Monthly Archives: December 2014

Selma — 6/10

SELMA (2014, Ava DuVernay)

If you’re too lazy to read, like I am these days, movies are one way to get information. But they’re not at all the best way, so a movie should be an artistic comment on that information, often sacrificing it in favor of a point of view, some sort of creative pursuit, or at least a means of uniting image with sound and editing to inspire emotion, create a visceral effect, or provoke thought and conversation. My biggest problem with SELMA is that aside from a few impressive flourishes, it mainly serves as a vehicle for information (and also to provoke thought and conversation; though rather than encourage debate it mainly tells you either what you already believe or what you should think). This is PBS historical storytelling in large part, due to characters standing around saying exactly what they mean, telling us exactly what they’re doing, and performed by either community-theater-level actors or big celebrities in distracting cameos. There’s Martin Sheen as a judge! Hey, it’s Cuba Gooding Jr.! Look at Tim Roth chewing scenery as a cartoonish George Wallace! He really can pronounce “Nigras,” can’t he!

DuVernay appears too close to the material to throw an angle on it. She’s quite adept at staging a setpiece (the standoff on the bridge is excellent), she frames close-ups on the wrong side of the screen to provide tension in the dead space, and she can use short bursts of surprising violence to great effect. But it’s still a very straight-forward and simplified account of King’s efforts at eliminating voting rights abuse in Alabama. Careful not to make King too angelic, it brings in his adulterous side for one scene, but that scene is corrupted by Carmen Ejogo’s overreaching, amateurish performance. As for King himself, Oyelowo mimics the man’s speech patterns near-perfectly, and handles all of his screen time without ever looking too much like he’s “acting,” though I wish he had offered a more transparent look into his mind. Contrasted (and this is unfair, but the film invites the comparison) with Denzel Washington’s performance as Malcolm X in Spike Lee’s deliriously masterful epic, it’s bringing a pillow to a gunfight.

Tom Wilkinson isn’t given too many notes to play LBJ, but he comes out fairly clean, and Oprah Winfrey is nicely understated in a couple of key scenes. But the rest of the cast is smothered by the import of the story, raising the flags of righteousness with every word and gesture. I place most of the blame on Paul Webb’s script, which to me most resembled that of HBO’s GAME CHANGE script — a historical political true story where every person either recited an audition monologue or served as a vehicle for exposition. When the thinly drawn characters of SELMA are not nodding their heads with closed eyes at every recitation of a bible passage, they’re only talking about exactly what’s going on. It’s a strange world where subtext does not exist. DuVernay’s beautiful images are designed to provoke emotion, and they do, but those emotions are unambiguous. Almost like propaganda, but at least for the good side. It’s hard not to think of the recent Brown, Garner, Rice, et. al. tragedies as proof that this film is timely and not a relic of a bygone era, but that unfortunately doesn’t improve my opinion of Webb’s script — I’d get just as much reading actual transcripts of King’s speeches, and I wouldn’t feel like I was being preached to as strongly.

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The Gambler — 4/10

THE GAMBLER (2014, Rupert Wyatt)

At least there aren’t any poker scenes in it. But man, as cleverly as Wyatt knows how to shoot a scene, and for as much energy as he gets out of a script, Monahan’s turd is just unsalvageable. This is one of those movies where everyone is a philosopher — something that maybe works with the lead character, who is a novelist and English professor, but not everyone else (including a college basketball player, a bookie, a rich old lady, etc.). It reduces humans to mouthpieces (for a long-winded treatise on American can-do, macho posturing, fatalism, chance, and natural talent), all in service of some fast-paced dialogue that clangs so often it’s busy echoing when the next one hits.

Add to the pompous blowhard-ness of the dialogue a lot of ridiculous bullshit like super-judgmental, emotional, reactionary blackjack dealers (stop trying so hard, bit-part actors — real dealers never roll their eyes at a player or look shocked at an outcome) and a manic pixie dream girl student who just hangs around listening to Pulp on her iPod until a teacher tells her she’s brilliant. Poor Brie Larsen, reduced to a what-universe-does-she-exist-in role, and poor Jessica Lange, although she acquits herself a bit better (she’s still at her best these days on American Horror Story). John Goodman does the best at making the dialogue seem authentic, and whenever Wyatt lets the camera do the dirty work (like finally revealing at the end of a scene the source of a choir-cover of Radiohead) this threatens to turn into a good movie. But then Wahlberg steps back up to a blackjack table and gets a mean mug from the dealer who can’t believe someone is gambling money.

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Top Five — 6/10

TOP FIVE (2014, Chris Rock)

Pretty funny in many places, and in many modes: first with energetic and juvenile gross-out humor (the Cedric flashback); then with rapid-fire verbal character comedy (hanging with Tracy Morgan and friends); and finally with pure stand-up (Rock at the Comedy Cellar). Unfortunately, the screenplay falls prey to some rom-com cliche trappings that I hoped Rock would figure out how to get around. The worst is the old standby where the two leads are in relationships with assholes so terrible that we must root for them to be with each other instead. For Rock’s character, there’s a textual reason he would be with Union (“she helped me get clean”), but without seeing it, we have to just take his word for it. But even with her contrived monologue attempting to justify her state of mind, Union’s character is one-dimensional and pointless. As for Dawson’s boyfriend, yikes. The most courteous description still arrives at homophobia. But even without that icky layer, it still doesn’t make sense either one of them would last past the third date with the other.

But man, that jail cell scene with DMX! And a chance to see Jerry Seinfeld making it rain in a strip club.

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Wild — 6/10

WILD (2014, Jean-Marc Vallée)

Described accurately by people as “the anti-EAT, PRAY, LOVE” Vallée’s follow-up to DALLAS BUYER’S CLUB is a similarly soft treatment of a hard true-life story, but one with a lot of likable qualities. The first of those is definitely the “anti” part of the above quote: this does not go down the self-serving, obnoxious, white-privilege bullshit path of Ryan Murphy’s disaster; instead its lead character is smart without being pretentious, nice without being cloying, and feminist without being dogmatic. Any story about someone walking a thousand miles alone to find herself risks being insular and navel-gazing, but I give Vallée credit for finding something universal here. Like the moments where you’re walking and start humming the music in your head, and that song triggers a memory; or when you’re thinking to yourself and then start to talk out loud because nobody’s listening. Witherspoon is effective as Cheryl Strayed but I’m not sure she’s revelatory. She manages to perform in a way that’s believable but not as emotionally involving as perhaps the material requires. Or else it’s the structure of the film, which often veers into flashbacks that suffer from superficiality — Laura Dern is playing a cliché and too often her scenes inspire more eye-rolling than eye-watering. And for every beautiful scene like the little boy who sings “Red River Valley,” there’s another that cracks under the weight of its Oscar ambitions.

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Two Days, One Night — 9/10

TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT (2014, Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne)

This is the third time I’ve had the same experience with a Dardenne Bros. film — sitting there, pleasantly enjoying the movie, then the last 30 seconds come and blindside me with emotion until my watery eyes are staring at the end credits. You’d think I’d have learned by now: these guys slay the ending.

But, of course, a film is more than its ending, and as we learned from an earlier Marion Cotillard movie this year, even with a great ending THE IMMIGRANT is still just good. But, as with L’ENFANT and THE KID WITH A BIKE, the powerhouse closing is on the tail end of some pretty great cinema in its own right.

Tossing you right into the narrative, TWO DAYS, ONE NIGHT starts smack in the middle of the shit, with Cotillard discovering she’s lost a decision her co-workers had been voting on — whether to either receive their annual bonus (€1,000) or keep Cotillard working there. They can’t have both. But when her boss allows another, more fair, vote on Monday, Cotillard has the weekend to campaign to each of her 16 co-workers face to face, pleading with them to refuse their bonus and let her keep her job.

It’s a simple premise, a clean dramatic through line with no B-story and only character to drive everything else. This isn’t new for the Dardennes. Neither are the formal chops on display — whenever Cotillard is speaking with a co-worker, they keep her in a two-shot with the opponent, using vertical lines in the frame to separate them. When the camera does move to isolate her, it does so with purpose and to great effect. And wow, what a performance. Cotillard’s character is fighting for her life because of Belgium’s economic depression, which is tightening everyone in her class — but there’s another depression at work here, and it’s her psychological one, for which she takes a significant amount of Xanax throughout the movie. Managing to convey this depressed state while steeling herself for a fight she has to win, putting a brave face on for her children, crying in front of her husband, and keeping her cool opposite co-workers determined to put her out of a job, Cotillard is brilliant. Never goes for too much, but lets us know just enough to be right there with her.

And the Dardennes’ camera is right there too, pounding the pavement next to her as she goes from house to house, cafe to laundromat to soccer pitch, lending just the right tone to the political underpinnings of this campaign. We’re asked to think about class, about age, about labor, about money, about drugs, and about common human decency. And somehow it never feels didactic, even when the plot itself throws in a couple of contrivances. Trumping even all of these rich socio-political topics is an existential question about the quest — the fight, the struggle to roll that boulder up the hill. As Camus would say, one must imagine Sisyphus happy.

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Force Majeure — 8/10

FORCE MAJEURE (2014, Ruben Östlund)

Borrows its inciting incident from THE LONELIEST PLANET and, for that matter, a good portion of the resolution (or lack thereof), but stylistically it’s different enough not to feel like a wholesale ripoff. Where Loktev’s film was spare, silent, and surgical, Östlund’s is talky, funny, and dynamic. I prefer the Loktev overall, but can highly recommend this one as a more damning comment on rich white people crying.

Reducing the Swedish patriarch to, at times, a sniveling pussy is part of its charming humor but also part of its soul. There are enough shots of the gorgeous Alps landscapes (the camera uses the way sunlight reflects off the snow as a weapon) to make nature an imposing force here, so there’s bound to be some sympathy with the coward. Johannes Kuhnke’s lead performance is just good enough to make it work. Lisa Loven Kongsli is even better as the mom, letting her fears show but also being capable of pouring salt in wounds.

But the star here is Östlund, who has a visual style not unlike Michael Haneke (and FUNNY GAMES’s Brady Corbet has a cameo here) with a locked-down camera that moves infrequently and only with purpose: his compositions are clean and angular, his takes long and often painful. A great shot early on during a marital spat in the hallway of the hotel frames Kuhnke in the doorway, imprisoned by three wooden walls, while Kongsli is freed up with a vast space around her. If you’re going to see one film about a relationship permanently marred by the man’s temporary selfish cowardice during a vacation, see THE LONELIEST PLANET. But if you want to see a really lovely, poisonous treatise on social interaction and the fine line between order and chaos, give FORCE MAJEURE a look.

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Birdman — 7/10

BIRDMAN (2014, Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu)

Towards the third act of BIRDMAN, Keaton’s character walks past a bum reciting Macbeth; it’s the “tale told by an idiot” speech, and it doesn’t really work on screen. It’s one of these signpost moments that feels like a clunky stab at spelling-out, mostly avoided by Alejandro G. Iñárritu (henceforth “AGI”) throughout the movie. In fact, the Shakespeare quote that would have been most on-the-nose (so much that I’m delighted AGI didn’t actually use it) is As You Like It’s “All the world’s a stage.” Because this movie doesn’t just break the fourth wall, it demolishes it and lights it on fire and buries the ashes so that it can never exist again.

The confidence and cohesion involved in this impressively crafted wall-breaking is what makes BIRDMAN so watchable — there’s never a scene where we don’t contemplate in a different way, whether it’s technical, formal, content-driven, or thematic, what it means to blur the line between stage and reality, between fiction and truth. Early on, when Keaton is first rehearsing his play, one of his lines is telling another character to “Shut up! Will you shut up for one minute?!” and it draws laughs from the audience in the theater seats. Ten minutes later, when he’s upstairs outside his dressing room talking to his agent (Zach Galifianakis, very good in a fairly thankless one-note role), it’s the agent who says “for real” to Keaton: “Shut up! Just shut up for a minute!” and none of us in the movie theater are laughing.

The ways in which BIRDMAN continues to cross that barrier between what’s performed and what isn’t are too numerous to mention, but what has to be discussed is the style here. Yes, the one-unbroken-shot method calls attention to itself and can be distracting, but it also serves to make sure we feel like the camera is always on. There is no place for Keaton or his fellow actors to hide. A quote often attributed to Godard is something like “film is the truth at 24 frames per second, and every cut is a lie.” If AGI wants to turn his fictional film into the truth, he can’t ever cut. And all the cuts that are here (save for a late-film diversion to a dream-like montage) are hidden. So when we are taken backstage and into the belly of the theater, where people are supposed to be “off,” it’s where the drama of the movie really exists. And the Edward Norton character continuously points out that the stage is where he’s the most honest. (Speaking of Norton, he’s phenomenal in this; one of his best performances to date, including one of the greatest reaction shots I’ve ever seen — following a particular rehearsal with Keaton where his face betrays the best kind of self-satisfaction).

In a movie this concerned with motif, there are bound to be elements that can come off as pretentious, and a stronger director might have lessened those. But AGI does step wrong in several places, most of them being the more mystical, sci-fi-type sections of the story. The more grounded the movie is in reality, the better his one-shot technique feels. But the more special-effects-heavy the shots are, the more of a strained exercise it feels like. Plus there are times when the satire (of Hollywood, of the entertainment business at large, of the masses and YouTube and Twitter, etc.) is facile and groan-worthy. But it’s never not exciting to watch, and populated by such good performances (Emma Stone, Naomi Watts, Andrea Riseborough, and Amy Ryan are so good too that Keaton ends up being one of the weaker actors, possibly by design) that I feel a sense of warmth about the whole project and look forward to digging into it again.

* Note: I forgot to mention, but the musical score is fucking awful. Awful. Both the content of it and how it’s used. Fuck that score.

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