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