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Monday
Jan192015

Selma

On a recent trip to Washington D.C., I walked around the tidal basin from the Jefferson Memorial to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Jefferson's stirring words echoed in my mind as I walked, those bold, radical Enlightenment ideas about freedom, equality, inalienable rights. I passed through the FDR memorial before reaching Dr. King's.  I stood before his wall of quotes, including words from his address upon accepting the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo, Norway in 1964, which is where "Selma" begins.

I must say I felt proud, as if as I walked I could feel Jefferson's words being made reality, through struggle and the passage of time.  Then Ferguson happened, and Cleveland, and Eric Garner's choking death. Suddenly, what I'd felt on my walk felt too much like a lie.

It was into this maelstrom that "Selma" was released. So you see that while the events it depicts occurred 50 years ago, this picture couldn't be more urgent.

When we join King (David Oyelowo) in Oslo, it is in an private moment before his speech, getting bucked up his wife, Coretta Scott King, played with great dignity by Carmen Ejogo. These quiet moments are among the film's best. Screenwriter Paul Webb has imagined intimate conversations which allow us to glimpse the exchanges of strength that buoyed these most public of figures when they were weary, the intimate foundations for the rousing public moments with which we are so familiar. 

In a Selma jail Dr. King is given strength by the encouragement of Ralph Abernathy (Colman Domingo).  Filmed in rich chiaroscuro by cinematographer Bradford Young, the faces of the nameless many--the movement behind these men--are there in the jail with them, hidden in the shadows.  My favorite scene is a quiet nighttime drive.  As the car rolls gently through the night, young John Lewis of SNCC, who'd been impudent and brash with Dr. King, confides in him that he is his hero.  There's a more painful private moment: Coretta play Dr. King a sex tape sent courtesy of the FBI.  (Throughout the film FBI memos reveal how the authorities surveilled these "subversives.")

There has been controversy over how the film portrays Lyndon B. Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) during his backroom wheeling and dealing with King.  Critics point out that without Johnson there would have been no civil rights legislation, and that the film shows a Johnson bent on putting a voting rights law on the back burner, when in reality he wanted such a law all along.  The criticism is fair, but it seems to me that Webb's and Wilkson's characterization of Johnson resonates with what we know of LBJ's roughhouse style.  A late scene between Johnson and segregationist Alabama Governor George Wallace (Tim Roth) feels particulary honest, like the way these two men would truly talk when the cameras were off.  More importantly, the treament of Johnson seems in keeping with DuVernay's larger theme or point: that social change comes from the grassroots, with elected officials not out in front but having to be dragged along. 

"Selma" is about the marches that led to the Voting Rights Act of 1965.  Oprah Winfrey plays Annie Lee Cooper, who goes to register to vote.  The Civil Rights Act of 1964 had made it legal for blacks to vote, and she is prepared for the test she knows is coming.  When the registrar asks her how many judges there are in the county, she knows the answer: 67, as I recall.  But then he asks her to name them.  These kind of bogus exams show us why the Voting Rights Act was needed, and one would do well to consider the price in blood that was exacted to get it when thinking about Republican attempts to roll it back.

If marches led to the passage of the Act, it was violence and murder that was the catalyst for the marches. One could say the film truly begins with the murder of the four little girls in the Birmingham church, whom DuVernay has been careful to sketch true to life.  We see them descend the stairs of their church, and we hear the explosion. The police murder of a young activist, Jimmy Jackson, after a night march in Marion is depicted in a heart-stopping scene.  A quiet scene of King comforting Jackson's grieving grandfather is one of the film's best.  And there is more violence: we see the murder of James Reeb, a white minister from Boston, beaten to death for coming down for the marches.

The film shows a media-savvy King.  He knew that it was media coverage of the authority's violence against blacks that would turn the tide of public opinion, pictures of people being set upon by police dogs and hoses.  There had to be cameras.  People had to see to understand the depths of hatred.

DuVernay's staging of Bloody Sunday is riveting.  Her camera hovers over Edmund Pettis Bridge and we feel queasy suspense, the charge of a moment electric with history.  We watch in horror as police storm defenseless men and women, beating them with clubs wrapped in barbed wire.  The scene is as disturbing as it must be.

And so I thought of my walk in Washington as I watched the film.  In Johnson's oval office, we see Washington and Jefferson look on from their portraits, as turmoil tests whether the nation they founded will be torn asunder, or if the union will be made whole, will one day live up to their promises.  As Dr. King, Oyelowo is watchful, weary, defiant, angry, forgiving, loving.  He conveys the music in King's voice that made him one of America's greatest orators.  And he shows us Dr. King's capacity for healing and unifying, something his nation needs badly today.  

(The soundtrack features Odetta’s stirring rendition of Dylan's “Masters of War” and the rousing original song "Glory" by John Legend and Common.)

Rating: *****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Thursday
Dec182014

10 Films I Enjoyed in 2014

There was some bravura filmmaking in 2014. Whatever the fireworks of other films, though, for me the movie of the year, hands down, had to be the Roger Ebert documentary, Life Itself. I've written a lot about what Ebert meant to me, here and here, and elsewhere.  I will say it again: Roger Ebert, on television and in print, made me aware of movies as an art form.

Speaking of life itself, 2014 was the year I married the love of my life, my beautiful baby, Karolyn. Ours was a mid-life marriage, like Roger's and Chaz Ebert's (another reason Life Itself had to be my movie of the year). While I love film, and try to see as much as I can, this year life itself took priority. Watching films comes in a distant second for me to traveling with my baby, or snuggling with my baby. The best of all worlds, of course? Streaming one of my Criterions as my baby snuggles up and falls asleep with her head on my shoulder.

That is because in my life film is a place: a place I like to go. It could be a place in memory. Some movies contain old friends, and we enter the movie's world as a way of visiting with them. Ebert wrote about how some movies are so absorbing that the awareness we're watching a movie falls away. Certain films this year, like Wild, felt like that.

I don't watch films full-time, as I say. I therefore must give a shout-out to all the interesting projects that were not considered for this list, simply because life itself happened and I didn't see them by press-time. The roll call, please:

Interstellar; Starred Up; Foxcatcher; Fury; Nightcrawler; Gone Girl; The Trip to Italy; Memphis; Listen Up, Philip; Ida; Citizenfour; 20,000 Days on Earth; Frank; Calvary; Force Majeure; Dear White People; The Babadook; The Tale of the Princess Kaguya; Captain America: The Winter Soldier; Mommy; This Afternoon; St. Vincent; Still Alice; Beyond the Lights; Inherent Vice (the current release that most interests me); Selma; Mr. Turner; White God; Low Down; Mistaken for Strangers; The One I Love; Goodbye to Language (this was the 2014 film I most longed to see --3D Godard!--yet it never played Chicago), and on and on.

Look for these! I know I will be. Here, then, is my list of 10 favorite chosen from what I did manage to see in 2014. 

1. Life Itself

2014 was a year of thinking about Roger Ebert's legacy. I saw this film twice, and I took a summer class which was devoted to remembering Roger through watching some of his favorite films. This seemed right: I believe that, like all great critics, Ebert will be remembered for what he loved, not what he hated. I have come to believe, after much reflection, that part of what made Ebert such a great critic is that he brought more empathy to his viewing of a film than just about anyone else.  And awe, and wonder, and openness to mystery and beauty. Chicago filmmaker Steve James, who gave us Chicago stories like Hoop Dreams and The Interrupters, adds another unforgettable portrait of Chicago life to his oeuvre. In Life Itself we see Roger bearing his final ordeal with stunning grace and even humor, lifted up by the love and the bravery of the extraordinary Chaz. This one was personal for me on a whole lot of levels. I think of the scene at the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond. Roger loved to walk, and this was one of his favorite places.  I discovered it thanks to him, and Karolyn and I staged some of our wedding photographs there in part in homage to Roger (it was her beautiful idea, I should add.) "Life Itself" was our favorite love story of the year. In our discussions afterwords, the words we used to express this were the words we both were thinking during the film: "You're my Chaz" and "You're my Roger."  

2.  Boyhood

Life in Texas, as it was lived during the first decade of our century. Richard Linklater filmed the picture over these last 12 years. Ethan Hawke and Patricia Arquette were mom and dad; Ellar Coltrane was the boy. No plot machinery, just an accumulation of incident that added up to a childhood, such as weathering an abusive, tyrannical, alcoholic stepdad. We flow on a river of experiences, some male, some generational, some universal.  (Is there anything more emblematic of childhood than riding bikes?) Linklater is one of my favorite directors, and with "Boyhood" he had synthesized the fictional film and the documentary. Film as an unspooling ribbon of time and memory. The river's eddies and currents form and sculpt Mason's features before our eyes.  When, finally, we look upon the visage of the young man, we see the palimpsest of the little boy, the past in the present.

3.  Birdman or The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

This was the most bravura piece of cinema I saw this year on a formal level: it creates the illusion that it is composed almost entirely of one single, sustained, headlong tracking shot.  Aside from being the year's best treatment of space, this is also a joyful film about escaping the prison of the self. Alejandro González Iñárritu takes his place amongst the great humanitarian directors. I've never read the Raymond Carver story, "What We Talk ABout When We Talk about Love," but I'd wager the key to the mystery of that subtitle is in the story. Iñárritu's pictures are about people standing at a precipice: we meet them at that moment when the must decide whether they are going to live or whether they are going to die.  They are also about the life-force that courses through us all.  Michael Keaton plays a man who, much like himself, starred in comic-book movies some 25 years ago, and now burns to create something with meaning, something honest and true. Pungent script written by Iñárritu with Alexander Dinelaris, Nicolás Giacobone, and Armando Bo.

4. Wild

After we walked out of this film, both with tear-streaked faces, I turned to Karolyn and said, "There are certain movies I wish Roger could see, and that is one of them." And Karolyn looked at me and said something really beautiful. "Are you kidding?" she said. "He's seeing them, all right. Where he is, he's even helping make them, at this point." "Wild" is a story about death and rebirth.  Reese Witherspoon is Cheryl Strayed, carrying her baggage, literally and metaphorically, along the Pacific Crest Trail in the wake of the untimely death of her young mother (Laura Dern, never better) and her subsequent spinout. 2014 was also a year of reading Kerouac for me, and this film was a compliment to my reading, both in spirit and because the Pacific Crest Trail traverses Kerouac's Pacific Northwest stomping grounds like Matterhorn Peak in Yosemite National Park and Desolation Peak in the Cascades, places I visited in books like "The Dharma Bums."  This movie has a deep, non-moralistic faith in humanity.  It's a movie about love and hope.  

5.  Whiplash

The year's most intense movie experience. I kept thinking of the dreamy reverie of Lou Reed's "Coney Island Baby": "When I was a young man in high school, you know I wanted to play football for the coach...they all said he was mean and cruel, but he was the straightest dude I ever knew." "Whiplash" is about that impulse to live up to the standard of an exacting mentor.  J.K. Simmons is Fletcher, the great, scary jazz teacher. He's mean and cruel, all right, but the twist is, he's one crooked dude as well. Stunning performance from Simmons; stunning filmmaking from Damien Chazelle. Tom Cross, the film's editor, should be seen as a kind of musician himself. Miles Teller is the young drummer paying the cost to be the best, in sweat and blood.

6. A Most Wanted Man

A haunting, absorbing spy story about young Muslim man (Grigoriy Dobrygin) who emerges from a canal in post-9/11 Hamburg, presenting himself as a refugee from torture in Turkey, and who ends up pushed into the spaces between "dirty" and "clean," presumably to disappear into some secret C.I.A. detention center to face torture. A human rights lawyer (Rachel McAdams, watchful) takes him under her wing, but can she trust what she feels? In a spy movie, of couse, everybody is performing. The Americans see the world in black and white, while the Germans, led by Philip Seymour Hoffman, see shades of gray. A chilling Robin Wright embodies the Bush administration's stubborn, almost cheerfully unapologetic view of a world divided into good and evil, a view that doesn't only murder nuance, but people as well. Anton Corbijn, the director, is known for his imagery for U2 and Tom Waits and the the lustrous Joy Division/Ian Curtis biopic, "Control." Adapted by Andrew Bovell from the novel by John le Carre. As the sad-eyed German agent, the late, great Hoffman imbues the picture with real despair. Written on his face is guilt and tragedy, Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib and the Twin Towers. In its quiet way, "A Most Wanted Man" may be the movie that says the most about the Bush years.

7. The Imitation Game

This one is still fresh for me, but even if I haven't quite sorted out my thoughts about it, I know how it made me feel. It's funny. When you play back this film in your mind, you can see that it's rather pat. It does not play that way as you're watching it, though. The story is deeply absorbing, the performances soulful and true.  Whatever its simplifications, from scene to scene as acted it plays as very emotionally complex.  The film tells the true story of Alan Turing, adapted, with many liberties taken for the sake of making an entertaining movie, by Graham Moore from Andrews Hodges's book. Turing was a mathematician who found the codes of basic social interaction almost impenetrable, but, precisely because his brain did work like a computer, was able to build a machine that cracked Enigma, the Nazis' cipher machine that broadcast their secret war plans. Yet his tragedy was that he was undone by his very human urges. (This was a time when homosexual acts were illegal). Heartbreaking performance by Benedict Cumberbatch. The pleasurable and sad subtext of this kind of intelligent, witty British production is that there was tremendous pluck and depth of feeling swallowed up under the quiet desperation and stiff upper lip of the English way.  Excellent acting by Charles Dance, Mark Strong, Matthew Goode, Keira Knightley, and especially Alex Lawther as the young Turing.  An image sticks in the mind: after a German bombing raid, a London woman sits atop the rubble of her home drinking tea. Directed by Morten Tyldum.

8. Love is Strange

Here is a fascinatingly, sometimes frustratingly elliptical glimpse into the lives of Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), two very dapper gentlemen whom we meet on their wedding day. They have been together for 40 years.  It's a truly happy day.  There is a wonderfully warm reception: Ben and George sing and play at a box piano, are toasted by family and friends. But by getting married, George has violated his pledge to the religious school where he teaches choral singing, and they fire him. They can no longer make the payments on their elegantly appointed New York apartment, and they must impose on those family and friends.  Marisa Tomei is very good as a self-absorbed yet patient novelist whose family hosts Ben.  The film has the personality of George (modest, quiet, elegant, classical) and the painterly eye of Ben. Like a painter, the film cherishes light.  One of the images that sticks in my mind: a cloud pasted in the blue New York sky, as caught by Ben's eye. Gorgeous piano music (Chopin, Beethoven) fills the soundtrack. Charlie Tahan, the young actor last seen by Karolyn and me in the unreleased "The Harvest," is good as the sullen adolescent who is not thrilled about bunking beds with his Uncle Ben, and with whom Ben shares a little life advice that you know the boy will never forget. Ira Sachs wrote and directed.

9. The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson tells of the fictional country of Zubrowka and the once-grand Grand Budapest Hotel, a stately, pastel Beaux Arts building way, way up in the mountains, and the adventures in 1932 of the intrepid lobby boy Zero (Tony Revolori, delightfully deadpan) and the legendary Gustave H., that most gallant of concierges (Ralph Fiennes, perfectly cast). Wes Anderson’s humane intelligence and sense of humor seems to me to be more badly needed with each passing year. It suffuses every striking frame of this comedy.  This is minor Anderson, I believe, but minor Anderson is still a thing of many pleasures. He remains our finest children's director.

10  Under the Skin

As I've said, this was a year of thinking about Ebert for me, and part of that is visiting him in his writing.  I came across his pan of a 1995 picture called "Species," and his review spoke to me as I thought about "Under the Skin."  (With Roger, you can learn from the pans as well.)  "There is one line in the screenplay," Roger writes of "Species," "that suggests an interesting direction the movie could have taken. Sil, half alien, half human, is driven by instinct, not intelligence, and doesn't know why she acts the way she does. She asks, 'Who am I? What am I?' But the movie never tells her. I can imagine a film in which a creature like Sil struggles with her dual nature, and tries to find self-knowledge. Like Frankenstein's monster, she would be an object of pity." Among many other things, it seems to me that Under the Skin is the picture Ebert was imagining. Scarlett Johanssen plays an alien who comes packaged as a very fetching human female, the better to lure her prey. The film is a storehouse for some of the most strange and original imagery of the year. Directed by Jonathan Glazer from the novel by Michel Faber. One of the things the movie is about is touch: human touch. Unsettling music by violinist Mica Levi skitters under it all. Too rarely are we surprised by a movie: this is one of the rare ones. It's a haunting dream that you can't explain and you can't quite shake.  

Honorable mentions:

Obvious Child: This movie felt personal for many women, I understand.  Karolyn clued me in to the many, many details I missed as a male viewer.    Gillian Robespierre, the writer and director, impresses with her first feature, crude and bittersweet.  Featuring Jenny Slate, who found the funny and the tears in a situation, and a decision, that is no laughing matter, and profoundly personal.             

Get on Up: Exhilarating biopic of James Brown. Chadwick Boseman hits the slides, sticks the splits, and nails the "no man alive can make me leave this stage" routine.

The Skeleton Twins: "We can make it if we're heart to heart.'

Chef: Cuban rhythms. Cuban sandwiches. Food porn that had Karolyn and me oohing and ahing. Sweet relationship between father and son, and between Jon Favreau and Sofia Vergara as a gracefully divorced couple.

Belle: Deeply felt story directed by Amma Asante featuring a moving turn by Gugu Mbatha-Raw as an 18th-century black woman born into slavery and raised in the family of a prominent British barrister.

22 Jump Street: Laugh-out-loud funny. One of my fondest movie memories of the year: being seized by spasms of helpless laughter with Karolyn at the Davis in the summertime.

The Lego Movie: Everything is awesome!

Blue Ruin: Memorable debut from Jeremy Saulnier about a reluctant, homeless avenger, a novice at violence, who finds himself out of his depths with a vicious family who, when it comes to violence, are fish in water.  Vivid colors, sharp sense of rural place and people.

Nymphomanic I and II: The latest from provocateur Lars Von Trier was much more interesting than not. Explicit as all hell, the film was not erotic in the slightest. Quite the opposite, in fact. But it was full of mischief and adult ideas, a dangerous, deeply felt provocation.

Rosewater: Best use of Leonard Cohen next to the the Roger Ebert film: when imprisoned journalist Maziar Bahari (Gael Garcia Bernal) plays Cohen in his mind, he is free. John Stewart, the comedian to whom we increasingly turn for sanity, shows he also has an artist's sense of psychological empathy. He reveals a torturer (Kim Bodnia) as a man who is "just doing his job," with a weary sigh any office worker might recognize.

In Silence ("V tichu") Directed by Zdenek Jiráský, this film from the Czech Republic/Slovakia told the story specifically of the silencing of musicians and dancers and artists by the Holocaust. To make us feel the absence, the film, which is in some ways a "silent" film with score, has opening stretches that convey all the joy of art and life that would be silenced.

Take Me To The River A celebratory film about Memphis music by Martin Shore, featuring Bobby Bland, a lion in winter in his wheelchair, as well as the late Teenie Hodges, "Boo" Mitchell, William Bell, Otis Clay, Snoop Dogg, Charles 'Skip' Pitts, and Booker T. Jones. The film is about passing on a tradition, and it's a joy to see the younger generation, such as the sons of the late, great Memphis music man Jim Dickinson, getting to work with their heroes, handling the legacy of the music they love with such care and concentration.  The movie makes a good compliment to Robert Gordon's book, "Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion," which I'm now reading. (Karolyn and I caught this movie at the Chicago International Movies & Music Festival, and Gordon was there to host a Q&A afterwords with some of the musicians featured.  William Bell was there, as was, briefly, Booker T. Jones).  

Monday
Dec152014

Wild

This film is the emotional powerhouse of the year. It is directed by Jean-Marc Vallée, who made last year's emotional powerhouse, "Dallas Buyers Club." Here he's working from a script by Nick Hornby based on Cheryl Strayed's memoir, "Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail." It is a story of redemption, admirably free of moralizing. Reese Witherspoon plays Ms. Strayed, a young woman who, in 1995, set out to hike the Pacific Crest Trail, that gargantuan schlep which begins on the edge of the Mojave Desert near the Mexico border and stretches all the way up to Canada, up and down and up some more, through California, Oregon and Washington, over spectacular yet punishing terrain.

Cheryl was so low she was busted. Her mother, Bobbi, the "love of her life," had died suddenly of cancer at the age of 45 a few years before, right when things were looking up: mother and daughter had even been enrolled in university together. She howled with rage and spiraled off the rails towards self-destruction. She cheated on her husband Paul (Thomas Sadoski), "a good man," and fell in with men who took heroin, which numbed her pain. Her marriage fell apart.

Under the weight of all of her baggage, literally, she hoists "Monster" and begins trudging up the trail, alone and rechristened with the new surname she chose in the wake of her divorce: Strayed. She had to, as she puts it, "walk herself back to being the woman her mother thought she was." Much of the time she is hungry, dirty and exhausted from the heat and the cold and the terrain. The movie opens with an excruciating scene where Strayed loses a toenail atop a mountain. As a solo woman, she also must live in semi-serious fear of being "raped and dismembered" at any moment.

The film flows like a stream of consciousness, a mix of memory, dream and reverie. Cheryl's voiceover is droll and often profane. Hers is an internal journey as much as an external one, and the film is masterful at expressing her inner consciousness. The sound design, directed by Ai-Ling Lee, puts us inside this woman's head. We're out there in the desert with her, in a tent at night, where every rustle could either be a man-eating wolf or a bunny. Cheryl is a storyteller.  She kept a journal, and Vallée skillfully recreates on film the memoirist's voice, the way memory is a mix of "truth" and a greater, emotional truth. The cinematographer, Yves Bélanger uses beautiful natural light throughout. Bélanger knows how to light memory, if that makes sense.

As she walks her mind's eye is desultory. Sometimes she gets stuck in a moment: she is haunted by the time she and her brother (Keene McRae) had to put down her mother's beloved horse. But happy memories stick, too: her mother dancing free-spiritedly, the way her hand accidentally struck a mirror on the wall. Songs flit through her consciousness. There is Bruce Springsteen's "Tougher Than the Rest," just a suggestion of it: we hear the E Street Band's music more than Bruce's vocal. At one point she finds herself walking through a snow covered expanse. Suddenly skiers whip past, startlingly close. Has she lost her way? At last she spots a small sign on a tree: she is still on the trail, still heading in the right direction.

Bobbi is played by a radiant Laura Dern, so full of the life force you feel the outrage when she is torn away. This a woman who has made the choice to be happy in the face of the realities of life. Maybe one can't really appreciate what that means until you have reached Bobbi's age yourself, as Strayed herself now has. As Karolyn and I now have (roughly speaking). We see Strayed as a callow youth, when she is sometimes condescending to her mother about, say, her taste in books, or critical of her life choices, like marrying Strayed's dad, an abusive alcoholic. Dern bears these remarks with a mother's loving indulgence and patience that absorbs slights and wounds, until she finally replies: you know, I don't regret marrying an "abusive alcoholic," because he gave me you.    

Certain moments are suffused with the surprising magic of life. She meets a young boy on the trail, walking in the woods with his guardian.  In only a few glances and words, we understand that this boy is very ill.  He sings "Red River Valley" for Cheryl, and the moment is filled with mortality and beauty. At crucial moments, Cheryl is joined by a fox which may or may not really be there. The fox appears for the last time when she reaches the Bridge of the Gods after hiking about 1,110 miles over three months. These moments do not play as a "device," but as a reflection, or expression, of mortality. This fox is old and tired and always somewhere just up ahead...and, like Cheryl, stray.

Reese Witherspoon's performance shows this project meant a tremendous amount to her.  We have read about how she read Strayed's memoir over one weekend and was so moved she moved immediately to make the film. We've read, too, of how she was tired of being "America's sweetheart," had sat through one too many studio meetings where execs said, we can't show Reese having sex or taking drugs. This is an actress ready to take a risk, and it is a deeply felt performance.

"Wild" is about acceptance and surrender, love and hope. I kept thinking of that line from Robert Bresson that meant so much to Martin Scorsese: "God is not a torturer. He only wants us to be merciful with ourselves."

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Friday
Dec052014

Whiplash

As a lapsed drummer myself, I watched "Whiplash," the new picture written and directed by Damien Chazelle, with keen interest. To call this movie "dramatic" is like calling Katrina a spring shower. This picture is a hurricane. It tells the story of a young man (a boy, really) and his monstrous mentor. This boy is Andrew (Miles Teller), whom we first observe at the end of a dark hallway practicing his drum set in a practice room at an elite music conservatory, Shaffer Academy. He aspires to be a great jazz drummer like his hero, Buddy Rich.

The mentor is Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), one of those charismatic, temperamental, exacting teachers with whom every ambitious student dreams of studying. Dressed in black, he materializes from the darkness, his great bald pate aglow, in a pleasing chiaroscuro composition by cinematographer Sharone Meir. Andrew solos for him. He leaves without comment. On one level, the movie will be a boxing match between Andrew and Fletcher.

As Andrew, Miles Teller gives this performance everything he's got: he sure appears to be playing, or rather smashing, those drums himself, practicing hour and hour, playing until the sweat, and the blood, spatter off the drums. Andrew is driven, focused, obsessed. There is much more of the agony than the joy of making music here. He wants to be remembered. He wants to fly like Bird.

A great teacher can inspire you to do things you never knew you could, but if cruder hands are doing the limit-pushing, the pupil can break. It's a dangerous line to walk. Like a sadist, Fletcher zeroes in on a kid's weakest flaw. To an overweight sax player who is averting his eyes, he shouts: don't look down, there's no Happy Meal down there! He doesn't just cross the line: he rages all over it.

The challenge Fletcher places before the kids is to play a piece called "Whiplash," with its breakneck chord changes and zigzag time shifts. He'll berate them: Not my tempo! Not my tempo!! The irony is that Fletcher misses the point of music, which has relatively little to do with playing in perfect tempo or tuning, and everything to do with how it makes you feel. Miraculously, his kids still manage to swing even though he's got them so wound up.

My baby Karolyn, a teacher herself, could not approve of Fletcher's pedagogical methods: punching the kids and throwing things at them does not earn her seal of approval. Yet we had to laugh, he's so wildly inappropriate. Fletcher says all the brutally honest things I imagine a teacher dreams of saying to recalcitrant students but never actually would.

The way Fletcher treats Andrew becomes the way he treats others. His dad (Paul Reiser), whom he loves, who is a writer and tries to give his son some perspective ("it's just life"), perhaps seems weak compared to Fletcher, seems to have settled when he could have published more.  Andrew even alienates his sweet girlfriend (Melissa Benoist) when he senses she doesn't have enough focus and ambition.  Besides, she'd only distract him. 

J.K. Simmons gives a furious, scary performance as Fletcher. His students fear him, and so do we. We steel ourselves when he walks into the room. What's scary is that friendly smile. It's warm, insinuating: as Karolyn said, you could get lost in the folds of his wrinkles. The smile disarms you. He holds himself with an iron core in his ripped body, but at the same time he's relaxed, stylish: a groovy drill sergeant. He'll yell homophobic insults, but he leans into Andrew the way a bounder might corner a lady he likes at a party. 

 

We keep thinking Fletcher's cruelty will be revealed as a form of tough love, that he's really doing it all in the best interests of his students. But no. You can debate whether he really loves music: we see the tender way he plays piano at a club date late in the film. But there is no doubt that he does not have the students' interests at heart. In fact, he would rather crush talent than nurture it. That's if he can even recognize talent when he sees it, which is doubtful: after all, it's right there in front of him in Andrew, and he just wants to destroy him.

Anyone who loves jazz will be be thrilled by the performance sequences. These are sustained feats of music and montage, bravura, furious filmmaking, a true sensory experience. Chazelle's moving camera and Tom Cross's virtuoso editing put us on that stool with Miles, riding a roller coaster wave of tom-toms, bass drum, and swirling cymbals. The latent drummer in me emerged: I found myself air-drumming along. The filmmaking puts you in that zone, in that bubble, under that spotlight up on stage where it's just you and those drums, and there's one shot.  And you're giving it everything you've got.  And you're becoming everything you ever dreamed.  Not because of Fletcher, but in spite of him.  The question the film leave us with: does it amount to the same thing?

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)

Thursday
Nov062014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance) 

“And did you get what you wanted from this life, even so?"
“I did.”
 “And what did you want?”
 “To call myself beloved, to feel myself beloved on the earth.”

These words, titled "Late Fragment," are by Raymond Carver, and they are emblazoned on his tombstone.  They also form the epigraph to "Birdman," a new dark comedy directed by Alejandro González Iñárritu, who has made pictures like "Biutiful," "21 Grams,", "Babel," and "Amores Perros."  Iñárritu's pictures are about people standing at a precipice: we meet them at those moments when they must decide whether they are going to live or whether they are going to die.  They are also about the life-force that finally courses through us all. 

Michael Keaton plays a man named Riggan who, much like himself, was once a big Hollywood star, having starred in comic-book movies some 25 years ago: "Birdman" in this film, Batman in real life.  He seems to be on the verge of losing his mind: he's starting to believe he really does have superpowers, that he can fling objects with his mind, that, hell, he can probably even fly.  When we meet him he is suspended in midair in his dressing room, meditating, and as the camera begins to float we are suspended, too.  We will stay in that state of suspension throughout the film, as the movie sounds its themes of self-destruction versus creativity, selling out versus integrity, and the human desire to feel yourself beloved on this earth.   

That dark voice of self-doubt whispers in every ear, but when Riggans hears it the voice of his demon comes in the form of Birdman: a low, husky, intense rasp.  Birdman nags him: we could triumph again, if you would only cave and accept the offer to make "Birdman 4."  After all, 60 is the new 30.  Anyway, what are you--what are we--doing in this little theater, mounting a stage version of Raymond Carver's classic short story, "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love"?  And you think you can direct it and act the lead as well?  You've bitten off more than you can chew.  Besides, nobody wants all these words.  They want action! 

And then, in Riggan's imagination (and on the screen), New York City erupts around him in a CGI maelstrom.  A monster roars in triumph or rage from atop a skyscraper, smashing up the city as helicopters swarm.  The SWAT team comes crashing in, leaping atop cars, firing round after round.  This must be a job for...Birdman!  But this is meaningless special effects, bloodless action, and Riggan burns to create something with meaning, something honest and true.  Something that bleeds

"Birdman" hopes to be a deep, dark truthful mirror held up to Hollywood.  And who can doubt that Hollywood executives do think of us in precisely Birdman's contemptuous terms?  Here, though, the picture sets up something of a straw man.  Complicating its critique is that in the years since the Keaton/Burton "Batman" pictures, Christopher Nolan's serious, ambitious "Dark Knight" films have come along to show that one needn't choose between blockbuster and artistry, that a Batman movie can be as much an engagement with reality as an escape from it.  Still, the basic critique stands.  There can be no doubt that the blockbuster-based film industry increasingly pitches everything at the level of a particularly cretinous fanboy.  

(Not to slag cretinous fanboys, entirely.  I often find they're the best-informed people around.)

"Birdman" creates the illusion that it is composed almost entirely of one single, sustained, headlong tracking shot.  There is a street musician, a drummer, who seems to have taken up a residency under Riggan's dressing room, beating out a permanent drum solo, and as the camera gathers momentum and begins gliding through the labyrinth of the theater, his jazzy crashing reverberates around inside Riggan's head, and ours. 

 

Sometimes we see Riggan rolling around fist-fighting with Mike (Edward Norton), a cocky, hotshot actor who they bring in to replace an excruciatingly bad actor who got beaned by a falling spotlight.  (An accident? or as Riggan, the play's frustrated director, believes, the telekinetic fulfillment of his own wishful thinking?)  Mike is the doyen of the New York theater world.  As Riggan's manager (Zach Galifianakis) gushes, Mike's presence in the cast will send ticket sales through the roof.  Never mind that he's a pain in the ass. 

Though Mike is pretentious, he's so damn good he gets away with it.  He's brutally honest on stage, in fact he's so real and true that he'll bust up a preview right in front of the audience if he feels it's not ringing true, mocking everything from the set to the star.  Riggan wants to fire him, but, as Mike taunts him, who else are you gonna get?  Ryan Gosling?  Ed Norton is quite funny in the role: it's fun to watch actors playing actors, sending up their own craft, their real-life anxieties, struggles, hopes, fears. 

In fact Mike's so good that he can even insult New York's most feared theater critic, the New York Times's Natalie (Lindsay Duncan) to her face, when they run into her at the bar next door to the theater where she composes her reviews.  You can even see the faint traces of a smile play about her face during their interaction.  "Aren't you ever afraid I'll give you a bad review?," she asks, and he comes back, "I'm sure you would...if I ever gave you a bad performance."  And it's true, and there's some level of mutual respect between them for mutual honesty. 

Mike's dangerous because he genuinely doesn't care what other people think of him.  Vain, he stands naked in front a mirror in the dressing room, admiring himself, unselfconsciously preening as other people avert their eyes.  (Well, Emma Watson, playing Riggan's daughter Sam, sneaks a glance.)    

Naomi Watts plays Leslie, Mike's co-star in the Carver play and erstwhile girlfriend.  Right before the curtain goes up, while they're under the covers onstage, Mike finds himself ardent for love, and he tells her they should really do it, right there on stage.  As you might expect, this does not go over well.  

 

The kicker is, offstage Mike's impotent, in just about every sense.  He can't have a real relationship with a woman.  However, he is able to strike one up with Sam, who's fresh out of rehab, cynical, sullen.  At first she finds him really obnoxious, but soon they have assignations on the roof, where she sits on the ledge, peering over for adrenaline rush: a substitute for drugs.  They play truth or dare: let's find out what we honestly believe. 

Like Mike, Leslie is contemptuous of Riggan and everything he stands for (Hollywood).  She tells him she intends to tear his play apart in print, sight unseen, to destroy it.  Riggan has fallen off the wagon, and now he is drunk, and he tears her notes away.  "You just label everything," he exclaims, glancing them over.  It's lazy writing, he says, and it cost you nothing, whereas putting on this play cost me everything.  

Along with madness, the impulse to self-destruction is the undercurrent of the film, the impulse to have this whole business of life, the painful struggle to create, over.  So when Mike snips at Riggan that he'd better chuck the obviously phony gun that Riggan's character wields in the play's final scene before turning it on himself, and get something better, more real, the suggestion sparks an idea in Riggan.  After all, what they want, these awful critics, what they really want is blood.  The want you to put it all on the line, to risk everything, maybe to die in life just like you die in your art...to die for your art.  Then we'll get good reviews!  We watch with a mounting sense of dread.

At one point Riggan reads Sam, who's been working as his assistant, the riot act when he detects a whiff of grass about her.  It's the last straw.  The camera gazes as if to say "jeepers!" at Emma Watson's huge peepers, flashing in anger.  She explodes, and finally tells her dad about himself: you're not trending or tweeting or viral.  You don't even have a Facebook page, for God's sake!  In fact, you don't exist.  It's not that people love you, or even that they hate you.  It's something even scarier: it's that they aren't thinking of you at all.  And as she watches this scary truth come home and settle in around his features, she instantly regrets saying it.  Here the movie is showing us something true about this fetishization of absolute honesty: maybe brutal truth is not in fact always a good thing, per se.  Sometimes in life it is better, perhaps, to suspend disbelief.   

And yet, Riggan still has his celebrity.  That means he is still beloved by ordinary people, tourists, the kind of people who don't read the "Arts and Leisure" section of the New York Times.  They are always excited to get his autograph, even when he accidentally locks himself out of the theater and must make a mad dash through Times Square in his underwear.  Out come the camera phones, and the result is that Riggan finally "goes viral."  Finally matters.       

We haven't seen Michael Keaton in a little while.  Some of us might not have seen him since Tarantino cast him in "Jackie Brown" in the late 90s.  It's good to see that familiar face, which for viewers of a certain age evokes not just the Burton "Batman" films, but "Mr. Mom" and "Beetlejuice" and the decade of the 1980s.  He's still got that mischievous twinkle in his eye, that particularly American sense of fun.  Keaton really does put himself on the line in this performance, which is somehow captured in the quiet, poignant moment when he pulls off his prosthetic hairline, which is receding enough, to reveal the true, and even more retreating, one beneath.

The camera alights on Andrea Riseborough as Riggan's girlfriend.  There is a surprising scene of female bonding between her and Naomi Watts, where their bonding over Riggan's clumsy, cluelessly male attempts to praise them (while never actually saying what they truly want to hear), leads to some startled necking.  Maybe this shows the sort of thng that can happen in the moment when people are under pressure.  In any event, the viewer welcomes this development.

We linger in the dressing room as Riggan's ex-wife, played by Amy Ryan, visits.  Ryan is one of my favorite contemporary actresses, and it is always a pleasure to see her work.  Their scenes are uncommonly tender, and wise and grownup, and free of enmity.  The pain between them is in the past.  What lingers is acceptance, and forgiveness, and indeed a form of love. 

 

Formally, there is an interesting tension in this movie between the theatricality of some scenes on the one hand, and the purely cinematic device of the floating camera eye.  The unity of that single tracking shot gives us a sense of the spatial unity of the theater, its dressing rooms and suites.  This is a world where being on the cover of the "Arts and Leisure" section really is the most important thing in the world.  (In real life, they really did put Keaton on the cover a few weeks back.)

We fall through the world, that headlong camera seems to say.  Or, like Riggan when he dares take that risk, we may find that we really can fly.  Soar.  I won't give away the fantastical ending, except to say that it is a lovely affirmation of the life-force.

I'd been thinking about this picture, letting it steep, and I fell to flipping through the pages of the NYT magazine.  I came upon an essay by Lewis Lapham, written to accompany a photo essay about creative people in their 80s and beyond, who are still creating.  Artists, scientists and the like.  Why do they still do it? Lapham's essay asks.  Why still struggle to put new things into the world?

At age 79 in his own life as a writer, Lapham says, he has begun to understand: "Failure is its own reward.  It is in the effort to close the distance between the work imagined and the work achieved wherein it is to be found that the ceaseless labor is the freedom of play, that what's at stake isn't a reflection in the mirror of fame but the escape from the prison of the self."

And that, I believe, is what this picture is about. 

[The poster used to illustrate the top of this essay was created by Ryan Gajda.  Have a look at his original work here.]

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

***** (essential viewing)
**** (excellent)
*** (worth a look)
** (forgettable)
* (rubbish!!)