Miss Sloane

Nothing but a wall of granite

miss_sloaneMiss Sloane comes at both the perfect time and too late.  It’s realistic, sharply written, and full of speeches we need right now – in fact, I suspect if everyone took to heart the words of Elizabeth Sloane (Jessica Chastain) during a live-TV debate with arch-nemesis Pat Connors (Michael Stuhlbarg) in the center of the film, I mean really took them to heart, maybe the conversation about gun legislation (and whom it’s for) would be different.  But it’s also worth mentioning that the character herself might not mean all of it, that it’s all part of a carefully engineered campaign to pass a bill, the very passing of which is ultimately for the satisfaction of the lobbyists pushing for it.  And while the film peels back some curtains about political games and machinations, it’s more of a character study than a movie about guns.

The film is a frame story that begins in the present with Liz Sloane on trial for something we’re not yet privy to, judged by overzealous senator Ron Sperling (a very impressive John Lithgow). Liz’s beleaguered attorney advises her to plead the fifth on every question, but once Sperling starts nitpicking Liz’s personal business (specifically prescription drug habits) and deliberately mixing up facts about a certain deal with Indonesia, Liz explodes, and is now obligated to answer the remainder of the tribunal’s questions lest she perjure herself.  Cut to a few months earlier.  Liz, a highly successful and sought-after lobbyist in D.C., is given a rather insulting directive by the Gun Lobby: use sophomoric fear tactics to get more women to buy firearms.  Smug, superior Liz shrieks with laughter.  Not only does she fully understand how irresponsible this approach would be, given the progressed crime rate, but she adores a good challenge.  She quits working for Connors, taking a skeleton crew of her best subordinates along with her, but leaving her protege, Jane (Allison Pill), who refuses to jeopardize her own career for Liz’s idealism.  Liz is soon hired by Rodolfo Schmidt (Mark Strong) in support of a bill that would require universal background checks, and the battle begins.

As has been said about Jessica Chastain more than once, she carries this film.  Much of the script’s indulgent, snappy, Gilmore-Girls-esque dialogue is given to her, and she never wastes a word of it.  Gone, though, is the charm that many of Chastain’s characters are required to exude; Liz is ruthless, manipulative, and unapologetic.  She’s self-possessed, but not infallible, which is what makes studying her so fascinating.  Small fissures are visible when she’s alone.  Bits of her background come out in conversations with male escort Forde (Jake Lacy).  When one of her two long cons in the film – an ingeniously devious exploitation of gun-violence survivor Esme Manucharian (the amazing Gugu Mbatha-Raw) – becomes more personal than expected, we get a very real look at what happens when trust is violated.  This is a world where the protagonist can be one step ahead of everyone, hit rock bottom and still win, but not where people magically become friends again.

The grandest manipulation of all involves the film’s ace-in-the-hole, Jane, who is far more than an ambitious would-be grad student who looks up to Liz.  Allison Pill plays her with an inscrutability that we aren’t even aware matters until the final minutes of the film.  Stuhlbarg once again plays an antagonistic bureaucrat, and accomplishes that amazing feat of performance that allows you to steadfastly root against a character whose actor you love (maybe that’s my own compartmentalization issues talking, but it is what it is).  Mbatha-Raw’s Esme is probably the only character in the film fighting for what she actually believes in for a pure and good reason, and she becomes the most important character when she causes Liz to realize that people actually do things for reasons other than their own ego, and that self-sacrifices are sometimes necessary (and let’s face it: Liz is far overdue for one).  Lacy’s character, the escort, helps catalyze the “defrosting” process, as it were, and Liz gets some surprisingly meaningful moments out of him.  Besides Lacy’s superb performance, it’s pretty cool to see a man finally play the Hooker with a Heart of Gold role.

Liz is asked, “Were you ever normal?”  It’s difficult not to wonder how she ended up the way she is.  But the film is less about that (and not at all about guns), and more about whether this kind of character can be anything else, whether one can untangle themselves from the moral web of the political system and the toxicity that comes with power.  And Jessica Chastain is the only actress who could answer these questions in such meaningful ways.

Literally the only thing that doesn’t make sense about this film is a certain photo of George W. Bush.

220px-miss_sloaneMiss Sloane (2016); written by Jonathan Perera; directed by John Madden; starring Jessica Chastain.

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2014 Favorites

We now return you to 2015, already in progress

blackberrysnack1The internet ate my writeup of Still Alice, but to sum up: if you’d told me that one of the year’s most emotionally evocative scenes would involve Kristen Stewart delivering a monologue from Angels in America, I’d have assumed you were talking about the SNL reunion.

Same rules as usual this year, only I’ve expanded each category to five joint “winners” plus the usual sleepers (because there were a lot of great performances and productions this time around, and of such varying style).  I’ve done away with the Body of Work category, because it’s too much to keep track of, and assumes that I see absolutely everything, which I can’t.  Note that “Favorite Characters” cannot be portrayals of real people. I’ve added “The Unseen” and “The Unsung,” which comprise, respectively, the movies I wanted to see but did not have a chance to, and the movies I saw but for whatever reason did not write about on the blog (these reasons range from losing a file to not having time to simple disinterest – I don’t make money on this [but you could change that if you really wanted to: paypal billyramoneFTW at gmail).  Use the left-hand navigation or the infinite down-scroll to check out my writeups of each film.

2014 Favorites

Picture

Only Lovers Left Alive

Selma

Tracks

Birdman

A Most Violent Year

Sleepers: Wild and The Imitation Game

Actress

Charlotte Gainsbourg as Joe – Nymphomaniac

Jessica Chastain as Miss Julie – Miss Julie

Mia Wasikowska as Robyn Davidson – Tracks

Tilda Swinton as Eve – Only Lovers Left Alive

Julianne Moore as Alice Howland – Still Alice

Sleeper: Reese Witherspoon as Cheryl Strayed – Wild

Actor

David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr. – Selma

Colin Farrell as John – Miss Julie

Philip Seymour Hoffman as Gunther Bachman – A Most Wanted Man

Tom Hardy as Ivan Locke – Locke

Benedict Cumberbatch as Alan Turing – The Imitation Game

Sleeper: Ralph Fiennes as M. Gustave – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Supporting Actress

Rachel McAdams as Annabel Richter – A Most Wanted Man

Carmen Ejogo as Coretta Scott King – Selma

Kristen Stewart as Lydia Howland – Still Alice

Emma Stone as Sam Thomson – Birdman

Samantha Morton as Kathleen – Miss Julie

Sleeper: Stacy Martin as Young Joe – Nymphomaniac

Supporting Actor

Elyes Gabel as Julian – A Most Violent Year

LaKeith Lee Stanfield as Jimmie Lee Jackson – Selma

J.K. Simmons as Terence Fletcher – Whiplash

Edward Norton as Mike Shiner – Birdman

Tony Revolori as Zero Mustafa – The Grand Budapest Hotel

Sleeper: Matthew Goode as Hugh Alexander – The Imitation Game

Director

Ava DuVernay – Selma

Liv Ullmann – Miss Julie

Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

J.C. Chandor – A Most Violent Year

Screenplay

Lars von Trier – Nymphomaniac

Alejandro González Iñárritu – Birdman

Gillian Robespierre – Obvious Child

Ava DuVernay/Paul Webb – Selma

Jim Jarmusch – Only Lovers Left Alive

Favorite Characters

Eleanor Rigby (played by Jessica Chastain) – The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

Eve, Adam, and Ava (played by Tilda Swinton, Tom Hiddleston, and Mia Wasikowska) – Only Lovers Left Alive

Best Cameo

William Mapother as the Preacher – I Origins

Persona non Grata Forever

Clint Eastwood

Unseen

Boyhood, The Theory of Everything, Camp X-Ray, Big Eyes, Two Days-One Night, Ida, Winter Sleep

Unsung

Ragnarok, Still Alice, Into the Woods, The Big Ask

Best use of “Chastaining”

Well, Jessica Chastain was in four films this year, and she “Chastained” in one of them (The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby), so I can’t in good conscience give this award to anyone else.  In a close second, however, are Michael Pitt and Nina Arianda in Rob the Mob.

That does it for 2014.  If we ever meet, let’s talk about movies.  See you this year!  -RH

Miss Julie

You should’ve been an actor

Miss JulieLiv Ullmann’s adaptation of August Strindberg’s perpetually-performed 1880s naturalist play (arguably the first successful stageplay of its type, and also one that, against the popular “rule,” decided that theatre characters could be real people with more to them than a single “motivation”) pulls open the wounds of its characters and allows the audience access to all of their layers.  Ullmann, winner of a Golden Globe, nominee for a handful of Academy Awards, and longtime collaborator of Ingmar Bergman, continues her collection of brilliant adaptations, adding dialogue and sets to Strindberg’s minimalist narrative without diluting its original intention (of course, what we take that intention to be carries a slightly different context 120-something years later) – in fact, if anything, this film enhances its power.

Though Strindberg thoroughly examines the psychology of his characters, Miss Julie still revolves around a Big Idea: the title character (played here by prolific-as-ever Jessica Chastain) represents a doomed class of pompous aristocrats who invent hardships for themselves, whilst Jean (called “John” in the film and played by Colin Farrell, once again using his natural voice, which tends to bring out his best characters), manservant to the Count (“Baron” here), represents the working class, who are better-suited to adaptability as far as the roles they can play in life.  It all works because the whole messy conflict is born of very basic, very natural desires.  Miss Julie is impulsive.  And think about this: in 1888, it was okay to write an impulsive character, i.e. a person who does things just because she feels like it.  So there’s a wildcard right away, but she also has issues concerning her upbringing and her parents, whose toxic (to put it lightly) relationship caused her to hate all men, whom she still can’t seem to get away from, and during the short timeline of the story, she shifts erratically between chastising and flirting with John, who has technically promised to marry Kristin (“Kathleen” here, played by Samantha Morton).  Kathleen, who “represents” nothing, is free to be a fully-realized human being who takes no lip from anyone of any gender.

The film version could be referred to as a character study, especially given its performances and additional dialogue (written by Ullmann herself).  The imagery is beautiful and truly poignant, and although going for something that feels heightened and very old, achieves something that feels like we haven’t seen it before, even those of us familiar with Strindberg’s work.  It comes together this way because neither Julie nor John is solely responsible for their midnight tryst, nor is either of them “good” or “evil” or one-hundred-percent “correct” despite the story’s battle-of-wits structure.  These are complicated people working to get out of a momentous predicament in a rigid world.  And boy, did Ullman find the actors who could pull this off: Jessica Chastain’s version of Miss Julie spends two hours fluctuating between soft, stagy monologues about the beauty of the moon and lilacs; and prolonged fits of hysterics, during which she sheds genuine tears, minces her vocal cords, and goes red-faced before our eyes (and this all actually happens; it’s not a movie-magic trick).  Colin Farrell, in a steamrolling performance as a character who is not extremely likeable in the play, manages to make John a soft, sympathetic workman trying to reconcile one kind of love with another kind of love with self-respect.  Morton’s Kathleen, the only other character in the film, is depicted as a person who knows her station in life, but who has complex ideas about what it means to consider the ruling class “betters,” knows what should be expected of folks in Julie’s and John’s places, and reacts exactly how you’d expect someone to react to the behavior she witnesses.

Ullmann directs the film as a stage version might be directed (aside from the cuts, of course), and the minimal sets, particularly the infamous kitchen, are so realistic that the echo of the characters’ voices is heard with every line (no studio manicuring here).  The added scene of Miss Julie as a child, sending a batch of young lilacs floating down a stream, bookends the story with a similar original scene that involves Julie’s same gesture as an adult – it’s a gorgeous piece of imagery, and leaves no question as to whether the eponymous character goes through with her implied suicide in Strindberg’s original.  Consider the final images of each character: John, dressed in his servant uniform again, ascends the stairs to wait on the Baron.  Julie lies in a red pool, her lilacs clotting against a rock in the middle of the stream, unable to go forward.

If you think that’s boring, I don’t want to know you.

Miss Julie (2014); written and directed by Liv Ullmann; starring Jessica Chastain, Colin Farrell, and Samantha Morton.

A Most Violent Year

Rage against the tough-guy melodrama

XXX MOST VIOLENT DAY MOV JY 3625 .JPG A ENTAbel Morales (Oscar Isaac) is the opposite of Ray Liotta’s character in GoodFellas – y’know, since everyone feels the need to (erroneously) compare J.C. Chandor’s fiercely suspenseful A Most Violent Year to every macho gangster film ever made.  Abel, the head of a successful heating oil company, is dead-set against resorting to violence when his trucks are hijacked by unknown assailants, costing him thousands of dollars and legions of customers.  His competitors, naturally, deny knowledge of these attacks, and Abel is pressured on all sides to retaliate: the head of the Teamsters (Peter Gerety) wants him to arm all of his drivers with handguns; his wife, Anna (Jessica Chastain), whose father is a hair-trigger mobster who formerly owned the company, threatens to take matters into her own hands if Abel does not move to protect his family; and even Abel’s attorney (Albert Brooks) has a bit too much of an Al Capone vibe when discussing the company’s interests.  Abel protests: “It’s really come to this? We have to walk around outside like we’re fuckin’ gangsters?”

The film is actually more similar to Terence Winter and co.’s Boardwalk Empire than any Al Pacino vehicle, only it does Boardwalk’s ending better than Boardwalk did (read: same setup, seemingly inevitable “never saw that coming” swan song, but subverts the exhausted “stinger” ending – on another note, the film also features three Boardwalk actors).  Thus, the film feels a bit like an extended pilot for another heavy-handed serial about the danger, violence, and fallacy of the American Dream, but it ends before it becomes worn out, and it’s buffered by performances by some of today’s best working actors (Isaac, Jessica Chastain, and David Oyelowo), which despite its tissue-papery themes and symbolic imagery, keep it from being simply “good for what it is.”

Much of the narrative involves Abel’s attempts to purchase an abandoned fuel terminal on the East River, handing over a forty-percent down-payment to a group of Hasidic Jews who require Abel to close the deal in thirty days or eat the down-payment and be left with nothing.  Of course, this happens just as Julian (Elyes Gabel), a driver and close friend to Abel, is brutalized by the above thugs, later procures a handgun without Abel’s permission, and combats his attackers in a broad-daylight shootout when they try again.  The bad publicity causes Abel’s financial backers to pull out, and he’s left to come up with 1.5 million dollars on his own.  On top of that, he must deal with DA Lawrence (Oyelowo), who assumes that any moderately successful company must be riddled with corruption, and decides to invade Abel’s privacy whenever possible.

AMVY is populated with characters who pine for and attempt to recreate the days when “men were men” (English translation: when the word of a man was the only word, rich dudes traded profound threats over gambling tables, and wives were akin to property, good only to scold/bone/task with taking care of children).  Abel and Anna, though, are over that mostly-fictional fantasy time period, and the real struggle is the excruciating job of being the first to move towards progress in a world of dinosaur-ish tycoons who only discuss business from the backroom of a fancy restaurant and who say things like “You don’t want to take a loan from my kind of people.” Abel’s ordeal skates between this and his steadfast resistance to corruption, and only one of those, if either, can be completely satisfied in a story with such an inherently cynical premise (consider the film’s starkest image: the blood of an innocent person sprayed across the side of a leaking oil tank).

Isaac plays Abel, as he plays all of his near-heels, as sympathetic and genuine when anyone else would have played a villain.  Jessica Chastain’s Lady-Macbeth-like Anna, who always seems one clandestine step ahead of Abel, plays the game better than any of the faux gangsters, and her tendency towards mood-whiplash (entertaining children at a birthday party one minute, fearlessly intimidating the District Attorney while taking deliberately-timed drags from a cigarette the next) is the film’s most terrifying wildcard.  The standout performance, maybe, is that of Elyes Gabel (in part because Isaac and Chastain are reliably stunning in everything at this point) as the hard-luck Julian, who just can’t get a break.  Watching him struggle to make big decisions causes serious heartache, and one of the most effectively troubling things about the film is the later realization that his one-hundred-percent-undeserved misfortune actually contributed to the successes of the character we were made to root for, and that we’re pretty much okay with Pyrrhic victory over actual justice, when it comes down to it.

Like most of what comes out of J.C. Chandor, this is one of the most atmospheric, well-scored, and understated pieces of the year.  It is, however, worth wondering about one thing: how do the Morales’ daughters get any sleep with all that yelling?

A Most Violent Year (2014); written and directed by J.C. Chandor; starring Oscar Isaac, Jessica Chastain, Elyes Gabriel, and David Oyelowo.

Interstellar

Space magic solves everything

interstellarChristopher Nolan’s Interstellar starts as simply another Dead Mom narrative with a throwaway title, orbiting a part-time Boring Hero with a heart of gold who only wants the best for his children.  This character, Cooper (Matthew McConaughey), who apparently has no first name, reminisces about the days when he was a NASA test pilot, before humanity screwed up the Earth so badly that we were forced to become an entirely agrarian society.  He speaks most of this in overt exposition to Donald (John Lithgow), his father-in-law, who shares a rural homestead with Cooper and his kids, Tom (Timothée Chalamet) and (more importantly) Murphy, also known as Murph (Mackenzie Foy, who will eventually grow up to be Jessica Chastain).  Murph is a borderline genius for her age, and her current project is an attempt to scientifically prove that a “ghost,” for lack of a better word, is sending her messages by altering the dust on her bedroom floor and knocking books off her shelf.  Cooper and Murph, bored with the farming life and convinced (whether through blind hope or something else) that the planet can be saved, follow coordinates provided by the “ghost,” which lead them to the HQ of an underground organization that turns out to be the thought-to-be-defunct NASA.

There’s some interesting background here.  In the gap since the golden age of space travel, the Apollo missions (including the first moon landing) have been discredited as clever propaganda, and Murph’s schoolteachers consider her insistence that humanity has traveled to the moon analogous to sharing porn with her classmates.  The idea is to encourage children to want to work on saving this planet, rather than fantasize about traveling away from it.  Very good point, actually.  But the film does not want us to side with the teachers, and makes quite clear to us that Earth is doomed.  At the new NASA HQ, Cooper is convinced at ridiculous speed (considering the pacing up to this point) by Professor Brand (Michael Caine) and his brilliant daughter, Dr. Amelia Brand (Anne Hathaway), to pilot an incredibly advanced spaceship, the Endurance (modeled after the International Space Station) to travel through a wormhole believed to have been placed near Saturn by another galactic civilization that wishes to save humanity, and through this wormhole, find a planet that can support human life.  A crew of other astronauts named Edmunds, Miller, and Mann (the latter’s picture is mysteriously the only one not shown) previously traveled through the wormhole to investigate three potential candidate planets, and the deal was this: if they landed on a planet that was not viable, they would remain there and perish so that no resources would be wasted rescuing them.  Cooper and Amelia, along with Romilly (David Gyasi) and Doyle (Wes Bentley) and two robots called TARS and CASE, will visit these planets one at a time and confirm their viability.  The drama at home, however, trumps all of the sci-fi prep: Murph is devastated that Cooper is abandoning her, and it’s hard not to be on her side, even after all the dire hypothesizing by the roundtable of talking heads.  The scene in which Cooper accepts the mission is needed to begin the film’s main arc, but it’s a synthetic transition, as rushed and clumsy as an equal moment in a superhero origin story, complete with the audience realizing that this was a much better narrative before the hero gained his powers and everything went to sci-fi land.

Through one thing and another, the astronaut crew crosses the wormhole and visits Miller’s planet for only a few hours, though its proximity to a black hole causes time to pass much more quickly.  It’s close by and will not use much fuel to reach.  However, the classic “lost contact with operative” trope plays out predictably: long story short, Planet Miller is not viable.  It’s 100% ocean.  Nightmare fuel comes in the form of mountainesque tidal waves that seem to target whatever has just landed on the planet’s surface.  The whole scenario is not unlike similar planets seen in other sci-fi, including a Mass Effect mission (apparently, filmmaker after filmmaker underestimates how popular those games are).  Because of the time dilation, twenty-three years pass for Romilly, who is still onboard.  No word on what he ate and drank during that time.  It’s supposed to be a big moment, but the only difference in Romilly is that he’s grown a few gray beard hairs, plus he hasn’t figured out much of any use (not to mention that the film’s formula requires him to be the next bumped-off crew-member).

While all of this happens, Murph, now played by the prolific Jessica Chastain, remains on Earth, not knowing whether her father is alive, and still harboring a grudge for the way he left her.  One of the film’s strongest scenes involves Murph sending Cooper a message in which she reminds him of his promise to return home by the time the two of them are the same age – well, today, she’s the age he was when he left.  Outside of grieving over him, Murph has been working with NASA to figure out how humanity can collectively escape Earth’s gravitational pull if they indeed find another planet.  Brand, though, on his deathbed, admits that humanity can never escape without data from a singularity behind a black hole.  Murph reveals this to Amelia and Cooper, who argue about which planet to visit next, and ultimately decide on Mann, even though (or, on another level, specifically because) all narrative signs point to this being a terrible idea (see Principle of the Inept Adventurer).  Mann’s planet, of course, is a frozen wasteland, and Mann himself (played by Matt Damon) simply couldn’t go through with dying there per his mission, so he lied about the planet’s viability in order to be rescued.  Some truly terrific sequences, absent of the ridiculous CG most films would use, take place, and our characters are left with one choice: figure out some way to get behind the black hole and transmit the data back to Earth (did anyone think they wouldn’t have to do this?).

The film’s science, preposterous as its plot is, is relatively sound, especially considering that a cosmologist (Kip Thorne) birthed the idea for the film with producer Lynda Obst, and acted as consultant on it, often having to talk Nolan out of making the story any wackier.  While much of the space adventure is based upon hypotheticals (for example, an actual wormhole has never been observed, but given what we know about relativity and gravity, it is hypothetically possible).  The ultimate result, however, especially what’s behind the black hole’s event horizon, relies on molding the science around plot contrivance, so while watching Matthew McConaughey float around a five-dimensional space library wherein time is not linear is pretty satisfying in terms of achieving a profound conclusion to the “fi” questions of the film, it renders keeping track of the “sci” parts ineffectual.

The screenplay, penned by Jonathan and Christopher Nolan, is much the same as any Dark Knight or Inception script.  No character speaks if it’s not either exposition or a seed planted for something later in the plot, and no one is ever wrong when they present some big idea (for example, Anne Hathaway’s character gives a lengthy and impassioned monologue about how “love” might be the key to solving everything in the universe because it’s an emotion/experience we don’t fully understand, before being dismissed by the predominately male crew).  Nolan’s oft-criticized female characters become more in Interstellar, but only marginally and not necessarily in the right way: it’s as if Nolan has responded to this criticism by having his female characters do more for the plot instead of actually characterizing them.  For example, Murph is continually emphasized as being the central character of the film, upon whom everything relies and whose intellect and accomplishments everyone reveres, but she actually doesn’t have many scenes by herself, and for being played by three exceptional actresses (the third being the magnificent Ellen Burstyn in a cameo), the only parts of her 80+ year life that are important enough to include in the film are the ones that revolve around her attachment to her father (read: Hollywood Daddy Issues).  We don’t see anything between Cooper leaving and Murph sending him a message for the first time (when she’s in her thirties).  We see nothing of her relationship with rando Getty (Topher Grace); just an impulsive kiss, and then it’s fifty years later and they have a gaggle of adult offspring.  Amelia, Hathaway’s character, the only female astronaut, operates entirely on emotion, in stark contrast to pragmatist Cooper, and she plays second fiddle to him throughout the journey (even if she ends up being right about which planet is best to visit, Cooper never acknowledges that he got someone killed and wasted valuable equipment and resources by heading to Mann’s planet when Amelia wanted to go to Edmunds’).  She’s also got that Ripley 2.0 hairdo going, similar to Sandra Bullock in last year’s Gravity (and it’s difficult not to compare that film to this one).  It’s as if the filmmakers are trying to placate those of us who consistently bemoan the absence of layered female characters in blockbuster films, but no amount of space stations named after Murph can stifle this question: why isn’t Murph the main character?  I.e. the astronaut who actually goes on the dangerous adventure to save humanity?  Jessica Chastain is one of the most adept and charismatic actors of any gender we have right now, and Anne Hathaway, juggernaut of nuance and onscreen honesty, is much more than a soapy foil to the brooding bro.  If we needed Murph on Earth, Amelia (or, say, Murph’s mother, if we needed Amelia in space) could easily have helmed the voyage.  Too often in Nolan’s films, the women are simply opposites of each other (e.g. Inception, wherein Marion Cotillard played a full-figured, exotic beauty against Ellen Page’s skinny teenage nerd/genius) who frame the male hero and affect him in the various ways he needs to be affected in order to keep, y’know, hero-ing.

Beyond that, while the film tries its hardest to dodge various genre trappings, it falls into twice as many and forgets about plenty of other ones.  It’s one thing to say your film is inspired by 2001 and Metropolis; it’s another to have the same basic thing happen at the end (think about the ways in which Dave transcends human existence, then watch Cooper’s tumble into the black hole again).  The film wants TARS and CASE to remind you of HAL, and thus fear that one of them will go rogue and try to murder the crew, while the dashing usual-lead Matt Damon is plotting carnage right there in front of you.  But none of this is surprising because virtually every sci-fi adventure since Event Horizon (and plenty before) has that character – the brilliant scientist, the “best of us,” who actually turns out to be a self-interested nut-job and tries to kill everyone – and from the moment Mann is mentioned, it’s pretty obvious that he’s the last person who’s going to be of any help (’cause this galaxy ain’t big enough for two rugged male leads).

Where Gravity’s most telling moments were silent shots of Sandra Bullock’s feet, Interstellar talks its themes at you.  All of the conversations are well-acted and nice to listen to, but they’re not actually conversational; rather, there is nothing said that you do not need to remember in order to “get it” later.  None of this is to say that the film is plodding, or trapped under mumble-science like Primer, or in any way difficult to understand, but it shelves itself next to a thousand family films with identical plots (and I understand why Nolan would want his film to be thought of amongst memories of Jurassic Park and Blade Runner, but one can do that without either remaking parts of them or defining the new film by what the old ones aren’t).

All said, I don’t have to do the usual roundup of unanswered/rhetorical/paradoxical questions I usually need to do with films like this (see Snowpiercer for perhaps the greatest litany so far) because Nolan takes every measure to ensure that the science (fictional or not) makes sense in-universe, and that the characters’ decisions (mostly) make sense in context, even if they’re not given much time to make them.  We’re invited to participate in the characters’ horror, guilt, and love, albeit only when convenient for what the filmmakers want us to care about, but it’s there on the table, whereas many genre filmmakers would withhold vital info for dramatic effect (a greenhorn’s flourish that accomplishes the exact opposite).  Furthermore, Chastain, McConaughey, and Hathaway believe their own characters, so as “stock” as they can be, it’s easy to believe in their existence – at least for a few hours.

Interstellar (2014); written by Jonathan Nolan and Christopher Nolan; directed by Christopher Nolan; starring Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Chastain, and Anne Hathaway.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them

Hi.

eleanorHere in upstate New York, where the lack of “art-house” cinemas is as apparent as the onset of global warming, only one theatre (Spectrum 8, the solar-powered gem of Albany’s crown) is showing The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, and even then, only Them, which essentially amounts to one gigantic fused sentence, considering that the film is a combined edit of two separate films – Her and Him – in which Jessica Chastain separately plays the title character and the same character through the eyes of her estranged husband, Connor (James McAvoy).  Scripter/director Ned Benson and editor Kristina Boden had something of an uphill march here: reconciling these two versions of the same character and story, all the while keeping an unspoken conflict at the center of a slow-burning drama.

The film pulls a Hills Like White Elephants early.  The opening scenes depict the young Eleanor and Connor performing vintage Carefree Young Couple Antics, such as escaping an expensive restaurant without paying, and having sex on the reclined passenger seat of their car whilst lovingly joking around.  This scene is juxtaposed with one from the present, several years into their marriage, whereupon a green-faced Eleanor bikes along one of those unidentifiable-to-me NYC bridges and then throws herself over the side.  A rescue crew saves her, but we soon see her move back into her parents’ house in suburban Connecticut with a near-catatonic personality.  None of her family members – sister Katy (Jess Weixler), mother Mary (Isabelle Huppert), and father Julian (William Hurt) – know how to address her, or even what to talk to her about.  Connor is not involved.  We do not know what happened to make Eleanor try to end her own life, nor what has separated the couple.  The film goes to great lengths to hide this information, going so far as to have Eleanor pause as she spots a certain photo (unseen by us) on the wall leading up to her old bedroom, which is then frantically torn down and hidden by Mary and Katy.  Fortunately, the narrative up to this point seems deliberate enough that the picture becomes a sort of Chekhov’s Photograph (i.e. there’s no worry that we won’t get to see what it is eventually).

Lost for something fulfilling to do, Eleanor decides to take some classes, having never finished her college degree.  In the meantime, Connor, who runs his own tiny dive bar, is having trouble paying the rent for the couple’s joint apartment by himself, and is forced to move back in with his father (Ciarán Hinds), with whom he has an oil-and-water relationship due to the latter not being much of a parent.  When he’s not either quibbling with his father or lamenting the state of things with archetypal buddy character Stuart (Bill Hader), Connor clandestinely follows Eleanor around after spotting her on the street.  Why can’t he talk to her?  We don’t know.  One day, he follows her to a class taught by Professor Lillian Friedman (Viola Davis) – an icy, no-bullshit educator whose class Eleanor talks her way into by evoking the unrealistic Student-Outsmarts-Professor-with-Clever-Comment-and-Instantly-Achieves-Peer-Status trope – and passes her a note, as if he’s trying to meet her for the first time.  She wants nothing to do with him.

Eventually, the source of the conflict is implicitly revealed in a conversation between Eleanor and Julian: Eleanor and Connor had a baby, Cody, who died at some point in his infancy.  Connor tried to put this behind them and move on as a couple as soon as possible, whereas Eleanor could not, and moreover, could not deal with Connor’s way of handling it (apparently, he threw the baby’s things into a closet, then ordered Chinese food ten minutes later).  The problem with withholding the conflict until later (and still never revealing what actually happened to the baby) and still expecting an audience to stick with the characters is not the technique per se; the problem is that Benson so obviously decided to do this before writing the script, not allowing (as Eleanor herself even mentions in the movie) the story to develop naturally.  This is similar to Hemingway’s Iceberg Theory, the minimalist idea that a story’s conflict, themes, and “true meaning” should not be evident from anything explicitly stated in the text, and that the story itself should focus on the surface elements.  That, and let’s face it, Hemingway couldn’t say that a story written in 1927 was about an abortion.  The Hemingway influence in Eleanor Rigby shines through even more when considering that it’s also a story about a deceased infant (although Eleanor’s was actually born, and Jig’s was not).  Sadly, it’s technique for the sake of technique.  The idea is that since none of the characters are “allowed” to discuss it, the audience is not allowed to hear about it, but no dramatic impact would be lost if the baby’s fate were revealed from the start, and in fact, wondering what’s going on is a bit distracting when trying to find meaning in the terrifically acted scenes between the opening and the eventual revelation.

Much of the film is spent trying to either bring the couple back together or allow them to go their separate ways.  They reunite after Eleanor impulsively decides to visit Connor’s restaurant, but Connor clumsily reveals that he recently slept with a friend, Alexis (Nina Arianda), which leads Eleanor to disappear again.  Connor prepares to move out of their shared apartment permanently, considering an offer to take over his father’s successful restaurant, and slowly removes all of the baby’s things from the closet – a nice, long shot that allows Connor to face what he’s been hiding from without actually saying anything.  Eleanor, with peripheral help from her family, decides to move back to New York City, finish the thesis she originally worked on as a student (before becoming pregnant), and study abroad in Paris.  Before she does, she visits Connor, and they finally, heartbreakingly, discuss the baby.  Eleanor tells Connor she loves him and apologizes for disappearing, and then disappears again.  So many of these shots could and should be the final shot of the film.  There are only two ways for this story to end: either they get back together and move on, or they don’t.  The back-and-forth for years is simply not plausible.  But the film opts for one more artistic flourish, fast-forwarding to a future wherein Connor runs his dad’s restaurant, and as he takes a walk before the “rush” (just to let us know the restaurant is doing well), we see Eleanor following him at a distance just as he stalked her earlier.  He takes the left path through a park, and just when she should take the opposite path, revealing the final irreconcilability of the whole situation, she follows him.  What are we meant to believe?  That a return to school and a trip to Paris made everything better for her?  If Benson was going for a happy ending, why not end right after the couple’s ultimate confrontation with the problem they’ve been avoiding this whole time?  I did tear up at the end, and there’s something to be said for that, but it’s from a combination of Jessica Chastain’s acting, the beautiful un-music of Son Lux, the adept cinematography of Christopher Blauvelt, and the pure, raw sadness of the situation itself. The tears would have been more worth it after two hours if a little more clarity had been allowed – films rarely, if ever, earn ambiguous endings.

Them is a powerful film in many ways, despite the fact that the filmmaker may have been too close to it, and in its minimalism we find yet another true performance by Jessica Chastain, who even brings back “Chastaining” (see the Glossary).  The sadness that undercuts every scene is profound and complete.  The issues lie mostly in the characterization of Connor – instead of a unique character, he generally amounts to a typical early-thirties single guy, who wrestles his buddies, sleeps with attractive acquaintances, and struggles to heroically run a business by himself (the type of guy who could lead any rom-com).  He’ll do anything to get Eleanor back, and thus, he will do anything the script calls for, rendering him a plot device.  I don’t know how it is in the 89-minute Him version, but here, where Eleanor is the lead, Connor’s lone scenes are almost unneeded.

It’s great to see Jessica Chastain back on the screen, and even better that she can find such layers in any character she’s given.  The most difficult part of a film like Rigby is that Jessica is often cast as a younger character (here, at least ten years younger).  But she doesn’t seem like a person in her mid-twenties, and the film never throws hard numbers out there, so we are left to puzzle out why this mature, intelligent woman is so hung up on grubby James McAvoy and worried about finishing a college degree.  Perhaps it’s time to craft characters just for her.

The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby: Them (2014); written and directed by Ned Benson; starring Jessica Chastain and James McAvoy.

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.