Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Listen Up Philip


Grade: 94/A

Comedies don’t come much more acerbic or incisive than Listen Up Philip, the new film by The Color Wheel writer-director Alex Ross Perry. Like Woody Allen, Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach before him, Perry looks at neurotics, misanthropes and egotists with an empathetic eye, understanding their difficulty letting people in without downplaying the pain they inflict on those around them. Unlike his predecessors, Perry doesn’t bring them to enlightenment, or even a clearer understanding of their own toxicity. He recognizes that for every person who learns to stop being such an asshole, there’s a dozen who only have their worst habits reinforced to the point of self-isolation.

In this case, the asshole is Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman), a writer awaiting the publication of his second novel. Already an arrogant prick, Philip takes his newly “noteworthy” status as an excuse to act like the perfect example of a self-important author. Philip’s confidence impresses his Philip Roth-like literary idol Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce), who invites him to stay at his country home and only further fuels his protégé’s bad behavior.

From the opening scene, in which he berates an ex-girlfriend for showing up to an appointment late, Schwartzman plays Philip a bit like what would happen if Rushmore’s talented but supercilious Max Fischer never learned anything from his misteakes and only blamed everyone around him. Schwartzman’s innate charm keeps us with Philip, but the actor never ingratiates himself to the audience, forcing us to think marvel as he smugly refuses to write letters of recommendation for students or give an inch to his girlfriend, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss).

Schwartzman is matched by Pryce, rarely better than as a more relaxed but no less nasty character. Listen Up Philip may be the most perverse mentor-student movie of the year (yes, even more than Whiplash), as the mentor does little more than encourage his student’s misanthropy by giving him poisonous advice (all while passive-aggressively belittling him), telling him that the people around him are leeches and vultures. He has a long-suffering woman of his own, in this case his justifiably bitter daughter (a heartbreaking Krysten Ritter). He's a model for what Philip is going to become: unbending, quietly cruel, convinced that anyone who tries to get close to him is trying to take and anyone who criticizes him is out to hurt him. Neither man is capable of emotional openness because it requires them to admit when they've been shits.

There’s something cruelly funny about their behavior, and about the lovely, literary narration by Eric Bogosian, which acts as a dark flipside to Alec Baldwin’s narration in The Royal Tenenbaums (which Perry further alludes to with the use of intricately-designed fake book covers). But Perry’s handheld, close-up-heavy approach is closer in method and objective to the excruciating intimacy of John Cassavetes. It’s telling that for all the time Perry devotes to Philip and Ike, he spends most of the film’s second act focusing on Moss’s Ashley as she slowly gets over her breakup with Philip. It’s a painful process that Perry maps out in great detail, from abandoned trysts to new pets, but it also makes us truly happy that she can move on and grow as a person, as well as sad that Philip never will. 


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Saturday, October 4, 2014

Gone Girl


Grade: 79/B+

David Fincher makes films not just about obsession, but how obsessives bury themselves in the hows of their fixations rather than the whys. Seven, The Game, Fight Club, Zodiac, The Social Network, even the much-criticized The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo are all about people who are so fully convinced of what they want, what they need, what they deserve or what they’re looking for that they don’t stop to wonder why they’re doing it, why they want it or why they might be wrong. If they’re lucky enough to have someone push them out of their obsession, they’ll find the reasons (lack of a meaningful relationship, past trauma, what have you), but to them, the reason is “because.”

That describes nearly every character in Gone Girl, Fincher’s adaptation of the black-hearted novel by Gillian Flynn (who wrote the screenplay). They’re all convinced that a man is a murderer, or that they deserve a partner that’s their ideal rather than real, for reasons that amount to “because that’s what it should be.” It’s a contender for being the coldest film of Fincher’s career, his Ace in the Hole. Where some of Fincher’s films find a trace of empathy, even pity for its characters, Gone Girl can only look at what the men and women on the screen have wrought for each other with a mixture of morbid fascination and scorn.

That perfectly describes the shitstorm that greets Nick Dunne (Ben Affleck) after his wife Amy (Rosamund Pike) goes missing on their fifth wedding anniversary. He’s never been good at expressing himself, so his apparent lack of interest in his wife’s disappearance (coupled with his growing dissatisfaction with their marriage) has everyone suspicious. Within a few days, the media, the police, the small Missouri town, and Amy’s parents all suspect Nick, and even his loyal twin sister Margo (Carrie Coon) and the one cop who’s not wholly convinced (Kim Dickens) have trouble not believing it. Meanwhile, Amy’s diary reveals the slow implosion of their relationship from its idyllic beginnings through the recent recession, the loss of their jobs, their move from New York to Missouri, and her growing belief that her husband is a threat to her.

That describes roughly the first hour of Gone Girl, and most of the reviews have had to dance around the Big Reveal that comes after Amy’s diary reaches the day of her disappearance. Up to that point, the film is less the novel’s “he said, she said” structure and more “she said, he did.” Nick’s side of the story is less self-analytical, more plain, where Amy’s is inviting and diagnostic.

Fincher’s touch in Affleck’s makes it more objective as a way to keep the viewer at a distance, question Nick’s every move, sort through the information as it comes. The compositions are meticulous but flat, where Amy’s are first sleek and seductive, then oppressive and isolating. Fincher’s trademarked shallow-focus close-ups first unite the two by emphasizing their gaze, sometimes keeping both in frame and in focus while everything else tunes out, then turn him into a hulking menace. Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s score is largely absent in Nick’s section, but it’s constant in Amy’s, first serene, then abrasive in its use of static. Amy’s side is so convincingly sold that it’s easy to ignore the movie-ness of it, the His Girl Friday-level unreality of the wooing, the stalker movie rhythms and overblown nature of the domestic drama. That’s dancing awfully close to spoilers (which I’ll get to below), but the game Fincher plays is “How to Clearly Give Something Away But Still Fool You.” The film turns us into the obsessive bystanders gawking at a freakshow case, giving enough information to damn that it’s easy to put anything that might not confirm our suspicions as extraneous.

It also plays at our suspicions and prejudices with its casting choices: the usually questionable performer Tyler Perry (spectacularly cutting here) as a lawyer of questionable taste in cases; the immensely-talented but underutilized Pike as a woman whose beauty and intelligence obscures how little we know about her. Affleck in particular is a smart casting choice. He’s an actor whose past relationships and ubiquity have made him a subject of intense media scrutiny and disdain, not to mention a performer whose difficulty at expressing complex emotion makes him perfect for much-scrutinized man who has only three modes he’s adept at, charm and rage, while everything else falls under too glib or too studied.

Why is everyone so convinced? Because…that’s the way these things go. Gone Girl stacks the deck against Nick, just as the media’s coverage of his case stacks the deck against him, with cold precision (sometimes to the point of being stifling). The same goes for Nick and Amy’s marriage. By the time the film gets into the truths of their marriage and the case, the actual motivations are made clear, but it’s more about what they’ve been told to expect from a perfect marriage and what happens when they don’t get it. Nick and Amy do terrible things to each other, both by accident and as a way of punishing each other. Why? “That’s marriage.” Why’s that? Because.


Fair Warning for Spoilers



Ok, here goes: “she kidnapped herself, Walter.” Pike’s Hitchcockian Blonde look should be another giveaway that there’s something fishy in her story, but again, the film stacks the deck to make us buy that Nick’s the one who’s at fault because she’s far more persuasive. Some have complained about the choice to have her narration stop after it’s revealed that she faked her murder in order to get revenge on Nick for growing distant and cheating on her. I think it’s a canny move, considering how the film considers her not just smarter than him, but smarter than all of us. In the novel, we’re in on Amy’s plot. In the film, we’re always a few steps behind her. She’s as unknowable to us as she is to Nick until we see the full scale and precision of her method. The reasons: "I deserve this in marriage." Why? Amy's a little more self-analytical in the novel, talking about how her parents tried to turn her into "Amazing Amy" and how she's always been expected to be perfect, so she should have a perfect marriage. That's somewhat present here, but it can still be boiled down to that cold, succinct "because."

Part of me wishes, actually, that we got more into Nick’s head, or more rooted in his perspective, after the reveal came. I can see why it doesn’t happen: the film considers Nick insignificant and weak compared to Amy. His idealization of her as a “cool girl” and conflation of her deviousness with all women is rightly seen as more pathetic than pitiable*. He doesn’t necessarily deserve that same consideration. But as soon as we’re put on the outside looking into Amy’s plans, we’re mostly left at the cold remove Fincher puts us until the film reaches its gonzo final third and everything is out in the open. That muffles a lot of what happens in between, which is what’s keeping me from falling in love with the film.  

Gone Girl has been compared to a number of David Fincher’s earlier films, but not the one it most resembles. Critics have compared it to The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo’s inherent pulpiness, with Fight Club’s meta-misogyny, with Zodiac’s endless dissection of a case with hundreds of false leads and bits of information, and with The Social Network’s view of how we perceive the truth based on the few facts and hundreds of “facts” we get from the media.

All of these are true, but Gone Girl is, in its twisted way, a therapy movie in the guise of a thriller, and a dark cousin to Fincher’s polarizing 1997 thriller The Game. Both use an elaborate (some would say “implausible,” to which the answer is “who cares”) plot to work through years worth of hostility, pettiness and resentment to repair a relationship, even if Amy’s scheme begins as revenge. They’re now far closer and far more honest with each other than they’ve ever been, just as The Game’s brothers (Michael Douglas and Sean Penn) are far closer than they’ve ever been. The big difference is that The Game is redemptive, pushing Douglas toward the people he’s kept at a distance to show how much they care for him and how much he needs them. Here, Nick’s been pushed towards a brilliant psychopath, someone who’s essentially cured him of what he thinks he wants in a partner because there’s no way out of what she wants. It’s cruel stuff, but I can’t say it’s not riveting.

*Which is why I don’t buy this as misogynistic. Amy is hardly representative of all women in this film, given how sympathetic Carrie Coon and Kim Dickens (both excellent) are compared to everyone else, and any problem Affleck has with women “because of Amy” is just that: his problem.

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Sunday, September 28, 2014

White Bird in a Blizzard


Grade: 50/C+

Ten years ago, New Queer Cinema enfant terrible Gregg Araki made a major creative leap forward with Mysterious Skin, a melancholy examination of how people process childhood traumas (sexual abuse, in this case) headlined by a career-making performance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt. Araki’s new film White Bird in a Blizzard sees him back in Mysterious Skin mode after the amiable stoner comedy Smiley Face and the wild end-of-the-world meets orgy movie Kaboom. But Araki’s latest doesn’t have half the power of his earlier film, as his desire to be clever works against its more sincere elements.

The film shares one major asset with Mysterious Skin in its terrific central performance, this one by Shailene Woodley. The Fault in Our Stars actress stars as Kat Connor, a young woman whose mentally unstable mother (Eva Green) disappears one year just as she first becomes sexually active. Kat spends the next several years living with her father (Christopher Meloni) and exploring her sexuality with her stoner boyfriend (Shiloh Fernandez) and the cop investigating her mother’s disappearance (Thomas Jane). But over time, she begins to suspect things about her mother’s disappearance that everyone around her has already guessed.

As Kat, Woodley strikes the same balance between brazen self-confidence and vulnerability that Gordon-Levitt had. Kat is assertive, even demanding sexually, and speaks freely and happily about her own adventurousness with her friends (Gabourey Sidibe, Mark Indelicato); Araki’s sex-positive outlook is refreshing here, considering how easily the sex-as-escape narrative can fall into sensationalism. She’s equally assured when dealing with the painful truths of her mother’s disappearance, particularly in her scenes with Meloni (excellent in a tricky role that requires him to be both sweetly soft-spoken and potentially threatening).

Araki, for his part, uses the same lush, soft-focus aesthetic here that he used so effectively in Mysterious Skin, making Woodley’s self-discovery as blissful as her other discoveries are confusing and painful. He pairs that, as in the earlier film, with a dream pop, post-punk and shoegaze heavy soundtrack that compliments his dreamy images. Some of Araki’s song choices are too on-the-nose (filmmakers: please do not use New Order’s “Temptation” in a movie ever again), but at their best (Cocteau Twins’ “Sea Swallow Me”) they perfectly soundtrack Woodley’s youthful confusion. Whenever Araki deals directly with Woodley’s experience, White Bird in a Blizzard is effective.

The trouble is that Araki’s can’t totally drop his taste for the outrageous for what’s a fundamentally earnest story. In the flashbacks involving Green, she’s less a flesh-and-blood person and more a camped up version of a depressed and sexually frustrated housewife, frequently reaching Mommie Dearest volumes. Green is good at what she’s being asked to do, but she feels like she’s in a completely different movie. Araki’s tonal shifts are inelegant and awkward, and it turns what’s ostensibly an exaggerated memory of a person into a stilted parody of mental illness.

The film’s tonal inconsistencies might be easier to swallow if they didn’t feel so obvious in their objective. Both the truth of Green’s disappearance and the circumstances behind it become painfully clear early in the film. This isn’t an issue by itself – Araki is making a point about how teenage experiences blind us the experiences of those around us – but the hysterical pitch of the flashbacks and of Green’s behavior are such a blatant red herring that their artificiality first distracts from Woodley and Meloni’s pain, then actively annoys, then undermines the film’s emotional conclusion. White Bird in a Blizzard might be less disappointing had Araki not made a thematically similar, less show-offy version of this film earlier in his career. As it is, it’s half moving, half deeply frustrating, and the latter wins the day.

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Sunday, September 7, 2014

Frank


Grade: 70/B

There’s a danger in conflating eccentricity with creativity, something Frank plays with knowingly if not always deftly. Its titular figure is first introduced as an eccentric genius whose bizarre behavior is tied directly to his musical brilliance. It’s only as the film goes on and his behavior grows even more erratic and disturbed that it’s suggested that there might be something darker and sadder in him, and that it’s actually hurting him.

Domhnall Gleeson stars as Jon, a mediocre keyboardist and terrible songwriter who gets a lucky break playing for the oddball band Soronprfbs (your pronunciation guess is as good as anyone’s) after their previous keyboardist tries to drown himself. Jon and the rest of the Soronprfbs relocate to a cabin in Ireland to record an album, but they won’t record a note until their eccentric singer and leader Frank (Michael Fassbender), who wears a large papier-mǎché head, is satisfied. While there, Jon posts videos of their rehearsals and drums up interest in the band at SXSW Music Festival. But when they arrive in America to play the gig, Jon starts to get a sense that Frank’s strange behavior isn’t an act or an extension of his creativity.

Truth be told, Frank is never funnier than in the opening scene, where Jon walks around Dublin trying to write a song, with piss-poor results (“Lady in the red coat/ what you doin’ with that bag?!”). Later scenes with the Soronprfbs at the cabin often take on a tone of strained wackiness, with Jon’s pleasant narration contrasting scenes of Frank chasing people around or pushing Jon to pretend he’s laying an egg a bit too bluntly.

The cabin scenes are more effective (and, honestly, funnier) when they’re quieter, when Frank’s welcoming tone is undercut by the his eternally hostile sidekick/theremin player Clara (a very funny Maggie Gyllenhaal) taking on a blatantly fake welcoming tone, or by the fact that he’s wearing a giant mask on his head. One of the better recurring gags in the film comes from the latter bit, as Frank tries to be accommodating to the mild-mannered Jon by describing his facial expressions (much to the annoyance of Clara).

The film also captures the excitement of creating music better than nearly any other film in recent memory. Before the band’s first performance goes terribly wrong, there’s a strange mythic quality to it, as if we’re seeing something new and original suddenly crash land on earth. The film is equally effective when dealing with the less central band members’ songs; Scoot McNairy’s depressed bandmate worships Frank to the point where he can’t recognize that his own song is actually pretty good rather than terrible; this scene is funny, if a bit sad, at first, and grows more painful as the events of the film unfold.

As Frank, Michael Fassbender is as committed and as fascinating as ever. Deprived of his expressive, handsome face, he’s pushed to express more with his body and his usually calm voice. He does work of incredible physicality and vocal elasticity, from low mumbles to guttural cries (the song “Secure the Galactic Perimeter”), inviting tenor to birdlike cries. It’s a perfect fit for the character, who, depending on the scene, is either a soothing presence or a more volatile figure.

The film’s second half leans on that, occasionally coming back to the broad comedy (Frank writes his “most likable song ever,” a funny Dadaist jumble, in an effort to be more accessible) and incongruity (Gyllenhaal doing a hilariously glum version of the usually annoyingly peppy song “I Want to Marry a Lighthouse Keeper”) of the first half. Frank’s behavior, which took after the odd showboating of British performer Frank Sidebottom (who wore a similar head) and the strange perfectionism of Captain Beefheart starts to go to more troubling places, revealing a manic-depressive side that’s harmful to himself and others (think Syd Barrett or Daniel Johnston). He may be a musical genius, but he’s also severely mentally ill, and at a certain point Jon and company’s worship of the genius Frank started to do catastrophic damage to the troubled Frank.

If there’s a problem with Frank, it’s that it doesn’t always have a good grasp on when it’s laughing at Frank and when it isn’t. Its use of Gleeson as an audience surrogate is clever: he goes from laughing at Frank to worshipping him to realizing that he’s been laughing at and worshipping a disturbed man. We go on a similar journey that somewhat justifies the comedy of the first half, but there’s still something a bit uneasy about how broadly it’s played. Upon rewatching the film, I felt like I should have a new understanding of those scenes, with clear reasons for anyone in the know about Frank’s illness that he shouldn’t be laughed at, much like I did with McNairy’s scenes. Instead, they still played as broadly comic.

But that doesn’t negate what the film is going for entirely. If anything, it makes Frank a more interesting film, if a flawed one. The laughs director Lenny Abrahamson aims for in the first half feel tonally off, but there’s also a sense of purpose to the discomfort, less an indictment of our view of mental illness than a plea for empathy and understanding. Besides, without the film’s strange arc, it’s hard to believe that Fassbender’s final song, a heartfelt if characteristically odd tune called “I Love You All,” would be half as moving. It takes an initial fascination with the strangeness of the character for the humanity to shine through.

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Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.


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Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Get On Up


Grade: 33/C-

Even before they were so indelibly parodied in Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, musical biopics were usually shapeless affairs that reduced whole careers and personalities to troubled genius templates, bonus points if their problems could be explained by childhood trauma. But even if Ray or Walk the Line had facile explanations for what made Ray Charles and Johnny Cash who they were, at least they attempted to have some sort of narrative throughline. The same can’t be said for Tate Taylor’s James Brown biopic Get On Up, which doesn’t seem to have any idea of what it wants to say about Brown’s music, his ego or his personal life.

The film follows Brown (Chadwick Boseman) from his beginning as an impoverished kid and troubled teenager to an up-and-coming musician with the Famous Flames. Brown’s clearly the star, so King Records changes the band to “James Brown and His Famous Flames,” forcing all but the loyal Bobby Byrd (Nelsan Ellis) to quit. Brown continues to test the patience of his musicians with his egotism and his poor treatment of them, all while conquering the musical world and making great strides for African-Americans. His personal life is a mess, too, with his marriages crumbling and Brown sliding into drug abuse after the death of his son in a car accident.

Like The Help, director Tate Taylor’s deeply patronizing previous film, Get On Up isn’t a cohesive narrative so much as it’s a bunch of events strung together with no clear rhyme or reason. Taylor and screenwriters Jez and John-Henry Butterworth start the film with Brown’s infamous incident where he fired a shotgun into the ceiling of his strip mall, only to go directly to Brown and his band traveling to and performing in Vietnam. They then cut to Brown playing before and upstaging The Rolling Stones at The T.A.M.I. Show, then to Brown meeting Byrd in prison, then forming The Famous Flames following advice from Little Richard, then back to his childhood where he’s inspired by a funky band to win a boy’s boxing match (seriously). Just when this needlessly achronological approach starts to feel really enervating, they switch to a chronological approach when Brown and co. and signed to King Records, which only makes the earlier approach feel more pointless and slapdash.

What’s bizarre is that the episodes are simultaneously disconnected narratively and monotonous. Brown behaves badly, only to be validated when he displays some sort of genius immediately afterwards. Here he is treating his musicians like shit, but it’s OK because he’s explaining why “Cold Sweat” needs to be off-beat to work. There he is being a jackass to them again and refusing to pay on time, but it’s OK because he and Byrd have more great music to make together. Rinse, repeat. It seems to be going for a “he was a complicated man” narrative, but it mostly works to undersell his difficulty. That’s a constant tonal problem, which gets more uncomfortable when Brown is actively abusive. Here he beating his wife, and now we’re going to have him strut out. There he is waving a shotgun around, but it’s played as broad comedy. Taylor’s choice to open the film on that note is particularly miscalculated, as it shows more interest in showing Brown the mess than Brown the musical genius. Its even more embarrassing whenever Taylor and the Butterworths try to play with race. You see, deep down, virulent racists just want to get funky.

Chadwick Boseman, whose intense focus and anger as Jackie Robinson somewhat undercut the piety of 42, is stuck here doing a James Brown impression. He never hits a wrong note, but he’s not given a character to play beyond a superficial caricature of Brown. Get On Up even fumbles its attempt to tie Brown’s complications to childhood trauma, never giving his reluctant mother (Viola Davis in fine form) the screen time to make their distance seem significant. Get On Up wouldn’t have been a good movie had this material been reworked – it’d be the same reductive move that Ray and Walk the Line take – but it’d at least have some pretense to insight about Brown’s character. Note: if you’re trying to make a movie about a historical figure, you should have something to say about him other than “Well, he did all of this stuff.”

Did you know that you can like The Film Temple on Facebook and follow @thefilmtemple on Twitter? Well you do now!

Here’s a collection of writing I’ve done for other sites, including Indiewire, The Airspace and The Post and Courier.

Does that number by the grade confuse you? Go over to this link, where I explain my idiotically specific 100-point system and how it corresponds to the grades.

Check out my account on
Letterboxd, where you can see my lists of favorite films from any given year or decade, or just brief capsule reviews of whatever I’m watching in my spare time.