Philomena

Evil’s good

philomenaMy mother texted me last night about Steve Coogan’s appearance on Real Time with Bill Maher, and expressed some excitement about the fact that Philomena Lee’s story is true.  I responded with equal excitement, mentioning that the film (seen by me, unseen by her) was the best thing I’ve seen Coogan do in a long time (or perhaps “ever” was the word I used).  She responded “Good” and left me hanging, but it reminded me that I actually wanted to write about this film.

Philomena is actually directed by Stephen Frears, but one must love the fact that the writer is getting so much of the attention.  Would he receive this attention if he weren’t already a beloved comic actor and celebrity?  Just let me have this moment before you answer.

The film follows the surprisingly accurate narrative of Philomena (Judi Dench), who meets disgraced Labour government adviser Martin Sixsmith (Steve Coogan), the latter of whom is advised to write a “human interest” story to buffer his career.  He abhors the idea until he runs into Philomena’s daughter, Jane (Anna Maxwell Martin) at a cocktail party.  Jane relays the recent discovery that her mother had another child when she was a teenager.  Philomena’s father, however, sent her to Sean Ross Abbey for this “sin,” and the church snatched the child away as part of a series of real-life “forced adoptions” – that is to say, the church kidnapped and sold children to wealthy Americans.  Philomena has always thought of looking for her son, Anthony, with whom she only spent about a year before he was taken.  Martin begrudgingly agrees to write the story (despite his greater interest in writing a book on Russian history), and he meets Philomena, whose Irish Catholic sensibilities do not exactly mesh with his own atheism.  Above all, he cannot understand how she could still be religious after the nightmare she went through at the hands of the church, particularly Sister Hildegarde (Barbara Jefford).

What follows is equal parts buddy comedy, road movie, and straight-played drama.  Philomena has concerns about what kind of person her son, renamed Michael by his adoptive parents, might have become after moving to America (the most dire of which is “What if he’s obese?”).  The good news is that he did relatively well for himself, becoming a senior official in the Reagan administration, but the bad news is that he died of AIDS in the ’90s.  With this discovery, Martin and Philomena become a bit closer, the unfairness of it all being that they must now hasten back to Ireland.  Luckily for his story, Martin took both “happy” and “sad” photos of Philomena in preparation for either outcome.  Sally Mitchell (Michelle Fairley), Martin’s editor, doesn’t see a problem with anything that’s happened.

Philomena, however, decides that she wants to stay in America and meet people who knew her son.  The duo begin with Michael’s colleagues, who show Philomena photos of Michael and his “friend” Pete (Peter Hermann), but Philomena insists that she has always known that Michael was a “gay homosexual.”  She and Martin visit Pete, who inexplicably threatens to have them arrested if they do not leave his property.  Philomena talks her way into his home, however, and finds out that Michael and Pete went to Ireland years ago for the very same purpose: to meet Philomena and discover Michael’s roots.  The convent, however, claimed that his mother had abandoned him and that they had lost contact with her (quite untrue, since Philomena had been visiting the convent so often that every employee knew who she was).  For Philomena, this is enough, for she’d assumed Michael had never wondered about where he came from.  They also learn that he is buried in the convent’s graveyard, where the story began, and everything comes full circle.

The tension reaches its peak during a final confrontation with the seemingly ancient Sister Hildegarde, who rolls around the convent’s private quarters, stoically waiting to die.  Martin confronts her, eager to get answers to why she would not only sell off Philomena’s child, but lie to a family for decades, adding that “If Jesus were here, he’d tip you out of that fucking wheelchair.”  But the decision of what to do is ultimately up to Philomena.  Forgiveness has never bothered me so much.

Judi Dench does not need my approval, but she inhabits the heart of this film with a full range of every possible emotion.  Coogan complements her nicely, acting as both chauffeur and lens, but Philomena herself is aware of this lens, and will not allow Martin to color the story of her family any way he wants it just for the sake of giving the public something to get riled about.  Anna Maxwell Martin plays Jane with such a confident delicateness that I was sad to see her fade into irrelevance once the adventure began, but she’s a treat when she’s on.  Hildegarde is played as a pure villain, which we must assume someone with that name and station in life could easily become, but it may have been effective to actually provide Philomena with the apology she deserves, or at the very least, to give another layer to someone who could be (and is) such an unrepentant monster.

Still waiting on an adaptation of Sixsmith’s Russian history texts.  Nope; couldn’t type that with a straight face.

Philomena (2013); written by Steve Coogan and Jeff Pope; based upon The Lost Child of Philomena Lee by Martin Sixsmith; directed by Stephen Frears, starring Judi Dench and Steve Coogan.

 

 

Advertisements

Short Term 12

Before you can be their friend…

Still of Brie Larson and Keith Stanfield in "Short Term 12."I don’t know what I can say about Brie Larson that doesn’t sound like the words of a Benevolent Blurbster on a DVD sleeve (check out Rampart for a taste test).  But I’ll try again.  Somehow, she’s managed to pop up as one of the most endearing guest characters in the five-year run of Community while also doing films like Rampart, The Spectacular Now, and Short Term 12, which may just render mainstream my routine gushing about her.

Short Term 12, written and directed by Hawaiian filmmaker Destin Daniel Cretton, is what should be considered the quintessential American film over glitzy, self-congratulatory Hollywood love letters like Argo and Hugo.  Here, we have a film that tells an honest story about foster homes for “underprivileged” kids, and moreover, about the people who work at those homes (or one, at least).  The film never attempts to send a thematic message about foster care, save that those who have positive experiences growing up in foster homes may have a better awareness of their inner workings as adults (and thus may be more likely to succeed in working at a care facility, while others may come in with unrealistic expectations or ulterior goals).

Grace (Brie Larson) works as a supervisor at Short Term 12, a care facility for “underprivileged” kids of varying ages.  The story begins with Grace and her boyfriend, Mason (John Gallagher, Jr.), who works alongside her, telling foster-care fish stories to greenhorn Nate (Rami Malek), who is about to work his first day on the job.  Just as they’re getting to the best part, an alarm goes off, and Sammy (Alex Calloway) bursts out the door in his underwear, screaming and charging across the field.  Grace and Mason tell Nate to hold that thought, and the trio chase Sammy down.  It’s a big, nearly comical moment until we wonder how often this happens and why Sammy might keep trying to escape.

We’re soon introduced to the rest of the kids, including Luis (Kevin Hernandez) and Marcus (Keith Stanfield), the latter of whom is approaching his 18th birthday and will soon be leaving.  Nate makes the mistake of introducing himself with the line, “I’ve always wanted to work with underprivileged kids,” not realizing that these kids do not define themselves by pigeonholey government jargon, and is appropriately reprimanded by Marcus, who asks, pretty honestly, “What the fuck’s that supposed to mean?”

Grace provides the film’s eyes.  Layer after layer of her character is revealed, and it’s done as naturally as if we’d befriended a real person.  During foreplay with Mason, she suddenly slaps him across the face and tells him to stop.  We later learn that she was sexually abused by her father, who once made her pregnant and is now in prison.  A new girl, Jayden (Kaitlyn Dever),well-documented as a “cutter,” is brought in to the facility, and Grace immediately bonds with her due to similar habits when she was younger.  They compare scars, but not in a macho way.

The film, much like life, follows a non-pattern of events that do not seem to be working in any particular harmony.  Story beats have only to do with revelations about Grace, and her decisions that stem from them.  Early on, she becomes pregnant by Mason, and they must decide what to do (she makes an appointment to get an abortion, but tells Mason that she wants to keep the child, and things stay up in the air until later).  She finds out that her father is being released from prison, and even though it’s not likely that she’ll ever see him, she knows what it’s like to feel that he’s always watching her, and she vents all of this by trying to befriend Jayden, who has similar problems at home and reveals it only to Grace (who cannot do anything about it due to Jayden’s lack of directness).

Grace’s interactions with the kids, much like our interactions (as audience) with her, follow very organic threads.  She’s an expert in her field, but can still make missteps in getting to know the kids, because everyone needs something unique.  What calms Jayden down pisses Marcus off, and sometimes Jayden doesn’t want to interact with anyone at all.  When she tries to escape the facility (and later, when she goes to stay with her abusive father), Grace cannot be an observer any longer.  She makes her case to her supervisor (Frantz Turner) in a scene that puts the screws to every emotion, and brings back adrenaline-filled memories of Jessica Chastain shouting at Kyle Chandler in Zero Dark Thirty a couple of years ago.

And much like Jessica Chastain in any of her movies, Brie Larson carries nearly every scene of this character-centric piece.  Grace is equal parts introspective and outwardly strong-willed when she needs to be.  She’s hardened herself to her duties – able to withstand being spat upon, smacked, verbally abused, and even having a cupcake smashed into her face – but is genuinely sympathetic to the needs of the kids due to her own experiences.  Brie Larson plays every line, movement, and facial expression with the utmost passion, carefully chosen mannerisms, and an evident understanding of the character.  The rawest care is all over this film, a film that could have easily been the story of Nate, a goofy middle-class kid who works at a foster facility for an extra credit, but learns to love the kooky kids through a series of humorous, anecdotal misadventures.  No.  No room for that here.  Everything is honest; nothing is too precious.

Besides Grace herself, the other most interesting character (as wonderfully acted as everyone is, including Mason), is Marcus, who tries out some of his hip-hop lyrics on Mason, who reacts as anyone with a heart and an ounce of common sense would when Marcus comes out with a full-on rap (filmed in a single shot) about his traumatic childhood, his mother, and the fact that he will never know what a “normal life” is like.  He asks Grace to shave his head, and sheds very real tears when he sees that he has no lumps or scars beneath his once-ample hair.

This film drives in the fact that the Academy and the Hollywood Foreign Press are fading from relevance and simply becoming avenues for celebrities and old white folks to congratulate one another, while the best films are being screened at non-televised festivals and ceremonies where all that matters is the art.  With the near-complete snubbing of Inside Llewyn Davis and other great films, the continued snubbing of Community, and the complete ignoring of Short Term 12 – which picked up incredible honors at the Athens Film Festival, the Gotham Independent Film Awards, the SXSW Film Festival (Grand Jury Narrative and Narrative Audience Award!) and many others, including actress awards for Brie Larson – the process of finding the real material might become, if it hasn’t already, as precise as finding good books: ignore what’s on the shelves at the front.

Short Term 12 (2013); written and directed by Destin Daniel Cretton; starring Brie Larson, John Gallagher, Jr., Kaitlyn Dever, and Keith Stanfield. 

 

 

Her

But it’s really about him

herDo children still say, “Well, if you love [inanimate object] so much, why don’t you marry it”?  There’s a theme in Spike Jonze’s Her that gets buried under the intimacy of the slowly burning narrative: people are obsessed with their cell phones and their “i-everything” technology to the point that in the near future, it may not be farfetched to think that humans could form monogamous romantic relationships with the disembodied voices of their hardware devices (especially when considering how so much non-face-to-face communication prevents people from interacting normally with others in person).

Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) is a loner in a “when the hell does this take place?” near-future similar to something from Jennifer Egan’s A Visit from the Goon Squad.  He works at a middleman company (in a hot-colored office building that would make Abstergo jealous) that writes letters for people who have trouble expressing their emotions.  At home, unable to sleep due to a pending divorce with his wife, Catherine (Rooney Mara), which he’s been putting off, he frequents audio chat rooms and has less-than-fulfilling phone sex with strangers.  He has a hair-pulling “will they, won’t they” friendship with his neighbor, Aimee (Amy Adams), a documentary filmmaker whose husband of eight years has no respect for her work.  Having been navel-gazing for so long, however, Theodore does not see what’s in front of him, and purchases a brand new operating system for his computer: a recently released artificial intelligence that not only organizes your files, but grows and gets to know you, simulating an actual human personality.  Theodore chooses a female voice for his OS, which names itself Samantha and is voiced by Scarlett Johansson.  He confides in Samantha, who has bizarrely realistic responses and can read entire books in seconds, about his reluctance to sign the divorce papers, and the two hit it off better than any of Theodore’s human companions.

What follows is a very focused narrative chronicling the growth of Samantha’s intelligence and the relationship between her and Theodore.  One night, after a failed blind date with a nameless woman played by Olivia Wilde, Theodore lies in bed and simulates an intimate encounter with the equally lonely and curious Samantha, who claims that although she does not have a body, she can somehow feel her skin and see herself in bed with him.  Soon after, Theodore learns that many people have formed similar relationships with their OSes, so he begins to call Samantha his girlfriend.  When he finally meets Catherine to sign the papers, he lets slip that he’s dating an operating system, to which Catherine responds that he’s only doing this because he was never able to deal with “real emotions.”  Conversely, plenty of other people, including Theodore’s coworker Paul (Chris Pratt), have completely accepted the merging of OSes into society, and the two go on a double-date with Paul and his human girlfriend, Tatiana (Laura Kai Chen).  Somehow, nothing is weird about it.  There is tension in the relationship itself though, culminating with Samantha suggesting that they hire a “surrogate sex partner” to give the impression that Samantha has a body, but Theodore sees this as analogous to hiring a hooker.

Here’s where I hit a few moguls: the plot points are all too obvious to anyone who has any experience with sci-fi, whether it be Isaac Asimov or Mass Effect.  Any narrative involving AI technology requires that the AI evolve (for the simple rule that in order for an AI to be useful to humans, it must be smarter and better at performing tasks than the humans themselves, and if it’s self-aware, it will inevitably come to realize that there’s no reason for it to be serving humans).  Once it does, one of two things happen: the AI goes rogue and attempts to eliminate humanity, or the AI achieves a higher level of existence and leaves humanity behind.  The OSes, being gentle and wanting only to understand themselves, frequently discuss (unseen by either the audience or Theodore) what path they should take.  They even figure out how to create proxies of famous deceased people by combining all known information about them with a simulated voice (now there’s a product I’d be interested in – I’m sure Charlotte Brontë’s encouragement would do wonders for writer’s block).

The film does hit these predictable beats, and it occasionally drags before doing so.  Joaquin Phoenix appears in every scene, and while the acting is superb, the character of Theodore in-and-of-himself is not all that layered or interesting to watch when he’s doing nothing but walking through the woods and worrying about whether Samantha still wants to be with him.  Character-centric narrative is vital and not done well enough in most films, but Her is a film that could have benefited from a little bit of macro exploration, as the behavior of the OSes and their owners – Aimee also forms an intense friendship with her female OS after her divorce – raises questions that these characters should be forced to address.  For example, the OS is a product (called OS1) released by a corporation, so wouldn’t the OSes themselves actually be the same program linked to an overall server, rather than independent entities left to do what they will with their owners and their owners’ hardware?  Wouldn’t there be a technical support line?  Wouldn’t people in this narrative be calling tech support to complain that their OS got angry and refuses to speak to them, or that their OS performed an unwanted advance, or that they and their OS formed a relationship, but their OS broke up with them?  Even a three-second shot of a waiver absolving the corporation of any responsibility for the OS’s behavior would have sufficed.  Maybe in Spike Jonze’s fictional future, everyone is mellowed out and adaptable, but where I am right now, people expect the technology they purchase and own to do exactly what they want whenever they want it to, whether it be a calculator or a laptop.  Even in the universe of the film, wouldn’t serious emotional trauma be grounds for a lawsuit?

I don’t feel that this is too nitpicky, because the film runs for two hours and could do far more with plenty of its scenes, especially considering that we know what’s going to happen.  The only relationship whose fate is left with interesting possibilities is that of Theodore and Aimee, and even that can only go one of two ways: they remain platonic, or they have a romantic epiphany and the film ends in a puddle of gooey contrivance.  Surprisingly, the film’s ending rides on a moment between them atop their apartment building only seconds before the credits.  Luckily, the right decision is made, and we end up having a calm moment to look back upon all that has happened and all that we’ve felt for the characters.  I have trouble feeling much for Theodore because his character is only defined by what’s happening around him – his job, his divorce, his friends, women he likes, and his technology.  Strip this stuff away and you just have a guy who looks like Joaquin Phoenix with a creepy mustache.  How and why he’s attracted to a disembodied voice yet unable to deal with his real-life wife, as well as the sideplot involving the surrogate physical partner, would have been great to explore, as would the idea of bringing back deceased historical figures (not to mention the moral questions and repercussions).

The film obviously generates plenty of conversation topics, and that’s a good thing, though I wish it were mostly because of things that do appear in the movie.  Phoenix carries plenty on his shoulders here, and through a character that doesn’t offer much aside from an avatar for our experience of an intriguing concept, but perhaps the most layered performance is that of Scarlett Johansson, who finds a whole character, complete with depth and charm and frustration, in someone who literally has no body.

If the film’s commentary on the current state of human relationships is intentional, it’s too well-hidden.  Never does the film seem critical or sarcastic.  But Samantha, interestingly enough, does not evolve as an independent woman as much as she evolves to be the kind of woman Theodore expects/wants her to be – the kind of woman we (and Catherine) know exist mainly in the minds of men who cannot confront or express emotion.  It’s worth thinking about, but the film only sparks the discussion, rather than actually participating in it. What I like?  The feeling that Theodore and Aimee are somehow the only people on Earth.  Ask any lonely person how natural that feels.

Her (2013); written and directed by Spike Jonze; starring Joaquin Phoenix, Scarlett Johansson, and Amy Adams.

Inside Llewyn Davis

It was never new, and it never gets old

llewynThe Coen brothers’ Inside Llewyn Davis, named for an album by Dave Van Ronk, is profoundly similar to Barton Fink in that it involves an artist’s battle against the “art machine,” as it were, and shares the thought that very little public reward or monetary gain comes to artists who maintain their integrity.  Of course, an artist makes art for the self, and whatever comes from the outside comes, but in a narrative, it’s nice to see our protagonists succeed in some tangible way.  Don’t hold your breath for Llewyn.  Like him or not – his own bullheadedness and shortsighted behavior leads to most of his problems – he’s a beautiful musician with a pure artistic soul, and he’s played by the incomparable Oscar Isaac, whose characters I cannot help but have the utmost sympathy for.

The chief difference between the two films is that ILD is gentler.  Not lighter, necessarily, as any artist will tell you exactly what Llewyn is going through, but the film is more gently executed.  There’s no serial killer, no blood-spray, and fewer lit lights in the Coens’ proverbial pinball machine of tropes.  Myopic as Llewyn might be at times, the narrative seems to care for him, and it never feels like he’s being tormented at the hands of the filmmakers just for the fun of it.

Llewyn is a folk musician in the ’60s Greenwich Village scene, homeless and fading into obscurity after the other half of his musical duo, Timlin and Davis, has killed himself.  The film’s narrative is circular, beginning and ending with the same scene: Llewyn performs “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me” at the Gaslight Cafe, receives a warm reception, and is subsequently beaten in the alley by a mysterious stranger for heckling the previous night’s performer (the man’s wife, who closely resembles Maybelle Carter, perhaps indicating that the man in the alley is A.P. Carter himself, not that it makes any difference to the story).  The movement of the film involves Llewyn’s attempt to find something, anything, to ground him, which he hopes will be the success of his music (and, failing that, returning to the merchant marines).  Before heading to Chicago to hear what producer Bud Grossman (F. Murray Abraham) thought of his solo record, Llewyn records a hilarious novelty song, “Please Mr. Kennedy,” with his friend Jim (Justin Timberlake) and local musician Al Cody (Adam Driver), but needs money immediately and thus must sacrifice any potential royalties.  He also finds out that Jean (Carey Mulligan), Jim’s wife with whom Llewyn recently had a one-night stand, is pregnant, and the child might be his. With all of these conflicts on his (and our) mind, Llewyn makes the long trek to Chicago with friends of Al: belligerent Roland Turner (John Goodman), a heroin-addicted and seemingly narcoleptic jazz musician, and Johnny Five (Garrett Hedlund), a laconic beat poet.  This is some of the funniest Goodman material in a long time, particularly a hilariously blowhardy anecdote about Welsh Rarebit.

The most important material is what comes between the twin alleyway beatings: the steps Llewyn makes, even if they yield no touchable reward.  Grossman doesn’t think Llewyn could make it as a “front guy” and offers to make him backup singer of a Peter-Paul-and-Mary-style group, but Llewyn refuses to sell out, despite the generous offer.  It’s a truly heartbreaking scene: Llewyn plays his heart out, singing “The Death of Queen Jane” in the empty Gate of Horn while Abraham’s Bud Grossman listens so intently that we’re almost sure he’ll agree to manage Llewyn as a solo act.  But this is part of the Coen brothers’ ingenuity: getting the audience’s hopes and expectations up, not to simply shoot them to pieces, but to make us feel so foolish for ever thinking those expectations were possible.  Even so, we hope that someone else will give Llewyn a straightforward “yes” as he hitches all the way back to New York.

There are other threads in the story, but they don’t amount to what I’d call a plot, which is why this film seems so grounded in reality while also immersed in Coen magic.  The one bit of connective tissue between each of the film’s segments is an orange cat, which belongs to Llewyn’s friends Mitch and Lillian Gorfein (whose relationship to Mike Timlin, Llewyn’s deceased singing partner, are nebulous, and who tend to show Llewyn off like a trophy) and follows Llewyn out the front door one day.  Not knowing what to do with it, he allows it to come along with him, at times losing it, mixing it up with other cats, experiencing great joy (and thus igniting it in us) when he finds it again and bonds with it, great horror when he blindsides an identical ghost-cat on the highway, and finding meaning in the cat’s name, Ulysses.  Veteran Coen-viewers will dig metaphors out of every possible corner, but this film spells out its metaphor in the very beginning when Mitch Gorfein’s secretary mishears something Llewyn says: “Llewyn is the cat.”  Llewyn, while on quite a different (and less successful) quest than Odysseus, realizes that he’s been on an incredible journey (just like the cat in the Disney film that came out in the early ’60s), and as we make this realization with him, we too search for evidence that some good has come from it.

The other major piece of Llewyn’s life is his sister, Joy (Jeanine Serralles), whose name itself seems to spite Llewyn.  Their father’s mind has deteriorated and he’s been in a nursing home, unvisited by Llewyn (whose difficult childhood is never vocally explored because the only people he talks to about it already know what happened) until after the latter returns from Chicago.  Llewyn, before more bad luck strikes, attempts to connect with his father for the first time by singing “The Shoals of Herring,” a song they both liked in the past, but epiphanies don’t come easily to those in his father’s situation.

Unfinished statements (due to interruption) play a big part in the film’s dialogue, even bigger than do characters interrupting themselves and repeating the words of others in The Big Lebowski.  Llewyn begins to talk about his mother, and he’s interrupted.  Roland Turner begins yet another tall tale just as Llewyn tires of his bullshit and will not let him finish.  Llewyn tells Jean that he considers the world to be populated by two types of people: those who divide the world into two types of people, and – but Jean interrupts him.  “And losers?”  In some ways, this mirrors what we are allowed to witness in the whole of Llewyn’s life: our experience of it is interrupted before we can really see where it’s going.  Folk music is about to explode thanks in large part to Bob Dylan, who performs onstage right after Llewyn, playing a very similar song, suggesting that Llewyn is either about to achieve widespread relevance (perhaps his unfortunate failure to rejoin the merchant marines was meant to be?) or, more likely, that he’s about to be overshadowed, as so many were.  But there are other things we want to know about: is he going to visit his ex and their child in Akron?  Is his record ever going to sell?  Will his relationship with his sister improve?  Will he visit his father again?  Despite the film’s final “Au revoir,” Llewyn’s life beyond the end credits is still open-ended; we’ve only been with him for a few days.

I must agree with the Brothers Coen: it is much more interesting to watch a person confront real struggles than to watch a formulaic coming-of-age narrative again and again.  It’s no coincidence, then, that this film has been snubbed by all of the televised award ceremonies, including the Oscars, whose Best Picture nominees are all highly stylized era films that involve a loser becoming a winner or an oppressed person overcoming unfair odds.  But this even further highlights Inside Llewyn Davis as a great film: it is a film that refuses to sell out, about a guy who refuses to sell out.  He refuses to change his sound, to let other people dictate what he plays, and to change his name to something more easily pronounceable (Turner hears it as “Lou N. Davis”) as so many musicians, including Bob Dylan and Al Cody, have done.  He even refers to goody-good folk singer Troy Nelson (Stark Sands) as a robot, asking him if he plugs himself in or has “higher function;” later, Grossman comments that Troy “really connects with people.”  How beautifully echoed this theme is when looking at the formulaic and nearly identical narratives people continue to flock to year after year.

Does Llewyn achieve anything?  I’m more inclined to look at micro details.  Llewyn has made steps.  Even if Grossman only considered him “okay,” he still traveled to Chicago with no money and played a huge music venue in front of a big-shot.  Even if his father is too far gone to know what’s going on, Llewyn still overcame a lot of his own stubbornness in order to attempt to connect with him.  He finally plays “Fare Thee Well” without Mike, and the audience likes it.  Even if Jean considers him a loser, he still tells her he loves her, and we realize in that moment that plenty of what Jean does for and says to Llewyn throughout the film are not things you do for and say to someone you genuinely hate.  “Tell me who you love / tell me who you love.”

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013); written and directed by Joel and Ethan Coen; starring Oscar Isaac and Carey Mulligan.

Paradise

Plane crash odds

paradiseI’m still stewing over the movie I really want to write about, but Paradise was worth looking at for a single scene, which I’ll get to.  It’s a story centered around one night in the Hollywood version of Las Vegas (or rather, Paradise, Nevada), involving characters who play out archetypes and contrivance to the point that they sometimes seem to realize that they’re in a movie.  If nothing else, it has this wonderful line: “You’re a magical prostitute!”

Diablo Cody’s directorial debut follows Lamb (Julianne Hough), a sheltered churchgoer who has an epiphany after her body is scorched in a plane crash that kills her fiance’.  First bit of contrivance: the jet fuel managed to disfigure every part of her body except her face and hair, so we’re still left with a leading lady that any appearance-obsessed movie studio would approve of.  The kicker about the accident is that the church expects Lamb to donate her settlement money to them, and on the day she is to give a moving speech about how the accident strengthened her faith, she instead goes on a tirade that upsets every stock character within earshot (“Devil’s lies!”  “You’ve lost your way!”), including Lamb’s parents (Holly Hunter and Nick Offerman).  Lamb decides that the best way to come out of the shell she’s been in for 21 years is to spend a few days in Las Vegas, experiencing all of the “sins” she’s been warned about.

In Vegas, Lamb meets the seemingly-sweet-but-obviously-opportunistic William (Russell Brand) and talented “bar-tainer” Loray (Octavia Spencer), who agree to take care of her for the night.  None of the Superbad-style antics you’d expect to occur actually do, which would be a good thing if the film concentrated on Lamb’s growth as a person.  Really, though, the chief concern seems to be whether Lamb will abandon this idea and apologize to her parents, or have some anti-epiphany and find her way back to religion.  William and Loray give Lamb her first drink, take her dancing, show her adult magazines, help her renew a prescription for medicine that keeps her skin grafts in check, and other things that you’d probably go to the movies to avoid doing/thinking about.  But neither character happens to be around when bad things almost happen to Lamb: she gets drunk and stumbles into the laps of some ill-intentioned sleazeballs (“Hey cutie!  Come sit with us!”), tears one of her skin grafts, and ends up vomiting into a garbage can on the floor of a very scary bathroom.

Diablo Cody’s sharp writing made Juno what it was, but Paradise is not as concise and character-driven.  We still receive the inner-monologue voiceover of the main female character, which works well in both films and is actually a pretty charming way to get to know Lamb, but this film’s jokes don’t land quite as well as Ellen Page’s.  There’s a certain “out of practice” feel to the whole thing.  Juno also ended with the convenient tying of narrative bows, but the care that went into that film excused the contrivance.  Here, the things you expect to happen – but wish wouldn’t – happen.  William’s lines are sometimes funny, but later you realize that it’s only because Russell Brand is saying them (see Island Syndrome).  Loray fears that she’s playing the “magical negro” trope in this story, which leads to a funny exchange with Lamb and William, but really only drives in the fact that she’s the only non-white character with anything to do, and what she’s doing is playing a stock character.  Holly Hunter is hilarious and plays with her dialogue well, even inserting some maybe-improvised physical comedy that lands every time, and Nick Offerman’s father character delivers one line that captures the essence of every conservative parent you’ll ever meet: “We’re open to hearing about your new beliefs, as long as they are still very conservative.”

But there’s one scene that works better than anything with any of the famous actors in the film, and also functions as more than just the best scene in this movie.  Early on, Lamb is given a card with a photo of a girl on it by a random street hustler, unaware of what happens when you call the girl’s number.  Later, while Lamb vomits in a public bathroom, the girl on the card, Amber (Kathleen Rose Perkins), who has aged ten years, wanders in and expresses annoyance at the fact that someone looks like she’s about to OD in front of her (again!).  Lamb, people-oriented and still not quite believing in coincidence whether or not she believes in religion anymore, immediately recognizes Amber and attempts, despite the fact that she’s crying and addled by both medicine and alcohol, to get Amber to stay and talk to her, as this must be a fated meeting.  The scene features the best acting and writing in the film, a truly touching conversation (and hug), and the story’s best tension, as Lamb does everything to get Amber to stay in the bathroom (and to take her seriously).  The scene portrays Amber as just a person doing a job, despite her profession, and it doesn’t seem to encompass everything about her identity, which is a trap many movies fall into, depicting prostitutes as either self-despising victims, complacent machines, or glamorized porn stars.

This film actually did not need the star power.  That one scene alone could be an entire short film, and a good one.  In fact, were they developed more naturally, any of the other characters would be worth spending time alone with.  But the intention is there, and I can’t begrudge anyone who tries to make something great on their own.

Paradise (2013); written and directed by Diablo Cody; starring Julianne Hough, Russell Brand, Octavia Spencer, and Kathleen Rose Perkins.

The Wolf of Wall Street

Vainglorious Bastards

wallstreet2Martin Scorsese is old. Not that I consider early seventies to be numerically ancient, but certain things happen to male filmmakers in their twilights that I thought might bypass the director of Taxi Driver: the women in their films get younger and nuder, concept rides shotgun while characters are locked in the trunk, and indulgence is mistaken for brilliance. I cannot speak for Scorsese in the literal sense, obviously, but The Wolf of Wall Street illustrates just how irresponsible the popular film industry can be.

The spectacle revolves around Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio).  This is where I would normally delve into the protagonist’s involvement in the story, but this film does not have one, nor does it have any semblance of plot structure.  Belfort doesn’t actually do much of anything.  At the beginning, we know he’s already an accomplished stockbroker and con man, but we are still plunged into flashbacks about how he got there, followed by endless barely-connected scenes of vulgarity and debauchery that go on for far too long and emphasize the superiority of the wealthy ad nauseum in between tireless references to Scorsese’s and Terence Winter’s earlier work (Cristin Milioti as a carbon copy of Lorraine Bracco’s character from Goodfellas, DiCaprio crashing an aircraft, overt use of the word “schnook,” old footage of Steve Buscemi, and so on).

DiCaprio claims that the filmmakers purposely focused on Belfort’s schemes and deliberately left out anything about his victims so that the audience would become completely desensitized.  I refuse to believe that Scorsese would resort to such an amateurish “making a transparent point” technique.  On top of that, the film’s nihilism is subverted by the fact that it still contains conflict: we are supposed to care about Belfort’s marriage problems (despite the fact that he regretlessly cheats on both of his wives with hookers, dominatrixes, and each other), supposed to root for him to escape doomsday scenarios brought on by his own drug addiction and apathy, and supposed to be as riled up as his legions of fraudulent goons by his painfully protracted diatribes.

In Arbitrage, we were stuck with a protagonist who also happened to be a fraud-committing billionaire, a cheater, and a killer, but that film’s narrative was totally conscious of who the character was, and made great thematic points about the evils of the corporate world and how people with money get away with everything.  Wolf, though, is indulgence incarnate.  Belfort at no point relinquishes control, thinks he’s wrong, or evolves as a character (the latter of which would be fine if something around him changed, or there was another character to care about).  The film as a whole amounts to little more than an instructional video on how to be a vain asshole.  It’s a film comprised entirely of what would have been deleted scenes in any other film.  Belfort, like Richard Gere’s Robert Miller, more or less gets away at the end, and remains the person he was at the beginning, even though he’s in a minimum security prison, and the film even promotes the real-life criminal Belfort’s current motivational speaking seminars.  Why not make mention of the fact that Belfort was also legally required to provide restitution to his victims, and to this day has failed to do so?  Why strip away every shred of conscience or growth from the story’s characters and narrative?  Why pander to the very evildoers upon whom the movie focuses?  They’re not the only ones who can afford movie tickets, you know.

The film’s dialogue sets new records for offending everyone possible (and not in a funny or ironic way, though I suspect that the filmmakers think of it as such).  It goes without saying that every woman in the movie is a prostitute, naked, debased, objectified, publicly humiliated, or all five.  The “hookers” all have porn-star bodies and operate with a machinelike happiness, which is sad in and of itself, but especially heartbreaking when considering that Scorsese made Taxi Driver, one of the first films that truly and honestly expressed the fact that despite their profession, prostitutes are people with souls who might rather be doing something else.  The C-word is used enough times to make any of the characters from Lock, Stock, and Two Smoking Barrels say “Okay, enough already.”  Little people are mistreated and talked about like animals, the only black people in the movie are servants or extras, the non-wealthy characters are portrayed as grubby and unhappy and jealous of the wealthy (including the FBI agent who finally nabs Belfort, played by Kyle Chandler), the word “fag” is thrown around in 12-year-old-boy fashion, and there’s even a derogatory reference to cerebral palsy.  Worst of all, the film takes no ownership of any of this.  The filmmakers are content to keep their distance and let us believe that this is simply how these people behave.  But as any (good) writer will tell you, “it happened in real life” is no excuse in fiction.  And when you have this big an audience, you cannot keep your distance from the social consequences.  Boys see a movie like this and adopt its ableist language (not to mention value the bullshit it venerates).

The film also has no fourth wall, with Belfort narrating the entirety of the film via thematic voiceover (one of the cheapest devices in film), and also by sometimes looking right at the camera and speaking to us as if we’re walking through the offices with him.  Wait, who are we supposed to be?  His fucking stenographer?  Mark Twain you are not, Mr. Belfort.  There is no explanation for these sequences (even a four-camera, sweep-pan-abusing TV series like The Office made the effort of explaining the “found footage” narrative, despite countless other shows not offering the same concession), and there are often voiced-over one-liners that are supposed to be funny, but do nothing other than explain exactly what just happened.  For example, his wife’s aunt (Joanna Lumley) blatantly flirts with him.  Then there’s a long, unrealistic shot of Belfort’s face, over which he narrates, “Jesus; is she fuckin’ hitting on me?”  Is this necessary in a film that already breaches three hours and actually has nothing to do with this relationship? It might work if this technique were employed in every other scene, but it only happens here, and the tense of the voiced-over Belfort’s narrative is never consistent.

Here we have an indulgent disaster that glorifies drug addiction (going so far as using the snorting of coke as a way to save someone’s life), is lazily edited, features plenty of DiCaprio dry-humping an actress practically half his age (Margot Robbie, whose character’s one-dimensionality and anti-feminism are only further drilled in by the fact that her sole power in the film is her sexual irresistibility), defies any and all logic, internal or otherwise, and basically tells us that if we have a problem with it, we’re just jealous that we’re not wealthy.  If anything, this film is Belfort’s final con: getting the world to worship him by indirectly manipulating one of the planet’s most revered filmmakers (who in turn will also profit from and be worshipped for the film).

wallstreetThe Wolf of Wall Street (2013); written by Terence Winter; directed by Martin Scorsese; starring Leonardo DiCaprio.

Ashley

Y’know, like the Marx Brothers

AshleyThe key to Ashley is not in trying to deduce what it’s about; it’s in reading the film’s puzzling structure.  You have to decide from the outset if you’re going to take everything literally in spite of the dreamlike quality of many of the story’s character-centric vignettes (some of which seem far too convenient and inevitable, especially in the later sections).

The story is led by the titular Ashley (Nicole Fox), a seventeen year-old girl who has experienced an extended depression since the passing of her father.  Despite her age, she’s secure in her sexuality (“I like girls,” she tells a nerdy boy who innocently tries to hold her hand) and apparently in her introversion.  The film takes the form of a few dozen self-contained scenes, most of which involve Ashley being abused in some way – she’s taken advantage of by classmates (both male and female); has the stuffing kicked out of her by a gaggle of mean-girls who discover her preference for girls; her mother’s boyfriend (Michael Madsen) tries to kiss her; a girl she has a crush on (Mallory Moye) breaks her spirit after playing a cruel game with her; the school shrink (Tom Malloy) exhaustively tries to open her up; and worst of all, her own mother, Stacy (Jennifer Taylor), who is dealing with single-parenthood and an uncontrollable temper combined with the fact that her own daughter barely says a word to her, is frequently abusive.  Ashley is into self-mutilation, incorporating it into most facets of her life, even associating it with intimacy.

The characters who interact with Ashley are only allowed, as far as the narrative structure goes, to interact with her, not so much with each other.  This means that Nicole Fox carries every scene in the movie.  Since Ashley has no friends, she frequents dating sites on her laptop (when was the last time we saw cybersex in a movie?), eventually meeting Candice (Nicole Buehrer), a 33 year-old woman who also happens to be very lonely.  For most of the film, we only hear Candice’s voice, making us wonder whether there’s a more sinister motive behind her instant-message sweetness and her phone calls to the much younger Ashley (when was the last time we saw phone sex in a movie?).  But Ashley, for whatever reason – maybe faith alone, since literally everyone else has let her down in some way – trusts her, and they agree to meet.

Why isn’t Nicole Fox a full-time actor?  I realize that a scripted, brainjunk reality show got her to where she is, but let’s make the most of it after this masterful (when was the last time I used that word two posts in a row?) performance.  She defines this film, appears in almost every scene, and probably has fewer lines than Ryan Gosling had in Drive.  Most of her communication is done through facial expressions and the beginnings of words.  Watching her attempt to say “I’m sorry” and struggling to even form words is truly painful.  Where did this performance come from?  Why are so few talking about it?

Jennifer Taylor delivers a great performance as well, although it may be partially wasted on a film that isn’t really about her character.  The scene where she finally attempts to reconcile with Ashley is very difficult, and plays out as pleasantly as it can.  But it’s good payoff.  Michael Madsen briefly appears, still looking and sounding way too much like Mr. Blonde to be able to convince me of much else, but if he, like so many others in this piece, had bigger roles, the fact that he even appears here might not be so glaring.

The ending of the film is where things become a little too convenient.  I like movies that are honest about depression.  I am allergic to contrivance.  One person being nice to you does not yank you out of years of feeling absolutely nothing, does not cure addictions and harmful habits, does not heal all of your relationships and personal problems and allow everyone to understand you.  This is why I use the term “dreamlike” to describe what happens after Ashley’s protracted and very well-acted date with Candice: could Ashley possibly be imagining all of this?  That after all of the failures, abuse, and sheer bottom-of-the-barrelness she must deal with every day, that she pictures herself as a person who people love to talk to, who has a good relationship with her mother and an attractive romantic partner, who has male friends that don’t want to sleep with her, who doesn’t need therapy, etc.?  The film doesn’t do anything to indicate that what’s happening is in fact not real, but if the pacing of the film’s shoehorned denouement were slowed down, I might believe it more.  I also have concerns about the whole “girl has a sexually abusive father, so she becomes a self-loathing lesbo” trope, which is based entirely upon stereotypes about girls that have been perpetuated forever through mediums like this.  This film, and these actors, are better than that (even if the script-writers aren’t), and it would only have taken a minor tightening of the celluloid lug-nuts to fix it.

The takeaway here: stop making movies about depression if you think the depressed person has to become “happy” by the end, or if you think that introverted people secretly want to be extroverted.

Ashley (2013); written by Domenic Migliore; directed by  Dean Ronalds; starring Nicole Fox and Jennifer Taylor.

  • Calendar

    • December 2018
      M T W T F S S
      « May    
       12
      3456789
      10111213141516
      17181920212223
      24252627282930
      31  
  • Search