Rosewater

November 25, 2014 at 9:19 am | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ½

One could be forgiven for worrying that Jon Stewart might direct his first movie with the same sense of intellectual superiority and moral indignation that infuses the Daily Show. That’s not to say his sensibilities are not all over “Rosewater;” they just show up in less expected ways. Never so much so as in the deft way he brings absurdity into dark places, making us laugh in scenes where other directors would try and make us squirm. Stewart’s world view tends more toward John Cameron Mitchell (“Hedwig & the Angry Inch”) than Todd Solondz (“Happiness”). Mitchell, who has a deep faith in the basic goodness of humanity, is not really so angry and Solondz is far from happy. Stewart shares Mitchell’s faith that everything will work out and that, to quote King, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.” This sense infuses “Rosewater” and gives it a sweet optimism, even in its most bitter moments. This is both praise and criticism. Steward is no cynic and this film is the furthest thing from torture porn, however, it also lacks bite. Perhaps, I am jaded by modern cinema but I never felt the sense of urgency or danger I expected to. I don’t need graphic torture scenes and I was grateful not to have them but I wanted to feel more of Maziar Bahari’s suffering. Bahari was played well enough by Gael Garcia Bernal (“Y Tu Mamá También,” “Bad Education”).  I give Bernal immense credit for managing to bury his Mexican accent and speak English with an Iranian accent; I have no idea how difficult that must be. However, while his performance was solid here, it didn’t resonate the way I wanted it to. I always felt on the surface, observing rather than feeling and, in a movie like this, that feels like a loss. Kim Bodnia, who played his interrogator Javadi, is another matter. Bodnia, a Dutch actor I am unfamiliar with, was the core of the film. He managed to appear cruel and frightened, powerful and panicked, all in the same moment. Without it ever being said, he was so clearly an inadequate and unhappy person stuck in a giant political machine. The revelation of the film was the humane way it dealt with his character. Perhaps there is more intention there than one might initially think. The film begins with a quote about the smell of sweat and rosewater being associated with religious piety. That is the only overt reference to the film’s title. Yet, I know from my reading, that Bahari’s only real sense of his interrogator was that he smelled of rosewater. So, the title would suggest that the focal point of the film may actually be Javadi (and what he represents) and not Bahari (and what he represents). In that sense, the film may be clever on a whole other level. The imprisonment of dissidents on trumped up charges is always more commentary on the state than on the citizen.  Likewise, Bahari’s arrest (and this film) ultimately tell us more about his interrogator and Iran than they ever do about him. Raising the question, who is the one, in the end, really being interrogated?

Nightcrawler

November 14, 2014 at 5:09 pm | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

Fortunately, this is not another addition to the “X-Men” franchise. Rather, it is a brilliantly chilling story about the guys who go skittering through the dead of night hoping to catch tragedy on their cameras to sell to the evening news. In particular, it’s the story of how well one sociopath takes to the job. Said sociopath is played with an unnerving intensity by Jake Gyllenhaal in what may be his best performance to date. The film is so effective and creepy largely because it does not oversell the evil of Gyllenhaal’s character, Lou Bloom. Many films portray their psychos as all schoolboy charm on the surface (“nobody would ever know”) while being deeply sadistic. Bloom is obviously disturbed; nobody could possibly want to be around him if they didn’t have to. His brilliance is in knowing which people need him badly enough to put up with him. And his a-morality comes out in small chilling ways, like the way he rearranges a crime seen to get better video. Moments like that cut right through me and there were plenty of them. Gyllenhaal was masterful at getting wholly inside this character. The way he carried his body (what he did with his hands, how he held his head) was unique to Lou and suited him perfectly. It’s really amazing to compare him to “Jack” in “Brokeback Mountain;” that gives you a sense of this man’s ability to inhabit a character. In another brilliant bit of writing, Lou spoke in a series of internet infomercials. As though he was incapable of normal conversation, almost everything he said sounded like something he read and had memorized. With his wild eyes and frozen grin, everything about this man was so deeply disturbing. Only a couple of times did I feel like he strayed into cliché but these were minor quibbles in what turned out to be by far the most disturbing movie I’ve seen this year.

Interstellar

November 14, 2014 at 4:32 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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◊ ◊ ½

The danger of hype is what happens when you can’t live up to it. Christopher Nolan (“The Dark Knight” trilogy, “Inception”) is considered a red hot director right now. That’s already a dangerous set up for disappointment. Then you add in Matthew McConaughey, hot off his Oscar for “Dallas Buyer’s Club” and his Emmy nomination for “True Detective,” and you have a black hole of hype threatening to suck in everything around it. Sadly, that’s what happens here. There was little this film could do to live up to expectations and, while the visuals were breathtaking, the story was far from stellar. Had you watched the movie without sound on a massive screen in the background of some party, you could be excused for being utterly mesmerized in parts. There were some scenes so beautiful, interesting, compelling that they will stay with me for a while. However, turn up the volume and you have a strong chance of being assaulted by a musical score that was, at times, so heavy handed as to be laughable if it hadn’t been so annoying. The dialogue was unimaginative and, despite the endless cavalcade of big names, was delivered without interest. The big surprise cameo, though, was also the most interesting character by far. It was only during that story line that if felt like the film had any real energy. Worse, still, is the plot, which was  frustratingly convoluted and full of holes. For all the talk of having a physicist on set, the science was really problematic in parts. None more so than in the trip to a planet on the edge of a black hole where time was distorted to impossible extremes. It’s not that time can’t be distorted (at almost 3 hours, this film felt like it lasted 125 years), it’s just that this distortion (like the film in general) was just too over-the-top. However, nothing was more over-the-top than the ending. The movie really was beautiful enough and there were a few really solid scenes that I would have left the theater satisfied had it not been for the feel-good, wrap-everything-up-with-a-bow, love-conquers-all ending. Those final scenes were so nonsensical, so faux sentimental, so deeply silly that they really colored the rest of the experience. It’s too bad because I had expected so much more. But, then, as I said, that’s the danger of hype.

Dear White People

November 4, 2014 at 3:46 pm | Posted in 2014 | Leave a comment
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How do I write about this film? It would be easy if I had loved it but how does a white man write critically about a film that is so critical of white men, without sounding like (at best) I just didn’t get it or (at worst) I’m a disingenuous racist? Let’s see if I’m up to the task. “Dear White People” explores the race relations at a fictional Ivy League school. Told from the perspective of several of the students, it covers the events leading up to a black-face frat party put on by a group of White students. Along the way there is biting humor, seething anger and oodles of social commentary. Much of the commentary comes from a college radio show called “Dear White People,” run by a student, played by Tessa Thompson (TV shows “Veronica Mars,” “666 Park Avenue,” and the upcoming movie “Selma”). Thompson’s lines are by far the funniest and often the most insightful. She delivers them with the right level of cynicism, bored disdain and bite, while also capturing an underlying vulnerable hopefulness in her character. She’s clearly a strong actress but she, and the rest of the cast, has little to work with here. Director/writer Justin Simien (this is his first full length film) clearly wants to be provocative and statements like saying that White people who use the term “African American” are being racist certainly do the trick. However, for all of his cutting remarks the injuries end up only being skin deep. This is because none of the characters feel real. Now, admittedly, it has been a while since I went to college and, perhaps things have changed significantly, but I have never met a group of White students so uniformly and blatantly racist. Even the best of the White students behave in ways that are appalling and, frankly, seem to be more for laughs than insight. And I think this is where the real problem of this film lies. Simien was trying so hard to make audiences laugh while also creating outrage that he ended up doing neither thing effectively. As the closing credits showed, White college students all over the country have put on blatantly racist parties. This fact is worthy of a movie but one a good deal more serious than this one. By the time we actually saw the party, the audience was so numbed by stereotypes that it was too easy to not take those images seriously; it looked like so many cartoon villains behaving in cartoon ways. That’s a shame. I would have much rather seen, and been more disturbed by, the story of some likeable, “just-like-my-kids,” students who then can somehow justify horrifying racism.  That’s the real truth this film negates. It implies that ugliness comes from mustache twirling desperadoes and not from you and me. In a film like this, letting the audience of the hook that way feels irresponsible. What does it say about the state of race in this country that basically decent kids can be so casually hurtful and then dismissive of it afterwards? The film has some pointed barbs for the Black students as well, raises issues such as interracial dating, equating success and “whiteness,”  homophobia and gender images within the Black Community. It also raises a fascinating question about whether or not young white adoration/adoption of Black culture is it’s own form of racism. It’s a very evocative idea and well worth exploring. There were many good, interesting, evocative ideas touched on in this film and that’s the problem; they were only touched on, laughed about, and ultimately dismissed.

ADDENDUM: Over the past week, I have been thinking a lot about this film or, more specifically, about the issue of white college students putting on racially-themed parties and wondering: Why? What motivates these kids? Just calling it racism seems like too simply an answer to me. I want to dig deeper.  I began wondering if young White students are acting out some “fetishized” version of Black people in some way. Perhaps, these behaviors are also a form of transvestic fetishism. In that situation, straight (and almost always married) men put on women’s clothing for a short period of time (usually a few hours) as a way of relieving stress. These men, who tend to be older and more traditional, view women as having an easier, stress-free life. They are often in high stress jobs and feel a lot of general dissatisfaction with the amount of responsibility they believe they have. So, periodically, they “become” a woman for a few hours. They dress up, sip tea (often with their very patient wives) and can escape from the stress of being a man (as they see it). All of this is to suggest that maybe (just maybe) the same thing is happening with these students. In other words, perhaps some White students envy Black Americans for having what they believe to be a more carefree life. This is ridiculous, of course, but perhaps compelling to some. Maybe some young White men believe they are under constant pressure to keep their emotions in check, be civil and respectful in a way they believe that Black men do not have to be. Thus, putting on black-face allows them to act out pent up aggression and sexism, acting as a safety value for their perceived stress. In this theory, these types of acting-out behaviors represent a deep-seated (and likely unconscious) envy and resentment toward marginalized groups who they believe are somehow “let off the hook” from having to follow society’s rules. I have no idea how valid this is. These are just my pop-psychology musing but I thought I would share them. I’d love comments from anyone who wants to join the discussion.

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

November 2, 2014 at 10:21 am | Posted in 2014 | 1 Comment
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◊ ◊ ◊ ◊ ½

The most exciting thing to me (in a fairly exciting movie) was the fact that the entire action from the very beginning until almost the last scene was done in one long shot; there were no break-aways, no fade outs, no cuts. That’s an amazing feat in a full length film. I only know of one other film, Hitchcock’s “Rope,” that has done it. For those who see this film, I challenge you to watch closely for how transitions between scenes and times are managed; it’s really quite brilliant. Sometimes, as the camera swivels away from an actor 180º, the scene shifts hours or days into the future. It was just a joy to watch. Director and writer Alejandro González Iñárritu (“amores perros,” “21 Grams,” “Babel”) is known for pushing the boundaries of traditional film making but this feels like his boldest effort yet. This film plays with our expectations on many levels again and again through out (giving us a soundtrack of pounding drums and then suddenly revealing a man on a drum set inexplicably sitting in the corner, creating fantastical moments and then giving them logical explanations and then taking those explanations away again). This quirky, almost whimsical tone, balances nicely against the darkness of the script and the bite of it’s humor. This story is a diatribe against the cult of celebrity and is razor sharp and stinging. Barbs connect in vicious ways against celebrities, real and imagined, of all sorts. This might seem petty if it weren’t for the fact that the most vicious of these are directed at the main character, Riggan Thomson, played by Michael Keaton. Although, really, Michael Keaton is playing Riggan Thomson playing Michael Keaton. Where this story is at it’s absurdist best is in the fact that Keaton is essentially playing a through-the-looking-glass version of himself. An actor once famous for playing the superhero, “Birdman,” passed on continuing the franchise to pursue more serious roles that never really materialized. He is now running out of money, bitter toward the young actors today who are making so much more money playing superheroes, and trying to jump start his career on Broadway. That’s a lot of self-referential for most actors to handle and could come across as self-indulgent or, worse, disingenuous. Yet, Keaton is masterful at being vulnerable; the anger, the fear, the desperation are all so nakedly present on screen that, just as a character study, this film works wonderfully, all directorial tricks aside. It’s a strong cast overall, with Emma Stone and Edward Norton being particular standouts. This is a thoroughly brilliant movie from start to finish, so full of rich, textured subtleties in every scene: the lighting, the sounds, even some of the throwaway lines, the way the camera lingers or doesn’t in certain scenes, the bandages on Keaton that look like a Birdman mask and what ends up being underneath those bandages. Brilliant. But all of that aside, the film stands or falls on Keaton’s acting. And Birdman soars.

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