Monthly Archives: November 2015

Brooklyn — 6/10

BROOKLYN (2015, John Crowley)

A soft handkerchief of a movie, this wispy ode to white immigrants goes for a ton of sentimentality, so even if a few moments pull your strings, the batting average would still not earn you a spot on the Dodgers. The artless direction by Crowley aims straight for the middle, the camera never once in a place that might challenge us or suggest something heretofore unexplored. Ronan is quite good and handles both the demanding beats of her narrative as well as shouldering the burden of the entire movie on her back. Other characters are plot devices, simplified and nostalgic. As far as Ireland-to-New-York stories go, this isn’t IN AMERICA, and it’s not even FAR & AWAY. Threats of being detained, of disease, and even of racism are just mentioned on a boat — it’s still pretty nice to be white if you’re coming here. (The biggest challenges to Irish vs. Italian culture is learning how to eat pasta). Then all you have to worry about is locking down a husband, because all the women who came here from faraway lands found their struggles over and their identity confirmed once they settled on a man to take care of them. What other decisions could there possibly be?

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James White — 9/10

JAMES WHITE (2015, Josh Mond)

Christopher Abbott (you’ll remember him as Charlie on “Girls,” though he popped up last year as a waste-oid in A MOST VIOLENT YEAR) plays the title character, and he’s on screen virtually the entire running time — when not sharing the frame with Cynthia Nixon, he’s just sitting there in close-up, thinking and/or suffering. It’s a difficult performance, but it’s a great one. He plays isolation and grief beautifully, and for all his efforts he isn’t even the best actor in the movie. But I’ll get to Nixon in a second.

James White’s bland name is no accident:  this is a film about “a person,” despite all the details we get. James’s life is specific to that of a young, white, urban New Yorker, son of upper-middle class parents, whose father abandoned them for a new family. But no matter what conditions under which his humanity exists, this film is about his humanity — and how everyone, regardless of social position or place in the world, must face life’s one unavoidable, impending result: death. Even when everybody else is there, nobody is there. You suffer alone, nobody really cares, and life must go on. Millions of people are bouncing around aimlessly, trying to find connections, filling bored nights with booze, sex, or partying, trying to earn wages to give them food, shelter, and the cover charge at a club, and either getting in the way of or out of the way of other people. But the acute, agonizing pain of seeing a loved one wither away and die is real and universal. And it belongs to you.

Mond understands this and processes it visually with the aforementioned close-ups, also choosing to refuse any added editorial sentiment a score provides. The only music is diegetic. Time leaps forward with abrupt cuts, while some scenes are stretched out in painful real time. But the most impressive thematic achievement of this film is how it never once judges James. He makes mistakes, he makes bad choices, he says some funny things, he shows empathy… in short, he’s a person. But when everyone else in the film can and often does judge him, the camera does not. It’s content to watch him exist, and that is so valuable in generating the searing level of emotion this movie provides.

Then there’s Nixon, whom I hadn’t ever really seen before in a substantial role. I knew of her from SEX AND THE CITY but haven’t seen the show or movies, so I had no frame of reference. But Jesus Christ this woman can act. In not a lot of time, she forms a complete, relatable character and then goes through the awful, torturous details on screen involved in wasting away from cancer. Mond and Nixon fearlessly show us that death is not the graceful exit often shown in movies where a character says something profound then closes their eyes in peace. It is a terrifying march filled with humiliation, deterioration, and helplessness. Nobody wants to go, but we have no choice. Michael Haneke faced it with his magnificent AMOUR, and not only is James White the best film about love and death since that 2012 masterwork; it may be one of the best films about anything since then.

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The Night Before — 7/10

THE NIGHT BEFORE (2015, Jonathan Levine)

Armed with a premise straight out of an ’80s trash comedy, saddling one of its lead characters with the unenviable condition of tripping an unreasonable amount of balls the entire film, and full of Lessons To Be Learned on the Holidays, Levine’s follow-up to the mediocre WARM BODIES, starring his leads from 50/50, should have been a disaster.

But thanks to a snappy script (from many key names involved with THIS IS THE END and THE INTERVIEW) and quality performances all around, it finds a groove and — most impressively — keeps getting funnier as it goes along, peaking in the third act (whereas a plague of comedies over the past couple years has been the tendency to start off strong and peter out past the halfway mark).

Gordon-Levitt seems to be doing some sort of Keanu Reeves parody but it works and he earns sympathy for his lead much in the same way he did with 50/50 — through purely earnest commitment. Mackie and Rogen provide ample support, with Rogen especially strong given that he has to be high so much of the time — and trip-out scenes are among my least favorite genre of comedy sequences. Lizzy Caplan, Mindy Kaling, and Jillian Bell are all quite good, but perhaps the best small role belongs to Michael Shannon — who had been bothering me lately with a series of hammy performances, but his quiet hilarity in this one put him back into my good graces.

Levine has shown a propensity for the made-it-real with 50/50, and here he mines some emotion from Mackie’s subplot with his mother and JGL’s grief over his dead parents, but his grasp on tone has never been better. The film never descends into maudlin or sappy, maintaining a zippy, riotous pace the whole way. A cameo late in the film had me in stitches, especially for its meta-commentary, and a key setpiece staged unironically to “Wrecking Ball” is a blissful, pop mainstream treat.

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Bone Tomahawk — 7/10

BONE TOMAHAWK (2015, S. Craig Zahler)

Goes from understated elegance to what-the-fuck exploitation in a matter of seconds, and that didn’t bother me. Characters are beautifully drawn both by Zahler’s sharp dialogue and by the terrific performances from Russell, Fox, and Jenkins especially (who is pretty much unrecognizable). Wilson’s is a little thin but it doesn’t hurt the film. A genre mashup that doesn’t even care that it is one, if that makes sense. These are just some things that happen and don’t happen, and the last shot is perfectly unpretentious.

I’m sold on Zahler as a writer (the sheriff has an absolute scorcher of a heroic/tragic one-liner) but not yet as a visual stylist. At times it was hard to tell what was going on and not on purpose. But there are a few flashes of greatness — like a quick cut to a massive wide shot when Russell says “but this is where we are,” underscoring the literal interpretation of a metaphorical line reading. Zahler has a mean streak that extends beyond his bursts of outrageous gore, into a philosophical realm.

LOL @ Sean Young popping up for a line or two and getting third billing.

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