Friday, September 30, 2016

Blast from the Past: CRISIS IN SIX SCENES


Woody Allen’s latest production, Crisis in Six Scenes, has his best premise since Midnight in Paris. Set in the late 1960s, the social unrest of the times comes right into the house of a stuck-in-their-ways elderly couple. Their cozy home in upstate New York becomes a refuge for a radical when the daughter of an old friend breaks in. She’s wanted by the government for her membership in a left-wing protest group whose activities include, in addition to the usual demonstrations and rabble rousing, bomb building, cop wounding, and sedition fomenting. The elderly couple wants to help the poor girl out, the more open-minded marriage counselor wife (the wonderful Elaine May in her first role in 16 years) eager to keep her hidden, while the paranoid ad man husband (Allen) descends into a stubborn bundle of helpless nerves as the youthful firebrand (Miley Cyrus) slowly unravels their lives’ predictable patterns. It’s all a great excuse for Allen to explore his usual interest in intermingling relationship tangles with philosophical inquiry.

By far his longest narrative project – clocking in at well over two hours total – it is a six-part miniseries for Amazon. (The shift in form would seem more of a leap if the consistency of his filmmaking over decades – the repetitive themes, recurring character types, the regular font, the usual jazz scores – weren’t already a version of television’s comforting familiarity.) He introduces a large cast of characters with competing loyalties, like the conservative business major (John Magaro) who is smitten by the fetching fugitive, much to the dismay of his debutante fiancé (Rachel Brosnahan). And then there’s a cornucopia of familiar and fun faces as neighbors, patients, parents, cops, and protestors (Becky Ann Baker, Lewis Black, Max Casella, David Harbour, Nina Arianda, Christine Ebersole, Joy Behar, Michael Rapaport, and more). It’s stuffed with personality, but not every character comes to life with as much fullness as the time could permit, like soggy and underdeveloped romantic triangles amongst the younger characters.

There’s also the matter of political rhetoric, for as loaded and provocative as it could be it is instead cozy and comfortable fuzzy hindsight. The prickliest it gets is an early lament about how divisive and polarized the country’s politics are, a wry what-goes-around-comes-around smirk at our circular national crises and our inability to move past them. The great premise is just an excuse to knock contentedly humdrum characters into frazzled situations. I imagine such areas of thinness would be excused if this were a shorter feature. With so much time on his hands, though, there’s simply too much room here for dead air, stiff setups, tone-deaf teasing (a tossed off one-liner about a troubled adopted daughter lands poorly), and lackadaisical reaches for obvious developments. In order to go about stretching this tight little farce over so many segments the plot takes some meandering and the zip in the tension falls slack.

Then there is, of course, the slight stiffness and stodginess that’s crept into Allen’s filmmaking of late, a half-theatrically stilted, half-literary dustbin approach in which exposition is a little too plainly displayed and some zingers come wheezing to the punchline. But even when the writing gets a tad stale, the cast is so energetic and pleasantly amusing, it coasts along on comfortable charms and relaxed charisma. Allen is the quintessential Allen type, May is totally at ease playing the slightly frazzled upper-middle-class pseudo-intellectual (her comfort zone since her Nichols and May days), and Cyrus is just the right young, earnest, half-idealistic/half-cynical goof to send them spinning. Per usual, the right ensemble can carry over slightly below par Allen writing, and this one is overflowing with the exact right casting to elevate the downtimes, the patches that could’ve used another draft or two.

The stage is set for the characters’ conflicts to pile up quite swimmingly, and find occasion in the unevenness for some of the funniest scenes Allen has written in a while. May’s counseling sessions are perfect little sketches, and recurring scenes with her lovable, and increasingly politically rambunctious, little old ladies’ book club are a terrific throughline. Allen and Cyrus spar over food, consumerism, and communist ideals in agreeably prickly wars of words. There’s even a scene in which May scrambles over rooftops after a briefcase of contraband Cuban currency, so this is the sort of story that escalates in sometimes satisfyingly silly and unpredictable ways. Allen has some fun with the historical context, dusting off old quips about Vietnam, hippies, Nixon, Black Panthers, war protestors, and Latin American revolutionaries. (There’s an echo of Bananas there, I suppose.) By the final twenty minutes, which include a sustained and hilarious homage to the Marx brothers’ famous Night at the Opera stateroom sequence, the whole fitfully farcical storyline has arrived at a satisfying crescendo that’s well worth the wait.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Winging It: STORKS


Storks is a rather unlikely animated family film. You can think of it as either a broad contemporization of the ancient European myth of large white birds delivering children. And you can say it’s a wacky cartoon about where babies come from brought to you by a Pixar alum (Doug Sweetland, of the energetic rabbit v. magician short Presto) and a writer-director of vulgar R-rated comedies (Nicholas Stoller, of Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Neighbors). Either way it sounds improbable that it’d work, let alone be sweet, gentle, and good-natured. Nonetheless, here it is, a genial, amusing animated comedy that takes flight in lots of unexpected silliness and cleverly developed metaphor. You may question the need to reinvigorate and reinterpret the old storks legend. I don’t know what they’re teaching in health classes these days, but maybe a candy-colored kids’ movie about how loveable babies are, how easy they are to get, and how they can heal a broken family is not exactly a totally helpful message. Still, Sweetland and Stoller throw themselves into their high-concept with upbeat energy and a winning sense of fun.

When the story begins, storks have stopped delivering babies. Instead, their warehouse perched at the top of Stork Mountain is a distribution hub for CornerStore dot com, and they pride themselves on speedy delivery. With no more messy, demanding babies to fuss with, productivity is up and profitability is way up. Because you’ve seen this setup before, you know it’s a good thing that’s bound to be bad. The movie takes a bunch of component parts from other family movies of this ilk – a conventional journey narrative, character arcs of positive self-discovery, and workaholics who need to slow down and appreciate down time with family – and grinds them through a slapstick machine, making pleasant and enjoyable entertainment out of it. A stork on the precipice of a big promotion has a big problem when the one human around – a girl whose name tag was broken at birth, so she’s lived her entire life with the birds – inadvertently sends a dead letter into the dormant baby-making machine. Now the stork and the girl must work together to get the new baby to her parents before anyone realizes their mistake. Madcap goofiness ensues.

The filmmakers create a fairly typical CG animation style of rounded, squishy surfaces, but slather on a sheen of stretchiness that’s more malleable and rubbery than other studios’ house styles. Freed from the Pixar/DreamWorks/Sony/and so on mold, the movie is free to exercise its dusting of cartoony elasticity as it goes through familiar paces. Is there any doubt that the blustering bird boss (Kelsey Grammer) will be defeated, the toady pigeon (Stephen Kramer Glickman) will get his comeuppance, and the busy human parents (Jennifer Aniston and Ty Burrell) will grow closer to their adorable moppet (Anton Starkman)? Of course not. But what saves the movie are its loopy line-readings and whimsical nonsense. The slimy pigeon is a scene-stealer, a mushy Valley Guy accent stumbling through his vacuous scheming. A pack of wolves (its leaders voiced by Key and Peele) can form bridges, boats, and more with their fast reflexes and groupthink sync. Penguins do battle in silence, trying not to wake the baby. There are a lot of silly touches embellishing the edges of the familiar paces. My favorite was a bird singing a song to which he doesn’t know all the lyrics, the subtitles inviting us to sing along devolving into garbled gibberish right in step with him.

That’s the fun on the margins, though. Keeping the core throughline fun are the leads, a frazzled stork (Andy Samberg), way in over his head and desperate to prove himself even with a broken wing, and a cute, weird girl (Katie Crown), a determined and endearing string bean with a frizzy mop of red hair. The performers approach the material from odd angles, chirping and swooping around what in other hands would be obvious punchlines and sentimental button-pushing. In a movie built on a succession of improbable ideas, perhaps the most unlikely is the one that trusted an audience to care about the friendship between a stork and a girl, not to mention their commitment to caring for a babbling infant while taking her to her rightful family. It teeters on the edge of unbelievable, but somehow the movie is energetic and amiable enough, and the voices enjoyable enough, to sell it. In the end the whole zippy, cuddly thing is even a little moving in its story of humanity and diversity beating the soulless corporation, bringing joy back to families of all races, sizes, and compositions. You could do a lot worse than that.

Monday, September 26, 2016

Cruel and Usual: GOAT


Here comes Goat to give us the disgusting flip side of Richard Linklater’s Everybody Wants Some!!! That was a nostalgia-soaked film about the upsides of sunny homosocial bonding and collegiate identity formation. Goat is the grimier underbelly, concerned mostly with a fraternity’s Hell Week hazing, showing in extended, unblinking, and repellent detail the extent to which these ritualized houses of horrors cater to every worst impulse a young man might have. Pledges are humiliated, stripped, attacked, pelted with garbage, caged, beaten, and made to imbibe as much alcohol as possible. And that’s only the first night. They’ll be put through a gauntlet of torture, beaten down emotionally and physically night after night. And for what? To say they belong to a fraternity? To gain access to the sociological benefits that come from such intense relationship forming coupled with a direct historical lineage for this brotherhood? One side character is affronted when his roommate suggests quitting mid-rush. “If the frat goes away, everything goes,” he says.

The lead character is a nice enough young man (Ben Schnetzer) who, in the summer before his freshman year in college, is assaulted. His attackers jump him outside an off-campus party where he was visiting his older brother (Nick Jonas). Bloodied and bruised, he’s clearly still suffering from post-traumatic stress when the fall semester rolls around. This is clearly someone who is psychologically not ready to endure the tortures of rushing a fraternity. But his brother is in the big frat on campus, and he wants to prove to him, and himself, that he’s man enough to become one of the guys. The fragility of his mental state isn’t hammered home, but it certainly amplifies the torture on display. As if seeing the slaps and hearing the shouting, watching the nauseating slurries of food and fluids and seeing the brutal pranks (urinated on while stuck in a large dog cage; blindfolded and marched to a bathroom where a banana is floating in the toilet, made to reach in and grab it; forced to down vast quantities of beer with the threat of a being forced to defile a goat as punishment for failure) weren’t hard enough, we have subtextual knowledge that makes it even harder to take.

What is it that makes the robbery in the film’s opening something worth investigating and punishing – one frat member sneers bileful scorn at “townies” – while the hazing goes on with near total immunity? The fuzzy dichotomy between lawful and unlawful beatings set up by writer-director Andrew Neel and co-writers Mike Roberts and David Gordon Green shows plainly that frats aren’t the root of all evil, but the way they codify and condone systematized toxic masculinity isn’t healthy. It’s societal rot. These aren’t boyish antics excused as japes and capers. These aren’t charming jerks redeemed – even only partially – by their camaraderie. The frat’s leadership is presented as entirely scary, even when feigning care or talking up the good of their unity. They hide behind tradition, proud it’s been this way for a hundred years, and excusing it because what they do is no different, they say, than what other frats do. Emboldened by their perceived immunity, they enact a torturous relationship with their pledges.

It’s enough to make one wonder if frats nationwide are nothing but hundreds of replicas of the Stanford prison experiment, authority inevitably corrupting to and emboldening of every testosterone-drunk freedom of impressionable young men. When they hear another frat has ratted them out for their intense hazing, they flip out. As the movie progresses there are cracks in the frat’s façade, with one member’s slow dismay over the recruits’ extra-nasty treatment leading him to ask, “is it harder this year?” When the dean brings extra scrutiny to bear, investigating charges, they are aggrieved. How dare they face consequences? The performances are committed, wild-eyed, at a fever pitch that approaches frightening intensity. Here are lost young men, radicalized by the pure adrenaline of power, big fish in a small pond allowed to devour anyone they wish.

Neel’s filmmaking is sensitive and restrained, simply recording the specifics in long, uncomfortable, unadorned sequences. Many are harrowing. Some are merely sad, like when an alum (James Franco) storms in for a visit, expressing great disappointment a job, wife, and child are keeping him from partying like the old days. He, too, has bought into the toxicity of the structure, and can’t get it out of his system. It’s poisoned at the root. As the lead character must decide what kind of a man he wants to be, how fully he wants to buy into this cracked situation, the movie gathers a quiet moral force. We see the pain on the pledges’ faces, see it swallowed back with a forced stoicism as they allow abuse to be piled on them even when it stings, even when it hurts, even when it bleeds, even when they should know better, even when their lives could be endangered. The vomit and the blood and the bruises cake the grotesque tableaus. It’s as good a reminder as any that no good frat is good enough to excuse the existence of the worst.

Friday, September 23, 2016

Seven Up: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN


Antoine Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven is a rare sight: the straightforward all-star Hollywood Western. That alone is almost enough to make it fun, as the film gets down to business fulfilling every basic core comfort its designation promises. That it is also a glossy high-budget big studio movie that’s slickly competent, highly efficient, uncomplicated, completely confident in its easy genre pleasures and totally solid in its narrative drive heightens the fun. This is an energetic, red-blooded action movie leaning hard into a Wild West fantasy of righteous violence, in which gunplay and good intentions are enough to win the day. Fuqua has made a career out of movies about violent men – Training Day, King Arthur, Shooter, Southpaw. Here, though, the violence is pure sensation above all else, satisfying and enjoyably expressive. Remaking John Sturges’ sturdy 1960 Western, itself inspired by Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, he tells a firm, old-fashioned oater in amped-up and appealing 2016 style.

The setup is familiar. A small frontier town is beset by an evil robber baron (Peter Sarsgaard, who all but twirls his mustache as the slimy villain). The narcissistic land-grabber is determined to run the townsfolk from the place, the better for him to expand his mine and get richer. He shoots some of them and burns their church to the ground, throwing in the insult-to-injury offer of $20 each if they skedaddle. Obviously this doesn’t sit well with the kindly townspeople, so a freshly widowed young woman (Haley Bennett) heads out to find the help they need to fight back. The first chunk of the movie is devoted to her search, introducing a grand total of seven men willing to lend a hand and a weapon to this noble cause. The next chunk involves the posse wrangling up a plan. Finally, there’s the big blowout gunfight as rounds of ammunition blast back and forth in creatively staged bouts of battle. There’s no surprise to the outline, but that’s to the film’s credit. The fun is in the reliable old narrative working again, and in the fine, unfussy character work that fills in the details.

It helps that the lead hero is Denzel Washington, as great a hero as we could hope for. Here he fits the wide-brimmed cowboy hat that shadows his tough-but-kind eyes in mystery. He sits in the saddle or struts down the dusty street with the complete and total moral and physical self-confidence with which he’s become synonymous. He plays a marshal roaming the west hunting bad guys. Of course he’s willing to help a nice little town defeat their wannabe corporate despot. (Co-writers Richard The Expendables 2 Wenk and Nic True Detective Pizzolatto’s chewy dialogue gives the villain a speech up top where he explicitly conflates profit with patriotism.) Of course he’s also driven by revenge, as we eventually learn his own sad reason to hate the man. But because he’s Denzel we have all the faith in the world that he’s on the side of truth and good, lassoing a diverse group of misfits into following his lead and rescuing this town from its looming doom.

In the extended, explosive and violent finale, Washington, seemingly without effort, slides off the saddle and hangs on the side, using the horse as cover while firing at baddies, then jumps back up and gets off another perfect shot as the horse rears back. I wanted to applaud. He’s that cool. The rest of his gang are an enjoyable bunch as well, and the movie’s smart not to load them down with intergroup conflict or subplots about grudges or romances. It’s lean, and straight to the point, allowing the invited actors to have fun with Western types while bringing the personality required of them. There’s Ethan Hawke as a doubting sharpshooter, Byung-hun Lee as an expert bladesman (styled like Lee Van Cleef), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as a Mexican bandit, Martin Sensmeier as a Native American archer, and best is Vincent D’Onofrio as a burly mountain man he plays with a funny, soulful high-pitched roughness. Bringing the total to seven is Chris Pratt in another of his slanted Harrison Ford impressions, bringing a sly grin and unexpected/expected dusting of goofiness to his quips. Within the first second they appear, we quickly know who they are, what they’re good at, and how the action will rely on them.

Though Fuqua amps up the speed, volume, and violence in his Magnificent Seven, stripping away all but the essential story beats and drawing the character’s distinctions quickly in broad strokes, he still knows how to provide what a Western needs to really get cooking. He lets the downtime breathe with an awareness of just how long it takes to gallop from one place to another. When Washington and crew stroll into town, after doing battle with crooked deputies (including Cam Gigandet), they tell the worried citizens they have a week to prepare – three days for the stooges to ride back to the boss, a day for them to plan, and three days for their army of deplorables to ride back armed to the teeth. Add to that the time spent putting their own group and plan together, and that leaves a lot of good quality time with the pistols, buttes, baked beans, campfires, church meetings, poker games, and swinging saloon doors that sell the genre setting between High Noon shootouts.

Fuqua knows the long setup earns a sharp and cleverly staged crescendo of action. My favorite bit, outside of Washington’s cool horse stunt, was a scowling baddie gunned down falling back into an empty open coffin outside the coroner’s. But Fuqua, with his frequent cinematographer Mauro Fiore, also makes the violence with some attention to horror. This won’t end with all seven standing, and the townspeople really are outgunned. Shots of terrified children huddled in a basement, or farmers nervously clutching rifles under cover as bullets rattle by, are welcome splashes of perspective in a movie that’s otherwise shooting for the iconic with cowboys astride faithful steeds silhouetted against the sunrise and dastardly villains squaring off against those whose purity of intention should win in the end. It’s this balance – Movie Stars and character actors; brilliant iconography and intimations of humanity – that make for a compelling, enjoyable, and satisfying entertainment beginning to end.

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Thirteen Ways of Looking at CAMERAPERSON


Cameraperson is singular. It’s a complicated and entrancing autobiography built out of footage from other nonfiction films. What we see and hear becomes a reconfiguring of what it means to see and hear a film, the various sequences united only by the vision they represent. As a movie about vision – about what we see, about what filmmakers’ choose to show, about how these sights affect those who create and those who view – there’s a multitude of vantage points one can take to begin to make sense of it.

Here are a few.

1. It’s a movie as memoir. The cameraperson in question is Kirsten Johnson, cinematographer and camera operator on dozens of documentary projects over the past 20 years. In making this movie, she has collected and compiled shots and scenes from her career, placing them together, not chronologically but in some intuitive memory logic. Individually they are compelling, fascinating, carrying the intellectual charge that brought the documentary crew to capture them in the first place. But there’s a larger goal at work. We see moments that have, as she writes, “marked” her and “leave me wondering still.” Slowly, she adds personal footage, of her mother and father and children. Together they add up to a portrait of a woman’s professional and personal life. There is no narration. There is little explanatory text beyond a brief note at the beginning telling us to take the following as memoir. We’re to view her in every frame. She is her occupation.

2. It’s a movie about the woman behind the curtain. But it doesn’t pull the curtain back or peek behind. She simply wants us to be aware of the person there.

3. It’s a movie about work. We can get swept up in stories, people, and vivid tableaus presented, but there’s always the understanding Johnson is behind the camera. The film is a procession of images and sequences, artful and intense, by turns emotional and clinical. But unlike their sources, here there is new awareness placed on the hard work of their making. It draws attention to the labor involved. What does a cameraperson do? She gets the shots. She crafts the images. (One moment shows her hand dart in front of the lens to pluck an errant clump of grass from distracting.) By showing us the process through this context, she makes it clear we see what we see because she decides we could. The movie features little in the way of looks behind the scenes. What it does show us is what’s in the frame – and implies what’s outside the frame – in the margins of the original works. Fleeting moments reveal the personality behind the camera through a gasp, an command, an admission of emotional investment, a worried concern, and hushed indications of found profundity.

4. It’s a movie as clip reel, a portfolio. This is no diminishment, because this is no That’s Entertainment! comprehensive overview or utilitarian résumé. We’re not seeing greatest hits or notable outtakes. We’re seeing moments. Through the scope of the projects presented, as well as the diversity of subjects tackled, one can see the expertise Johnson brings to each film on which she works. There’s a casual beauty to the way she takes in landscapes and architecture, and an acute sensitivity to the emotions of her interviews. Whatever it is, she throws herself into getting a good shot. She races along next to philosopher Jacques Derrida down a street, trips walking backwards in front of The New Yorker’s cartoon editor Bob Mankoff, listens with empathy to a devastating story from a child injured in an I.E.D. explosion (telling him she’s deeply moved). It’s a movie of considerable skill, aptitude in every shot, a testament to her talents.

5. It’s a movie of poetry, knowledgeably and thoughtfully assembled. The details are precise, sharply drawn, well observed. Its tapestry assembles slowly, deliberately, and patiently. What are we to make of the connections between projects with disparate topics? Reading the surface you could see a simple travelogue (Afghanistan, Alabama, Bosnia, Brooklyn, Nigeria…) or a look at the varieties of modern documentary concerns (hot-button politics, shameful tragedies, quirky character studies). Or you could look closer, get beneath the tenuous and obvious strands, and see an interconnected web of sensitive emotional connections and endless possibility for interpretation. Recurring ideas of parents, children, emotional and literal violence, and the aftermath of trauma (one haunting montage includes empty buildings and fields where atrocities have taken place) are both specific and symbolic. It feels like a carefully composed ode to her career, its meaning in the world, and impact on her soul.

6. (It’s a movie of fonts. Here is where I must point out Johnson’s incredible attention to detail extends to the typefaces. I didn’t think of this on my own. Read Charlie Lyne in Filmmaker Magazine with a brilliant dissection here.)

7. It’s a movie as an invitation to think. Johnson doesn’t want a passive viewer. No, by recontextualizing her past work in this new form she invites a focus on why a shot was made, and on why we’re seeing it now. She wants your intellectual involvement, not to take in and feel and react passively, but to let the sounds and images light up your mind. All movies – with the exception of the egregiously brain dead – activate thoughts. But here’s one that cultivates a rhythm and space for active wondering about the construction, drawing unavoidable attention to every artistic choice, each frame, each cut.

8. It’s a movie that blends the personal and political, as if there’s a difference to begin with. Jobs have taken her to troubled areas all around the world. Everywhere, political strife has hurt. We glimpse it with a USB drive from Citizenfour ground up in cement. And Michael Moore mid-Fahrenheit 9/11 promising he’ll try to help a soldier who admits he plans to go AWOL before his next deployment. And women in every corner of the globe bravely explaining their rapes, their kidnappings, their decisions to have abortions. Johnson’s camera has captured much pain, and the weight of these encounters make it clear that nothing is ever a simple case of partisan or ideological talking points. Life is as political as it is messy.

9. It’s a movie of one life reflected in other people. Late in the film is footage of Johnson returning to a small village to visit a family she recorded years before. (We’ve seen some of them earlier, including one harrowing shot of a toddler playing with a hatchet, hearing and sympathizing with Johnson’s off-camera winces, aching with tension as she, and the camera, keep an objective distance.) She wants to show them the final product and tell them how much their kindness meant to her. Here’s something we don’t often see in a documentary. Yes, there are the facts recorded. But what impact did it have on those filmed, and those doing the filming? What we see as cinema vérité has an unseen reverse shot. Taken together they’d be a slice of life for the fly on the wall, too. When we see glimpses of home movies, Johnson’s twins or her dying mother or her aging father, we see a mostly happy family with usual problems, and yet we also see a stark contrast to the human misery she’s devoted her life to chronicling. When we hear her voice from behind the camera, she’s not breaking the fourth wall. She’s behind it, the engaged and empathetic artist and witness.

10. It’s a movie of juxtapositions. With editor Nels Bangerter (who has worked on some of the same projects as Johnson) images, ideas, feelings, impressions, and stories sit side by side. We see a tough boxer taking a hard loss, then getting comforted by his mother. We see Johnson’s mother slipping into Alzheimer’s. We see people around the world recounting past trauma. We hear the urgent warnings of a translator and guide as military in a far flung conflict zone suspiciously sizes up the presence of a doc crew outside a prison. We see a creaking Ferris Wheel in Afghanistan. The world is large, and full of surprise. Johnson finds the serendipity and logic behind the vast differences and confluences, forcing to think about moments in new contexts. We see the resilience of those who face the unthinkable, carry unspeakable devastation, and continue forward, living their lives. The mundane and the moving sit comfortably together.

11. It’s a movie as a way of understanding a mediator. What is a cameraperson but the one who sees the things we can’t and brings it back to us for our consideration? It’s her decision that shapes a moment, notices detail, frames a narrative. With a director and editor it becomes a documentary’s message. But she’s the source. It starts with her. Now she shapes it to her own purposes, aiming it directly at the audience, with an understanding that they’ll make of it what they will. Here’s what she saw. What do you make of it?

12. It’s a movie as metaphor. The cameraperson is a conduit for so much human existence. She’s a purifier, collecting the most wrenching moments of someone’s life (a limp newborn baby not breathing, the film’s most harrowing sustained sequence; or an old woman’s testimony of kidnapping and torture, hard even to hear) and making such grief useful to a wide audience. There is the old concept of the sin-eater, a person who absolves the departed of their pain by engaging in a ritual meal that allows them eternal peace. Taking in others’ pain can be an act of kindness. Johnson includes an interview with people investigating war crimes. They explain what a relief it is to the victims to unburden themselves, and yet how difficult it is that now the investigators must carry that burden with no release. Isn’t that true, also, of the cameraperson along with them? Where can she go to take the pain she’s recorded? She’s taken in the strong emotions, good and bad, of everything she’s seen, and now it is a part of her. The only release is to share it with us.

13. Cameraperson is a masterpiece.

Monday, September 19, 2016

BRIDGET JONES'S BABY Makes Three


Seeing Bridget Jones’s Baby is like reconnecting with an old friend you thought and hoped would have her life together by now. It’s not her fault. That’s just what life keeps throwing her way. In her case, life is the plot novelist Helen Fielding and filmmakers like Sharon Maguire keep serving up. Each movie forces her to awkwardly relearn the same lessons: to roll with the punches, have self-confidence, and be happy with who she is whether or not there’s a man in her life. Fifteen years have passed since the socially awkward Bridget (Renée Zellweger) first strode on screen in the sweet and charming Bridget Jones’s Diary, the story of sad single woman in London who can’t decide between two rakish men, a slick cad (Hugh Grant) and a cold, but secretly warm-hearted, stuffed shirt (Colin Firth). The sequel, 2004’s Edge of Reason, reset the relationships to have the same men fighting over her in much the same emotional beats. At least Baby makes three a slightly different dynamic, finding Bridget a new fling and a nine-month surprise growing throughout.

For the better part of an hour the movie gets by on nothing more than the sheer pleasure of seeing the twinkly-eyed Zellweger back on the screen. She hasn’t had a role in six years, and hasn’t been Bridget, her most famous character, in over a decade. So when a now-43-year-old Jones walks into a sad, lonely birthday convinced her work life will be her satisfying replacement for romantic travails, it feels awfully nice to have her driven and desirous of nothing more than self-improvement and self-care. Alas, it’s too good to be true, as a hoookup at a music festival with a mysterious billionaire (Patrick Dempsey) and an unexpected rekindling of passions with her old love (Firth) leave her pregnant. Once more, two men fight for her affections, this time with the ticking time bomb of a DNA test (which she decides to make post-partum instead of an amniocentesis) adding an extra layer of squirmy comic tension.

That’s a decent start to a good Bridget reunion, progressing her story slightly, creating new conflict, upping the stakes, and inviting new handsome middle-aged men into her world. Now she’s committed to having a baby (she bristles at being called a “geriatric mother,” but also recognizes this might be her one chance at pregnancy) and settling into a new aspect of life. To help her do so, she faces the Solomon-like task of figuring out which man gets to raise the baby as her co-parent. Will it be the man she has loved, or the man she could love? Not a bad question. This certainly isn’t a calamitous late sequel. But it lacks its original nimble spark. Running a galumphing 122 minutes, co-writers Fielding, Dan Mazer (Dirty Grandpa), and the great Emma Thompson have simply not enough plot or charm to last. Especially lumpy, there are underfed subplots, forced short cameos for familiar faces past (though Jim Broadbent never hurts), and a central farce with far too much dead air for how urgent its mysteries are. Bridget’s dithering about informing one prospective father of the other, and indeed her confusion about whether biology should inform her choice at all, creates a long, awkward stasis.

Beyond the wheel-spinning at its center, the movie can’t quite place Bridget in a believable 2016. There’s tepid social media commentary and millennial bashing in the form a new team brought in to run the newsroom where Bridget works. (A few exhausted swipes at man buns, live streams, and hashtags aren’t as nervy as the movie seems to think.) Similarly, an endless gag in which Bridget doesn’t recognize Ed Sheeran falls flat, but not as deadly behind-the-times as an enthusiastic dance floor “Gangnam Style” discussion. What is this? 2012? Ditto the recurring references to a court case and subsequent protest parade concerning a Russian women’s punk band. These are weak distractions from the questions at hand. Who is the father? Who is best for Bridget? Will she finally get her life together? All is answered, and reasonably satisfactorily if you ask me. And Zellweger and Firth are good enough at selling the long history and misty-eyed potential in their relationship. But the distended phoniness around them is more than I could take.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Cops and Robbers: HELL OR HIGH WATER


Hell or High Water locates the western there for the taking underneath the modern post-industrial late-capitalism American west. It takes place in modern day, but it still has black hats and white hats and even some hats in between, and a preoccupation with who is allowed to make the rules and who is allowed to transgress the rules. The whole thing boils down to a hardtack cops and robbers movie, two brothers (Chris Pine and Ben Foster) hitting small-town Texas banks to raise enough money to keep their late mother’s farmland out of the bank’s hands. You see, there’s oil there, and the bank would very much like to sell it to a company willing to tap it and pump out liquid gold. The brothers would rather get out of foreclosure and see the profits themselves. So they pull on ski masks, hop in their dusty, beat-up cars, and drive from target to target. All the while, two cops (Jeff Bridges and Gil Birmingham) are in laid-back, laconic pursuit.

Read the film of a piece with screenwriter Taylor Sheridan’s previous script, for last year’s Drug War thriller Sicario, and it’s plainly another movie about contemporary frontier law and order, where people forgotten and ignored simply do the best they can to scrape out a living whether it be through crime or punishment. Taken with director David Mackenzie’s previous film, British father-and-son-in-prison movie Starred Up, it’s another masculine vision of family tension rippling across a surface disturbed by their mixed loyalties and the threat of violence (both from within and from outside the family unit). The tough, smart Hell or High Water is a synthesis of these ideas, held together as if by saltines and spittle as a dry and dusty combination of exposition and foreshadowing. As the brothers draw closer to their fundraising goal the lawmen draw closer to catching them. This won’t end well, but there’s an egalitarian respect on the part of the filmmakers, recognizing both halves of the equation have humanity worth considering.

The movie’s sharp plotting and unassuming concern with its characters’ lives put me in mind of Cormac McCarthy and Elmore Leonard. Hardly a scene goes by without a line of dialogue that’s pleasing to the ear – an eccentric spin on a common sentiment, or a revealing exchange that casually illuminates some nook or cranny of personality a more single-mindedly plot-focused film would ignore. This extends to the robbers, as one fresh from prison remains jumpy and unpredictable, but also wounded that the other had their mother’s favor right up until the end. And then there are the cops, Bridges’ the old vet on the brink of retirement out for one last big case needling his Native American partner with the kind of affectionate racially-charged teasing he thinks is fine because it’s meant well, but lands with studied stoic exasperation on Birmingham’s face. Then there are the one-scene-wonders, bank tellers and managers, waitresses and patrons, casino employees and gamblers. Each of them makes the most of their moment, the heroes of their own stories living their own lives, only coming into focus for us because they happen to cross paths with the main event.

It plays out by turns thrilling and suspenseful, but often at a relaxed downbeat, building at a slow, steady pace. The robberies are sudden, messy, scary, dangerous. The investigation is methodical and folksy. It’s told in a style that’s terse, matter-of-fact. Vast desert landscapes and run-down small towns are the new Western terrain. In the forgotten corners of the Great Recession, poverty, Chevron, and concealed carry permits are the constants. But it’s not just recent downturn. Factories have dried up. Family farms can’t make ends meet. One old man stares out across a quaint but deserted downtown and intones, “No one’s made a living here in 150 years.” Who can blame the robbers for getting creative about getting by? They steal from the bank like the bank is allowed to steal from them. And yet who can say that they shouldn’t pay for their sins? With a strong, steady hand the movie finds an exciting climax, and a resigned headshake of an ambiguous conclusion. The movie’s like an old narrative folk-country ballad where the lyrics might err on the side of clumsy and derivative, but the chords are strong, the personality is bright, and the sentiment rings true.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Into the Woods: BLAIR WITCH


Perhaps there’s no good way to make a satisfying follow up to The Blair Witch Project. The 1999 found-footage horror phenomenon, the first mainstream effort to effectively use what would become a formula, is simply suis generis and unrepeatable. Maybe it’s because when it comes to found footage horror, the less we know the better. The secret to a great entry in this subgenre is leaving space for an audience to freak itself out. That’s why Blair Witch Project is mostly three young people on a bad camping trip, and why Paranormal Activity is mostly empty rooms. These films set a tone, generate a spooky mystery, and populate the low-res photography with believable characters, then let enough creepiness sneak in around the edges until the audience is leaning into the frame, studying every little clue, reading horror into every image well before the big payoffs. So when sequels try to pile on explanations and lore, the simple, primal, rough-hewn and unshakable scares of the original can’t be recaptured.

Filmmakers have already tried doing an unconventional Project sequel. That’d be 2000’s Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, which dropped the found-footage aesthetic in favor of a standard late-90’s post-Scream self-aware teen slasher with characters who were fans of the first film convinced it was a real documentary. There’s something half-clever, half-irritating about that film, and nothing scary. Now, 16 years later, the rights holders have doubled back to the property to try a more conventional sequel this time. Called simply Blair Witch, the movie follows James (James Allen McCune), the much younger brother of the first film’s Heather. Now grown, he’s embarking on an expedition into the cursed woods to look for clues that he hopes will explain his sister’s disappearance. Tagging along on this cold case hunt are his best friend (Brandon Scott) and two film students (Callie Hernandez and Corbin Reid) intent on documenting every step of the way. The growth in cheap camera tech over the last decade and a half means the film isn’t quite as scrappy and cheap, or as limited in its coverage, as the original. But more isn’t always better.

Director Adam Wingard and screenwriter Simon Barrett, the same team behind bad slasher worship You’re Next and enjoyable Carpenter-inspired mystery/actioner The Guest, turn their horror recycling to recreating the sensations of the original Blair Witch. In the process it becomes one of those sequels that also function as a remake. The broad strokes are similar. A group goes into the woods, hears mysterious noises and sees ominous symbols (the sticks and rocks still have a haunted shiver), growing increasingly frightened and lost as they devolve into bickering and paranoia. Then it gets even weirder. This one plays out with a larger cast including a creepy couple of Blair Witch fans (Wes Robinson and Valorie Curry) who beg to come along, their older, cheaper camera setting their footage apart from our main crew’s more professional ear-mounted HD cams and fancy drone. There’s more cutting and more to see, and more interpersonal dynamics at play – the skeptics and the true believers, with sublimated attractions and irritations bubbling up at inopportune times.

As the night grows unnaturally long, the movie’s pale imitation gives over to its worst impulses. It becomes just another found footage movie with blurry headache-inducing visual vomit as characters run and scream and pant. Their panic becomes our confusion. As all sense of time and direction finally goes out the window for these characters who are injured – glimpses of gore are another aspect unproductively amped up here – and separated with failing flashlights, the movie becomes an assemblage of random flashes through which you can squint and almost make out the clichéd climax gushing forth. At a certain point it becomes nothing but characters aimlessly running around in the dark shouting each other’s names between jumpy jolts, claustrophobic scrambling, and obligatory homage to the original film’s most memorable moments. Deliberately conjuring reminders of the intense sensation Project was make this Blair Witch all the more disappointing. There was a real original. This is simply forgettable and derivative, technically competent but unable to scare up anything truly frightening.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Secrets and Lies: SNOWDEN


Edward Snowden makes perfect sense as an Oliver Stone protagonist. Like JFK’s dogged district attorney Jim Garrison or Born on the Fourth of July’s veteran turned war protestor Ron Kovic, Snowden is a man whose pursuit of what he sees as unambiguous and truthful duty to country causes him to endure outer skepticism and scorn, and inner destabilizing life changes. Like Savages, The Doors, Platoon, and two Wall Streets, it’s about a young person drawn into a career with exciting upsides, but with downsides readily apparent as well. Like Nixon and W. and World Trade Center and Alexander it’s about a man driven by and ultimately fated to be crushed under the weight of history and expectation. But unlike those previous movies, Snowden finds Stone at his most restrained. He views the proceedings from a remove, not digging into the psychology as deeply, or using filmmaking flash as ostentatiously. It’s a movie that sees the spreading web of surveillance with a mournful paranoia. Look at what our government can do and has done, it says, lauding its hero while wondering if what he did will actually matter in the long run.

To best make the case for their protagonist as a misunderstood hero, Stone and co-writer Kieran Fitzgerald (The Homesman) begin by showing us Snowden (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) at the point of his earliest civic duty. In 2004 he’s discharged from boot camp after a painful leg injury, after which his drive to serve his country leads him to transfer to the C.I.A. He’s a smart, unassumingly confident computer nerd who defends George W. Bush, gently teases his liberal girlfriend (Shailene Woodley) about her beliefs, and admits to a fondness for Ayn Rand. (It’s not hard to read this material as Stone inviting conservatives into the story with a “See? He’s one of you?”) The movie then follows Snowden’s gradual disillusionment with the intelligence community as he moves from one contract job to the next, finding increasingly shadier tactics used in gathering and deploying data scooped up from a global dragnet. Each new revelation gives him waves of anxiety that seem to pass, but slowly and steadily accrues in the back of his mind until he has to act.

The movie becomes a portrait of a man whose work anxiety grows so potent his only recourse is to exorcise it by releasing it into the world. There’s something of the terror I remember feeling then to this telling now. (If his revelations about the wide-ranging surveillance tactics at the fingertips of our country (and others) didn’t have you slap a piece of tape over your webcam, I don’t know what would.) Because we know what Snowden did – and what we don’t know remains Top Secret and therefore a ripe target for Stone’s mythologizing speculation – there’s little surprise to the film. It’s even structured as flashbacks around scenes of documentarian Laura Poitras (Melissa Leo) filming Snowden’s secret whistleblower interview with The Guardian’s Glenn Greenwald (Zachary Quinto) and Ewen MacAskill (Tom Wilkinson), footage which would become the Academy Award-winning film Citizenfour. This creates a strangely sedate sense of dutiful reenactment, making the characters mere pawns in historical inevitability. Gone is the volatile conspiratorial frenzy of Stone’s heated political films or the schlocky gusto of his genre fare. Here there’s an almost serene sense of data flowing, history written in bits and clicks, coded to produce this outcome.

This calm befits what is Stone’s fastest turnaround for contemplation on a flashpoint in modern American history, beating WTC (another of his eerie calm films) by two years. Anthony Dod Mantle (frequent Danny Boyle collaborator) makes images of clean simplicity, cut with occasional smeary doubling or reflections through layers of screens and glass. Snowden is trapped in a digital world made tangible, with information glowing and streaming, collected and collated. His personal dramas – simple fights with his girlfriend, a late-breaking health issue – are halfhearted, well-acted but beside the point. The most vivid crisis points are when his work life intrudes with unwelcome force on his home life. He can’t take his medication to prevent seizures because it slows his response time. A woozy snap zoom interrupts a heated love scene as he catches the unblinking cam eye of an open laptop, the extreme close up of the tiny black circle showing their nakedness reflected in it. There are standard thriller elements of people avoiding surveillance, befitting a news story that’s already informed dozens of action movies from Jason Bourne to Captain America 2 and Furious 7. Its tension remains at a constant low-boil, mystery dulled by unavoidable outcomes.

It all adds up to a movie that’s vital and turgid, obvious but with flickers of surprise and life. The known facts of the story are bulked up with lesser-known or fictionalized incidents, inconvenient truths and convenient fictions pumped through with enjoyable personalities. Around even corner is a likable recognizable face bringing fine energy opposite their scene partners. Part of the fun is wondering who’ll show up next: Rhys Ifans, Nicolas Cage, Timothy Olyphant, Scott Eastwood, Keith Stanfield, Logan Marshall-Green, Ben Schnetzer. Each is used by Stone to keep interest and curiosity flowing, never quite sure whether each new co-worker is a sympathetic ear or a reason to raise Snowden’s disillusionment. They create a pattern to the movie’s pulsing compelling/dull, scary/stale info-dumps (the best of which is an abstract swirling animation of social media chatter and secret metadata flowing into a black hole that slowly forms an eye, the sort of image so hypnotizing it doesn’t matter how blatant the symbolism), playing key roles in the process and personifications of various view points.

In the end it’s another Stone movie of weary patriotism. It’s about the burden of being a good American, about loving the country so much it’s worth wishing it were better. Clinging stubbornly to ideals is difficult, especially when calling into question the ratio of security to liberty from within the government can make you a target for, at best, criticism and stress, and at worst jail or exile. Stone makes Snowden a figure unambiguously good, leaking information as a last-ditch effort to improve what he sees as a slippery slope to tyranny. After the deed is done he literally has Snowden walk out of the dark data center into gleaming white sunlight. And yet the unsettled aftermath – stuck in Russia, communicating in warnings from a robotic screen – creates uncertainty, ending on a slightly more ambiguous note. He receives applause and attention, yes, but isolation and confusion, too. He thought it was important we hear what was happening. Now we know. Now what?

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Before President: SOUTHSIDE WITH YOU


Southside with You is a cute movie about the young Obamas’ first date on a sunny Chicago day in 1989. We know they’ll soon fall in love, and we know in twenty years they’ll be the president and first lady of the United States. The movie knows this, too, but graciously keeps the context mostly subtextual. Its focus is on two sweet, idealistic-but-pragmatic, charismatic young people drawn together over the course of a lovely afternoon, building to nothing more than a first kiss – shot by cinematographer Patrick Scola in a swoony, light-streaked Wong Kar-wai-inspired shot that’s worth the wait – and a lingering promise of a second date. I can’t imagine a film like this – small, romantic, only implicitly political – about any other president’s first date. Though maybe that says more about my imagination than about this film’s particular qualities. Maybe John Waters could make a good dark romantic comedy about Nixon’s wooing his future wife by driving her on dates with other men.

But the Obamas are unlike any past presidential couple. As our first African-American Commander in Chief and First Lady, they have tremendous symbolic importance above and beyond their personal or political qualities. They are history in the making, his election proof our society can overcome our worst impulses, while the reaction from the right – unconscionable obstructionism, fear mongering, lying, and, of course, racism – is proof not all progress is linear. The movie situates the young Obamas as a black man and woman indebted to a cultural context. They are surrounded and informed by notable black voices – a Janet Jackson song under the opening credits, Ernie Barnes paintings in a gallery, an African drum circle in a park, Stevie Wonder and Good Times and Do the Right Thing discussed, and a well-read copy of a Toni Morrison novel cracked open. This is a movie casually but undeniably interested in the legacy that produced the Obamas, and the tradition to which they contribute.

Michelle Obama (then Robinson) emerges as the more overtly political figure in this slice-of-life. They’re colleagues from a law firm out on the town spending time before a local meeting on the southside of Chicago. She talks guardedly but candidly with Barack about her concerns as a black woman in a white man’s firm, the pressures to work twice as hard (at a minimum) to be given the same respect. Even then, she’s marginalized with microagressions. She’s an engaged and ambitious person. Barack is, too. When they arrive at the meeting, the neighborhood is discouraged by a setback in a bid to get a safe community center. Obama holds court, the power of his rhetoric alone enough to turn the dispirited hopeful. (Yes, he can.) Impressed, Michelle asks him afterwards if he ever considered a career in politics. “Maybe,” he says quite seriously, but with the smirk of dramatic irony half hidden in his eyes.

Debut writer-director Richard Tanne’s screenplay often gets an overly aware sense of foreshadowing about its dialogue like that. At one point, Barack talks about his childhood in Hawaii, to which Michelle quips that it sounds “so foreign.” Later she crinkles her nose and declares his extemporaneous speech “professorial.” It goes like that, making sure to include little winks and nods to various talking points from the last eight years. It’s distracting. But otherwise the movie makes no attempt to explicitly bring their futures into the picture. It’s an admirable attempt to warmly contextualize the political as personal, even if the dialogue occasionally errs on the side of sounding like two people trading lines from their Wikipedia pages. But even when the specifics are a bit stilted, the strength of the movie rests on its small scope, charting only the small shifts in affections over the course of a picturesque tour of stunning Chicago backdrops.

The movie is slight and sweet, burbling with the lowest of low-key romance. It’s only a first date, after all. Parker Sawyers (Monsters: Dark Continent) and Tika Sumpter (Get On Up) play the leads, appearing in every scene in a likable acting duet that reveals likeminded people slowly drawing closer through friendship to a tentative, promising intimacy. Sawyers and Sumpter carry the picture through its weaker, more obvious moments. So well cast and capably performed, it’s the sort of based-on-real-people movie where the artifice fades away and it feels like we’re looking at the real thing. From certain angles in certain moments, it looks not like impersonation, but exactly right. It is most powerful as an expression of cultural images and personal history as the two ways they, and we, make sense of our world and our lives’ possibilities. That’s what they talk about – anecdotes, family stories, work troubles, music, movies, dreams, and aspirations – as they learn about each other. And it carries with it the unspoken recognition of the inspirational benefits of where they’ll end up.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

She's Having a Baby: WHEN THE BOUGH BREAKS


The one thing going for When the Bough Breaks, a bad psychological thriller with no psychology of any note, is its willingness to touch touchy subject matter. It loads up its twists with material about conception and pregnancies, domestic violence, sexual abuse, and children in danger. It walks right up to the edge of distasteful and touch, touch, touches the line like a nagging sibling wiggling a finger close enough to disturb the very edge of arm hair while repeating “I’m not touching you.” It wants credit for the will to transgress a line without actually having the bravery to back up its bluff. And yet that’s the only charge to speak of in this dishwater dull movie about a wealthy, happily married, infertile couple (Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall) that turns to a surrogate (Paper Towns’ Jaz Sinclair) who’ll carry their last viable embryo. Since you’re aware of the genre, you know that the shy dimply smiles and rosy generosity from all involved at the outset is bound to get creepy. It turns out the surrogate has undefined problems which threaten to destroy everything they hope for. All their eggs are in one basket case, so to speak.

Predictable to its core, the movie is built out of spare parts of others. Take bits of Obsessed, a better trashy thriller in which Ali Larter stalks Idris Elba to the dismay of his wife Beyoncé, and you’ll have some of the setup. The surrogate develops an unhealthy obsession with the husband of the couple whose baby she’s carrying. That’s twisted, and should be good creepy fun, or at the very least some low tacky camp, like a Fatal Attraction set off without an affair. Instead, her obsession is dialed up and down depending on the screenplay’s whims. So, too, are the feelings of the married couple. Sometimes they’re shrugging off weird behavior. Other times they’re scared, scrambling for a way to keep the surrogate happy, knowing how important a perfect delivery would be. Morris Chestnut and Regina Hall are great actors, and it’s a testament to their skill that they invest so much emotion in such flimsy, psychologically incoherent plot developments. It’s a thriller that develops its crisis points in fits and starts, hoping we forget looming red herrings and real problems alike as the characters do while trying to convince themselves everything’s okay.

It’s the sort of movie where, if you see a cat in the first act you know it’ll be flayed open in the nursery by the third act. If there’s a treasured family teddy bear, it’ll have its stuffing spread over the room. If there’s a nice glass patio table, it’ll smash. If a colleague (Romany Malco) stares at the surrogate, it’s so he’ll recognize her in a blackmail photo later. If a leering roofer mentions peeking in windows, guess where someone will spy an exhibitionist? (Also, the leaky pipe he mentions in the same conversation will be the reason it happens.) Jack Olsen’s screenplay is totally obvious and conventional, which is bad enough without taking a long time reaching its inevitable banal payoffs. Characters speak only what directly matters to the plot in flat, flimsy dialogue, and are only characterized insofar as it serves a story function. Hall’s character will want to throw a dinner party or two? Well, she’s a chef. Chestnut will need a reason to whip up legal documents with unbelievable speed? Well, he’s a lawyer. The whole thing is just too transparent about its clanking machinery as plot mechanics grind their gears.

So it’s not a good movie. It’s also not a good bad movie. The proceedings are bland, over-familiar, tediously derivative boredom. With a premise as juicy as this one, you think it’d be more than mildly troubling, but it’s not as shocking or sexy as it thinks, or as it easily could’ve been. Director Jon Cassar (of TV’s 24) brings a workmanlike proficiency to the screenplay’s weak provocations, keeping it at a polished cheap digital remove. (The production stills look sharper than the finished product.) It’s so under-thought it even finds unintentionally queasy accidental comedy, like when an info-dump including the line “she was abused” plays out as voice over while the woman in question shops for bananas. It’s just one bad decision after another. I mean, when you can’t even make Michael K. Williams playing a human plot hole plug entertaining – even when he bursts into the scene to immediately solve a missing person mystery with little more than “I got the address; let’s go!” – the movie’s got some irredeemable, fundamental problems.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Did You Miss Me While Looking for Yourself Out There?
OTHER PEOPLE


David (Jesse Plemons) is having a rough year. He’s a comedy writer pushing 30 whose pilot wasn’t picked up. His boyfriend just dumped him. And now he’s moving home with his parents, to help take care of his mother (Molly Shannon) while she dies of cancer. These are setbacks that are supposed to befall other people, he confides in an old classmate who tells him, “Now you’re other people for other people.” It’s with this dazed adrift quality that David goes through the next several months, struggling to spend as much time with his mother as he can while figuring out a way to get his life back on track. Writer-director Chris Kelly, veteran of Saturday Night Live and Broad City, brings to Other People, his debut feature, a sharp sense of timing, stringing together incidents by turns lightly comic, gallows humor dark, and gravely serious. It’s funny, heartwarming, and heartbreaking, sometimes turning one to the other in an instant. Throughout David’s aimless frustrations, and the problems of a family facing the end of a love one, help anchor every moment with humane specificity. It’s cozy as a high-quality serious-minded sitcom, and as sharp as a frank, well-observed, deeply personal story.

This isn’t a cancer movie with cancer as its main interest, or a movie about a young gay man that takes his sexuality as its only characterization. It’s not hard to imagine a terrible version of this story playing out like a cloying, manipulative message movie. How wonderful, then, to find instead a movie sincerely felt and earnestly expressed. Questions of illness and identity are elements used to bring specificity to the character’s lives, considered as part of a whole. The movie is simply about people living their lives in all facets and all quotidian ups and downs, doing the best they can with what they’re given. Here’s a full, warm-hearted, clear-eyed, and compassionate movie about a young man preparing to lose his mother. And yet he feels lost in so many ways, futilely pecking away at spec scripts, ignoring his younger sisters (Maude Apatow and Madisen Beaty) and their emotional needs, maintaining tenuous connections with his ex (Zach Woods), and struggling with seeking the approval of his conservative father (Bradley Whitford), who ten years after his son’s coming out is still unwilling to discuss it.

As much a portrait of millennial quarter-life crisis and modern family dysfunction as it is a movie about losing a loved one, Kelly wisely situates David at a nexus of confusion. His dream career seems out of reach. He’s frustrated about moving back to his hometown. He’s suspicious of dating apps, but increasingly tired of the isolation of his location, and perceived failures. Even his one hookup is clumsy. He splits his time between hanging out with his old friend (John Early) and fulfilling his sense of duty to his mother. He holds her hair while she vomits from chemo, watches her sing in the church choir until she can’t anymore, goes for walks in the park, and sits and talks with her while she nods in and out of sleep. He’s looking for some revelation about life, but instead settles into the long, slow, painful rhythms of watching his mother fade away. Kelly has the scenario progress at an unhurried pace, moving from month to month, picking out illuminating scenarios – a last family trip; discussion of a living will and burial plans; bad dates; professional setbacks; a meltdown in a grocery store’s pharmacy section as the full implications finally hit in waves of confusion – knowing that though a mother is dying, the family’s life still must move on.

This all could be the stuff of Sundance-darling indie-film cliché, the journey of self-discovery through small-town shenanigans and/or fatal diagnoses. But what saves Other People and, indeed, makes it great is Kelly’s good sense of authentic detail, honest messiness, and a ring of truth. I liked its vision of suburban California as an endless horizon of subdivisions, strip malls, and chain stores haunted by the local FM station’s repetitive loop of “Drops of Jupiter.” You can see why this place seems so much smaller than David’s showbiz aspirations. And I loved the family interactions, which aren’t so much melodrama or real tragedy as simple disagreements, sublimated emotional expressions, and subtle miscommunications. Every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way, as Tolstoy told us. This one is strained, but the love shows, too. (It’s especially fun and poignant when the grandparents (Paul Dooley and June Squibb) show up with sweet elderly candor laced with the sadness of a couple losing their daughter.) Then there are the awkward encounters, like distant acquaintances who don’t know the news and approach with cheer, or the caring friends who don’t quite know the words to express the sadness and shock they feel.

So expertly judged, Kelly use each moment as evocative glimpses into a variety of evolving reactions to the mournful central issue as well as the daily grind of everything else, even as the end draws near. Simply framed crisp clear digital photography captures scenes with no fuss, effectively and efficiently. This allows us to focus on the great, natural, emotionally dexterous acting and deeply felt dynamics at play. The entire ensemble (enjoyable and moving every one) brings tremendous and true lived-in performances, but I must single out the leads for special mention. Plemons plays David as a man unsure of his movements, hesitant about when to open up and when to merely be strong and silent. He wants his mother’s final months to be happy, and doesn’t want to trouble her with his career and relationship worries. He wants to care for her. Shannon plays her with a fading light, bubbly and funny and full of personality that slowly drains, until she speaks in a whisper as she says her goodbyes, mothering to the end. Their final scene together is the culmination of their characters’ searches for the right words that’ll make them feel some form of solace, as well as the sort of goodbye people have when they can’t bring themselves to say it’s the last one.

Because the movie is so compassionate to every person, and completely aware of how funny life can be even, and maybe especially, during trying and difficult times, there’s a sense of well-rounded believability that serves to make the movie more effective than one of non-stop single-minded sadness. Without falling back on cheap sentimentality or easy tear-jerking, the movie’s final moments earn a wallop of an ending, a satisfying conclusion that’s not tidy, but tender, convincing, right, and overwhelmingly moving. The first line of “Drops of Jupiter” – played earlier for laughs of recognition, now having become unexpectedly melancholy – started me crying. Then a shot of eyes, imbued with such casually forceful symbolic import, immediately before the final cut to black insured I’d be sniffling through the entire end credits, with the feeling I’d just seen something powerfully relatable and genuine.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Fly Hard: SULLY


A most unusually structured mainstream Hollywood effort, Clint Eastwood’s Sully is more than you’d expect from a based-on-a-true-miracle movie. It has the requisite stunningly realized and vividly recreated central reenactment of an amazing real-life event, in this case Captain Sully’s emergency water landing of a US Airways jet in New York City’s Hudson River on January 15, 2009. But Eastwood’s film isn’t interested in easy heroism. It’s about process, about skilled people doing their jobs to the best of their abilities and about the constant churning reliving of a traumatic event in its swirling aftermath. This is a movie that knows just because the outcome was a success – the reason the story is so memorable in the first place is not simply that a jet went down, but that every single passenger and crew member lived – doesn’t make the event any less rattling. And just because we know the outcome doesn’t make it any less harrowing.

The movie knows we know what happened and doesn’t take any steps to hide it. Todd Komarnicki’s screenplay begins in a nightmare, as Sully (Tom Hanks) awakes the morning after the miracle having dreamt it had gone wrong and they all went down in flames. A news report is hammering away with the real ending: all survived. This is a movie about what happened that day, told from a variety of angles, remembrances, and reenactments. Eventually the movie arrives at its centerpiece: a lengthy, involving, grippingly detail-oriented view of the event from boarding to takeoff to sudden bird strikes mere moments later that leave both engines useless and then a long, scary descent past the city and into the river. But first we see Sully and his co-pilot (Aaron Eckhart) interviewed by the National Transportation Safety Board (whose members include Mike O’Malley and Anna Gunn). They’re forced to tell their story, explain why they couldn’t make it safely back to a runway. This is a movie not about bold men taking decisive heroic action. It’s about instinct, knowledge, training, and group efforts. It’s about doing the job.

Circling the main event, Sully’s present tense follows the man recovering. We see the crash in dream, flashback, news coverage, interviews, interrogations, flight recordings, and simulations. It’s a sturdy evocation of a man whose mind continually, inevitably returns again and again to relive his trauma by personal choice and public need. He’s still in shock, stuck in a hotel waiting for the board’s investigation to complete so he can get back in the air. Meanwhile, strangers awed by his noteworthy feat stop to shake his hand or give him a hug, Katie Couric and David Letterman want him on their shows, and his wife (Laura Linney) calls to check up on him. But none of this interrupts his mind as he wonders if he did all he could. Did he make the right decisions? Could this have all been avoided? The answer is yes and no. He behaved perfectly under pressure, and accidents happen. But his work ethic is such that he simply can’t square the heroic image in public with his humble workaday private self. He’s just one man, who happened to have the right training and the right experience to allow him to make the right calls quickly and under pressure. He just wanted to make sure everyone was safe.

Eastwood lingers on this ordinary professionalism, using Hanks’ subtle humility and aw-shucks low-key Americana persona to great effect. Hanks projects a confident, compassionate, fatherly presence. It’s a strong, honest, hardworking masculinity that’s not bravado, but simply routine and behavioral. He’s warm and earnest, but not arrogant or aggressive. He’s simply nice. It’s a perfect part of the film’s portrait of process that reveals the everyday bravery of people who have skills, knowledge, expertise, empathy, and a moral sense of duty. (And like Eastwood’s other recent films – J. Edgar, Jersey Boys, American Sniper – it’s interested in the effects public feats have on private lives.) Sully is a movie that finds different perspectives beyond the leading man: the steady co-pilot, the efficient flight attendants, the alert traffic controller, the responsive passengers, the confident coast guard and quick-thinking ferry boat captains who race to the scene. Everyone plays an important part and living through it marks all. A Hawksian vision of humanity at its best and most cooperative, it’s a quietly moving movie about people in peril not succumbing to selfish panic, but taking one step at a time to safety. The film is understated, humane, warm, even softly funny, recognizing the normality of the men and women who experienced something that doesn’t normally succeed. The lead of the investigation eventually admits it’s the first time he’s listened to a black box while sitting next to the pilots.

Shot in bright and crisp digital full-frame IMAX by cinematographer Tom Stern, the movie’s most overwhelming when it puts the audience in the plane as it dives – at once terrifyingly fast and agonizingly slow – to the river. Eastwood increases the panic by tracing the plane’s arc past skyscrapers and skyline, even coming close to a bridge. The words 9/11 are never spoken in the film, but hang over the proceedings, never more so than in a moving passage during the centerpiece sequence that cuts to New Yorkers catching sight of the low-flying jet, the horror and surprise registering on their faces with a clear “oh, no, not again” feeling. It’s done largely silently, adding to the haunting reminder of how badly this could have ended. As the movie continues in its repetitions, finding new viewpoints from and techniques through which to view and explain the miracle, Eastwood lets the details accrue. Though it opens by reminding us of the outcome and then lets us see the events in so many ways so many times, it retains its suspense and its fascination the whole way through. It has the skill to show us an amazing feat, and the perspective to know the outcome was astounding through nothing more than capable people committed to doing the best they could with the circumstances given to them.
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