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Friday
Jul112014

Life Itself

Life is, in large part, accidental.  As recounted in this superb documentary based in part upon his memoir, Roger Ebert, perhaps America's most famous film critic, didn't set out to become a movie reviewer.  He fell into it in 1967 when the critic at the Sun-Times left and the boss appointed him to the job.  Now he is the subject of a movie himself, a film by Steve James, the Chicago documentary filmmaker who has given us unforgettable pictures like "Hoop Dreams" and "The Interrupters."  James makes films about Chicago lives, and in that sense "Life Itself" is very much a Steve James picture.  

He has organized the film on the principle of youth to maturity to death, the trajectory we are all lucky enough to get to take.  It is a tough-minded and loving film.  It is framed by unflinching, heartbreaking footage of Roger in the shape he was in when James started shooting, after radical surgery had transformed his face,  robbing him of his jaw after bouts with cancer of the salivary gland, when he was our "wounded soldier of the cinema," as his friend Werner Herzog puts it, working so hard in rehab, unable to speak or eat.  He only had a few more months to live.
 
These scenes are truly hard to watch and yet also truly poignant.  Sometimes they are even funny.  Roger's voice was provided by his computer voice simulator, and unbelievably he is still joking, even in the hospital.  There is a lot of pain in "Life Itself."  We can see right through the hole in the flap of his hanging jaw.  Roger had the courage to show James's camera everything, including the drainage of his throat with a suction tube, something he seems to have had to endure regularly.  We see he could sometimes be irritable and impatient and fussy and stubborn.  But can't we all, and with immeasurably less cause?  Sometimes it was all more than he could bear.  Yet he bore his final ordeal with stunning courage and good humor, with his lovely wife Chaz as his rock of unshakeable courage and dignity and bearing and wit.
 
This is a film of deep joy, and deep pain.  Karolyn and I were sobbing messes throughout much of it, but I doubt that from moment to moment we could have separated out whether we were weeping from the joy or the pain.  I suppose it was all of it, all mixed together.
You certainly couldn't describe "Life Itself" as hagiography.  In fact much of James's selection of sound and image from Roger's life (and there is a lot to choose from) seems to have been based on the criteria: does it show him as flawed, lusty, sometimes shabby?  In short, does it show him as a man, as human?  If so, let's put it in there.  I think Roger would have appreciated that.  By being honest, "Life Itself" is more of a salute to Ebert than it would have been had it tried to pop a halo on him.
                                                                                 
(There's an amusing moment: Ebert famously loved attending the Conference on World Affairs in Boulder.  In fact he went every year until he became too frail.  But lest we begin to think him too high-minded, we see him tell a panel audience at the conference that in the beginning he just went to get laid.)   
  
And so we have a story of a boy who grew up in the small town of Urbana, Illinois, whose working-class parents had a "by Roger Ebert" ink stamp made for him, with which he proceeded to stamp his byline on everything in the house.  He was editor of the college newspaper at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign in the early 60s, where he wrote a fiery editorial in support of civil rights, displaying the lifelong liberalism that would always inform his work, his advocacy for civil rights and labor, indeed an engagement with the wider world outside of movies.  That said, though he was a liberal, one of his lifelong best friends was a conservative, a colorful Irishman called John McHugh whom readers of the memoir will not forget.  (Roger liked critical thought, debate.)
  
In fact one regret I have about this film is that it couldn't fit in the great stories Roger tells in his memoir about knocking around with McHugh in the days when you could fly around the world on the studios' dime and hang with old-school movie stars like Robert Mitchum.  We also don't see much on his time as a student at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, though we know from his memoir that this was a very important time for him in his life.
 
We see that he could be abrasive, even obnoxious, when he was young.  But then, I suppose you don't become a critic unless you have a pretty massive ego in the first place, and a taste for fiery, passionate polemic.  These scenes are actually comforting for those of us who sometimes regret that maybe we behaved like abrasive, obnoxious jerks in our youths.  Maybe because when you had critics for role models growing up, you thought "abrasive" was what you were meant to be.  The film never misses a chance to remind us that Ebert was possessed of a truly  stinging and hilarious critical voice, which he could wield with withering effect.  We note that it is then possible to grow up to be a human of generosity and kindness and grace.   
Roger moved to Chicago and became a classic Chicago newspaperman, getting in on the last days of an old-school lifestyle that might be as endangered as those great clattering printing presses.  James gives us a good sense of the romance of being an ink-stained newspaperman in the big city.  Year in and year out he wrote reviews on deadline for a daily, general audience. He was a natural writer: by all accounts he could sit down and bang out a readable review in a few minutes that would take others days to craft.  And his reviews are so rarely flat on the page.  That is, they somehow managed to get the life that's in the movie onto the page.  I think this is because Roger himself lived.  
      
And yet we learn in this film that there were times when this man who was so full of life wanted to die.  ("Life Itself" the movie can be startlingly honest, going to dark places the book itself didn't even go.)  Some of those times were when, deep in the throes of alcoholism, he was trying to make it home after stumbling out of the bars, the Old Town watering holes on seedy North Avenue, where Roger and his friends--legendary newspapermen and other colorful characters--would hold court, places like O'Rourke's and The Old Town Ale House.  We hear from some of those characters who are still around, and it sounds like it was a wild, surreal scene, fun until it wasn't.  Roger was caught up in the romance of Fellini's "La Dolce Vita," one of his favorite films, and now he was living it.  Those were the days when stars like Clint Eastwood would drop by O'Rourke's and just hang out and have a drink.
 
We see a clip from "Bonnie and Clyde," which came out the same year Roger became a critic, 1967, and must have seemed like it had an antenna up to the tumultuous, sexy times, the violence in the air, and we hear Ebert's review: his tone is excited, exhilarated by this terrible and beautiful experience.  It was a great time to become a film critic, someone says.  Those of us who might like to practice film criticism professionally today may find ourselves asking, well, what about now?  Well, Ebert was always an optimist.  Not for him any talk of a culture in decline, despite what many might feel is undeniable evidence to the contrary.  
                                                                                   
James uses a voiceover actor (Stephen Stanton) to read passages from Ebert's memoir and reviews, and the effect is remarkable: Stanton's voice is so much like Roger's that I often thought it was Roger, though I knew it could not be.  We see clips from films like "Bonnie and Clyde," Bergman's "Cries and Whispers," and Bresson's "L'Argent" while we hear Stanton read Roger's review.  So vivid, so intense, this imagery.  I remember being almost feverish after seeing "Cries and Whispers"; Ebert's review of that one was very important for me.   
                                                                        
"Life Itself" touches on the feud between Andrew Sarris and Pauline Kael that dominated the critical landscape when Ebert was beginning his career in the 60s and 70s.  Everyone was squaring off, choosing sides, but Ebert was too much his own man to be anybody's follower.  Rather, he was smart enough to learn from both of these titans.  "In my own first days as a film critic," he once wrote, "Kael was my muse but Sarris was my mapmaker."  

Ebert adored female breasts.  We get a generous amount of footage from "Beyond the Valley of the Dolls" (1970), the notorious picture he wrote for noted breast-man Russ Meyer.  It was for this move that Ebert penned the immortal line, "This is my happening, and it freaks me out!"   Musing on "Dolls," A.O. Scott, film critic for the NY Times, says with a smile (and I paraphrase): when we discuss film as an art, we mustn't forget that there are earthy pleasures for which film is uniquely suited.  Watching clips from "Dolls," with its guns and gals, it is no wonder Ebert would later become a champion of Quentin Tarantino.  (We do not, however, get much of a mention of Meyer and Ebert's ill-fated Sex Pistols movie project.)

 

We come to the Siskel and Ebert years (never Ebert and Siskel, much to Roger's chagrin), from the days when he was first stuck with this man he wasn't even sure he liked, Gene Siskel of the Chicago Tribune, to the days when this unlikely pair (they looked like clowns, someone sums up bluntly) became, in a very real way, America's film critics, appearing over and over on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson.  

"Sneak Previews" and "At the Movies" reached down into my house in southeastern Ohio in the early-mid 80s.  As kids, we called them "the fat one" and "the skinny one."  I remember we were scandalized by their championing of something called "My Dinner With Andre."  This was hilarious evidence of the baffling, perverse taste of film critics, that they would care to sit and watch a movie about having dinner with some fellow called Andre.  We favored fare like "Friday the 13th," which Siskel and Ebert had the matchless effrontery to slam.  (I grew up to love "Andre": it is one of my all time favorites.)  

 

Still, while my friends may have found the duo impossible, I was always intrigued, and I always looked forward to the show.  Even now, those iconic, droll opening credits, which James shows, where the two men leave their offices, then they're on the Chicago streets waving the Sun-Times and Tribune trucks respectively to back up so they can pose like peacocks in front of themselves emblazoned on the side, and then their meeting up in front of the theater, arguing even on the way in, takes me right back to gathering myself expectantly on the living room floor crosslegged in front of the TV.   

Siskel & Ebert would champion adventurous films, advocating for foreign, independent, documentaries, films that otherwise might have passed through without ever being seen, little pictures that didn't really have any advertising budgets.  Without Siskel and Ebert talking about them, people might never have gone to see them.  If there is still any justification, any need, for critics (and there is, maybe more than ever), I believe it is just that.

"Life Itself" touches on the one Ebert review that most scandalized my teenage self back in 1986: his slam of "Blue Velvet."  I love the picture to this day.  How could my hero not get it?  (I was with Pauline Kael, my other big influence growing up, on that one.)  I learned that sometimes our favorite critics frustrate us.  They have blind spots.  And you had to engage with his argument: he objected to the way the film treated Isabella Rossellini's character.  If you didn't agree, you had to think about why, and hone your own position.  (Ebert would go on to write wonderful appreciations of later Lynch pictures like "Mulholland Drive," my favorite, and he wrote more beautifully about "Inland Empire," one of Lynch's strangest and most exhilarating and most Lynchian pictures, than any other film writer I know of.)  
That "Blue Velvet" review was one reason why some people I knew regarded Ebert as an out-of-it, "mainstream" reviewer, where "mainstream" was a bad thing.  I never really paid much attention to people who thought that, figuring that they couldn't really be paying much attention to Roger's work, particularly his books, where he did go into much more depth than "thumbs up/thumbs down," in elegant sentences and vivid language that was quite free of pretentious diction or meaningless academic jive.  Still, there is a legitimate critique to be made that you lose some nuance when you reduce film evaluation to a thumbs "up or down" proposition, and In "Life Itself" we hear from critics Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss, who worried about that.  Rosenbaum was a friend and respected colleague; I don't think he ever meant it as a pejorative when he called Roger a "mainstream critic," just a fact.  (Well, maybe a little, in the context of Rosenbaum's overall critique of the mainstream system.)  The differences between them were more a matter for affectionate amusement than contempt.  But again, Ebert thrived on critical thought.  He even reprinted Corliss's critique of his show (and the resulting debate in the pages of "Film Comment") in one of his own books.  In the movie, Corliss ends up speaking with some awe about the scope of Roger's body of work.     
That was the crucial thing about Ebert: he had a knowledge of film that was second to none, but he communicated it to a general audience.  He encouraged ordinary, regular people to take the adventure.  He understood that movies were a pop art form, too.  A people's art.  "I know why people go to the movies," he once said.  And he did.  This was a man who was capable of enthusiastically getting behind some big-budget entertainment product with the best of 'em, if he thought it was good, and also of conducting a weeklong symposium on Fassbinder.   
                                                                                    
Gene Siskel made the decision to tell almost no one about the brain cancer that felled him far before his time.  Roger decided that if something like that ever happened to him, he would not keep it a secret.  After Gene died, Roger would write "no one else could possibly understand how meaningless was the hate, how deep was the love."  
                                                                                  
"Life Itself" is a story of redemption, a story of the journey from callow, selfish youth to a man of transcendent love who literally had time for everyone.  I assure you I use that "literally" quite purposefully, from personal experience.  (Roger liked precise language.)  He met his beautiful wife Chaz in AA.  He went from a life alone to a life with Chaz. (She saved me from a life lived out alone, is how he puts it).  He became an adoptive grandfather.    
Speaking of saving people, the film discusses Roger's habit of befriending creative people in the movie industry.  But it went beyond that.  In a remarkably candid moment, Martin Scorsese, one of the producers of "Life Itself" itself, talks about how he came to a point in his life when he had become addicted to drugs, he'd run into creative obstacles, he didn't even know if he wanted to live any more.  It was Roger's championing of his work, of "Raging Bull," that actually kept him alive.  Imagine that.  In fact Ebert had spotted Scorsese's greatness, his energy and verve, right out of the gate.  We see electrifying clips from “Who’s That Knocking At My Door,” his very first feature, which Ebert championed in print.  Ebert wrote a book on Scorsese.  And yet, when Scorsese's "The Color of Money" came out, Ebert didn't like it, and didn't hesitate to slam it on the show.  He never hesitated to call 'em like he saw 'em.  Scorsese can talk about it now with a smile, but you can still tell it still stings.   
                                                                                  
Roger loved Errol Morris's debut film "Gate of Heaven," eventually seeing it at least 30 times, traveling with it to festivals, talking about it over and over.  Morris says he wouldn't even have a career without Ebert's support.  Ava DuVernay, whose film "I Will Follow" Ebert praised, says that it meant everything to her career to have a powerful white man blow trumpets about a film made by an African-American woman.  You don't always feel that they will "get" where you're coming from, these cultural gatekeepers, but with Roger, she says, you always felt like you were getting a fair hearing, an understanding ear.  In the movie, Chaz says Ebert saw film as a "machine for empathy."  For at least a couple hours, you can walk in someone else's shoes.  
Werner Herzog, another friend, dedicated his gorgeous, numinous, starkly beautiful film "Encounters At the End of the World" to Roger Ebert.  If you have seen this film, about the kind of characters who end up living at the South Pole, you will understand why: the picture encompasses almost all of Ebert's concerns, everything he championed and loved.  He was endlessly fascinated by the mysteries we are, we human beings.  
                                                                               
He was still helping artists at the end, when he gave just such a boost to Ramin Bahrani, the great young director of deeply humane films like "Man Push Cart" and "Goodbye, Solo."  Bahrani visits Ebert in the hospital.  He tells us that Roger's support came at a time when he was thinking of giving up filmmaking.  He shows us a gift Ebert gave him: a jigsaw puzzle that had belonged to Marilyn Monroe.  It was given to her on her wedding day by Alfred Hitchcock.  Laura Dern had given it to Roger, and he passed it down to Bahrani.  He is humbled.  
We hear Leonard Cohen's "I'm Your Man" on the soundtrack while Chaz tells the story about how this song literally saved Roger's life.  They were lingering to listen to it at the hospital while packing up after a surgery, and thus were still at the hospital, and not in a cab, when a blood vessel burst under Roger's chin.  Doctors were thus able to surround him and save his life, frantically grabbing towels to stanch the blood.  (Leonard Cohen's music means a lot to Karolyn and me, as well.)    
After the surgeries, when he could no longer speak, he moved into the digital world and we readers were privileged to perambulate with him through his consciousness itself.  When he could no longer speak, his voice became sublime.  When he could no longer walk, he wandered through the world in his mind.  (He had loved to walk, exploring cities around the world.)      Wandering through his memories.  I remember him writing about how relieved he was, how  happy, to find that it was all still there, all of his memories.  Things he'd long forgotten were given to him now, and he could call up parts of his life he hadn't thought about in ages. 
                                                                                  
It's funny: random bits from Roger's journal flit through my consciousness from time to time.  Perhaps they always will.  Just now, I thought of how much Roger loved to look at Turner's watercolors at the Tate in London, and I thought of my own time there, looking at the watercolors, guided to them by Roger's journal.  And I send out a thank you, Roger, even now, and a salute.  Thank you.  Thank you for pointing me that way.
The segment of "Life Itself" about the Alfred Caldwell Lily Pond in Chicago touched a nerve with me.  Up until only a few years ago I'd never been, despite having lived in Chicago for over a couple of decades now.  It was reading in Roger's journal about what walking in the lily pond meant to him that prompted me finally to get over and visit.  I wrote about the experience on my site, and Ebert was kind enough to share my piece on his social media outlets.  (It's still the most-read piece I ever wrote.)    
                                                                                       
In those days his writing about life itself came to mean more to me than even his film reviews.  By the end, his iconic "thumbs up" was more than just an evaluation of a film.  It was an affirmation of life itself.
Roger knew that the great movies take us to the wonder.  At the beginning of his career he loved films films like "2001: A Space Odyssey."  At the end of his career he loved "The Tree of Life," its unspooling ribbon of life, and we see a clip from that great film of boys running down the street of their hometown with sparklers.  He tells us that no other film is as evocative for him of his childhood.  He knew that when encountering films like this, the job of a good critic ceases to be to provide snark.  It is to be humble in the face of the numinous, the wonder.  Film as cathedral.  The beginning of the world, and the farthest reaches of the universe.   
                                                                       
Like all the great critics, I believe Roger realized that in the end people remember you for what you love, not for what you hate.  "Life Itself" gives us a sense of what Roger loved.  It stands alongside the book, which weaves much of his wonderful online journals through its narrative, and the Internet archive, where you can go and visit him, where he lives now in his work, where he will always live.
 
Maybe, in the end, the great subject of the movies is: how are we are to live?  What is our potential, our beauty, as a species?  If so, Roger Ebert's life is an exemplary subject for the movies.  
 
Chaz Ebert has been very, very brave to share her story (because this is her story, too).  Karolyn and I are getting married in October.  There were many aspects of Chaz and Roger's story that reminded us of our own, among them a mid-life marriage.  In our discussions after "Life Itself," the words we used to express this were the words we were both thinking during the film: "You're my Chaz" and "You're my Roger."     

 

Rating: *****

Key to ratings:

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

no stars (utter shite)

Thursday
Jul032014

22 Jump Street

 

It's no small thing, a modern comedy that is actually funny.  Before "22 Jump Street" began, Karolyn and I sat through some coming attractions for pictures that were, putatively at least, comedies ("Dumb and Dumber To" by the once-great Farrelly brothers, a new one from the once-funny Melissa McCarthy).  Now, I'm not in the habit of a priori reviewing, and maybe these pictures will turn out to be fonts of hilarity, but the previews sure didn't do them any favors.  I could feel my brain, my heart, my soul dying a little bit.  By the time we got to a trailer involving Jake Johnson and Damon Wayans, Jr. impersonating cops, we felt as though we might never laugh again.  

Yet sitting here musing on "22 Jump Street," I find myself chuckling even now.  From line to line, from situation to situation, it's sweet and smart and, yes, honestly funny.  I think fondly of all sorts of gags, but to list them would be to deflate them for you, so I won't do that.  Instead I'll just note that the movie is a parody of action movies that works as action in its own silly way, and it's a bromance, and it's meta as all get-out, a sequel about sequels.  Everything you could say about it could be prefaced with "once again." And so: once again, we have a story about a hapless Odd Couple of undercover cops, the "jock" and the "brain" from high school, who go back to school (college, this time) to try to bust a drug ring.  Like its predecessor, it's based only in the loosest way on the TV show from the 80s, which, if I recall, played this scenario pretty straight.  The movie, in contrast, gets comic traction from the conceit of these aging men "passing" as students.  
 
The movie has fun spoofing action's ponderous self-seriousness, its badass stars.  Jonah Hill is still perhaps our least badass, least likely movie star, yet he's the kind of actor that whenever he is on screen, you can't help but have fun.  His willingness to poke fun at himself extends from the "Jump Street" franchise all the way to his performance as a twisted version of himself in last year's "This Is The End," and he's just off a fine comic performance in Scorsese's "The Wolf of Wall Street," where he was well cast as a profoundly unwholesome trader of gruesome appetites.  Here he is the none-too-swift "brain," Schmidt, a remarkably ineffective undercover agent, in that his cover wouldn't fool a three-year-old.  Hill drolly portrays Schmidt's insecurity, his awkward attempts to dissemble, his white-boy-trying-to-be-cool act, and offers up his portly body as comedic contrast to Tatum's cut one, his clumsiness in contrast to Tatum's Spiderman-like feats of physical prowess. 

 

You have to be smart to play dumb, and Channing Tatum is a very smart actor.  As the "jock," Jenko, he's a big, sweet galoot, good humored, oblivious.  Slow, maybe, but earnest and loyal.  He's kind of innocent and naive.  In one of the ways the movie is very aware it's 2014, Jenko sits in on a human sexuality course and becomes an unlikely advocate for GLBT rights.  When he meets a jock/frat boy called Zook (Wyatt Russell), they strike up a bromance that derives much of its humor from how comfortable these two straight guys are with each other's bodies.  It's a sweet obverse of gay-panic humor.  

While Jenko infiltrates the frat in the partners' search for the bearer of a mysterious bazooka tattoo, their only clue, Schmidt manages to get close to a pretty art student (Amber Stevens) and her bohemian, poetry-slammin' crowd.  Have Schmidt and Jenko found their true soul mates?  Could this break them up as a couple? 

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller are on a roll this year, with this picture and the inventive "The Lego Movie."  (In that one, Hill and Tatum were the voices of Green Lantern and Superman, respectively.)  They have established their signature and mode: slyly satirizing what they're up to even as they're getting away with it.  It's probably too much to call their sensibility subversive, yet "22 Jump Street's" self-awareness of the utter pointlessness of most sequel is refreshing, and probably not an attitude that Lord and Miller's movie executive bosses want spread around too much among the movie-going public.  (Though, in another layer of irony, as long as this picture brings in the bucks they're probably quite happy to take the ribbing.)  

Lord and Miller's pictures are spiked with an awareness of the world outside the movie.  At one point in "22" Jonah Hill winks at Ice Cube, perfectly cast as the Odd Couple's glowering boss, after tossing off a disparaging remark about a "cracker" in a feeble attempt to ingratiate himself.  It's a wink that says "Hey, I know your records, Ice Cube," that says, there's a world outside of this movie where this guy used to be the controversial embodiment of African-American anger.  It's good to see even Cube having a laugh at himself.  

 

In fact everyone on the set seems to be having a good time.  Jillian Bell is very funny as the art student's disapproving roommate who regards Schmidt with a withering eye and cutting tongue that zeroes in with hilarious accuracy on all of his inadequacies.  (Schmidt, of course, thinks she's nice.)  A mention should also be made of the Lucas Brothers, who have a recurring role as stoned roommates from across the hall whom Schmidt and Jenko meet when they move into the dorm.  Smiling twins in matching horn-rimmed glasses, beards, and caps, whose sentences intertwine, they're a visual joke in and of themselves.  Looking at them, you can't help wondering if you haven't ingested something yourself.  They're a bit like live-action cartoon characters. 

One more plus: since the final set-piece is set at Spring Break, you get to see a lot of bodies in bikinis, one of whom is deployed (to her great pleasure) by Jenko as a weapon for taking out the baddies. 

And so I'd actually just like to thank this movie.  It gave me a fun Saturday night out with my baby, where we could sit and laugh together, and I got to hear her great, pealing laughter filling the theater.  Sometimes the movies are a shared emotional experience for us, sometimes (if it's a scary one), they're an excuse for us to huddle up close.  Here, her laughter was infectious, enhancing everyone's experience with its energy, the sparks catching fire in the audience and making other people break out in laughter as well, filling the theater with cheer and warming me as it reverberated and resounded around the theater.  

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

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

no stars (utter shite)

Thursday
Jun262014

Obvious Child

Here's a rom-com with a twist.  It asks, what if you dropped a dose of reality into the formula, imagining you got pregnant from one of those fun, drunken one-night stands we see in the movies?  That "you" is crucial: this project is conceived (if you will) as an expression of female experience in the most personal of ways.  This is just one of the ways that "Obvious Child" is the anti-"Knocked Up."  In the wake of her unplanned pregnancy, this woman decides to have an abortion.

This movie is a vehicle for the talents of Jenny Slate, who, like her character, Donna, is a young stand-up comic, and now we may add "comic actress" or better yet, simply "actress."  Donna is a New Yorker two years shy of 30.  We meet her on stage, and immediately we get a sense of her act: she makes a crack about the odd discharge she inevitably finds on her panties by the end of the day.  Here the picture is working in that relatively new cultural space where women are allowed to be honest and funny about bodily functions.  Allowed to be a mess, allowed--in a word--to be human.  This is a space perhaps carved out by Lena Dunham in work like "Tiny Furniture" and "Girls."  ("Louie" is another reference point, with its honest look at the world of New York stand-up from the point of view of a sweet, albeit male, mess.)  

Donna is crass and crude, but she gets over because she is also sweet and funny, and because of her delivery, that rather childlike voice an amusing contrast with the rude stuff coming out of her mouth.  There's something birdlike about her.  Donna observes from the stage that people always say she looks just like Anne Frank.  You cringe as you chuckle and you think: yes, she rather does, at that.      

Donna puts her personal life into her act--her art--with little or no consideration of the impact she has on the people in her life.  It's one reason her boyfriend (Paul Briganti) breaks up with her.  Then she loses her day-job at one of those great, endangered bookstores, the kind that hangs out a shingle proclaiming it to be your spot for "Un-oppressive, Non-imperialist Bargain Books."  It's run as a labor of love, if not, unfortunately, a going financial concern, by a kind, bespectacled, greying fellow (Stephen Singer), who is almost apologetic when he tells her it's time to close up  shop.

At a bar she meets Max (played by Jake Lacey with fine comic timing).  It would be an understatement to say he is not of her demimonde, her world of sarcastic comics which includes her gay friend (Gabe Liedman) ("gay friend" is one of the genre conventions the movie plays with) as well as David Cross in a funny, gross cameo, making himself repellent as a hirsute up-and-comer who asks her around to his place: you could say he's hitting on her, yet he seems finally too self-absorbed even to do that.  Max is straight-laced, wholesome, and yet he is possessed of a self-satirical air.  He doesn't take himself too seriously, and he has a droll sense of humor. 

Max and Donna bond over drinks; he accidentally farts in her face as they pee in the street.  He's horrified, but she loves it.  Back at the apartment they bounce joyously around to the rolling, tribal, downshifting drums of Paul Simon's "Obvious Child."  The way she dances, she's a goofy life force.  I liked the sweet way Max regards her while he leans against the wall, letting a smitten smile play around his face.  He's thinking she's kind of lovable, really.       

We know what happens as a result of that night.  This movie is going to feel personal for many women, and there must be many, many details a male viewer won't pick up on.  Karolyn hipped me to some of them.  When Donna waits for the results of her pregnancy test with her best friend (Gaby Hoffman), Karolyn told me that many women have found themselves on both sides of that situation.  There's a good, true scene where Donna, crying, climbs into bed with her mom (Polly Draper), a business professor with whom she has a difficult relationship, and confides in her, as she can't--won't--with her loving dad (Richard Kind, who makes muppets).  It took Karolyn to point out that last detail to me.     
 
Gillian Robespierre, the film's writer and director, has expanded "Obvious Child" into her first feature from a short film she made in 2009.  The story is a good fit for Jenny Slate's persona.  We get the feeling that the character of Donna is a collaboration, in more than the usual sense, between the director and actor.  Robespierre and Slate understand Donna's world.  The bars look and feel right, down to the graffiti-covered dive bathrooms.  While we cannot say at this point that Robespierre uses the camera expressively or that she has any particular visual style beyond a sort of TV competence, she has achieved something perhaps harder to get: tone.  At once crude and bittersweet, the tone suits this material, which is after all in some ways about growing up.  Like Donna, Robespierre and Slate find the funny in a situation, a decision, that is no laughing matter. 

And also one that is worthy of a few tears, quite apart from any moralizing, quite apart from whether the decision is right or wrong.  For Donna it is unquestionably the right decision.  And yet it's okay, perhaps even necessary, the tears.  I don't think they could be put into words, these tears, even if she tried to explain.  These wordless moments at the abortion clinic, both before and after the procedure: I think they are the finest moments in the film.  They are the evidence for Slate as an actress, as well as of the compassion of Robespierre and Slate.  I think of the women in that recovery room afterwards, glancing at each other wordlessly, sometimes meeting each other's eyes, sometimes just lost in her own thoughts.  Each has her own story.  What a profoundly personal thing it is.  It's worth it for a male viewer like me to put myself in Donna's shoes, even if only for this hour and a half, even if I could never really imagine being there.          

At one point Donna tells Max that when it comes to most romantic comedy films, she just doesn't connect.  It's a nice meta critique in a picture that plays with rom-com conventions.  As it turns out, though, Slate and Robespierre have made a good one, albeit with a crude honesty that nudges the genre out of sweet fantasy.

 

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

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

no stars (utter shite)

Friday
May162014

"Locke" and "Under the Skin"

Recently Karolyn and I caught two unconventional new films.  As it happens, both are set in the UK, and both work variations on a theme of driving.  Both show there's still some originality left in movies in 2014.  Even if neither quite satisfies, I find I can't quite shake either of them. 

Locke

In this drama written and directed by Steven Knight, the screenwriter of memorable joints like "Eastern Promises" and "Dirty Pretty Things," we find ourselves in a car maintaining a steady pace through the night.  A steady pace: the driver, Ivan Locke, watches the speed limit.  (This is a careful man.)  For the next hour and a half we will be in the car with him.  Locke is played by Tom Hardy.  For those of us who've had Hardy pegged as film's next electrifying, mad, scary actor--the kind you can't take your eyes off--ever since his unforgettable turn as the psychotic 'Bronson,' the prospect of a Hardy one-man show is exciting.  Locke is in fact a meaty role for Hardy, but it's a surprisingly subtle piece as well.
 
A drama is playing out in the car's floating walls, though Locke appears calm.  (Appearing calm is part of what makes him good at his job.)  As the car fills with disembodied Bluetooth voices we piece together that Locke is the leader of a concrete pouring team, and that it is his intention to abandon his post on the eve of the biggest pour in European history.  Still, he intends to make sure the pour goes well over the phone, out of a sense of duty.  As he shouts into the phone at one point, one wrong move can cause everything to crash down around you.  Actually, he has made that one wrong move.  That's why he finds himself out on the road this night.  I won't say what he's done.
           

I should say that this is not an action film.  If Locke is being chased, it’s by the demon of his late father.  Hardy is frightening when, spittle flecking, he froths at the old man about digging him up and killing him himself.  (These furious one-way discussions are all in his head, though.  Outwardly, he is calm.)  

Locke's voice, that rich burr that was so scary when Hardy deployed it as Batman's enemy Bane, here consoles, soothes, but remains utterly authoritative.  That's true whether he is dealing with his enraged boss, a hysterical, increasingly drunken underling, or his own wife.  Only when speaking to his son does his voice quaver, alighting on warm fatherly authority but losing its footing, slipping off.  A tear drops down his cheek.  To a person, each caller remarks on how unlike him is his behavior this night.  Reached at dinner, an annoyed councilman agrees to make an important phone-call for Locke only because of the impression Locke made when they'd met: as a good man.  Am I a good man?  Proving it is another reason he's out all night.  

At times I wished for more visual and situational variety, but that claustrophobia and the unfolding in real time are inseparable from the film's intended effects.  Using Locke's windshield as canvas, cinematographer Haris Zambarloukos paints expressive bursts of color with headlights, streetlights, the lonely glow of the dashboard glow.  As a psychological portrait and a performance exercise for Tom Hardy, "Locke" can reach the point of fascination.        

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

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

no stars (utter shite)

Under the Skin

Here's a quite odd, oddly beautiful film by Jonathan Glazer, that thoughtful director of "Sexy Beast" and "Birth."  Based on Michael Faber's novel, it's science fiction.  Yet it works by gazing upon the familiar stuff of our world as if it were alien.    

In the beginning we experience some kind of eclipse.  A seed penetrates a membrane, fertilizing a crescent moon.  We could be looking at inner space, at a womb, or we could be looking at outer space, at planets aligning.  There is a bright light; a dark pool expands.  Now it is a startled human iris.  Now we're rushing at a burning star, only it becomes a speeding motorcyclist.  In some kind of white room a nude woman stands over a paralyzed woman.  The prone one might be dead: she does not blink.  Suddenly a tear streaks down her face. 

Unsettling music by violinist Mica Levi skitters under it all.  She's woven into her music a suggestion of that strange alien frequency emitted by the monolith in '2001.'  Her music brings you to the edge of sadness, then a sinister undercurrent comes out of nowhere and drags you under.     

The woman we saw standing in the white room arrives at the bottom of an escalator.  This is Scarlett Johansson, irresistible in bangs.  The murmur of a shopping mall fills our senses.  The camera looks over her shoulder.  (Throughout this movie we will see the world through her eyes.)  She picks out a fur, a hot pink blouse, jeans that fit just right.  She sits in a SUV and applies lipstick.  She is ready.    

She begins tooling around the streets of Glasgow.  Speaking with a London accent, she asks directions of local men.  (Glazer often shot with hidden cameras, wanting to immerse Johansson in the real world, hoping to record on film how people behave when they're not being watched.)  If a fellow is interested, she asks him to hop in.  Maybe he could take her there himself?  Of course he is interested.  But in the next cut, the passenger seat is empty.  Wait, where'd he go?  At one point the camera follows her as she leads another man into a dark building.  He thinks he's about to get the cookie.  The camera (and the man) sink into black.  

It doesn't take long to realize that there is something very off about her.  There's an inhuman lack of empathy.  A baby cries on a rocky beach, helpless, exposed, alone.  We respond on a primal level.  She ignores the baby.  You could say the film's arc traces the closing of this empathy gap.  During her short time she gets to have various types of human experiences.  She encounters man at his best and at his worst.  Perhaps one experience is more precipitous than all the others: she meets a very unusual man, whom she sees very differently than we do.   

The news about "Under the Skin," of course, is that Johansson gets naked here, for the first time on film.  It's not enough, though, merely to say that her nudity in this picture is not gratuitous.  Her naked human body is the expression in visual form of the themes of the movie.  Her skin is a disguise she uses to hunt, but it is also the medium through which she experiences touch.  (Touch is one of the things the movie is about.)  "Beauty is only skin deep."  "We're all the same under the skin."  These are cliches, but her naked body fleshes these expressions out, embodies, if you will, their truth.  And so it's okay, even proper, to say it's a pleasure to see Johansson without her clothes on, so long as we acknowledge the level on which she dares to expose herself here.  It deserves more than adolescent tittering.  

 

Glazer's film works a bit like a haunting dream that you can't explain and you can't quite shake.  Glazer's that rarity in today's pictures: an artist.        

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:

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

no stars (utter shite)

Sunday
Apr272014

The Grand Budapest Hotel

Wes Anderson’s humane intelligence and sense of humor suffuses every striking frame of his new comedy, “The Grand Budapest Hotel.”  Indeed, so distinctive is his style by now that one could recognize this picture as a Wes Anderson without even seeing his signature.  It is, I believe, minor Anderson, but minor Anderson is still a thing of many pleasures.

In one of the director’s signature tracking shots, a young girl strides purposefully towards a statue of a writer.  He was a favorite son of her country, Zubrowka, a fictional nation in Central Europe.  She carries a little pink book: the writer’s memoirs.   When she cracks open the volume we're back to 1985, when the writer (Tom Wilkinson) tells us a story.  Back in 1968 he had occasion to visit the Grand Budapest Hotel, a stately, pastel Beaux Arts building way, way up in the mountains.  Already past its heyday, it was even then a largely forgotten place, almost as deserted as the Overlook during the winter off-season, though travelers still arrived to take the cure in its deserted, crumbling spas.  It was then that the writer (played as a young man by Jude Law) met a lonely, mysterious old man, Mr. Mustafa (F. Murray Abraham).  Rumor has it that he owns the Grand Budapest.  Over dinner in the vast, lonely dining hall, Mr. Mustafa tells the writer the story of his extraordinary adventures back in 1932.

Then he was a young refugee, the intrepid Zero (portrayed by a teenaged actor called Tony Revolori, delightfully deadpan).  Zero has managed to ensconse himself as the hotel’s new lobby boy, having slipped in under the nose of the legendary Gustave H., that most gallant of concierges (Ralph Fiennes, perfectly cast).   A fop with a remarkably heightened verbal capacity, Gustave’s grace was the mark of an age on its way out.  Or rather, it was being snuffed out by the “ZZ,” the fascist forces whose encroachment forms the backdrop of the story.  In Anderson's aesthetic terms, it may be that of all the ZZ’s crimes, the most heinous is that they violate Gustave’s sense of manners and propriety.  (This put me in mind of Andrew Sarris on Lubitsch, when he said that for Lubitsch it was enough to say that the Nazis had bad manners, and then any horror became permissible.)

Gustave was the apple of the eye of rich old ladies, even their playmate in the sack.  Indeed, their largesse seems to be the only thing keeping the hotel afloat, yet if there’s any exploitation in these relationships it’s mutual, and seems motivated at heart by Gustave’s basic kindness.   The great Tilda Swinton, looking like a monster out of Monty Python, plays one of these old-lady friends, Madame D. (a nod to Ophuls).  When she is murdered, a controversy erupts over her legacy, which includes Van Hoytl’s priceless painting “Boy With Apple.”  Her estate’s lawyer (Jeff Goldblum) must contend with the deceased’s scheming son (Adrian Brody) and his gunsel (Willem Defoe, whose amusingly menacing mug here should be in the dictionary next to “missing link”.)

 When Gustave is framed for Madame D.’s murder, Zero must help him stage a prison breakout.  They’re helped by Gustave’s new friends, a prison gang led by Harvey Keitel.  Zero’s girlfriend Agatha (Saoirse Ronan) helps as well.  She is a pastry chef at Mendl’s patisserie, whose signature creation, the Courtesan au chocolat, turns out to be good for hiding prison-break tools, as not even the prison inspectors can bring themselves to smash such a delicate creation.  

All the while Gustave and Zero are pursued by the ZZ chief of police (Edward Norton), who can’t forget that as a child he was treated kindly by Gustave.  

Anderson’s troupe is all here, including Jason Schwartzmann as the 1968-era concierge.  One can almost picture Anderson looking into Terry Zweig’s writings (one of the inspirations for the movie), being amused by Zweig’s descriptions of the concierge (this is a fellow who seemed at once utterly uninterested while somehow still endeavoring to please), and picturing Schwartzmann in the role.  There’s a cameo by Bill Murray, without which an Anderson picture would not feel complete. 

I’ve always liked how Anderson uses music, specifically the way he uses rock ‘n’ roll in a way that makes emotional if not literal sense.  In “The Darjeeling Limited” he was even bold enough to recycle film music by Ravi Shankar and others from his favorite Satyajit Ray, Nityananda Datta and Mercant Ivory films.  This film features Alexandre Desplat’s lovely orchestral score, Russian folk music, and Vivaldi.

When I think of this picture’s antecedents, I think more in literary terms than filmic ones.  Its tone puts me in mind of P.G. Wodehouse crossed with Thomas Mann’s “The Magic Mountain” and Mordecai Richler’s “Jacob Two-Two Meets the Hooded Fang.”  (The prison is menacing in a children’s book kind of way.)

I love that in 2014 the movie industry still has room for an auteur like Wes Anderson to dream, to create his droll world.  If I allow myself to worry, it’s only that with every picture his actors become more and more like elaborately-costumed dolls he moves around his meticulously designed dollhouses, and less like flesh-and-blood people.

But then, that he never lost his childlike sense of imagination and wonder is precisely what I like about Wes Anderson.  Come to think of it, children’s movies may turn out to be his true métier, rather than adult subjects.  Recall “The Fantastic Mr. Fox” and how good he was with the children in “Moonrise Kingdom.”  He sees the world with affection and humor, and that is a very good way indeed to see it.

 

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

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