Saturday, July 25, 2015

On "Trainwreck": And Why It's One of the Year's Worst

Fully aware that I'm sounding like the old man yelling at the kids playing in the street to "keep it down" at 3pm in the afternoon, I have to ask just where and when the American comedy went so..... wrong. Was it in the 1990's with the advent of "Saturday Night Live" inspired skits metastasized into hopelessly realized feature length form, completely haphazard of a script and relying on the improvisational zest of its comedian-turned-actors in their starring roles to carry the entire effort? Do we simply blame society-at-large.... where the over saturation of images, news, reality TV show adornment and celebrity worship have created a vacuum of tastefulness and wit? Or do we lay it at the feet of Judd Apatow himself, the crowned king of modern comedy, whose films continue to grasp both the financial and critical respect which so importantly provides future freedoms and opportunities? Regardless of who or what we blame, "Trainwreck" is yet another coffin in the nail of movie comedy, devoid of any real heart, depth or resonant enjoyment. That's its won the hearts and minds of so many discerning critics makes it an even more troubling current event.

Written by comic Amy Schumer, "Trainwreck"deals with her overcoming her relationship hang-ups when she meets good doctor Aaron (Bill Hader). Seemingly stunted by the morose ramblings of her father (Colin Quinn) at a young age, Amy inverts the role typically held for the "guy" in the film... which means she's sexually adventurous, drunken, and unable to emotionally connect (or even spend the night) after her many conquests. After she's pinned by her magazine editor (Tilda Swinton) to complete an article on hot-shot sports doctor Hader, she finds herself attracted and even falling in love with the man, even though every fiber in her body wants to react differently.

Several reasons for my disdain of "Trainwreck". Allow me to begin. The great critic Roger Ebert once said that even though he loves all movies, the films he loves the most are the ones about good people. While "Trainwreck" does go through the usual rom-com notions and arrives at a happy ending, I didn't like Amy Schumer one bit. Part disaffected valley-girl with a stream of bitter, nihilistic sense of humor coursing through her veins, she struck me as an especially nasty person who probably deserved her fate of one-night stands and frigid emotional connectivity. This persona of "new wave bitch girl" deviates straight from her stand up routine, of course, which makes "Trainwreck" even more of a laborious extension of the shallow foundations modern comedy movies exist upon nowadays. I suppose all we're missing is the movie version of Gallagher smashing watermelons.

Secondly, I've become less and less imbued with Judd Apatow films. After his 2007 film, "Knocked Up" (which incidentally remains one of my very favorite films from that year), the leash has grown longer and longer for him. His films run to gargantuan lengths for comedies and the humor feels improvised and stretched out like a mini-reel of best gags from that particular day. Gone are the laughs derived from story arch, character set-up or general reactions. Now (and not just with Apatow), but comedies are an excuse for a group of ten or twenty friends to get together, hang out on a movie set all day, get high and throw whatever joke seems to stick against the celluloid wall. There's no ingenuity, no wit in the humor anymore. The scene that got the biggest laugh in "Trainwreck" at my particular showing was Amy Schumer talking to her happily married sister Brie Larson (a terrific actress who looked bored with simply being there to react against Schumer's seemingly 'improv' hysterics opposite her) describing a tampon. Long, drawn-out, gross humor that feels more at home in her comedy stand up routine than a full fledged movie. Every scene like this stopped the film dead in its tracks and had me wondering where subtlety went. Did the Ben Stiller 'hair gel" scene permanently push us over the comedy precipice?

Lastly, outside the 'improv' framework, the other dead air moments in "Trainwreck" involved the endless tracks of cameo stars. After reading several good raves about the "scene stealing" appearance of superstar Lebron James in the film as Hader's best friend, I was expecting something special, but instead got leaden line deliveries and the usual amateur star athlete vibes from his "performance". He's cheap and wants to split the bill. Funny. He acts like the soupy best girl friend in other rom-coms. Inspired. After the cheap, mean spirited racial humor of Amy's father (Colin Quinn) in other scenes, I'm surprised James wanted anything to do with the film. Although he probably had no idea those lines even existed since the script was most likely 11 pages long with 170 pages of "improv" scribbled in the margins. Further yet, we get scenes with Matthew Broderick, Amarie Stoudemire, Tony Romo and even Marv Albert who gets to talk in third person as if he's narrating one of his basketball games. I can't begin to tell you how superfluous, self congratulatory and pointless this scene felt in a film full of incongruous intentions.

Perhaps all of this is my problem. Maybe comedy just isn't my bag anymore. Looking over the shelves of DVD's I own and perusing my "best of the year" lists since 2000, I count approximately a dozen or so. Half of those are Wes Anderson films, who maintains his own detractors and whose sensibility in comedy is about as alien as one gets from the Apatwo brand. Still, I have funny bones somewhere inside me. I know every comedy can't be "Dr. Strangelove", but I at least wish they tried to reach some peaks beyond dick and fart jokes. Or in the case of Amy Schumer, gay and tampon jokes.

Thursday, July 16, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen, Dog Days of Summer edition

1. Cartel Land (2015)- Kind of makes me wish Trump does get elected president and build one of those high walls. Reviewed in full at Dallas Film Now

2. Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem (2014)- Iranian cinema really nails the soul-crushing degradation of the things we take for granted here... such as the simple process of a divorce, which in this film, becomes a two hour portrait of 5 years in hell for Viviane (played by the co-director herself Ronit Elkabetz).

3. Wild Tales (2014)- I don't really see the hype over Damian Szifron's omnibus tales of revenge, violence and deception. The last section, though, is quite entertaining in the way it skewers the squalid ceremonies and pompous self-misery of wedding receptions.

4. Strangerland (2015)- Take "L'aventurra" and "Picnic at Hanging Rock" and one gets this Aussie thriller starring Nicole Kidman. Certain scenes and Kidman's capable performance of a mother unraveling are the best things about it. Full review posted for Dallas Film Now

5. White Star (1982)- What is it about 80's German cinema that just screams dilapidated scenery and hollowed out existences? In this one, Dennis Hopper stars as a music producer desperately trying to make his nephew a star. Everyone in this film just looks bombed out and strung out, especially Hopper who's sweating and sickly in every scene. Not a good movie, but worth tracking down for its unbelievable feel.

6. The Victors (1963)- Hard to find, unreleased World War 2 movie with a good cast and lengthy run time that dares to explore the war in-between the explosions and fighting. Various soldiers meet pretty European women (Romy Schneider, Jeanne Moreau and Elke Sommer) on leave and after they've taken control of the town, but its episodic feel and perhaps over-hyped reputation didn't quite do it for me.

7. La Valee (1971)- Without wanting to sound like Cartman from South Park, Barbet Schroder's film is one lame hippie movie in which a care free woman (Bulle Olgier) suspends her life and joins other hippies as they go on an expedition for a mysteriously unmapped portion of the New Guinea mountains. More hippie stuff ensues including fee love and Natives who run out and dance with the Europeans in a hippie juke. Just plain pretentious filmmaking.

8.  The Overnight (2015)- Uncomfortable for sure, but that's what the Duplass brothers love to inflict on their audiences and "The Overnight" is no exception. Terrific performances all around.

Sunday, July 05, 2015

From Mane to Maine: Wiseman's "Crazy Horse" and "Belfast, Maine"

Whether he's training his camera on the autumnal haze of sleepy "Belfast, Maine"- with its potato plants, church choirs and local gas station denizens- or the writhing half naked bodies of beautiful dancers rehearsing their latest erotic spectacle in Paris, Wiseman is a filmmaker who understands silence is golden. Of course, editing and mise-en-scene is a comment itself on the subject, but both "Belfast, Maine" and "Crazy Horse" represent the best aspects of Wiseman's 45 year plus oeuvre.... which is a long way of saying he observes and visually dissects an institution or locale with monk-like patience and an acute eye for the humanity wrapped inside the mundane.

"Belfast, Maine" (1999), one of the few works by Wiseman to document the sprawling intersections of an actual city (the other being "Aspen" in 1991), at first seems to unravel with little order in its four hour progression. It's only about halfway through its fly-on-the-wall tactics does something like a message emerge. And that message is that Wiseman's documentaries are probably the closest thing we have to actual life being lived on-screen. Through the seemingly random (and at times rambling) simple shots of people going about their business, dealing with Medicaid workers, checking into a hospital, or rehearsing a scene from "Death of a Salesman", "Belfast, Maine" paints such an evocative portrait of life-in-the-margins that it almost feels extraordinary for its ordinariness. I doubt any written movie character could be as seemingly good-natured and expectant of whatever eventually takes her life as an elderly woman describing her condition to an aid worker in one scene or the appalling state of health of another man who claims he used to smoke seven to eight packs of cigarettes a day, but now is down to a more manageable two-to-three since he had a stroke last year. Further still, outside of the people within the film, Belfast reveals itself as an almost too perfect hamlet of Northeastern charm and approaching 'wintryness'. As stated earlier, this is one of the few films Wiseman made centered around an entire city, but his efforts always canopy the specific atmosphere and tensions of the environment his chosen institution reside within. I can't help but feel a homely kinship to the surroundings shown in "Boxing Gym" (Austin, Texas") and especially the upscale cowboy aura buttressed around his 1983 film about the retail capital of Neiman Marcus' Dallas, Texas location. If there's a high compliment to be paid to "Belfast, Maine", it's that even though I've never been further in the Northeast than Philadelphia, I feel like I know it slightly better through "Belfast, Maine" and its tough-minded inhabitants.

About as far removed from the plaid-and-denim quaintness of Maine lies "Crazy Horse" (2012), a film thirteen years later that finds Wiseman firmly ensconced in the electric, haute couture confines of the world renowned Paris cabaret. What begins as titillating (beautiful, half naked women pampering their faces and applying make up backstage) soon turns methodical as the film endlessly charts, zags and follows the various beauties as they work hard learning their moves for upcoming dance numbers or stand listless while choreographers, set designers and club financiers argue, dawdle and crunch numbers. Actually, "Crazy Horse" isn't that different from the seemingly normal actions of Belfast, Maine after all. Boredom, struggles, and bureaucratic numbness is a universal language.

Made after "La Danse" (2009) and "Boxing Gym" (2010), "Crazy Horse" could be called the cap in his ballet trilogy, adapting a more free floating camera style than before. Instead of hinged in the corner, observing people talking or reacting to their surroundings, Wiseman continually frames the writhing bodies of his "Crazy Horse" women seamlessly.... none moreso moving than when one dancer practices alongside Antony and the Johnson's beautiful song ""Man is the Baby". Music and image, when done right, can often be a transcendent merging of arts, and in this quiet, almost nondescript individual moment that never connects with any other choreographed section of the film, captures something that feels stunningly private. That's documentary filmmaking done right... and it's just one of the thousands of little, off-hand moments Wiseman has been documenting and etching into film for decades now.

"Crazy Horse" is available on Blu-ray video
"Belfast, Maine" is currently unavailable on home video formats

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

The Current Cinema 15.5

The Tribe

Eastern European miserablism strikes again in Miroslav Slaboshpitsky's "The Tribe", except this time its long-take gaze interrupts the lives of deaf teenagers in a derelict boarding school acting out their base intentions with little repercussions or explanation. Adding to the extremism is the fact the film disregards subtitles and allows the story to be carried out through its characters use of sign language. In between the sobering depictions of hierarchical violence, prostitution, and an especially abrasive scene that rivals the unquestionably tough abortion moment in Cristain Mungiu's "4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days", the film's subtle power comes from its silence. Emotions are expressed through small emissions of sound or the rapidly expressionistic thumping of hands and fingers as words are conveyed through the air. It's an especially unique narrative twist. That gimmick aside though, "The Tribe's" hall of terror these kids go through- partly out of economic strife and basic emotional indifference- doesn't quite rank with the indescribable, sad observations of Mungiu or Cristi Puiu because they're simply empty ciphers beyond their physical disability....or more specifically, they're pointed metaphors for the troubled situation of the Ukraine itself. "The Tribe" puts one through the ringer, but it lacks the residual effect of the sadness achieved in similar efforts simply because Slaboshpitsky wants to attack rather than delineate actual people caught up in the margins.


Like "The Tribe", Claudia Llosa's "Aloft" belongs squarely within the framework of a particularly listless style of filmmaking.... that being the heavy handed 'indie', complete with redemptive story arch, metaphorical allusions (Cillian Murphy's character trains falcons but can't control or return to his own lost childhood) and a nervous handheld camera. Remarkably, "Aloft" overcomes all these redundancies thanks in part to three strong performances by Murphy, Jennifer Connelly and Melanie Laurent plus a committed sense of time and place. Tracking two separate timelines in the life of Ivan (Murphy)- the first dealing with the tragedies facing his ten year old self and complicated matters of mother Connelly and the second jumping ahead in time thirty years when French woman Laurent comes searching for answers connected to the mysterious aura of his family- "Aloft" deflates some of its power through the awkward hand of writer-director Llosa as if she were trying to incorporate every gesture and feeling before someone woke up and tugged the slight Hollywood rug out from underneath her. Regardless, she aligns herself supremely capable of capturing immense pain in the faces of her three actors and what emerges is a moving and fierce confrontation between mother and son that kind of bowled me over unexpectedly.

Me and Earl and the Dying Girl

Having not seen "The Fault In Our Stars", I can't attest to the oncoming rise of teen sickness weepies, but if that film is half as moving or sincere as Alfonso Gomez-Rejon's "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl", then I'm really missing out. As the "dying girl", Olivia Cook is all bright eyes and a bundle of pixie love, so its easy to see why Greg (Thomas Mann) and his movie-drunk partner Earl (RJ Cyler) slowly gravitate towards her atmosphere. Not only does her sickness encourage the pair to create one of their gleefully anarchaic and no budget movies to her, but the film we watch is endlessly name dropping and half camera shot stealing within itself. Based on a script and novel by Jesse Andrews, "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl" penetrates the clouds of twee that often circulate the films of fellow homage crafters like Richard Aoyade or Michel Gondry by creating a generous core of attachment between its three central characters. Even as the finale wound to its conclusion, I had prepared my defenses, believing the film hadn't quite burrowed into my head, and then there's a moment between Rachel and Greg as images roll across their faces that not only establishes the grace and humility we all deserve to experience with someone in our lives but also emphasizes the unexplainable power of moving images and the thunderous sway they often hold over us.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

Genius Sounds: Love and Mercy

Bill Pohlad's "Love and Mercy" gets two things right. First, it reveals the fractured genius of singer-songwriter Brian Wilson in two distinct times of his life without losing momentum in either section. Too often, the balance and dynamic force is weighed distinctly towards one portion of the film or the other, but in "Love and Mercy", they coalesce and compliment each other beautifully. Secondly, it exalts and analyzes the frustrated, creative mindset of a musical icon while he's still alive and kicking on this mortal coil- which makes the film that much more respectful. We can seek out, experience and savor the man's artistry without resorting to testimonials of his marginalized existence while the actual artistry was being created. Beyond that, "Love and Mercy" is an actor's movie that digs deep and allows the masterly performances of its principals (Paul Dano, John Cusack and Elizabeth banks) to convey the complicated, scatter shot emotions involved.

Picking up well into the Beach Boys' mid 60's success, "Love and Mercy" hones in on the increasing uncomfortable pause exuded by Brian Wilson (Dano) as their fame grows and a Japanese tour looms. Convincing his brothers to tour without him, Wilson shutters himself off in the studio to work out the now revolutionary melange of sound that would eventually bracket their album "Pet Sounds". Considered a flop in its day, pressured by other band members to resort back to their hit-making standards and emotionally stunted by his abusive and overbearing father (Bill Camp), Wilson's fragile and active psyche begins to fissure under the stress.

While simultaneously telling this story, "Love and Mercy" jumps ahead in time to 1985 where middle aged Brian Wilson (Cusack) is just as stunted as ever, both creatively by the monstrous hand of Dr. Eugene Lundy (Paul Giamatti, who can do this type of role in his sleep) and emotionally, such as when upon first meeting who would be his ultimate savior in life, Melinda (Elizabeth Banks), he cordons himself off in a car with her and zigzags through a conversation that is both creepy and achingly lonely. Their relationship is the heart of the film. It doesn't overshadow the strong formations of mental sickness exhibited by young Wilson and Dano in an equally memorable performance, but it strikes at something more human and restless.

By blending both portions of Wilson's tortured life together as if they're happening at the same time, filmmaker Pohlad and screenwriter Oren Moverman elicit a fully formed and wide-eyed portrait of a cliched subject with fresh acuity. There may be a bit of armchair philosophizing involved, but no scene is as incisive as the first date between Melinda and Brian.... while opening up about his father, the camera holds on Elizabeth Bank's range of expressive reactions, followed up with a wry, half-hurt uneasy dismissal of "well, shit!" Lots of films have focused on the conflicted nature of creative personas well ahead of their time, but "Love and Mercy" shows us that paradigm and then allows something beautiful, besides the art, to flourish from it.

Thursday, June 04, 2015

The Last Few Films I've Seen: Soggy Texas edition

1. Tomorrowland (2015)- Take a spoonful of "The Matrix's" well-tread ideas of a 'chosen one', cartoon action sequences and George Clooney doing his best Disney-dad superhero figure, and one gets Brad Bird's "Tomorrowland". It's a good film, just ordinary and non adventurous fun for the whole family. If that's your thing....

2. Aloha (2015)- Filmmaker Cameron Crowe has some genuine things to say about the messy and intricate crashes of affection between people, they just can't be found here. Reviewed at Dallas Film Now.

3. Police Python 357 (1976)- Doesn't quite rise above its implausible French 'policier' instincts, but filmmaker Alaine Corneau manages to shroud most of the film in his dour, harsh vision, such as the central murder scene and cop Yves Montand disfiguring himself.

4. Two In the Wave (2010)- Hum drum documentary about the budding relationship and career trajectories of Godard and Truffaut. The problem is, it never tells us anything new about the duo or their circumstances that hasn't already been written about or discussed at length over the past two decades. Or at least for us nouvelle vague affecionados.

5. Mad Max: Fury Road (2015)- Holy hell, what a ride. I'm usually highly averse to the split second style of cutting in modern action films, but director Miller not only manages to create a cohesive vision of amplified violence and insane creativity, but the continuity of the action is splendid. See a body being thrown from a rolling vehicle one shot and there's the body falling in the background of the next. One of the great pleasures of the year so far.

6. Maggie (2015)- Slow burn and contemplative, and a film whose intimate drama is just as compelling as the melee on "The Walking Dead". Full review at Dallas Film Now.

7. On the Edge (1985)- Bruce Dern as a banned athlete bucking the system and running in a California race anyway. Director Rob Nilsson may be a far left-wing nut in his beliefs, but the few films of his I've seen respectfully and dutifully evoke a very specific time and place (Northern California) like the best indie filmmakers.

8. The Seventh Companion (1968)- Finally tracking down the first film of Alexie German's career (and completing my retrospective of him here and also here), I have to admit disappointment with his debut. The oblique nationalist references are there, but it plods along without the same caustic energy of his later efforts.

9. Kid Blue (1973)- Another long time track down, James Frawley's western starring Dennis Hopper as the title character easily takes the prize for most hippie western ever. Sure, lots of filmmakers "claim" to have made a hippie western (Monte Hellman and any number of z-grade Italians) but this one-featuring "The Man" constantly trying to halt Kid Blue's reformed status and a possible "free love" relationship between Hopper, buddy warren Oates and his wife Lee Purcell, sidesteps the veiled references and settles into 'hippiedom' pretty readily.

10. We Are What We Are (2013)- Devastating. Director Jim Mickle is the absolute best guy working the horror genre today. Not only is this remake better than the original film it's based upon, but it's a unique, measured pressure-cooker of a film that would be remarkable even without its gory accentuates.