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.

The Ides of March

Stop the presses: politicians are scum!

In the second film this year that ends with a very long shot of Ryan Gosling’s face, we get The Ides of March, the newest installment in George Clooney’s directing career.  It’s a political drama, and Clooney doesn’t hide the fact that he’s a democrat (not that he ever has), while also suggesting that even the “correct” side isn’t perfect.

Politically, the film covers nothing new, and is about as enlightening in that area as Crash was about racism (going as far as saying “it exists” and leaving it at that).  The magic lies in the performances, namely those of Ryan Gosling, who stars as Steven Meyers; Philip Seymour Hoffman as Paul Zara; and Evan Rachel Wood as Molly Stearns.  Gosling plays the arrogant, up-and-coming brain trust of Pennsylvania Governor Mike Morris (Clooney), managing the latter’s campaign while looking to further his own career in any way possible.  Along the way, he starts a superficial romance with Molly, an intern barely out of her teens, and is tempted by Tom Duffy (Paul Giamatti), the campaign manager for Morris’ opponent, to join the other side.

The story may not play out like you expect it to.  It seems, at first, the narrative will be broad, following Morris’ campaign trail and sticking close to Steven’s troubles along the way, and it does, to an extent, accomplish this, though politics for the sake of politics don’t remain the focus for very long.  We soon learn that although Morris may be the “good guy” in the political arena, he is, as all politicians must be, scum, and Steven is left to make a few moral decisions.  The question remains, though: for whom is he making these decisions?  Himself, or the people who were wronged?  It’s not evident that Steven truly cares about anyone else, as he isn’t given enough time with any individual character, and two-thirds of the way through the film Gosling seems to morph into his stoic, hardboiled character from Drive before our eyes.

The film keeps us engaged all the way through, albeit through abounding use of the Manfluence Principle (see the Glossary).  Women are portrayed as either sexually-obsessed and immature (as seen in Molly), or jaded and snakelike (as seen in a reporter played by Marisa Tomei).  We get one scene between Morris and his wife, which seems thrown in and accomplishes little besides letting us know the power of Steven’s influence on everyone around Morris.  When the women are out of the room, they’re spoken of with zero respect (including but not limited to gratuitous use of the word “fuck” to describe activities shared between multiple characters and a now-dead woman).

Spoilers ahead.  After Molly reveals that the Governor impregnated her, Steven helps fund an abortion and seems to be looking out for her.  However, after Duffy tricks Steven into leaving Morris’ camp, Molly kills herself out of worry that Steven will reveal her secret in order to damage Morris’ chances of winning the primary.  Steven, having indeed planned to reveal this information to the other side, instead uses it to blackmail Morris into firing Zara and making Steven Senior Campaign Manager.  In a sense, Steven “wins,” though in the final shots, we get the sense that Steven realizes he’s done exactly what Duffy warned him about: betrayed his principles for the sake of revenge and career success.  While beautifully shot in a fully-realized Shakespearean tragedy (reflecting the film’s title), I actually found myself caring more about whether Steven missed/cared about Molly after her very young death.  Sorry, but the sad look on his face upon seeing her dead body isn’t enough.

Despite the glowing performances, it’s occasionally difficult to sympathize due to the editing.  Whenever I said to myself, “Yes; I’m with the characters here,” the film cut to a wide shot of Morris standing at a podium with a thousand people surrounding him, as if to shout, “This is George Clooney’s movie, remember?  Listen to what he has to say about what just happened!”  On the other hand, Wood’s performance is superb (despite the flat writing behind her character), and the film feels wounded when she leaves it.  Philip Seymour Hoffman once again proves he’s such a good actor that he can make things like opening a water bottle seem interesting, and even though his character is a bit of a worm, I rooted for him.  Jeffrey Wright even appears (having lost weight since Source Code) as Senator Thompson, and nets an easy paycheck.

This is one of those stories wherein I become frustrated while also enjoying the in-the-moment experience of digesting it, similar to a T.C. Boyle story.  The technical pieces are there, but questions about the real story linger long after you’ve left the theater or closed the cover.  In this case, I feel like I was meant to “learn” something, and unfortunately, it’s these vain, big-headed narratives that shove a film into Best Picture contention.  Make no mistake – the film deserves whatever accolades it receives.  Just don’t show it to your Poli-Sci class to replace a lesson, nor to your Playwriting class to replace Coriolanus.

The Ides of March (2011); written and directed by George Clooney; starring Ryan Gosling, Evan Rachel Wood, Philip Seymour Hoffman, and George Clooney.

Drive

How about this?

Drive is the grindhouse film of this generation  (I haven’t yet boiled it down to exact mathematics, but it seems film generations are akin to turtle years).  It’s a Man With No Name story directed by Danish filmmaker Nicolas Winding Refn, and it’s something of a surprise.

Unless you’ve been under the celluloid rock, you’re no doubt aware of the up-and-coming Ryan Gosling, who has starred in multiple films this year and will star in the sure-to-receive-several-Oscar-nominations The Ides of March, alongside George Clooney, which opens next month.  Gosling plays the protagonist of Drive, a literal Man With No Name credited only as “The Driver,” and Refn goes to painstaking lengths to avoid having other characters speak his name.  In proper MWNN fashion, the Driver apparently appeared out of nowhere one day, asking for a job at a garage owned by Shannon (Bryan Cranston), a grizzled mechanic with a bad leg.  Seeing the Driver’s talents, Shannon gave him a job on the spot.  The film’s narrative begins while the Driver is wearing three separate hats in his life: he does stunt driving for movies, works at the garage, and moonlights as a getaway driver for criminals.  He barely speaks and has no visible ties to anyone, except maybe Shannon, who treats him as a sort of adopted son.

After a wonderful, non-animated car chase that has been compared to the likes of Bullitt (a prerequisite to watching this film), we find the Driver bumping into his neighbor, Irene (Carey Mulligan).  She looks after her young son while her husband is away at prison, and for an undisclosed reason, the Driver decides to help her out.  During these scenes, we bear witness to beautiful pieces of cinematography.  Several scenes are acted out in one flowing shot.  Others make brilliant use of mirrors, such that the facial expressions of three characters, all facing different directions, are visible at one time.  The Driver and Irene become familiar with one another, but they don’t sleep together; she clearly loves her family and just needs a friend.

Eventually, her husband, Standard (Oscar Isaac), comes home, and we immediately see why he landed in prison.  He’s genuinely devoted to his family, but try as he might, he keeps getting involved with the wrong kinds of people, and already finds himself owing protection money to a few bad folks.  Instead of telling the Driver, who has taken a clear interest in his wife, to leave the family alone, Standard sees him as an opportunity to settle his debt.  In a gorgeous scene featuring the best use of an “Exit” sign I’ve ever seen in a film, Standard hires the Driver to help him with a simple heist.  The Driver agrees, only because the completion of the heist will get the bad people away from Irene and her son for good.

The heist ends up being the biggest disaster since the heist from Reservoir Dogs, and the film jumps from PG-13 to R in one second flat when a character’s head is blasted with a shotgun in slow motion.  We are introduced to the other major players, Bernie Rose (Albert Brooks), a movie producer who wants to hire the Driver; and Nino (Ron Perlman), a Jewish gangster who owns a pizzeria and who is also responsible for Shannon’s bad leg.  In the action that follows, the Driver hunts down the offenders one by one in order to secure Irene’s safety.

Drive is a film most easily swallowed if taken at face value.  The problem with a MWNN story is that if you’re too good of a screenwriter, you run the risk of making the character too interesting.  If a character is interesting, the audience wants to know more about him, and the MWNN mustn’t reveal anything about himself.  Why is the Driver so silent and distant, yet immediately obsessed with the safety of Irene and her son?  How is he so adept at taking down trained mobsters, and why is he so stoic about cold-blooded murder?  Some of his behavior may hint at Asperger’s Syndrome, but none of this is ever explored, and we’re politely asked to ignore it once the violent parts begin.

Still, the film remains more about characters than anything else.  Carey Mulligan, always a magician on the screen, is given very little to do other than sit around and mope, but she owns the scenes in which she appears.  Oscar Isaac, whose character comes and goes within fifteen minutes, gives the most sympathetic performance, where the character could easily have been the cliche’d Bad Dad who doesn’t care about his family.  Standard, however, truly wants what’s best for Irene and the kid.  Bryan Cranston is a good fit for the classic ill-fated mentor, and the casting of Brooks as a villain is inspired, if odd to see (imagine Jeff Bridges stabbing crippled people in the throat, and you’ll have a good idea of what this looks like).  Ron Perlman gives a full-caliber performance as the sparsely-seen Nino, and is quoted as saying (when asked by Refn why he would want to play this character after appearing in so many great films), “I always wanted to play a Jewish man who wants to be an Italian gangster…because that’s what I am…”  Drive also features a brief appearance by the multi-talented Christina Hendricks, who plays the underused (and perhaps unnecessary) character of Blanche.

The film’s weaknesses include the abrupt jump to gory violence, which dilutes the film’s great mood.  In addition, the music is a bit invasive.  The lyrics tend to narrate how we’re supposed to read the film’s events, almost like a first-person narrator shelling out all-too-revealing thematic passages (though the use of the song “A Real Hero” imbues the film with a fairtytale-like quality).  Despite these issues, Drive deserves attention.  The performances are solid and impassioned across the board, and the film achieves a level of true grindhouse cinema, mainly because it’s not self-conscious and has a small budget.

This is a piece of art that demands polarized opinions.  I think more art should be that way.  Do you even remember the last thing you felt “neutral” about?  I certainly don’t.

Drive (2011); written by Hosseini Amini (based on a book by James Sallis); directed by Nicolas Winding Refn; starring Ryan Gosling, Carey Mulligan, Albert Brooks and Bryan Cranston.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.

Don’t be yourself: good advice for most Hollywood directors

Crazy, Stupid, Love is Ficarra/Requa’s new feature-length RomCom concerning the romantic escapades of several good people.  Kevin Bacon’s in it, too.

The film is the big debut of Steve Carell after his dramatic exeunt from The Office, and as usual, he plays a likable, hapless man with zero luck and the best intentions.  Carell’s character, Cal Weaver, leaps out of a moving car after his wife, Emily (the lovely-as-ever Julianne Moore) declares her desire to get divorced.  Simultaneously, Cal’s son, Robbie (Jonah Bobo), thirteen years old, declares his love for his babysitter, Jessica (Analeigh Tipton), four years his senior, who rejects Robbie’s advances in surprise and disgust.  Cal begins spending time at a local bar – which looks more like a high-end casino than any bar I’ve ever seen – and has a chance meeting with Jacob Palmer (Ryan Gosling), a wealthy, well-dressed womanizer who promises to teach Cal the tricks of the trade in order to help win Emily back.  The only woman Jacob hasn’t been able to rustle is Hannah (Emma Stone), who can’t stand his pickup lines, doesn’t find him attractive, and already has a boyfriend (Josh Groban).  With one thing and another, these respective parties inevitably cross paths in several hysterical, clever, and sometimes downright touching ways.

I have to respect the writer/director(s) for just that: having respect for the audience.  In a day and age where filmmakers feel they need to spoon-feed every thread of story information to the iPhone-obsessed ADD public, here’s a film which introduces several characters, apparently not connected in any way, right at the outset of the story, and leaves it to the viewer to remember who each character is without constantly repeating information and retreading tired plot points.  I wish this method of telling a story as though telling it to someone older than five wasn’t such a lost art form in films these days.

The performances are solid through and through.  The actors avoid playing characters who are expecting a clean-cut happy ending.  The film even features appearances from Marisa Tomei and Kevin Bacon, the latter of whom plays David Lindhagen, the many-times-named accountant who steals Emily from Cal, and he does a good job of playing the character as a real person and not a generic sleazeball whose only mission is to spite the protagonist (the Spiteful Sleaze, as seen in so many easy plot formulas for this type of film).

The character growth is genuine, albeit achieved through preposterous circumstances which could only occur in film.  Conversations are interrupted at near-miraculous times, but they’re always finished later.  In addition, the film’s single plot twist is well-executed and unexpected (yet inevitable when you think about it in retrospect, which to me is the best kind of twist, if we need one at all).  The filmmakers shoot for an uplifting ending (because it’s a date movie) and achieve much more, because their respect for their audience never wanes.  Not everyone gets the girl (or guy), there’s no moral lesson, and the dynamics of a somewhat dysfunctional family are left fully intact even when optimism wins out.

Go figure.  A RomCom which achieves both parts of its name, as well as being an engaging family drama.  Characters are made to say difficult things to the people they care about, the title is never blurted out, and there’s barely an ounce of the crude humor that seems so par-for-the-course with any type of comedy nowadays.

There’s also a great big editing error featuring Emma Stone’s legs.  Happy hunting.

Crazy, Stupid, Love.; written by Dan Fogelman; directed by Glenn Ficarra and John Requa; starring Steve Carell, Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Ryan Gosling.