The East

We are born with a chance

Ellen Page/Brit MarlingThis is the moment whereupon we can all say, in reference to Brit Marling, “We knew her when.”  The East is the third film she’s both written and starred in, and to call it “ambitious” would be similar to calling the collected works of Franz Kafka a “decent read.”

The East, to me, felt a bit like a reunion with old friends.  It’s been ages since I’ve seen Ellen Page in a prominent and layered role (and not just because I don’t care about Woody Allen), and Marling’s Another Earth seems like it happened years ago.  Actually, it did.  The film is Marling and director Zal Batmanglij’s second stab at a story centered around a cult-like group, but this one doesn’t rely on concept and a “twist” ending.

The duo’s newest effort follows Sarah Moss (Marling), the cover name for Jane, an agent working for a private intelligence firm connected to the FBI.  Sarah is contracted by her tight-fisted employer, Sharon (Patricia Clarkson) to infiltrate The East, an “eco-terrorist” group, who have promised to “jam” several multi-billion-dollar corporations in order to make them see the error of their ways.  But the people Sarah encounters are not quite the evil Emmanuel Goldstein boogeymen the popular media paint them as.  Led to The East’s HQ by Luca (Shiloh Fernandez), Sarah meets the entire group, all of whom use pseudonyms: Izzy (Ellen Page) is aggressive, distrustful, and extremely passionate about her work; Benji (Alexander Skarsgård) is gently manipulative and keeps the hair and beard of an anarchist Jesus; Eve (Hillary Baack) is deaf and immediately bonds with Sarah due to their shared skill of sign language, but as far as her role in the group, doesn’t get to do much other than act as sentinel; the aptly-named Doc (Toby Kebbell) is a former med student who has seizures due to side effects of an anti-malaria drug he prescribed to himself and his sister; Thumbs (Aldis Hodge) is a hardhead; Tess (Danielle Macdonald) is an incomparable hacker and someone you’d want as your best friend.  Sarah spends three weeks with the group and practices “Freeganism,” known in some circles as “dumpster-diving,” which entails eating nothing but food discarded by others in order to illustrate the wastefulness of modern society.  The practice involves every aspect of living on the grit of society and ensuring that everything is free – people share services, ideas, food, and so on.

There’s a formula for films like this.  That is to say, films that involve a cop or fed infiltrating a group of criminals in order to take them down.  You know the formula; it’s mostly the same as the one used for heist films.  Usually, the mole ends up getting made at a critical moment after bonding with a certain member of the group (see Reservoir Dogs, City On Fire, The Departed, etc.).  Whether or not the infiltrator switches sides is variable.  Here, yes, the members of The East abide by the tropey “each member has a special skill” convention, but in this case – a moneyless group living in a torched hotel building and working with a skeleton crew – it makes sense that the essential personnel would be varied.  Also, yes, of course Sarah switches sides, because exploiting deadly capitalist practices, including a poisoned water supply that results in brain tumors in children, is what good guys do.  However, Brit Marling wrote this, so it’s not as simple as all that.

Sarah’s interactions with the group are organic from the outset, and the wonder of it is that we don’t know how genuine she’s being in her spoken dialogue, since she’s undercover.  Content with revealing the true identities of The East to her boss, who has every intention of locking them up forever, Sarah still seems to truly care about them as individuals, which makes her both the perfect agent and a dangerous liability.  She immediately convinces Eve to leave the group, and she does it at a moment when she really doesn’t have to – she could sell the latter out just like she plans to do with the rest.  But no, not this hero.  She knows the group is using Eve, and the spot Eve leaves would be a major empty hole in the movie if it weren’t for the fact that Sarah fills her role.  Because she’s human before she is the embodiment of her work, Sarah sympathizes with the situation of Doc, who can barely perform his work anymore due to the severity of his Parkinsons-like symptoms, and even tries to befriend Izzy, who immediately wants her to leave.  The group fashions Benji as its leader despite his insistence that everyone has an equal say – remember how “long cons” work?  The conman involves the victim by making them think the entire thing was their idea?  Yeah.

One of the film’s many centerpieces is a “spin-the-bottle” scene, which according to Marling and Batmanglij, was entirely improvised.  During this, the collective, including Sarah, spin a bottle and ask the chosen person for some kind of favor that will allow the two to know each other better.  For example, “Can I shake your hand?”  The other can answer, “Yes,” or alternatively, suggest something lesser but related, such as “How about we high-five instead?”  The scene, which features a kiss between Brit Marling and Ellen Page, achieves a true openness and intimacy barely ever seen onscreen.  Moreover, none of this is done for titillation (an idea reinforced by the fact that Izzy’s suggestion that she and Sarah kiss was apparently ad-libbed).  Men also kiss men in the scene, and Skarsgård’s character does some other interesting things.  In a lesser film, this scene and another wherein the characters bathe each other in a lake, may have become one big orgy.  But it is this very restraint that makes the scenes intimate, so that when Sarah removes a browning apple from a garbage can and devours it in front of her boss, it’s real.  She’s been there.  We know it, we’ve seen it, and we’ve been there with her.

The East is a movie about saying “Enough.”  It was filmed concurrently with the BP oil spill and the dawn of Occupy.  It deals with the world as we know it now, wherein the fear of impermanence causes us to consume, throw away, and forget in excess.  It’s about omnisexuality and openness.  It’s about how quickly we’ve absorbed into our very beings things that we not only don’t need, but that have only been around for a few years (YouTube, iPhones, the current DNA of social media, and so on).  It encourages activism, but opposes militancy, and never presumes to tell anyone what to do.  This isn’t to say that it doesn’t hold its moral ground – there’s a very clear anti-apathy theme – but instead of taking a “side,” it brashly suggests that we are all on the side of humanity and Earth, that all of us should take a look at the injustices going on – the atrocities of billion-dollar companies and conglomerates, the gross unbalance of accountability, the mistreatment of wildlife, the masses’ acceptance of a world in which we worship pictures of photoshopped women and men – and be disheartened by the status quo.

Go in cold.

The East (2013); written by Brit Marling and Zal Batmanglij; directed by Zal Batmanglij; starring Brit Marling, Ellen Page, Alexander Skarsgård, and Toby Kebbell.

Frances Ha

O, the places she’ll go

Frances HaGreta Gerwig’s screenwriting career is promising.  Here, in tandem with director Noah Baumbach, she gives us Frances Ha, in which she plays the title character, a young dancer living with her longtime best friend, Sophie (Mickey Sumner).  They love each other, but are both straight, and find themselves in sedentary, inert relationships with various boneheads before always coming back to each other.  This little world they’ve created together, illustrated in wonderful opening scenes in which the two share in-jokes, smoke on their porch, and wrestle like children, sees upheaval when Sophie decides to move out.  She’s got a promising job and a dude who wants to marry her.  She’s growing up.  Frances is left with no real friends in New York, and must quickly figure out how to live by herself and/or find new roommates, while also struggling with what to do with her life.  Human problems.

But what follows is not navel-gazing.  Frances embarks upon a quiet journey through the city, first meeting and rooming with Lev (Adam Driver) and Benji (Michael Zegen) before having to move out due to a lack of rent money.  She visits her parents, has less-than-pleasant encounters with Sophie, travels to Paris alone for a short weekend, and debates with herself and her incredible patient employer, Colleen (Charlotte d’Amboise) whether to pursue dance on her own or stay with her current company, which will have her working a desk job and teaching children when time allows.  All of this is shot in perfectly rustic black-and-white, and Frances’s exploits are far more engaging than any number of suspense thrillers and monster attacks that have been staged in that very same city.

Frances herself is funny, confident, and gentle, though not stereotypically “vulnerable” as we too often require our female protagonists to be.  At one point, she shares something very important to her: always having someone who knows you so well that when you end up at the same party together, all you have to do is catch each other’s eye, and suddenly you’re both immersed in a world that no one else can understand.  Any characters listening must suspect that Frances is pining for an idealized romance, but those of us who saw the opening shots know what she really means.  The film’s ending, which ties off every thread (almost too nicely, really), is an expert example of how to do “optimistic” filmmaking.

Frances Ha is not very concerned with why things happen.  Each segment of Frances’s life plays like its own short film, and I could have easily watched another two hours of that.  Her big decision, however, is made with little explanation, and we want to know how her penultimate encounter with Sophie inspires her to take a leap that she’s avoided throughout the entire film.  What we have in this film outweighs what we don’t, but in a cool indie film about true-to-life characters with whom we get to spend less than 90 minutes, we shouldn’t have to do too much weighing.

This is what we need more of: minimalism.  Nuanced characters.  Thoughtful dialogue wherein you don’t immediately know if the character speaking is right or wrong.  Fearless language.  Female protagonists who don’t fit into any male-invented archetype.  Male supporting characters who aren’t perverts.  Serious filmmakers telling important stories without first having to sit through ten Hollywood board meetings led by people who don’t watch movies.

Frances Ha (2013); written by Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach; directed by Noah Baumbach; starring Greta Gerwig and Mickey Sumner.

 

 

 

The Iceman

Cool? Daddy-O, we are fuh-rozen

Michael Shannon and Winona Ryder“It’s bad luck to toast with water,” says Deborah (Winona Ryder) as she concludes a promising first date with Richard Kuklinski (the incomparable Michael Shannon), who states that he does not believe in luck, then goes through with the toast.  As the opening few seconds of the film shamelessly give away, Kuklinski does not go on to have the best of luck.

The Iceman follows the more or less true-to-life story of Kuklinski’s exploits as a contract killer in the employ of the Gambino crime family, namely Roy DeMeo (Ray Liotta, in yet another gangster role), and more interestingly, his attempt to maintain a wholesome family life in spite of his profession (not to mention the fact that his wife and two daughters have no idea what he does for a living).  After he’s hired by DeMeo for some high profile hits, he sets some ground rules for himself: he does not kill women or children, and has an especially vicious aversion to killing female children (due to the genders and ages of his own kids), to the point that he seemingly cannot control himself if he sees someone go after a girl.

DeMeo temporarily “fires” Kuklinski when mob infighting complicates things, leading the latter to partner up with Mr. Freezy (Chris Evans), an obnoxious ice-cream-truck-driving killer also in the former employ of DeMeo.  The partnership is strained due to the differing methods of the two killers, but the audience cannot be expected to care about that – we side with Kuklinski because of Shannon’s warm portrayal of him and the character’s insistence on leaving innocent girls out of his reticule.  Freezy could care less.  The two begin the practice of dismembering their victims and freezing the body parts (hence Kuklinski’s moniker).  In the meantime, Deborah and the girls perceive their husband/father’s latest successes as “job promotions,” which isn’t a total lie, but would I tell my family if I began killing for money?  Everyone has a different threshold when it comes to lying, but it’s almost unbelievable that such a steadfast family man could be such a different person when he’s “working.”  Many cases state that the real-life Kuklinski abused his family, which one might assume, but none of that is touched on here.  Shannon portrays the Iceman as a soft-hearted father and devoted husband who has no problem disposing of bad people in order to support his loved ones.

Shannon’s adept performance doesn’t stop director Ariel Vromen from deploying the time-honored trope of rendering a character sympathetic simply by introducing characters who are far worse (though he doesn’t need to here).  Mob boss Leo Marks (Robert Davi) and Evans’ Mr. Freezy are just about the nastiest characters to populate a screen this year.  Evans’ turn from Captain America to an evil hick is an incredible surprise, and Davi plays one of those “untouchable” mafia bosses who realizes he’s just as human (read: killable) as anyone else far too late.  James Franco even appears as a target Kuklinski claimed (in real life) that he regretted killing, simply for the fact that he allowed the man to pray for God to save him before shooting him anyway.

The film’s biggest misstep is that Vromen just can’t resist the temptation to make his own mob movie alongside the movie about Kuklinski – DeMeo becomes something of a tritagonist, leading his own misplaced scenes wherein he must decide if protecting Josh Rosenthal, an employee he considers a son (based on the real-life Chris Rosenberg and played by the inexplicably-cast David Schwimmer) is worth a major falling out with powerful criminal colleagues.  The scenes would have been fine in another movie –  Liotta’s millionth role as a mob boss stock character, as good as he is, is exhausted.  None of it goes anywhere, because neither Kuklinski nor Deborah have anything to do with him after the film’s two-thirds mark.

The other gear-grinder is the director’s refusal to take responsibility for the story’s content once the film reaches its end.  He so ardently aligns with the very humanely-depicted Kuklinski, but then throws him to the wolves once he’s captured and ends the film with a few lines of onscreen text: Kuklinski, these titles tell us, received a life sentence, got tossed in the cell block where his child-murdering brother also lived, and never saw his family again.  This is as if to say, “Hey, family man or not, crime is crime.”  It’s sharply dismissive, and the mostly-great film that comes before it deserves better.  Don’t leave us to interpret story content; maintain a narrative trajectory.

As with most of Shannon’s films, he carries the whole package on his shoulders, and Winona Ryder matches him every time she’s allowed to try.  These bits are what I hope viewers will recognize this film for.  I doubt anyone was begging for a movie about Kuklinski, but as Shannon’s name skirts house-holdedness, may plenty of aficionados backlog it.

The Iceman (2013); written by Ariel Vromen and Morgan Land; directed by Ariel Vromen; starring Michael Shannon, Winona Ryder, Chris Evans, and Ray Liotta.