The End of the Tour

August 23, 2015 at 6:22 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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When David Foster Wallace committed suicide in 2008, I knew very little about him other than that he had written a 1,000 page novel that was supposedly a work of art. A dense and difficult work of art. I never quite got around to reading it but this film feels almost like the next best thing. In 1996, a relatively new Rolling Stone journalist named David Lipsky hoped to establish himself at the magazine by interviewing the author whose novel, “The Infinite Jest,” had just skyrocketed him to literary stardom. Lipsky flew to Wallace’s Minnesota home and spent five days tape-recording their conversations. He wrote the piece and now, all these years later, it has been turned into this movie; the story of two men, essentially alone, opening up to each other. More precisely, it is the story of Wallace’s attempt at authenticity and connection and Lipsky’s attempt to remain guarded and how both those desires share a remarkable amount of overlap. Born in ’62, Wallace stood on the edge, peering into Generation X and his writing spoke most directly to the males of that generation. He spoke to what it meant to be the TV generation (maybe the first generation raised with such easy access to instant gratification) and of the existential dangers of always seeking pleasure. His core message spoke to the fundamental emotional emptiness of prosperity in a way that resonated with many who felt as lost as he did. Lipsky related deeply to this message but, like so many others, he saw Wallace as the guru with answers rather than as a fellow lost traveler. This clouded his judgement in the early days of the interview, seeing only who he needed Wallace to be. It’s an interesting device that allows the audience to explore both men on multiple levels and through multiple lenses. Lipsky’s portrayal is standard Jesse Eisenberg; he’s the anxious and insecure intellectual. Fortunately, that is exactly what is called for here. Jason Segel is more of a revelation. His Wallace is earnest but fearful, desperate to be open but suspicious. These are two man it’s almost impossible not to like and that makes their journey together deeply watchable and affecting. They are orbited by a random collection of mostly invisible women, including Anna Chlumsky, Mamie Gummer and Joan Cusak. But no one else really matters. This is the story of two men trying to find themselves and briefly occupying the road along that journey. Sadly, Wallace never got where he was going. I honestly hope Lipsky did.

Straight Outta Compton

August 18, 2015 at 4:55 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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In its first few minutes, the N.W.A biopic, “Straight Outta Compton,” explodes all over the screen, both literally and metaphorically. The tension in those first moments presage well the rest of the film, which tells the tale of the rise of the world’s most influential rap group and the O.G.s (if you can excuse the term) of gangsta rap. Over a long two and a half hours, we follow the rise and struggles of these young artists from 1986 to 1995. We see the streets they grew up on and the experiences that shaped their music. We watch their meteoric rise and the internal conflicts that came with that success. The story is a powerful one and well worth the telling and it is mostly told well here. The story unfolds at a fairly steady pace, seldom lacking for momentum and, despite its length, it never drags. Also, the cast of lead actors (most of whom have only done bit TV parts until now) play their parts well and with conviction. In particular, Jason Mitchell is exceptional as Eazy-E. There is an intensity to him from the first scene of the film until his last, giving a heart-wrenching performance in one of his final scenes. Mitchell is a gifted actor who brought great nuance to a complex character. O’Shea Jackson Jr (playing his father, Ice Cube) was another standout. Perhaps, the uncanny similarities to his father biased me but I was fully taken in by his performance, which felt surprisingly raw and vital for someone who must have essentially grown up very differently from his father. It added to the immediacy of the film that the actors playing Eazy-E, Ice Cube, Suge Knight and others looked so convincingly like the men they played. In fact, they looked so much like those men that it was distracting to me how much Corey Hawkins did not look like Dr Dre. Not that his acting was bad, because it wasn’t; I just found myself displaced looking at him because I was constantly recalling what the real Dre looks like. On a more meaningful note, I felt that the film simplified the band’s early manager, Jerry Heller. As played by Paul Giamatti, he acted like so many recent Giamatti characters. His role in the development of N.W.A was undoubtedly a critical one and yet he seemed to end up serving as a plot device more than a fully developed person. Also, there is an underlying question about the role violent, misogynistic music plays in our culture that hovers around this whole film. That difficult question is only ever looked at here from the artists’ point of view and, while that side of the discussion is valid, it is not the only side. I understand that this film was already trying to tell a large story and did not have time to explore those moral complexities. I am just saying that I noticed their absence.

The Best of Enemies

August 12, 2015 at 2:25 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This light and generally amusing documentary gives us an inside view to the Buckley/Vidal debates during the 1968 Republican and Democratic Conventions. In a ploy to increase its dismal ratings, ABC chose to provide only a truncated summary of the conventions each day, followed by what they had hoped would be a lively intellectual debate about the content of the speeches. To achieve this they brought in famed arch-conservative William F. Buckley and ultra-liberal author, Gore Vidal. Both men were stunningly intelligent, eloquent and outspoken and they absolutely hated each other. What fun! Buckley apparently approached the debates as ABC had intended them, prepared to have a spirited discussion of the issues. Vidal, on the other hand, had a different agenda: to expose Buckley as a dangerous menace to society. The results were a ratings boon for ABC and they set the stage for all bloviating punditry that clogs are airwaves today. Watching these two men go after each other with one contemptuous quip after another was great fun, though I couldn’t help but be struck by the fact that I did not like either of them. They were both arrogant and petty and enjoyed their cruelty far too much. So, as much as I enjoyed this film, it was tempered, in part, by knowing who I was laughing along with and, in part, by knowing how much those “debates” have changed the discourse in our national media for the worse.

Trainwreck

August 8, 2015 at 3:55 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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In some ways, this reminds me of the Melissa McCarthy film, “Spy,” that I reviewed recently. I rarely ever see traditional comedies because I rarely find them as funny as most people do. In both of these cases, I made an exception because they were well reviewed and I was interested in central actress. With “Spy,” I was just curious about McCarthy, who I had never seen in anything. This time, I knew Amy Schumer’s work from the TV shows “Last Comic Standing” and “Inside Amy Schumer.” Like the best comics, she has an edge to her work; beneath the crass exterior, she’s pushing against cultural norms around gender roles and sex. All of that is present here, in this film that she wrote and stars in. In typical Schumer fashion, she inverts the romantic movie cliche about the earnest, loving woman who has to break through the barriers of the emotionally distant guy and teach him to love again. Schumer’s character is vulger, cynical, snide and guarded. In fact, this character would be unwatchable if played by a man but the inversion is part of the fun for the audience. Bill Hader (“The Skeleton Twins,” “Inside Out”) is perfectly cast as the unnaturally healthy, patient and lovable Aaron. Only a saint would stick it out long enough to heal Amy’s heart and Aaron is that saint. Hader is a naturally affable actor, who’s aw-shucks demeanor made Aaron seem charming rather than wimpy. The film has brilliant casting overall, with Tilda Swinton (“Snowpiercer,” “The Grand Budapest Hotel”) chewing up every scene she is in as Amy’s boss, Colin Quinn (mostly of SNL fame) as her small minded father and John Cena (the wrestler!) as her hysterically funny boyfriend.  LeBron James is also unexpectedly funny in his role as Aaron’s friend and confident. In fact, it’s a clever surprise how many people show up playing themselves in some capacity. At it’s best, the film could be very funny, as in a scene where Hader talks about Amy while attempting to play basketball with James. And it could be remarkably touching, as in Amy’s speech at a funeral. However, it was also crass in spades and much of that humor fell flat for me. The whole concept of the magazine where she worked and almost all the jokes in that setting seemed unimaginative and of the how-gross-can-we-be variety. Similarly, I felt there were a couple of critical missteps where humor was used to lighten a situation (as in the aforementioned funeral) and ended up stealing some of the power of the moment. It was as though Schumer and director Judd Apatow didn’t trust the audience to be willing to stay with the mood. This was my big disappointment of the film: there was certainly something interesting happening here; we had rich commentary and genuine humor but, in the end, it felt like it played dumb for an audience that didn’t include me. This felt like “American Pie” and “Something About Mary” and all the films I have avoided over the years because they held no interest for me. Schumer is a brilliant and insightful comic and I have heard her say that she worries a bit about being stereotyped as the sexually obsessed character she so often plays. To that end, this film won’t help change that perception (especially as her character also bares her name). I hope she gets that opportunity soon.

The Look of Silence

August 4, 2015 at 7:07 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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This is the follow up to the unnervingly brilliant 2013 documentary “The Act of Killing” (you can read my review here). That stands as one of the most remarkable documentaries I have seen in recent memory. In it, we learn about the Indonesian genocide of 1965 from the actual perpetrators as they act out their brutality for the camera, as though they were making a Hollywood movie. It is shocking and brilliant. In his follow up, director Joshua Oppenheimer, shifts his lens toward the victims. Or, in this case, one victim in particular. Adi was born 2 years after the brutal torture and murder of his brother Ramli. He is the consolation child his parents had in order to try and heal. Now a door-to-door glasses salesman, Adi cannot let go of the fact that nobody was punished for this crime and all the killers remain in power, even while be completely open about what they did. In fact, several scenes show Adi watching the video of Ramli’s two killers joke and laugh while they describe in graphic detail how they killed him. The film follows his attempts to confront these men and their bosses in the Komando Aksi (the paramilitary goon squad responsible for most of the slaughter). In the guise of fitting them for glasses, Adi gently but firmly tries to force them to take moral responsibility for their actions and to apologize. Be warned, this is a heart-wrenching and brutal film. Not only do we hear the killers describe again and again what they did to Ramli, we also hear his mother talk about the experience in graphic detail. “The Act of Killing,” as horrifying as it was, created a strange distance from the brutality by being so bizarre and fantastical. Here, there is no veil between the audience and the pain. In the final moments of the film, I felt exhausted by the rawness of it all. I can’t remember seeing a more personal documentary about the brutality of war. Like his first film, Oppenheimer leaves open difficult questions about evil, redemption and forgiveness. All Adi and his family wants is an apology. At one point, he says he wants to forgive. These people are his neighbors. They are a community. He just wants acknowledgement for what was done in the past and then to heal and move on. Can that happen? The film has two competing metaphors that play throughout. One is of Adi’s elderly father, blind, death, and disabled. He is weak and needs constant care. In one painful scene, he drags himself around a room, disoriented and scared. He thinks he is lost in another man’s house and the owner will be angry when he finds him. He calls out for help without response. The other metaphor is in the first and final scenes of the film: we see tiny chrysalis popping around on a floor as their contents slowly change into butterflies. Images of despair and hope. How will Indonesians deal with the aftermath of the genocide, now in its fiftieth year? Blind, lost and afraid? Or emerging transformed and stronger? Nobody yet knows the answer.

Do I Sound Gay?

August 4, 2015 at 6:26 pm | Posted in 2015 | Leave a comment
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It’s a provocative question. When I first heard of this film, I was immediately intrigued. I respect people who are willing to explore difficult and controversial topics, particularly ones that nobody is talking about. And, the truth is, there is a particular male voice that is generally associated with homosexuality. As Bill Maher once said, not every gay man has that voice but every man who has it is gay. Or, at least, that’s the perception. So, a documentary that purports to explore what causes this voice immediately fascinated me. And apparently not just me, judging by the celebrities interviewed. I had expected a rigorous examination of various possible causal factors for this vocal phenomenon, along with some of the funny anecdotes one can see in the trailer. I guess I had really expected humor and insight. However, it turned out to be a much darker and less illuminating road than I had anticipated.  First time writer and direct, David Thorpe is the  star of this very autobiographical film that follows his own struggles with his voice. What we get over a lean 77 minutes, is Thorpe and various gay men of his generation discussing how ashamed they have been of their voices their entire lives. With a fair dose of self loathing (and some self loathing about the self loathing), we listen to David, his friends, David Sedaris and others discuss how they have come to terms (or not) with the voices they have. To be fair, many of the men (such as Tim Gunn, Dan Savage or George Takei) do not seem ashamed of their voices but the overall tone of the film felt like one of embarrassed confession. We also watch as Thorpe attends speech therapy classes and attempts to sound more “masculine.” Along the way, we are exposed to some theories about the origin of this voice but they all seem to fall into one category: you copied the speech patterns of the women around you and not the men in your lives. And while that could certainly be a factor, I doubt it’s the only theory out there. Many African American men have noticeably recognizable voices that are much deeper in timbre; do we conclude that is solely because of environment? It seems genetics may well play a part but that concept is not addressed at all. Instead, we have a theory that reminds me uncomfortably of the “overbearing mother, absent father” hypothesis used to explain homosexuality at one time. I think the theory deserves addressing, it just should not be the only one mentioned. But, then, it occurs to me that this is not a film about the causes of “the gay voice” but, rather, it is the story of one man’s path to a form of self acceptance. Fair enough. That’s just not the film I signed up for.

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