Bee, and more) have gotten older, and are dealing with adult problems and aging concerns. It doesn’t take long spending time at the house party for the guests to loosen way up (the booze helps, no doubt), the gathering getting progressively rowdier and more destructive as the night goes on.

Pitch Perfect director Jason Moore throws a decent bash, keeping the festivities hopping with pounding music and funny running gags. Fey tries not to drink and be the responsible one for once, while Poehler downs the intoxicants and flirts half-successfully with a sweet handyman (Ike Barinholtz). A desperately unfunny dope gets increasingly deranged. A muscle-bound drug-dealer (John Cena) stands still in the middle of the revelers, silently blinking. A sad woman zones out in front of a wall of clocks, contemplating her mortality. A mom gets drunk, an overgrown mean girl tries to sabotage, and a pedicurist (Greta Lee) takes advantage of an overflowing washing machine to start a slippery bubble fight. These scenes are shot for warm laughs and agreeable chuckles in simple bright sitcom staging, and feel like they could be flipped around without much damage to the overall arc.

It’s just one eventful collection of banter and silly sights, driven forward only by the gradually more destroyed house. But the result is a fine hangout with earnest good vibes. Fey and Poehler are fantastic ringleaders, both egging on and reigning in the absurdity as it goes along. They’re committed to looking pathetic, and as the party drags on it’s clear they’re going to hit rock bottom. (The movie ends up taking this idea very literally.) It ends with a pat moral conveniently tying up plot threads, but the trip there is a loose amusing time, turning standard R-rated comedy fare into a breezy sister act.

Friday, December 18, 2015

The Next Generation: STAR WARS: THE FORCE AWAKENS


The only way to properly enjoy Star Wars is to be in a mindset with a precisely proportioned combination of deep engaged reverence and light distracted escapism. It's both the greatest of all modern myths, and, per Todd Hanson’s affectionate but sharp assessment, "a big dumb movie about space wizards." Consider its sources: The Hero with a Thousand Faces and Flash Gordon; Akira Kurosawa samurai films and B-movie WWII pictures; epic fantasy and Poverty Row Westerns. More than the sum of its parts, the magic of Star Wars is in its cohesive combination. But if its high-low synthesis is responsible for this space opera's wide-ranging popularity, its staying power is in the details. Creator George Lucas is a great fantasy filmmaker: a sharp visual storyteller and a nonchalant conjurer of fantabulous jargon, densely packing these films with robots, aliens, planets, cultures, vehicles, weapons, and gadgets, suggesting a world far beyond the frame. Put him on the shortlist with the likes of Baum, Tolkien, Roddenberry, and Rowling, creators of popular fantasy worlds with their own internal logic, striking design, and unshakable pull. Their creations are lasting for their narratives, but even more for the places they allow us to visit.

The famous opening text tells us Star Wars takes place in a galaxy far far away, and the images that follow live up to its promised scope and history. Through six films, Lucas used dazzling special effects, energetic action, quasi-mystical spirituality, and sweeping pseudo-historical fantasy worldbuilding to inhabit massive striking artificial vistas with, in the classic original trilogy (1977-1983), a triumphant hero's journey, and, in the unfairly maligned prequels (1999-2005), a tragedy of political machination and curdled idealism. His saga contained an entire ecosystem of the imagination, rich soil on which fans and writers – from little kids playing with action figures to sci-fi writers tapped for tie-in novels – grew new stories.

Now Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens is the first real test of whether this galaxy can survive on the big screen beyond its creator's eccentric and brilliant vision. The answer is a resounding “mostly.” Director J.J. Abrams (with Mission: Impossible III and two Star Treks, no stranger to franchise caretaking) takes over from Lucas and creates an energetic entertainment. He’s not inspired by the series’ inspirations, but by the series itself. Thus it lacks the velocity in and personality of Lucas’s imaginative imagery and ideas (identifiably his all the way), but creates a piece of skilled imitation, sure to please the crowds. Abrams is an expert blockbuster craftsman, and here proves himself a talented mimic as well, recreating the feeling and sensations of Star Wars past while finding new characters on which to focus.

From the opening blasts of John Williams’s score to the slow pan to a distant planet stalked by a massive Star Destroyer, it’s clear we’re back in a recognizable space. For those of us whose Proustian madeleines are the snap-hiss of lightsabers, and for whom the Doppler-effect howls of TIE fighters and X-Wings are guaranteed to instantly activate inner 9-year-olds, the familiarity will be instantly transporting. It feels and swells and sounds like Star Wars, a factor of Abrams’s hard work, and the continuity represented by several series’ staples (like concept artists Iain McCaig and Doug Chiang, sound designers Ben Burtt and Gary Rydstrom) in the crew. Full of echoes to previous installments, we’re on a desert planet where a young person (this time a resourceful scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley, a newcomer in a star-making turn)) is about to be drawn into galactic-wide conflict with a dramatic call to adventure.

Working with screenwriters Michael Arndt (Toy Story 3) and Lawrence Kasdan (a co-writer on Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi), Abrams has a story set 30 years after Episode VI that recombines ideas, lines, images, and plot points from previous entries. They’ve cannily (and maybe a smidge calculatingly) positioned the movie precisely between crowd-pleasing fan fiction and a rousing new heroes’ journey, both a loose remake of the original set-up and an introduction to (commendably diverse) new people. Wisely starting fresh before getting derivative, the movie opens with Rey, and others in a set of dramatic original characters: a conflicted soldier (John Boyega); a scheming masked villain of the Dark Side (Adam Driver); a brave fighter pilot (Oscar Isaac); and an instantly loveable ball-droid named BB-8. They fit in with the matinee adventure spirit, and the convincingly lived-in world, projecting happiness simply to be in one of these movies. Their awe is contagious.

It’s the galaxy far far away as we know it, but a generation removed from those stories, full of new people living lives we can be excited to discover as we don’t leave their perspective. While the plot blasts along, it picks up welcome characters, like Han Solo (Harrison Ford), and ships, like his Millennium Falcon, bringing old and new together in a race to prevent new bad guys from blowing up the galaxy. Abrams creates instantly compelling fresh characters with a talented cast – Ridley, Boyega, and Isaac are great likable heroes; Driver is a terrifically complicated villain – while leaning on nostalgia for sights and sounds and faces from earlier movies. Each classic character gets to make an impressive re-entrance, none better than Leia (Carrie Fisher), as tough and charming as ever. It’s nice to see them, even if the movie is occasionally too much like what we’ve seen before.

Abrams is clearly energized by moments that thrill him as a fan, playing with uniquely Star Wars images and ideas borrowed (reunions of long-lost icons, rhymes with other episodes) and invented (a tiny ancient pirate (Lupita Nyong'o), a shadowy villain (Andy Serkis), a stormtrooper with a flamethrower). It doesn’t always pop, a few sequences erring on the side of choppiness or overfamiliar beats, the action on the whole merely proficient, and the entire thing moving so quickly it can’t linger on unusual details like Lucas did. But cinematographer Dan Mindel (John Carter) brings filmic widescreen framing, finding some of the original trilogy’s visual flavor as he photographs displays of evocative lights, picturesque landscapes, and massive explosions in granular reality, bringing an unreal place to something like convincing life. When the film is showing us original contributions – mild redesigns, unfamiliar beasts, new-fangled weapons – its far more interesting and involving than when remaking previous plot in new packaging. Even its surprises aren’t too surprising as it goes.

In some ways a rather cautious extension of the brand, leaning on plot points and emotional beats we’ve seen before in this series – and a few too many times those connections are heavily underlined (a line about a trash compactor will irritate me for days) – The Force Awakens is nonetheless alive with possibility of new storytelling in this galaxy. Allowing the fresh faces center stage while giving returning characters supporting roles without feeling too much like a passing of the torch, it sets the groundwork for future success. Call it The Fandom Awakens, especially since it’s almost scientifically calibrated to tickle acolyte’s pleasure centers while remaining open enough for a younger generation of fans to fit right in, like an exuberant greatest hits remix from the best cover band in the world.

It’s nakedly manipulative and terrifically exciting Hollywood filmmaking of incredible competence. Platoons of talented artisans, animators, and puppeteers create remarkably tactile locations, dogfights, laser battles, and lightsaber clashes, swooping and stirring in all their fantastical glory. It’s big, energized, and enjoyable, making most of its competition look like Padawans. Without Lucas it’s removed from the spark of novelty it once had, but, as an attempt to find fresh characters through which to make old stories new again, it’s a fun admirable effort. Made with more love than cynicism, it’s happy to start another cycle of galactic history repeating itself, The Force forever seeking its balance. There’s nothing quite like Star Wars. It’s enough to have space wizards, interplanetary dive bars, and ginormous superweapons for a new generation. Even if it has to over-deliver on what it thinks old fans want, it's plenty entertaining for everyone.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Whale of a Tale: IN THE HEART OF THE SEA


Ron Howard’s In the Heart of the Sea tells of a whaling ship sunk by an enormous whale, this story nestled inside a framing device in which Herman Melville, many years later, interviews the last surviving crewman as research for writing Moby-Dick. This structure gives the movie a gloss of both history and literature, purporting to tell the real story that inspired a Great American Novel, while engaging with some of the same imagery and texture of the work itself. It’s a neat trick. The movie is slow and steady, lurching out to sea with the Essex and her crew of whalers, then watches patiently as rocky waves and clever whales go from a position of being conquered to the engines of the men’s ruin. It’s a sturdy maritime movie, of rudders and rigging, anchors and fish, hardtack and ambergris. The scenes of Melville earnestly listening to the old seaman’s tale are a bit obvious and clumsy, but the core of the picture is an admirably stripped-down survival story, vividly recreated, handsomely staged with convincing effects.

The screenplay by Charles Leavitt (Blood Diamond), based on a book by historian Nathaniel Philbrick, introduces simple characters. The proud first mate (Chris Hemsworth), resentful after being passed over for a promotion, is driven to do what’s best for the ship. The captain (Benjamin Walker) is the son of the boat’s patron, and therefore worried about proving his toughness on this, his first whaling expedition. Meanwhile, the ship has a naïve newbie (Tom Holland), who has a lot to learn, and is therefore our guide into the blood and muck of harpooning a whale, butchering it on deck, and scooping out all the valuable goo inside it. (He’ll grow up to be Brendan Gleeson, reluctantly telling the story to Ben Whishaw’s Melville.) The rest of the crewmen blur together behind their tough beards and mumbling accents, a mostly undifferentiated ensemble to take orders, fill the frame, and get in harm’s way when the danger surfaces.

It’s not so much a narrative of character and incident as it is interested in details of sailing and whaling, in the sensations of life at sea, and in the specifics of the survivors’ endurance. Howard is always great with directing reenactments, from the space shuttle mechanics of Apollo 13, his best film, to the visceral car races of Rush and impressive fires of Backdraft. With his latest film, he has cinematographer Anthony Dod Mantle (Slumdog Millionaire) shooting from interesting vantage points, with a seasick woozy feeling to the cameras’ movements. Perhaps they were inspired by Harvard’s Sensory Ethnography Lab’s experimental fishing documentary Leviathan, because they make liberal use of canted or otherwise unusual angles to show off details of labor at sea. A repeated shot will hold extreme close-ups of a rope or knife, an oar or bucket, the man manipulating any given tool in the extreme background as we focus on the work being done. In less stylized moments, dialogue scenes, the camera bobs and sways, rocking with the waves. It wouldn’t surprise me if people seeing this in IMAX get seasick.

There’s a certain element of spectacle in this film that’s big, satisfying, and striking. I’m thinking of a side shot of a rowboat, the camera just underneath the water, pulling downwards as a whale’s tail slaps, shattering the boat and plunging silhouetted figures into the depths. Elsewhere, wide-angle shots show tiny boats against vast expanses of sun-dappled water. And one late moment finds blurry fish-eyed angles on sea gulls chattering above, while a sun-dried groggy man (so starved he looks scarily skeletal) spies land. Howard directs with an interesting eye, perhaps the most visually experimental he’s ever been. You never know who’ll surprise you, I suppose. But where In the Heart of the Sea, which is otherwise often curiously unengaging, most resonates is in connections it draws between images that catch one by surprise and man’s hopelessness in the face of nature.

No wonder the characters are thinly drawn, and their journey simple. It’s not about individuals who are in conflict against the storm of unpredictable weather and wildlife. It’s more elemental, about a Herzog-ian conflict between the inherent dangers of the wild, and the struggle for men to make meaning out of it. The climax is not a moment of terror or violence, but a moment of grace, a man and a whale making eye contact, and finding some silent understanding. (From a whale’s perspective, Moby-Dick must be not only metaphor, but also a superhero.) The film is wrapped in a conclusion that tidies up the plot in comforting middlebrow ways on the surface, but underneath lingers the pain and struggle of the men’s survival, and the violence that we do to the creatures that share our planet. It’s a cycle: the power of storytelling to communicate the darkness we’re capable of committing to live to tell the tale.

Friday, December 11, 2015

High Buffoon: THE RIDICULOUS 6


I can’t imagine The Ridiculous 6 will exist in the public imagination as much more than the response to a slew of trivia questions. It’s the answer to: What was Adam Sandler’s first direct-to-Netflix feature? What 2015 comedy had some of its Native American extras walk off the set in protest? What movie featured David Spade as General Custer, Vanilla Ice as Mark Twain, Blake Shelton as Wyatt Earp, and Dan Patrick as Abraham Lincoln? As you can see, the bar isn’t set too high for this Western riff starring and co-written by Adam Sandler, who continues his attempts to make comedies with as few jokes as possible. It’s part of a peculiar pattern in which a passable Adam Sandler comedy (like the nasty, gross, and more funny than not That’s My Boy) does worse at the box office than his movies that are lazy (Grown Ups 2) or lethargically offensive (Blended). At least with Netflix keeping a tight lid on their viewing numbers, it’ll be hard to say how much audiences respond to an irritatingly insensitive movie that’s mostly lukewarm Western tropes pushed a few inches further into silliness.

The plot is awfully simple. (If you think, “the better to hang a bunch of jokes on,” you’ll be sadly mistaken.) Sandler plays White Knife, a white boy raised by an Apache tribe after his mother died. He discovers his long lost father (Nick Nolte) only to find that the old man has run afoul of a mean band of bandits (led by Danny Trejo). In order to save his dad, he wanders around rounding up a Ridiculous posse of his six freshly-discovered half-brothers, the joke being that pop slept with such a variety of women in the Wild West that he’s the biological father of a diverse group of men including Terry Crews, Taylor Lautner, Rob Schneider, Jorge Garcia, and Luke Wilson. They get into arguments and confrontations in all manner of typical Western locales involving a whole bunch of actors (Harvey Keitel, Steve Zahn, Will Forte, John Turturro, and more) who must’ve decided they’d like a Netflix paycheck. No one on screen seems to care, projecting a low-energy void of interest in every direction.

Stretching out to two hours in length, the movie putters around saloons and High Noons, prairies and campfires, hangings and shootouts. Once in a while there’s a funny joke – an Apache chief says, “Sometimes the white man speaks the truth. Like one in 20, 25 times” – but mostly there’s dead air, or attempts to wring humor out of mental disabilities, musty racial stereotypes, and anatomical references (and fluids of every kind). It’s the sort of movie where Sandler’s attractive Native fiancé (Julia Jones) is named “Smokin’ Fox,” a tone-deaf, cringe-worthy hat-trick of objectification, appropriation, and ignorance. Sandler with co-writer Tim Herlihy (in their eleventh collaboration) could’ve straight-up parodied Westerns (the title clearly looks back to The Magnificent Seven and forward to The Hateful Eight) loading the frame with ZAZ-like anything-goes goofs Airplane! style. (Somehow I doubt Blazing Saddles social satire was ever within their reach.) Instead they often play things relatively straight, hoping peculiar casting, oddball characters with prominent physical traits (buck teeth, false eyes, etcetera), and disgusting gags (like decapitation or defecation) will elevate a subpar script into something funny.

It’s not actively repulsive, but the jokes aren’t there and the pace is beyond belabored. At least director Frank Coraci (who previously directed the star in Blended, Click, The Waterboy, and The Wedding Singer) provides filmmaking of a marginally less lazy type than usual Sandler fare, though not as smooth and fast as Chris Columbus did last summer with the better, but still mediocre, Pixels. More interested in looking like a Western than having good jokes, Ridiculous 6 hired cinematographer Dean Semler, whose work on the likes of Dances with Wolves and Young Guns certainly informs his widescreen landscapes here. It looks and moves like a real movie, which is faint praise, but when you’re comparing it to the inert overlit blandness of something like Grown Ups 2, it’s worth pointing out. But reasonably pleasant framing doesn’t alleviate the desert of humor so dry and slow tumbleweeds roll through with greater regularity than laughter. It's depressing and endless.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

House of Cards: THE BIG SHORT


The world economy collapsed in 2008, brought down by the banking industry’s unchecked power to make gigantic risky bets on the housing market, an investment they’d somehow deluded themselves into thinking was a sure thing. Bankers decided to treat the savings and loans of millions upon millions of people as poker chips in their own personal casino. Eventually, they lost, and we were stuck bailing them out. But maybe poker is a bad metaphor. Maybe it was like they were playing blackjack, or spinning the roulette table. No, perhaps it’s more accurate to say they were playing Jenga, and when people in over their heads couldn’t make payments on subprime mortgages, the whole tower fell down. Wait, maybe it would help you understand it better if you thought of bankers bundling bad debt to resell as investments like chefs repurposing leftovers and hoping no one would be the wiser. But forget the metaphors for a second. Would you rather hear all this from a gorgeous woman in a bathtub?

Writer-director Adam McKay tries out every metaphor above and more too, even stooping to cutting to a lady in the bath to spice up exposition, as his latest movie, The Big Short, attempts to explain the 2008 financial crisis in a narrative feature form. You’d think the whole thing would be better suited to a documentary. (That’d be Charles Ferguson’s masterfully comprehensive doc Inside Job.) On the basis of this film, you’d be right. McKay’s clearly burning with anger over the conditions of unchecked, unregulated greed that led to these problems, and the stasis that led to exactly nothing being done to fix them in the years since. He communicates this fervor by bringing a raucous pace to scenes (shot in jittery style by cinematographer Barry Ackroyd) of men in suits sitting around talking numbers. But he also doesn’t trust his audience to follow along, and so drags down a rapid-fire pace and zippy editing with endless narration, fourth-wall breaking lectures, snarky asides, and endless explanations.

Inspired by the well-reported book of the same name by Michael Lewis (Moneyball), McKay, with co-writer Charles Randolph (Love & Other Drugs), focuses the story on the handful of people who, in the early 2000s, saw the housing bubble growing and braced for the impact of the burst. There’s an eccentric hedge fund analyst (Christian Bale), an angry money manager (Steve Carell), a high-stakes trader (Ryan Gosling), and more (including Brad Pitt, Hamish Linklater, Finn Wittrock, and John Magaro). They’re not really fully formed people, more like representations of worldviews and information, conduits through which we are shown aspects of the larger looming problem. Bale and Gosling concoct a scheme to short securitized subprime mortgages. Carell and his employees get in on the action, then research the instability in the housing market on the ground, visiting sleazy loan sharks, underemployed homeowners, and shallow realtors. Everyone’s laughing them out of meetings for betting against the housing market. But the more the characters we follow uncover about the financial system, the more they’re convinced catastrophe is around the corner.

These guys are smart enough to figure out the problems, but only use this knowledge to make themselves money off the inevitable calamity. Sure, they try to tell people about their discoveries – colleagues, journalists, credit rating agencies – but nothing is done to avert the crisis. No one wanted to hear. Powered on frustration and fury, McKay builds an argument that the economy as we know it is essentially a mass delusion built on stupidity and fraud. We the people will believe anything if it’s in rich people’s interest to make it seem true. As difficult as it is to watch this recent history reenacted, it’s even harder to take realizing it could easily happen again. The large ensemble does fine work communicating these ideas, condensing and dispensing piles of spreadsheets at the expense of becoming actual characters, but the movie goes ahead and overexplains anyway.

He’s usually directing comedies (Anchorman, Talladega Nights), but here McKay shifts to a serious message movie out of clear passion. After all, he’s the guy who put in the end credits of his 2010 buddy cop comedy The Other Guys a biting PowerPoint presentation explaining how Wall Street is essentially a Ponzi scheme. It’s well intentioned, and argues a sharp political point. But it’s so tediously expositional and smirkingly condescending. The narration acts like the information it recounts is boring or complicated, often pausing to say, “Confusing, right?” It’s a faux jocular tone that assumes the audience will quickly lose focus on the jargon or get lost in the overflow of technical dialogue. McKay loads the film with celebrity cameos explaining concepts, characters lecturing to the camera, and rapid-fire pop culture signifiers representing the passage of time. It’s basic, but overcomplicated, a deeply irritating approach. I’m not saying the roots of the financial crisis are necessarily simple or quick to grok, but I bet the sorts of people who would go see this movie in the first place might be interested enough to keep up.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Brief Encounter: CAROL


Early in Todd Haynes’s Carol some young adults are hanging out in a projection booth, watching Billy Wilder’s Sunset Blvd through the tiny window. They know a guy who works at the theater, and so this is a cheap date. One of them is a film buff scribbling in a notebook. “I’m charting the correlation between what they say and what they really feel,” he excitedly tells his pals. It’s 1952 and the world of these characters isn’t ready for some feelings to be spoken aloud, at least in the movies, where Sirkian subtext rules, and real people sublimate their inner melodramas behind tasteful style and hesitant conversation. It may not be representative of everyone’s 1950s, but it’s Haynes’s movieland version thereof, in which he’s slowly unspooling a relationship drama in a most handsomely decorated, elegantly styled period piece. Here repressed surfaces reveal much about real feelings held in check just underneath.

The movie is a romance, doomed by an ephemeral sense of time past, and by the subtle trembling edge of noir underneath the plot mechanics as it gets going. To communicate feelings without bringing them to the surface, Haynes uses elemental tricks of cinematic language, a shot, then a reverse shot, and we see instantly the connection made between two characters. Sparks fly in the space of a cut. We see Therese (Rooney Mara), a young woman working in a department store, a little meek and quiet, but happy with her modest life. She sees across the room a striking statuesque customer. This is Carol (Cate Blanchett). They have an instant liking for each other, a slow flirtation so undetectable as to be positively subliminal. Carol orders a train set for her small daughter, carefully filling out the delivery form with her home address. After the transaction, Therese sees Carol left her gloves on the counter and decides to return them. One thing leads to another, and swiftly they have a friendship. Deeper connection happens slowly, and then all of a sudden, a rush of feelings and impulses. They’re falling in love.

Their encounter is disrupted by the realities of their lives. Therese has to cancel a trip with her boyfriend (Jake Lacy). Carol is embroiled in an increasingly messy divorce from her husband (Kyle Chandler). But it’s Christmas time, and they decide to celebrate together, heading off on a road trip. They live by night. In hotel rooms and diners they grow closer, but there’s a sense of inevitable ruin, in the way Carol’s husband sneers about her morality, and in the way Therese’s porcelain features reveal hesitance, like she’s not totally ready to give herself over to the new feelings she’s expressing. Haynes views their connection with tender sympathy, understanding the attraction between them, emotionally as well as physically. Two walled-off people, desperately alone in their daily lives despite the hustle and bustle of friends and co-workers, cautiously decide to drop their guards for each other, even if only for one momentary flash. It culminates in a beautiful sequence of connection, only to be followed by the glancing blows of unexpected tightening of obligations beyond their union.

Like David Lean’s Brief Encounter, one of the greatest of all screen romances, Haynes finds in Carol a film capable of imbuing a simple motion, like a hand on a shoulder, with tremendous emotional power. Because he’s so beautifully restrained in presenting the story’s dramatic turns, and so careful to craft characters through glimmers of interiority behind revealing gestures, he creates surfaces that shine with intense feeling, weighted with the burden of deep longing and sadness. It’s one thing to use period detail – vintage sunglasses and coats, records and Santa hats – to communicate a sense of midcentury nostalgia. It’s another entirely to convert those soft pangs of remembered history into the ache and regret over an affair ended too soon. Adapted by Phyllis Nagy from the novel The Price of Salt by Patricia Highsmith (The Talented Mr. Ripley), it’s told as a lengthy flashback with a framing device delicately folded back in on itself. What we’re seeing is already done, a meaningful brief encounter that can never be recaptured.

To pull off this effect, Haynes needs every element of filmmaking working at a high level of artistry and in conjunction with one another. There’s no room for error in a movie whose every detail is so freighted with meaning. He pulls off a flawless unity: a rich, colorful, slightly faded look from Edward Lachman’s cinematography populated with Mad Men fastidiousness in the production and art design, while a tremulous Carter Burwell score swirls with Glass-ian textures underlining lavish romanticism and tense domestic drama. Blanchett and Mara, dressed in impeccable clothes by Sandy Powell, give placid performances, valuing stillness and inscrutable glances, the better for Haynes’s technique to fill in meaning around them, and for gestures – a drag on a cigarette, a tug on a sleeve, a touch that lingers – to say more than the characters ever could, or would. Unlike Haynes’s Far from Heaven, a more overt 50’s melodrama pastiche, or his Mildred Pierce, a more overt domesticated noir, Carol is reserved, betting on subtle inflections of drama to emerge in conflict depressingly truthful to its time, and in love wistfully fleeting.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Smart Guy, Dumb Movie: TRUMBO


Jay Roach’s Trumbo strikes me as a movie with a small target audience of people who care about Hollywood history without caring too much about movies themselves. It’s a well-intentioned recounting of the time when blathering idiots in Congress whipped up enough Americans with anti-Communist propaganda that they had to do something about it, that something being mindless persecution costing a great many people their livelihoods. (That we, too, live in a time where blathering politicians make a lot of noise about taking away civil liberties is a parallel not unnoticed.) At the center is screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (here played with gravel and scene-chewing by Bryan Cranston, late of Breaking Bad) who wrote many films (including A Guy Named Joe and Gun Crazy) before running afoul of conservative business folks who were sufficiently spooked by his Communist party affiliation to blacklist him and others like him. The movie lays out the broad strokes of the Blacklist’s rise and fall without caring too much about pesky things like nuance, context, or ambiguity.

With docudrama gloss, Roach (best known for directing Austin Powers, but who has done the reenactment thing before, with election-based HBO films Recount and Game Change) sets about recreating 1950’s Hollywood. He uses the too-bright, too-clean style of every biopic unconcerned with capturing anything but the events. He’s armed with a clear message of right and wrong (Yay, artists! Boo, bullies!), an interesting real-life hook, and a host of recognizable faces playing famous people. (There’s Michael Stuhlbarg as character actor Edward G. Robinson, Helen Mirren as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas, and so on.) The screenplay by John McNamara (NBC’s Aquarius) serves up the narrative with simple clarity and strictly expositional dramaturgy, which renders every line flat with the dust of a particularly earnest book report. People stand around explaining things to each other, talking like they’re dictating their thought processes, philosophies, and motivations for posterity. At one point, Trumbo is told to “stop talking like your words are being chiseled in granite.” Would that the film had taken its own hint.

The shame of it is that there’s a good story here. Trumbo was a first amendment hero, and the movie does the bare minimum to show it. He speechifies, he testifies, and he’s always a charismatic charmer. The scene where he refuses to name names and runs quippy circles around a Congressional committee is the highlight in this regard. But as he spends years hammering out scripts under pseudonyms for less pay and no credit, even winning Oscars for movies (like Roman Holiday) he can’t acknowledge he’s written, the film merely twinkles with the comfort of hindsight. Sure, poor Trumbo went through some tough times, didn’t he? But, ah, look who got the glory in the end, eh? After all, the Red Scare tried to drive him out of the movies and look who’s still here. Two-plus hours of uncomplicated back-patting from a movie that’s content to view the past from a know-it-all modern standpoint is hard to take. There’s not an ounce of genuine surprise or feeling in the whole thing.

Where’s the real investigation of Trumbo the character? The filmmakers have him on such a high pedestal they forgot to bring him down to our level and really dig into his thoughts and feelings. We see him interacting with his wife (Diane Lane) and kids (including Elle Fanning), but instead of illuminating his personal life, it plays like perfunctory “here’s the family” scenes.  We see him organizing support from writer pals (Alan Tudyk, Louis C.K.) and producers (Roger Bart, John Goodman), but those also play like dutifully arranged footnotes played lightly for strained seriousness. Trumbo the movie is clumsy and overfamiliar, too thin for those who know their Hollywood history, too flavorless for anyone. Trumbo the man was a good deep thinker, now immortalized in a movie of depressingly airy superficiality. The good news is that no one will remember this movie in six months, let alone last as long as his works. That’s the problem with bad movies about good filmmakers: there’s no good reason not to just go to the source.
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