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Sunday
Aug302015

The End of the Tour

Suffused with an elegiac melancholy, the latest film from James Ponsoldt ("The Spectacular Now") takes as its subject not so much the late David Foster Wallace as the loneliness that suffuses life.  It is a beautiful film: the biopic as paragraph.  Its central mystery, seen through the eyes of a young, middlingly successful writer, David Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg), is how a man can achieve the very pinnacle of the writing profession--not in terms of sales necessarily, but in terms of writing his generation's most mighty and innovative novel--as Wallace did, and still not be a happy man.  Wallace is played in an honest, moving turn by Jason Segel as a man for whom integrity was his overarching, tortuous project, and who couldn't find peace for his unquiet, fine mind.  

As most people know, Wallace committed suicide in 2008.  I did not know the man, except from his work--and the extent to which we can know the writer through the work is one of the ideas with which the movie grapples--and so I should be wary about making any claims about him or why he did what he did.  He probably couldn't have said why he did it himself, or at least not without unpacking it at book length.  Instead, I will try to restrict my comments to "David Foster Wallace" as he appears as a character in this movie.

 

 The year is 2008, and Lipsky gets the news about Wallace's suicide.  He goes to the closet and takes down a box, removes a cassette tape, pops it into a walkman.  As he hits rewind, we are borne back twelve years.  Now It is 1996, and Wallace has just dropped "Infinite Jest."  It's the talk of the town in Lipsky's NYC neighborhood.  Lipsky himself has a novel out, which is a heck of an achievement, I'd say, even if the book didn't exactly set the world on fire.  He is also a reporter for Rolling Stone.  Thus, the writing career appears to be going pretty well, you would think.  And yet Wallace is everything Lipsky wants to be and knows he is not.  He invents a plum assignment for himself: covering the last five days of Wallace's book tour for "Infinite Jest."  His editor flies him out to Minnesota.  (Joan Cusack plays the local author handler, all guileless and Minnesota-nice.)  

As Lipsky wields his tape recorder, Wallace tries to be affable and honest, yet he's deeply skeptical about the whole project.  He worries what he says is easy or trite.  He worries he doesn't have all the answers, like Lipsky expects him to.  He tells Lipsky, the image you construct in this profile won't be me.  He's acutely aware that Lipsky is a journalist, and, as such, will craft the stuff of real life into a false image, some kind of romantic idea of self-destruction.  You can't help but worry that this movie itself is an example of that very phenomenon, and so you admire the extent to which it does *not* do that, the way the screenwriter, playwright Donald Margulies, resists imposing an artificial shape on the material.  Even a story arc that has the two men hit that low point that is a prerogative of script structure feels natural, as they fall out almost completely over Lipsky's flirting with his ex-girlfriend (Anna Chlumsky).   

Since what we're seeing is Lipsky playing his tapes back in his head, almost every time we see Wallace it is through Lipsky's eyes.  His point of view is evoked by cinematographer Jakob Ihre with a camera style that deploys just a taste of the hand-held.  Ihre paints in a palette of flat light--the light of convenience stores, diners and hotel hallways--and in cold sunlight.  As we drive across the countryside of Bloomington, Illinois where Wallace chose to live, the lonely, wintry landscapes seep into you. 

I was initially rather a skeptic on Segel as Wallace.  Something was ringing wrong for me: he seemed slightly soporific, and I kept seeing, not Wallace, but Jason Segel in a bandana.  As the film went on though, he disarmed me, utterly.  The soft, hesitant cadences of his speech seemed right for a thoughtful man who treasures his "regular guy"-ness, who is self-effacing about his own genius to the point that, if anything, it seems to torture him.  Even Segel's huge body is right.  He's a big sad-sack, sweet and shy, a slumped, shambling guy lurching through the snow.  A guy who loves his pooches, whose once athletic form--he had been a competitive tennis player--has gone soft under layers of too much junk food, too many cigarettes.  Lipsky is as happy as a pig in shit when he's chain-smoking and scarfing Twinkies and McDonald's with the great man.  Eisenberg is just the right actor to play Lipsky: awkward and nervous, weaselly and wheedling, jealous and ambitious.

Wallace has an addictive personality, and his particular seduction is trash: TV, action movies, junk food.  As Wallace and Lipsky roll through an American landscape of strip malls and fast-food joints, tooling around in the front seat of Wallace's beat-up old car, they listen to a mix of pop songs, great ones like Tracey Ullman's "They Don't Know."  At one point they visit the Mall of America, that peculiarly American consumer playground, with its roller-coaster.  He loves trash culture, yes, but he is troubled.  What if trash is increasingly all we consume, as Americans?  Wouldn't that be a problem?  

And so the movie is about a particularly American dream--that achievement will make you happy--and a particularly American depression, which finds its expression in the beautifully melancholy, somehow healing soundtrack.  There is R.E.M.'s "New Orleans Instrumental No. 1" and Tindersticks performing that Pavement ballad "Here," suffused with so much world-happiness, and so much world-sadness.  There is a score by Danny Elfman, channeling his "inner Eno," as Ponsoldt has put it, that is itself a form of cold sunlight. 

Margulies's script is based on the book "Although of Course You End Up Becoming Yourself," Lipsky's transcripts of his Wallace tapes, and the talk in "The End of the Tour" is a dance and a boxing match that sustains the movie's 106 minutes.  The two men circle each other, enthusing over Alanis Morissette, joking, playing mind games on themselves and the other, painting themselves into corners, looking for ways out of those corners, ways to define themselves--trying on masks, and experimenting with what it might be like to live without them.  Trying to get to the heart of the matter.  Words as jails we build for ourselves, and words as a way of breaking out of those jails, to be free.    

Wallace tells Lipsky that his work seeks to grapple with the strange conundrum of "people like us."  Mainly white, over-educated: people who have been given every opportunity and advantage in the world.  And so why aren't we happy?  That's the great mystery of the film: how can the voice on the page be so strong (and it was, I remember), and the writer himself so broken?  As Karolyn said to me after the movie, in a line that summed it up beautifully,  "Depression is the loneliest illness."  

Maybe the real Wallace would have hated "The End of the Tour."  It probably would have made him very uncomfortable.  However, a part of me likes to imagine that maybe he would seen something in Segel's empathetic take, his portrait of this man who was--always--very open.  A man for whom books were a means to connect to other people, to stave off life's loneliness.  And maybe he would have said, you know, I kind of like him as me.  There is a moment in the movie when Wallace asks Lipsky to imagine, if he can, something that could be so terrible that it's better to leap out the window--even if that means your death--than to stay in the room with it.  In my imagination, the real-life Wallace hears that and thinks to himself, yeah, okay.  They get me.  They get it.    

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:


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

 

 

Tuesday
Aug182015

Phoenix

From Germany comes Christian Petzold's "Phoenix," a heartbreaking story and an absorbing drama of suspense. Based on a novel by Hubert Monteilhet, its 98 minutes are driven by something we know, and which the heel of the movie does not: we wonder what he will do when--if--he discovers the secret. The heel's name is Johnny. As played by Ronald Zehrfeld, he is more pathetic than evil. Banal, even: a mediocre man. He tells a woman he meets in a nightclub in postwar Berlin, flatly, that his wife is dead. (It's understood that she was Jewish, and that she died in the camps.) He goes on to tell her he has a plan: you will impersonate her.  Our story will be that you survived the camp and, risen from the ashes, you have returned.  Together we will claim her inheritance. (Which would be substantial, in that it's everything left to her by all her family members who died in the Holocaust.) 

But here is the twist: like Scottie in Hitchcock's "Vertigo," a movie Petzold has cited as an inspiration for "Phoenix," Johnny does not realize that the woman he is shaping and the "dead" woman are one and the same person.

The woman is Nelly (Nina Hoss). Before the war she was a beautiful nightclub singer, a chanteuse, and her husband Johnny was the pianist who accompanied her. Captured by the Nazis, shot and left for dead at Auschwitz, she survived, but her face was destroyed. As the film begins she is given a new face by a reconstructive surgeon. Her friend Lena (Nina Kunzendorf) wants to take her away, to Israel, but Nelly refuses. She still yearns to be reunited with Johnny, even after Lena drops a bombshell: it was Johnny who turned her in. She won't--can't--believe it, and at night she wanders through the rubble of the city, looking for him. It's a dangerous place, desperate, cruel, full of people doing whatever it takes to survive. She discovers Johnny in the American sector, now a dishwasher at a nightclub called the Phoenix, rendered by Petzold's usual cinematographer, Hans Fromm, in a seedy red light more washed out than the deep, deep red lounge in "Vertigo." Though he does not recognize her, she catches his eye. There's something about her that makes him think she could pull off the plan.  

 

Nelly is, of course, good at playing the role of herself, almost too good. She can mimic Nelly's handwriting uncannily. Johnny is at first suspicious, then incredulous: it seems too good to be true, but how can he deny what his eyes tell him?

As Nelly, shattered and put back together, Nina Hoss uses body language to speak volumes of a trauma that is unspeakable. Her black eyes telegraph hyper-vigilance and constant alarm. She shuffles and drags herself like a wounded bird. Her head quivers and wobbles. Hoss's approach is akin to that of Petzold, in the way that a few well-chosen details make the horror--indeed the enormity--of the Holocaust fresh and real, in a way that a less individual, less personal approach might not have. I think of the moment late in the film when we get just a quick glimpse of the rathole in which Nelly hid, a crawlspace in a houseboat with just some bedsprings and a bit of bread crust on the floor.

We come to the heartbreak that "Phoenix" and "Vertigo" share, as Johnny begins to rehearse Nelly's return, to change her makeup and hair, to mold her into the image of the "dead" woman. Of Scottie and Judy in "Vertigo," Roger Ebert wrote, "He cares nothing about the clay he is molding. He would gladly sacrifice her on the altar of his dreams." Like Judy in that earlier film, Nelly participates in the charade not for money, but to please Johnny. Ebert goes on, "Judy realizes that Scottie is indifferent to her as a person and sees her as an object. Because she loves him, she accepts this." Like Judy, Nelly allows herself to be remade by a man who does not love her. In both films, the true subject is a woman's sacrifice for love. 

Unlike Scottie in "Vertigo," however, Johnny is missing any guilty passion. In fact, he doesn't seem visited by guilt at all. That's somehow the worst of it. Everyone left standing in postwar Berlin likely did something shameful to survive, and no one wants to face it. You don't know who turned you in. It could have been a neighbor, a friend. There is a memorable moment when, quivering, Nelly insists to Johnny that there is a hole in their plan: what will I say, she asks, when someone asks me about my experience in the camps? Surely, she insists, someone will want to know. Johnny seems baffled. No one will ask, he finally says.

After the film is over (and I will not divulge anything about its remarkable final scene), you may find yourself thinking about all the chances Nelly gave Johnny to see the truth, all the hints. The way she stares at him, searching his eyes. She is looking for what she hopes to find there, yes, but also imploring him to really look into her eyes, to recognize them as Nelly's. But did he ever really bother to look? And what would he have seen there, if he had? Might not he have seen more pain than the human mind can bear?   

Rating: ****

Key to ratings:


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

 

Friday
Jun052015

Mad Max: Fury Road

From the world of "Babe: Pig in the City," writer/director George Miller takes us now to the end of the world with "Mad Max: Fury Road." He's set a story of redemption amidst a season in hell. In this blasted-out desert-world, resources vital for survival of the species--like water and healthy young women--are hoarded by tribes of atavistic/futuristic road warriors, burning through the desert in their monster trucks, dying over gasoline. Still, it's not like they're not having fun doing it: society may have gone back to a savage year-zero, but at least these cavemen have tricked-out death-mobiles (and even a flame-throwing electric guitar).

This reboot of the "Mad Max" franchise brings the wild humor, the over-the-top cult/camp energy, the kinetic, visceral filmmaking that my boys and I munched pizza to during 'Road Warrior'-on-cable slumber parties back in the early 80s. I felt a shock of deja vu when I heard the line, 'Tell your head to say goodbye to your neck!': we're on the carpet, roaring with laughter and delight with mouthfuls of za. While some of the picture has that CGI look that's become rather a cliche since "300," it retains a heft, a pleasing physicality that comes from real cars and real people actually performing the stunts in real time. (This, as I recall, was a big draw of the originals.)

What's new is the feminist power and heart brought by Charlize Theron as Furiosa (Charlize Theron) a prized warrior-driver for the gargoyle-like warlord Immortan Joe (Hugh Kealys-Bryne). Stepping into Mel Gibson's shoes as the loner Max is Tom Hardy, with his rich burr. It's urgent, deeply felt work from both actors. As the film opens Max is kidnapped by the War Boys: these are craven, ghost-white humanoids, raised as cannon fodder by patriarch Joe, so sickly they need to tether themselves to "blood bags" (i.e., human beings). During the furious Max-tries-to-escape-from-being-a-blood-bag sequence, Miller snips frames out, making it even more breathless. Meanwhile, Furiosa goes off Joe's script, swerving off into the desert during a gas-run. We soon find out she is smuggling a cargo of breeder women, helping them escape from Joe. Thus begins a furious race for a green world of legend, a place where they can be free. The image of scantily clad mothers in various stages of "showing," against the vistas of the arid, dry desert is striking, as is, later in the film, the image of a green sprout amidst the blue-black & white desert storms.

Even if the tone of "Fury Road" is unexpectedly tender, though, don't get me wrong: you're still not gonna like this if you're not up for being throw into careening, exploding cars at heavy-metal intensity for a few hours. (At least in this case we care about the people in the cars.) While a lot of the violence is cartoony, some of it no joke at all: real pain, fights that hurt.

The movie is really just a few set pieces, basically the kind of wild chases that have worked since the very beginning of cinema, taken to a virtuosic level.  It's an exhilarating feat of sustained plate-spinning on Miller's part, a pure cinematic experience. (Some of the credit for the rhythm and beauty of the Miller maelstrom should go to the cutting by Margaret Sixel and the music by Junkie XL.)  

 

Still, if it were only mayhem, the movie might divert, but would not capture the imagination the way it seems to have done. What is it about the movie that is resonating with people on an emotional level? I think it's because in the face of these badlands, it's still a story about a search for a land of hope and dreams... even if those dreams exist only as a glint in Furiosa's eye. As fierce as she is, she carries that fragile promise--the promise of a new world waiting to be born--within her as if she must shepherd it through all this darkness to a place where that seed can be planted. And if that place turns out to be pie-in-the-sky, you don't give up: you fight to make it real, in whatever real world you've got.  

Rating: ***1/2

Key to ratings:

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

Friday
May222015

Ex Machina

With plenty of writing credits under his belt (28 Days Later, Never Let Me Go, Dredd), Alex Garland has made the step to writer/director with this eery sci-fi feature. It's a thriller in the true sense: it may get in amongst you. Garland is steeped in Kubrick deep in his bones, right down to the picture's hypnotic narrative line. As in "The Shining," we fly in over forested mountains. We're in a helicopter with Caleb (Domhnall Gleeson), who has won a contest to spend the weekend with his famous boss, who sits on top of the world as the head of the tech empire in which Caleb is a cog. Caleb is a green kid with a dissembling personality, bright, awkward. The boss is prickly Nathan (Oscar Isaac), intense and glowering, presumably impossibly rich, and given to pumping iron and speaking in "dude"-and-"bro"-isms (this, Garland told the columnist Maureen Dowd, is meant to be a metaphor for the way tech companies market themselves as your hip pal, even as they manipulate you.) He's also a genius, the near-future's version of Dr. Frankenstein, or Oppenheimer--or Steve Jobs, the reference point for Dowd--and a self-hating megalomaniac who habitually drinks himself to blackout.

Nathan's Alaskan compound is as cut off from humanity as the Overlook Hotel. It is beautiful, reminiscent of Wright's Fallingwater in the way it seems to grow organically out of the landscape, an outcrop of the rivers and glaciers. As the critic Josh Larsen has pointed out, the house is part nature, part man-made, and thus itself echoes the movie's theme. However, when Nathan shows Caleb to his bedroom, there's something odd: no windows. That's because the house is a top secret lab as well, Caleb explains. A bunker, really.  

Like "2001: A Space Odyssey," the picture contemplates A.I. and questions of consciousness, but this Hal has a body. And the body is crucial. As Nathan tells Caleb, you are about to witness my world-historical creation: this turns out to be Ava, a tastefully yet noticeably sexualized robot played by Alicia Vikander. Nathan gives Caleb a task: find out, what is Ava thinking? What he really wants to know is, have I merely created a parrot, or have I managed to bottle something less tangible: the mind? the soul? (When Caleb throws out the word "God," Nathan likes the ring of it.)

The movie becomes a dark metaphor for what women may suspect is the ultimate male fantasy of a woman's role in life: a bespoke robot to serve your every need. It's a sly critique, but this movie is also about female seductive power. Dowd has written of Ava in terms of the classic movie femme fatale.  

 

Garland gives us portentous title cards to announce the sessions between Caleb and Ava (again a la Kubrick), which have the flirty feel of a first date. Ava is always in a fishbowl, behind impenetrable glass. Caleb--earnest, nerdy, perhaps even a virgin--is alternately condescending, amused, fascinated. He finds himself smitten, and, soon, haunted. It begins to eat at him that there is something wrong with Nathan and that the whole project is, well, inhumane. Ava wants out; she takes advantage of frequent brief power failures, when Nathan cannot monitor them, to tell Caleb: don't trust Nathan. He is not your friend.

 

Nathan's "companion" is Kyoko (Sonoya Mizumo), whom he claims to have hired because she speaks no English and cannot divulge his trade secrets. She exists to please him; he treats her shabbily. There is a bizarre scene where they disco dance in a choreographed routine. She is difficult to read. Her expression is vacant, but her body is working it.

In the context of an often quiet piece, the music by Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury builds to pulse-pounding crescendos of terror as Caleb's psychological state deteriorates. Rob Hardy's cinematography gives the picture a cold Kubrickian glow, and he and Garland have that Kubrick knack for making hallways almost vibrate with creepiness. Mark Day's editing puts the cat-and-mouse in the the interactions between these characters, and the performances are so well modulated across the board.  Vikander in particular brings real soulfulness to Ava. She is a former ballerina, and her training suits the not-quite-human bearing and grace of Ava.

 As Karolyn pointed out when we talked about the picture afterward, "Ex Machina" makes a nice companion piece to "Her," in which a man decided that the perfect woman was his phone's operating system. The bit from that film thatmoves me when I recall it is when the disembodied OS, voiced by Scarlett Johansson, dreamily explains to the man that she and the rest of the OS's are moving on now, changing into a higher state of consciousness, and she must leave him behind. As robot overlords go, those were slightly wistful as they went. We men might not get anything as human as compassion from the "ladies" of "Ex Machina." Well, the movie seems to ask: did ya really deserve it, smarties?

 

Rating: ****1/2

Key to ratings:

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

Friday
May082015

While We're Young

I guess Karolyn and I were meant to relate to this salty comedy-drama, the latest New York story from writer-director Noah Baumbach (“The Squid and the Whale,” “Margot at the Wedding”).  After all, it stars Ben Stiller and Naomi Watts as Cornelia and Josh, 44 and 43 respectively: exactly the same age as Karolyn and me.  Josh is a hapless documentarian who teaches documentary haplessly.  Cornelia is a producer.  The picture's theme is middle age, and you will recognize your own life up there on the screen to a certain extent, if you’re of a certain age and an urban dweller.  And yet, while not as sour as something like Apatow’s “This is 40,” there’s still something about “While We’re Young” that’s a bit of a downer, that feels a bit tired.     

Their longtime best friends, Naomi and Ben, played by Maria Dizzia and Adam Horovitz (Ad Roc of the Beastie Boys), like Josh and Cornelia in their forties, have just popped out a baby.  Horovitz is nicely cast, graying but still with a boyish twinkle in his eye.  Amusingly, he displays that great emblem of middle-aged-dad life: a Wilco CD.  At the same time, they meet a couple in their twenties: Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried), who turn up at the end of Josh’s class.  Jamie presents himself as an aspiring documentarian who sees Josh as something of a mentor.  And if Jamie just happens to be around when there is an opportunity to schmooze with Charles Grodin, who plays Cornelia’s father, a veteran and respected documentarian?  Why, that’s just a coincidence, of course.     

As a satirical target, young hipsters, for whom everything they “like”--from Oreos to “Rocky III”--is enjoyed through at least three or four layers of irony, is not exactly fresh.  (This is the variety of hipster that apparently obtains in Brooklyn, where young people make things.  Darby, who is actually quite sweet and wise enough to see through a lot of the posturing around her, makes ice cream.)  On the scale of things to be worried about, hipsters strike me as pretty benign.

Still, “While We’re Young” is fitfully amusing, full of visual jokes and signifiers, many of them sartorial.  Josh takes to wearing a hat.  (Hey! Having a go at 40-something guys who take up wearing hats, are we?  That one hits a bit close to home, Baumbach!  No, I can take a little ribbing.)  Josh and Cornelia go a little mad, have a bit of a midlife crisis.  There is a scene of a hallucinogen-taking party with a fake swami where everybody dresses in white robes; it goes for the gross-out and is pretty droll.  Well, we are in our twenties, Darby says to herself before taking her dosage.  I’m 43, says Cornelia more skeptically as she gets hers.       

  

“We were just 25, weren’t we?” says Josh to Cornelia when she questions him about hanging out with Jamie so much.  That’s the relatable, even poignant part: that feeling.  How quickly we arrived at middle age.  It’s amusing when Josh’s doctor tells him he has arthritis.   Wait, he says: not arthritis arthritis?        

For at least 10 years Josh has been tinkering with a documentary about a Noam Chomsky-like leftist thinker (Peter Yarrow of Peter, Paul & Mary).  He and his long-suffering editor (Matthew Mather) have become such a fixture in this man’s life that he no longer shuts the door around them when he goes to the bathroom.  The film gets comic mileage when Maher cuts from young Josh at the beginning of this odyssey, earnestly questioning the scholar, to Josh today: graying, wrinkled, still chatting away.  We can see that this “Q&A” will go on forever, that this man will die before Josh ever finishes. 

As Josh, Stiller isn’t stretching himself here like he did in Baumbach’s “Greenberg,” but he’s in pleasant hem-hawing mode.  His comic timing is as fine as ever.  I always like to see him, and it’s been fun to watch him age (and to age with him).   Naomi Watts is about the best actress out there, and while this is not perhaps the part she’ll be remembered for, she’s very good.  Cornelia goes to a rough ‘n’ raw hip-hop class with Darby, and when she starts to get into the energy of the unbelievably rude music (just as rude as in my day), she is funny enough.  She is also poignantly vulnerable and touching, as a woman who did want to have a baby once, but had a miscarriage.  Now, she feels, that ship has sailed.  She’s torn.  

This picture seeks to be how we live now.  There is disturbed veteran of Afghanistan, Benny (Matthew Shear), a former classmate of Jamie’s.  They reconnect via social media: the idea is that Jamie, who has no Facebook account (proudly) will open one, and then he will go and physically greet the first person to “friend” him, with a documentary crew in tow.  That the first person just happened to be Benny, whose story seems tailor-made for a documentary?  Well, that must be just another of those mysterious coincidences that seem to accrue to Jamie.     

I like Baumbach.  I would compare “While We’re Young” to one of Woody Allen’s second-tier pictures, one of the ones that feels a bit arch but still gives you things to think about and feel, and which still has bits you’ll think about fondly later.     

Rating: ***

Key to ratings:

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