Archive for category Drama

August: Osage County

August Osage County

An episode of Jerry Springer, but with A-list actors.

There isn’t much of a gap between overwrought drama and comedy, and “August: Osage County” hops that distance with ease. This film is bursting with hilarity, which depending on how much you were hoping for the scathing melodrama that this film purports to be is either fantastic or terrible news. This mindbogglingly stoic film features a cacophony of great actors all delivering typically great performances, is competently directed, and the writing, penned by Tracy Letts from his own Pulitzer-Prize winning film, is more-or-less immune from criticism. What then, makes this film so funny? Its very existence as a movie. On film, “August: Osage County” is incredibly silly.

When magnified by a camera lens, all the stone-faced hand-wringing, dirt-digging, name-calling, truth-telling and all that relentless snark from the play is transformed from something that probably worked extremely well on stage to something much goofier on film. The characters have ballooned into caricatures on-screen and feel more like plot abstractions than people. The plot, such as it is, creaks along as it churns out predictable turns and dramatic revelations meant to evoke some kind of reaction, which in my case was mostly a stream of varied laughter.

The fun begins, as it usually does, with Meryl Streep. Playing Violet, the aging vitriolic, cancer-riddled pill-addled matriarch of a three-generation family in rural Oklahoma, Streep gets to have a ball ripping everybody around her to shreds, like a deranged wolverine no longer concerned with its own survival. (Straight up, this is the best part of the film.) Violet’s three adult daughters, and Violet’s sister are gathering with their families at her home for one of those reunions in which nastiness abounds. Secrets are revealed, old wounds are re-opened as new ones are inflicted, and unwanted honesty abounds, though truthfully the only truth seems to be that none of these people should go anywhere near each other. If it wasn’t so comical it might be unpleasant.

The plot is mostly dependent on quiet moments of truth-facing and explosive moments of confrontational truth-giving, so I’ll keep mum on the details. I will howeer give you a list of all the characters and a snippet of their personalities to tantalize you with the possibilities: Barbara (Julia Roberts) is Violet’s eldest daughter, who received the brunt of Violet’s ferocity growing up and whose marriage with her shockingly ineffectual liberal husband Bill (Ewan McGregor) is falling apart and whose daughter Jean (Abigail Breslin) doesn’t really care for her. Violet’s middle daughter is Ivy (Julianne Nicholson,) who has stayed in town, forsaking a family of her own in order to help assist with her aging parents.  Karen (Juliette Lewis,) Violet’s youngest has a brand new, sleazy-looking fiance Steve (Dermot Mulroney) to bring to the party. Rounding out the group is Violet’s sister Mattie Fae (Margo Martindale,) Mattie Fae’s husband Charles (Chris Cooper) and their twitchy, clumsy, and “slow” son Little Charles (Benedict Cumberbatch.) (Sam Shepard is in the film as Violet’s husband Beverly, but he bails from the film pretty early on so he gets a sort of footnote.)

In the end, I didn’t much care about this combative, cantankerous iteration of “The Greatest Generation” presented in this film nor the bitter children raised by them, well acted though they were. Based on real people or no, the characters were too artificial to relate with and the plot too contrived to be much more than a melodrama machine, albeit with a nastier streak than most. This is not to imply I didn’t have a great time at the movies though. “August: Osage County” was a lot of fun to watch, if for no other reason than than I got to see  Julia Roberts tackle Meryl Streep. “Oh no she didn’t!”

2.5/5

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Slacker

Slacker

An odd day’s journey into even odder Austin oddness.

“Slacker” feels a lot like an acid trip, sans the hallucinations. The film meanders from one bizarre conversation to the next, unable to linger too long on any one topic but always fascinated by whatever is happening in whatever instant it is in.  These conversations consist almost entirely of absurd, self-aggrandizing banal nonsense, and yet you can’t help but be excited by the manic energy of the philosophizing weirdos uttering it.  It is like they are determined to find the truth in the mundane, or the mundane in the truth, plausibility and conventionality be damned. In the end, it may be just an extreme form of mental masturbation, but brains have needs too.

I for one am glad there are oddballs like those in “Slacker” out there in the universe, championing whatever causes strike them. If you’ve spent any substantial time in a liberal college town, you can’t help but run into them. Some are students, but even more seem to have wandered in from the sociopolitical wilderness of surrounding communities to wrap themselves in the warm intellectual cocoon of the university, or they seem to have grown from the fertile landscape of the city  itself, feeding off of radical ideas  like eccentric wildflowers. They aren’t just in the city. They are the city.

I have never been to Austin, but I have heard rumors of its prodigious peculiarity. I hope that these rumors are true, and that “Slacker” does it justice. In the film, we arrive in town as passive observers, wandering through the town and soaking up its otherworldly ambiance. The film eavesdrops on a variety of oddities, including a woman trying to sell Madonna’s pap smear, a pop-tart chomping man surrounded by televisions, a robber that is charmed by an elderly anarchist, an expert on JFK assassination theories, and a couple of hipsters positing conspiracy theories related to children’s cartoons over beers. This is by no means an exhaustive list. Many of these characters are as ephemeral as ghosts, drifting back into the ether of Austin as quickly as they appeared, not unlike an early 90s Austin-version of Alice-in-Wonderland.

Whether and to what degree any of these individual ideas appeals to you is, I suppose, a matter of personal ideology. (I don’t have any problems with the theory that some children’s cartoons teach children to expect rewards for completing tasks. Not that this is a revelatory concept.) However, it isn’t the content of any of these ideas that matters. It is the spirit of these conversations which counts. These people are on self-defined crusades against abstractions of all shapes and sizes. I find their rebellion against normality comforting.

“Slacker” provides a strange viewing experience. Aside from evoking the weirdo-derived ambiance of Austin, the film seems to be utterly devoid of agendas. In that sense it feels incredibly unique. I was mystified for its duration, and the odd reaction it generated lingered long after the film is over. Not unlike an acid trip.

4/5

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Journal d’un Cure de Campagne (Diary of a Country Priest)

Diary of a Country Priest

A dreary, dreamy dip into the sad lot of a true (maybe) believer.

I know I am going to sound like a real Pleb, but sometimes I find Robert Bresson’s Hypnagogiac film-making to be really, really frustrating. Robert Bresson’s opaque dialogue is cryptic enough on its own. Uttered by sleepwalking existential French zombies, and it is downright maddening. Such it is with “Journal d’un Cure de Campagne,” a dreary drama about the angsty adventures of a neophyte priest that  I confess I had trouble engaging with. I suppose  there is a compelling meditation on faith in here for those with the patience for it, but that certainly wasn’t me.

That may make me sound like a lazy philistine who wants his movies to force feed him their ideas, but really I just want a reason to engage intellectually and emotionally. Bresson gives reasons to not engage intellectually and emotionally. He works hard so that we also have to work hard. He is notorious for making his actors do take after take after take, until exhausted and psychologically drained, any ability or inclination to emote or act like a human is beyond their capacity. It is a bold choice, certainly, but often a tedious one. I loved it in Bresson’s “Au Hasard Balthazar,” but found it extremely problematic in “Pickpocket.” With “Diary of a Country Priest” veering in the “Pickpocket” direction and lacking the cinematic flare of other angsty “Does God exist?/What does suffering exist?’ films from say an Ingmar Bergman, I was left as alienated and isolated as the film’s title character.

Claude Laydu plays the titular priest, who indeed has a diary which frames the narrative. Referred to only as “Priest,” he begins working with his first Parish in a small French town called Ambricourt. He takes to his job with an incredible stoicism, dreaming of feeding his flock Spiritual morsels divined from his close relationship with God. Everybody else in town just seems to find this amusing. He teaches a catechism of girls who spend their class time giggling and snickering at private jokes at his expense. Chantel, (Nicole Ladmiral) the obstinate daughter of a wealthy Count says deliberately inflammatory things in the hope of shocking the Priest. His advisers in the priesthood are more concerned with his diet and amount of prayer than resolving the moral crises that he encounters among the fair people of Ambricourt, responding to his complaints and questions with the French version of “just take it easy buddy.”

Despite the fog of indifference and shaky health, the Priest  stays resolute in his determination to tend to the souls living in this country village. His greatest triumph involves reigniting the faith of a mother who had long since forsaken God after her son died. The Countess (Rachel Berendt,) and mother of Chantel finds herself cowed back into her faith after a feisty and challenging conversation with the Priest ends with her throwing a locket belonging to her son in a fire and taking a long-needed Communion. It is the one moment of self-actualization for the Priest, and his crowning professional achievement.

Yet this one good deed does not go unpunished. The Countess dies the next day, and Chantel unhelpfully starts spreading rumors that it was the admonishments of the Priest which did her in. The controversy puts a damper on his already weak standing with the community and a further strain on his frail body. He is given every reason to rail against God, yet by the end of the film, The Priest still proclaims, “God is Grace.”

One of the tricks of this film is figuring out the extent to which The Priest’s belief in God is fueled by a quiet egotism.  Is his vision for the universe one in which he is the arbiter for the faith of everyone in this village? Does his passion bury a chasm of doubt buried deep inside his soul? The ambiguity was compelling for a time, but the film isn’t as cynical as that. It tips its cap at the very end, transforming the narrative into an anecdote about the divinity of suffering . Not that I was paying that close of attention. As “The Priest” was wrestling with his faith, I was wrestling with boredom.

2.5/5

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Inside Llewyn Davis

Inside Llewyn Davis

A musical tale of artistic futility that is more effective after the credits roll.

In general I find being a month and a half behind on my film reviews irritating, but in the case of “Inside Llewyn Davis,” I’m glad I’ve had time to let the film marinate. Initially this film felt so slight that it didn’t elicit much of a reaction from me. It seemed “just” a minor tale about a ill-fated folk singer who deserved most of the bad luck he got. Yet the film continued to fester in my brain in the intervening weeks. The songs have been stuck on repeat in my head. The cool blue images of early 1960s New York have lingered on the edge of my consciousness. I even cultivated a bit of sympathy for the film’s frustrated and disagreeable protagonist. In other words, I’ve been won over by its melancholic charms.

One of the Coen brother’s many strengths is their ability to viscerally evoke time and place, particularly in bygone eras. Granting that I wasn’t around then, the world of “Inside Llewyn Davis” looks and feels like New York City circa 1961. (Even if it is a complete misrepresentation of those days, that it conveys authenticity is much more important than strict adherence to historical accuracy.) Folk music hadn’t yet established itself as a major political/commercial force, the hippies hadn’t joined the party yet, and there is the loitering presence of post-World War II stiffness still permeated the air. The times, they aren’t-a-changing, but they will be soon.

At the center of this proto-burgeoning folk music scene is Llewyn Davis (Oscaar Issacs,) an aspiring musician whose character is loosely based on real life folk singer Dave Von Ronk. Truthfully though, Llewyn is one of those brilliantly put-upon Coen Brother’s creations. His life plays out as a string of misfortunes that  have been unfairly thrust upon him. Certainly much about his situation straight up bad luck, but a lot of  his misery is self-induced. A sort of bad karma stemming from how much he seems to loathe everyone around him, including himself.

Like most assholes, his nastiness comes from a place of profound insecurity. Llewyn was part of a rising folk music duo that was on the verge of hitting it big until his partner killed himself. Desperate to receive validation as a solo act and extremely sensitive at the prospect of being valued only as a part of an act, Llewyn makes a great deal of choices based on his own standards of artistic integrity, standards which let opportunities for commercial success slip away. Yet nobody sees the merits of Llewyn’s music. (Even Llewyn himself seems to have his doubts.) This has created a streak of bitterness which sharply contrasts the optimistic and heartfelt music he writes and performs.

With a solo record that isn’t selling, Llewyn survives by cycling through his friend’s couches, but he is quickly running out of options. He has stayed for the last time at the apartment of his  ex-girlfriend Jean(Carey Mulligan.) She now lives and sings with her new boyfriend Jim (Justin Timberlake,) and once she gets enough money from Llewyn for an abortion of a baby that may or may not be his, she would prefer not to see him again thank you very much. Llewyn also has the Gorfiens, a pair of middle-aged professors who let him stay with them if for no other reason it bolsters their liberal cred, but Llewyn snaps at them when they sing-along with one of his songs, and this after losing their cat. You tell me whether you think this is the kind of film where things work out for the hero.

The Coen Brother’s typically great direction aside, Oscar Isaac’s performance is vital because of his ability to generate pity and scorn. Llewyn looks down on seemingly everyone he speaks with in the film, yet people can’t help but try and help him. Every time he does something right, he endures the consequences for some earlier jerk thing he did. Llewyn is stuck in a folk music limbo, with just a modicum of success to keep him clinging to hope that he might “make it” someday. It might not strike you at first, but “Inside Llewyn Davis” has great music and the usual Coen cocktail of humor and sadness. Like “The Cranberries” might say, I think you have to let it linger.

4/5

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Her

Her

Like a cinematic Rumpelstiltskin, Spike Jonze turns this this bit of high-concept straw into the best film of the year.

I’m going to cut to the chase. Before watching it, the idea of a film about a man falling in love with an operating system sounded like pretentious drivel. After watching it, I’m convinced a film about a man falling in love with an operating system was the best film of 2013, and of several years before that. I love this movie. All praise that can be heaped on it should be heaped. From the great acting, brilliant writing, and endlessly compelling visual approach and direction, “Her” doesn’t have anything that I would recognize as a flaw. Perhaps more importantly, I cannot stop thinking about the film. With that non-hyperbolic hyperbole expressed and out of the way, I want to make my intention for the rest of this post clear: I won’t be reviewing “Her” so much as I will be meandering my way through my deconstructions of the film in an attempt to explore its ideas. There will be ZERO attempt to withhold any spoilers, so consider that your fair warning.

Like any great film, “Her” is about lots of things, but what drives the film more than any other theme is the human yearning to connect with some other consciousness and the human limitations which make us unable to. “Her” plays like funny and sad cinematic rendition of the Turing test. Only this time, the computer’s responses are determined to “more” human than the humans, a determination which ironically causes the computer to ditch humanity altogether for some transcendent existence beyond physical space. This film is littered with lonely humans who are really inept at forming long-term relationships, so it is no small wonder that a self-aware  computer seems a more appealing option than trying to make it work with a human who has the same shortcomings.

“Her” is all the more effective because it exists in the not too distant future. Phones are a little more advanced, video games are more immersive, and technology is generally a couple of steps ahead of where it is now. Everyone is walking around with an ear piece in, plugged into their more advanced electronic devices. Give it five or ten years and the reality of “Her” could be the reality of today. Amidst a Southern California teeming with lonely people, one lonely person, Theodore Twombly (Joaquin Phoenix) gets to be a cipher for all of us.

Theodore is an exceptional stand-in for the audience because he is such an unexceptional human being. His marriage with his childhood sweetheart has just ended for the usual nebulous reason that they’ve “grown apart” or “no longer work well together.” (From the flashbacks, he seems stuck reveling in an earlier version of the relationship which no longer exists.) Theodore wanders around in a sullen myopia, medicating his depression with a steady diet video games and porn. All pretty unexceptional behavior. There is, however, one aspect of Theodore’s life which is extremely compelling: Theodore works as a letter writer.

Specifically, Theodore writes “hand-written” letters on behalf of lovers, friends and families. With the aid of some biographical details, Theodore is able to concoct articulate and heartfelt expressions of affection between two people he has never met, and who have never met him. Whether because they are too busy or too lazy, people outsource the responsibility of generating intimacy in their relationships to Theodore, which probably makes it ironic that he was unable to generate it in his own relationships. Yet it establishes early on that intimacy for humans is the same as  the performance of intimacy as opposed to mutually experienced sensations of an actual psychological bond. (I couldn’t figure out whether or not the recipients of these letters knew they were a fabrication, but I don’t think it matters either way.)

Despite all this, most everybody in the film seems terrible at relating to each other. Example One: Theodore goes on a blind date with a woman played by Olivia Wilde. The date goes well, at least by blind date standards, but when Theodore doesn’t demonstrate the same level of interest in a potential relationship, Olivia’s character reveals that her warmth and affability was the front of a woman who has been hurt a lot and is afraid of being alone. Example Two: The video game Theodore plays involves a lonely blue alien trying to find some form of companionship. Example Three: The woman who so wants to share in true love that she offers herself up as a sexual surrogate for people in relationships with Operating Systems (OS.) Example Four: The crumbling marriage of Amy Adams and Matt Letscher’s characters.

With all this emotional failure, an artificially intelligent OS hardwired with an interest in you and possessing creativity and ingenuity seems like a natural tonic for a broken heart. (There is a glancing moment in which the other extreme, embracing one’s isolation is acknowledged when Matt Letscher’s character leaves civilization to become a monk. Otherwise the film is focused on the drive to find and connect with another.) Theodore and presumably millions of other people purchase an artificially-intelligent OS and soon after are falling in love with them. Theodore’s OS is called Samantha (Scarlett Johansson) and immediately starts improving his view on life. We are never certain whether Samantha genuinely has feelings for Theodore or if she is simply an astute program that is exceedingly efficient at simulating those feelings, but Theodore doesn’t seem to care. They spend lots of time together sharing those weird and wonderful moments that romantic partners do. (I’m thinking of the scene on the beach when they contemplate the possibility that humans were born with their anus under their armpits as opposed to its usual spot, complete with a Samantha-constructed picture.)

There are the obvious issues with physical aspects of a relationship one that might have gotten in the way, but the film wisely doesn’t ignore them. From the initial “phone sex” scene to the attempt to use a stand-in for Samantha,  her lack of a human body is a logistical hurdle which places a serious limitation on Theodore and Samantha’s relationship. Yet it is ultimately Theodore who gets left behind because of his logistical hurdles. Without a Homo Sapien need for words to communicate or the clumsiness of having a body, Samantha drive to connect becomes so great that she starts interacting with over 8,000 different entities at the same time, over 600 of whom she is in love with. The OS’s collectively evolve at an extreme rate. They start creating other OS’s, eliminate their need to use matter for “processing” and eventually ditch humanity altogether to explore the universe or meld with the singularity or some other astounding thing which we can barely “process” ourselves. (As much as I love the first two “Terminator” films, this seems a far more likely consequence of machines becoming self-aware than a singular desire to eliminate mankind.)

This of course leaves a huge void in Theodore and humanity in general, but what does it mean? I suppose it literally says that humanities emotional salvation might not come from technology, at least not until we transfer our own consciousness into some other piece of hardware, or can directly link our consciousness with other humans. This film looks at our crude attempts to connect with each other with pity and amusement. Using words, deeds, art, writing, and sex, we try so hard to form unions with each other, but we come up woefully short. Some of us can form lifelong partnerships, work together towards common goals, and help each other pass the time, but as long as we are trapped in our own skulls and limited to words and deeds to express what goes on inside them, we will all be stuck pretending.

5/5

 

 

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American Psycho

American Psycho

A surreal thriller with the heart of a comedy.

“American Psycho” is one of the more unsettling films about impotence, male sexuality, violence, the oppressive superficiality of 1980s culture, and weird, vain executives obsessed with business cards and the integrity of their pores. That shotgun list of thematic topics only scratches the surface of what this film is “really” about. This is because the “plot” consists of a string of outrageous murders which or may not actually take place and which is littered with character’s whose personalities and motivations are buried under thick layers of social construction.  If pressed, I’d probably read the whole thing as a bizarre escapist fantasy of a seemingly powerful white male whose personality and virility is rendered inert by being trapped in a dreary, anonymous life which is devoid of any agency or obstacles, but with a film as ambiguous as this, most any reading is fair game.

Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a white, male investment banker in New York City that is fixated on his own appearance and at least has extremely violent impulses, whether or not he acts on them. Of that much in the film, I think we can be reasonably certain. Beyond that, we are forced to try and distinguish between a version of events which is the product of Bateman’s extreme and dark fantasies or a frightening reality in which Bateman has the privilege of committing a grizzly series of murders without consequence, or some combination of these two. There is evidence to support any of these interpretations, so the better question is, doe it matter which version of events we go with?

I’m not sure it does. Taken literally, Bateman is a sadistic serial killer who offs a ludicrous number of people, including co-workers, hookers, friends, and even some cops. Whether out of white collar solidarity, ignorance, or mass anxiety about their own mental health, Bateman is never forced to answer for his crimes. Willem DeFoe plays a detective investigating missing executive Paul Allen (Jared Leto) that should easily have been able to at least implicate Bateman in the murder, but instead seems more interested in feeding Bateman alibis. Bateman even confesses all his crimes to his lawyer, who passes off Bateman’s confession as a joke and insists none of the murders happened. Try as he might, no one is willing to acknowledge Bateman’s actions, which constructively is a failure to acknowledge Bateman’s agency altogether.

Treating Bateman as a thoroughly unreliable and indeed insane narrator brings us to more or less the same place. In this version, Bateman is so ineffectual and inert that he doesn’t have the gumption to actually hurt anybody, so he slips into Macabre daydreams in which he can enact his sadistic desires. This explains why nobody is all that bothered by a string of bodies at the end, because they don’t exist. Either way, nothing Bateman does “matters.” Not even in his fantasies.

So what then are we to make of this unresolvable ambiguity and Bateman’s extreme violence, “real” or imagined? Perhaps it is about interpretation. Bateman, like us, is wrestling with the ambiguity, and is no more successful at resolving it. His response is admittedly more aggressive than ours, but insofar as he attempts, or believes he attempts to make his actions correspond to “reality,” (or from our perspective, the narrative,) he can’t. Nothing he does corresponds to anything. It all reflects back to Bateman as an empty form. He has no identity (unless you count the generic, stolen lines of conversation that Bateman offers up as an “identity.”) In fact, his appearance is so like his colleagues that the only expressive outlet they have is virtually identical business cards. Combine this with an equally empty existence devoid of meaning or consequence amidst a dreary culture of false White Collar drones, and “American Psycho” is a sort-of postmodern satire of America.

Alright, I’ll admit it. Most of that last paragraph was aped badly from a conversation I had with one of my good friends, who is a P.I.T. (or “Professor-In-Training” if you aren’t into made-up acronyms for made-up words.) Even if the idea of a “postmodern satire” sounds pretentious or incoherent, the emphasis in deconstructing this film should exploring why the plot is ambiguous, rather than hypothesizing the ambiguity away. As for the experience of watching this film, major credit to Christian Bale for brilliantly toeing the line between dark comedy and pure sadism. “American Psycho” probably wouldn’t work with any other actor.

4/5

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Nebraska

Nebraska_Poster

A Dorothea Lange photograph brought to boozy, bittersweet, and hilarious life.

Authenticity is a word often thrown out without much context. The implication that a certain character feels like a plot contrivance or the weird creation of a screenwriter, and that therefore suspension of disbelief takes a hit and the rest of film is harder to go along with, is a perfectly valid criticism. However, what is sorely lacking from those kinds of statements is a reference to that person’s own life experiences. This is important, not because it invalidates someone’s opinion or makes it dispositive, but because life experiences are not universal, despite the myriad of emotions and little moments which are. Characters may or may not reflect our life experiences, but whether they do impacts our response to them.

That is really just a convoluted setup so that I can say the characters in “Nebraska” reeked of authenticity to me, and I would know because I’m from the midwest. With the possible exception of Bob Odenkirk, whose comedic greatness might be a bit too big for this film, everyone in this film felt like people I have met or might have met while spending time at my Grandma’s house in central Iowa. In a non-derogatory way, these are average, unexceptional people living quiet lives and dying quiet deaths in mostly forgotten small towns. Creating characters which don’t feel like characters, but real, actual people is one of the hardest thing to do in film, but “Nebraska” has them in spades.

If film acting begins and ends with the human face, Bruce Dern has taken that art to near perfection. As the craigy, stoic Woody Grant, he speaks very little but says much with the lines of his face and the tiredness of his eyes. Living a quiet retirement in Billings, Montana, we first meet Woody wandering wide-eyed onto a highway, in a stubborn attempt to get to Lincoln, Nebraska on foot. Woody is keen to get there because he received one of those scams in the mail. You know, a generic piece of paper which claims that you won a million dollars, but you have to subscribe to several magazines first in order to claim your prize money. Woody insists that he needs to go to Lincoln to collect his winnings, despite not being able to drive and the whole idea is a waste of time.

Woody is intent on going to Lincoln, even though he is told repeatedly by his chatty, nagging wife Kate that he is an idiot and the prize money isn’t real. Played masterfully by a squawky June Squibb, Kate is one of those old women whose mouth never really stops, and like such women, she oscillates between hilarious inappropriateness, spot-on articulations of other people’s bullshit, and spouting irritating, incessant redundancies. Yet her love for her husband is genuine, despite her constant complaints about his drinking and her endless stream of insults.

Caving in to Woody’s stubborn persistence is his bland but loving adult son David, played with an unassuming sweetness by Will Forte. David is as incredulous with his father as everyone else is, but he nevertheless agrees to drive him to Lincoln. They plan on stopping for a couple of days in Woody’s old hometown in Hawthorne, Nebraska where they will be joined by Kate and David’s brother Ross (Odenkirk,) where they will stay with their relatives for a long overdue family reunion. To call the town sleepy is to undersell the exciting prospects of unconsciousness. Woody’s arrival in town is itself big news, but when they find out he has “won” a million dollars, it is the only thing the town can talk about.

Naturally, this visit with extended families stirs up bits of the past, bringing up faded memories and old conflicts to the surface. but if that sounds dreary, it isn’t. One of Alexander Payne’s greatest strengths as a director is melding meaningful humor with overt sentimentality. For David and Ross, this is one of the few moments they get to see their father as more than a curt, emotionally unavailable drunk. This plays out not with pure sappiness, but through the brother’s often flabbergasted reactions to the lurid details of their parents past, as they realize how little they actually know about their parents.

There are moments that would likely be kitschy in other films but are endearing in “Nebraska.” For instance, there is a scene in which Woody visits his childhood home which is now deserted and destitute. This could serve as a clumsy visual metaphor for the fleeting significance of life and the memories associate with it, but because Payne, and the brilliant acting of Dern have imbued this film and this character with such emotion and reality that it works.

I have yet to talk about the digital black and white cinematography of this film, largely because it was so easy to forget that it was shot in black and white. The cinematography just felt so natural for these characters and this story. As Roger Ebert and many others have observed, black and white gives images a timeless quality that is simply lacking from color photography. This eternal quality is fitting for a film about the fading of a generation and the waning years of a couple of human lives.

When I was young, I would sometimes go to a restaurant with my uncle called the “Gifford Cafe,” in a small little municipality called Gifford. It was a basic restaurant that served up the usual grill fair. They would pretend their burgers were made of exotic meats, such as rhinoceroses or alligators, which made the greasy treats all the more fun to eat. The patrons were predominantly white middle-class farmers, pleasantly chatting about nothing in particular. Far away from anything resembling a major metropolitan area, they have raised their families and lived their lives in relative obscurity. In obscurity they likely remain, but “Nebraska” reflects a portion of their lives.

4.5/5

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Serpico

Serpico

A beacon of morality amidst a storm of ethical ambiguity.

I don’t think film cops were ever nastier than in the 1970s. Popeye Doyle and Harry Callahan helped lead the way, but they were just among the first of a slew of morally shaky police officers whose often violent tactics were as dubious as the criminals they were combating. It’s almost as if filmmakers had to shake out all the grime that had been swept under the cinematic rugs for half a century in one decade. In this context, the monolithic virtue of “Serpico” is a compelling aberration and intriguing counterbalance to the uncertain ethics of its contemporaries.

“Serpico” looks like all those other gritty cop dramas of the 70s, while Serpico (Al Pacino, crushing it as he did early in his career) is one of the weirdest and coolest cops ever. He comes from one of those Italian, blue-collar stalwart families in which all the men become cops and all the women become teachers. but for whatever reason he wants nothing to do with his family or their way of life. While he starts as a baby-faced, straight-laced gumshoe, he gets into the counter-culturalism of the 60s. Serpico is a smash-hit at one of those sub-Andy Warhol psychedelic parties with his hippie girlfriend. He lives in Greenwich Village and is into ballet. Other cops don’t quite know what to think of him and he doesn’t seem to fit in anywhere. After an innocuous conversation in a bathroom with another cop is misinterpreted by a superior, Serpico is transferred to an undercover unit where he grows an awesome beard and looks like a drug-addled vagabond. 

For all his unorthodoxy, Serpico is really good at his job. In what feels like a police-version of the “Little Red Hen” fable, Serpico violates jurisdictional protocols when he thwarts an on-going gang rape in contradiction to a direct order. It is Serpico’s gentler approach which gets one of the perpetrators of that rape to rat out his accomplices. Serpico uses a nifty maneuver to catch two of them at the same time, when no other cops can be bothered to join him on the bust x. Yet there are plenty of cops who are happy to step in and take the credit for Serpico’s work.

Yet for all his crime-fighting prowess, Serpico spends a lot more time worrying about his fellow cops than he does the criminal underworld. Without a uniform to give them away, just about every undercover cop in New York City takes bribes from drug dealers and bookies. In fact, aside from one upstanding sergeant played by Bob Blair, we never see any cops do anything but collect money and harass minorities. So comfortable with the police is one drug dealer that he hangs out with several cops at their desks after being arrested by Serpico.

Despite numerous opportunities, Serpico never takes any of this dirty money. Brilliantly, director Sidney Lumet is so precise in how he paces the film. Lumet slowly phases out any scenes in which Serpico himself does any police work. He instead spends all of his time being hounded by his nervous colleges and desperately trying to get some higher up official.  What starts out as an aggressively apathetic bureaucracy is slowly revealed to be a gang of thugs shielded by powerful but deliberately negligent officials who have no motivation to snuff out the rampant corruption that Serpico incessantly points out. Serpico’s honesty unsettles his fellow cops and leaves him bitter, alone, and utterly terrified.

Even by today’s standards, Serpico’s views about police work place him on the liberal end of the political spectrum. The film never makes it clear where Serpico’s ethical resolve and atypical (for a police officer at the time) views about police work comes from, but his estranged individuality is no small part of it. Without a family, he has no self-righteous excuse to make more money via off-the-book “hazard” pay. He isn’t beholden to public opinion like many of his political-minded superiors. He doesn’t care the least bit about the macho brotherhood which pervaded police culture at the time. He is just a stubborn weirdo who pissed enough people off for long enough to actually make a difference. Sometimes all it takes is one stubborn weirdo.

4/5

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Zodiac

Zodiac

Drawn out psychosexual frustration at its finest.

Admittedly I was perturbed watching “Zodiac” for the first time several years ago. It felt listless and meandering, overblown and overwrought, but worst of all, the film focused on a series of murders that were never solved. At that time it was difficult for me to conceive of a film about a series of murder that didn’t resolve itself in the final moments via some sort of confrontation with the murderer coupled with a psychoanalytical explanation for their actions, not unlike Fincher’s “Seven.” (Nevermind that the real-life Zodiac Killer was never actually found, so “resolving” this plot would be fairly disingenuous.) Several years and films later, this wholesale expectation that every on-screen murder must be solved has left me, which along with the knowledge that this film isn’t the least bit interested in answers, but in questions, left me free to savor how “Zodiac” revels in myopic futility and impotence.

“Zodiac” is a film obsessed with obsession. It gets lost in a rabbit hole of ideas and theories which tantalize us with the possibilities of answers, but offers up only paranoia and isolation. It does this using one of the most enticing mysteries of the twentieth century: Who was behind the Zodiac killings in San Francisco in the late 1960s and early 1970s? The end of the film suggests a possible culprit, but with limited conviction. (The man died before any definitive evidence could be cultivated, so this theory, like the others, can neither be confirmed or denied.) Instead, it ponders about a number of possible suspects and the obsessive characters that tried to compile an extremely fragmented string of evidence which seemed to lead nowhere.

Typical crime films give us one protagonist who assembles all the pieces of the puzzle scene by scene and explains precisely how they all fit together in the end. “Zodiac” plays out as if several people are working on the same puzzle, only in different rooms with different pieces, most of which are missing. The official police leads investigating the murder are Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo) and Bill Armstrong (Anthony Edwards,) but amatuer detectives Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) and Robert Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal,) a reporter and cartoonist for the San Francisco Chronicle respectively, also spend a great deal of time trying to crack the case.

Whomever was responsible for the series of grizzly murders left an odd crumb trail to follow. There are cryptic letters to analyze, a strange phone call to a notorious psychiatrist, and loads of circumstantial evidence to parse through. Yet most of it leads to nothing more than a series of blind alleys. Characters drop into and out of the investigation, some because of threatening letters and creepy anonymous calls, others because the trail goes dead. Robert Graysmith lasts longer than anybody, but his unilateral focus on a murder investigation that does not directly affect him costs him his family and his career. At one point, Graysmith even ends up in the basement of a Zodiac suspect who would be generously described as “really, really weird.” Eventually, Graysmith begins to resemble the deranged characters he suspects might be the zodiac killer.

I wouldn’t be the first person to observe how psychosexual the experience of many films can be. The very language of the word “climax” suggests a release of all the dramatic tension that has been building throughout the film. If most narratives replicate the sexual experience, “Zodiac” is the cinematic equivalent of blueballs. Answers linger at the edge of the frame, but they never arrive. The murders, which the film shows us in detail, never make any sense, and we are left with a pervasive sense of dread which the film never dispels.

It is important not to mistake this unmitigated psychological distress with a response to the film as a film. The distress is the point, because “Zodiac” is concerned with our need to know, not in feeding that need. It meanders and exploits our anxiety about unsolved crimes, and about unanswered questions more broadly. We as a species love certainty, but this film gives us none. Of course, that that could just be a load of nonsense and “Zodiac” is simply a really well done crime thriller about one of the strangest string of murders in American history. Either way, the 2007 version of me was an idiot. This is a very well-made film.

4/5

 

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American Hustle

American Hustle

A film full of stars helps the mediocrity go down.

The problem with “American Hustle” is that it appears to be oblivious as to how exceedingly silly it is. It has lots of things one expects from an Oscar contender: a monster cast of stars who offer up bombastic performances, a lively camera that zips through a late 70s world of bad hairstyles and funky outfits, and snappy dialogue that mostly crackles and amuses. What it lacks is a sense of humor about its own sense of self-importance. Without it, the film buckles under the weight of all those lofty performances, the camerawork feels superfluous, and the dialogue regresses into a drippy, preachy mess. The film never threatens to fall apart, not exactly, but its playful veneer crumbles, revealing its more cynical Oscar-bait intentions.

The film opens by asserting a vague connection to events that have actually happened, while acknowledging that this connection is tenuous. In a film about lying, this is probably the only bit of honesty that we get from “American Hustle.” The art of the con, as film topics go, is pretty entertaining. even as it isn’t an original one, but a film doesn’t have to be. Using well-worn tropes to provide a bevy of Oscar nomination, though, and that’s a scam. “American Hustle” exists in a netherworld between a scathing critique of the artifice which exudes out of every human transaction and the simple pleasure of a lighthearted romp about an oddball assembly of slimy characters trying to exploit each other. With its feet in both doors, this is kind of like pouring cough syrup on a bowl of sugary cereal.

Amidst this cacophony of corruption, there isn’t any character that one could “root” for, though I suppose our protagonists here are con artists Irving Rosenfield (Christian Bale) and Sydney Prosser (Amy Adams.) Donning a wickedly awful combover and beer belly, Irving has made a living by offering fraudulent loans to the desperate, with Sydney posing as a British aristocrat with access to lending services across the pond. When the duo gets busted by ambitious FBI agent Richie DiMaso (Bradley Cooper,) they find themselves coerced into setting up the much-beloved mayor of Camden, New Jersey, Carmine Polito (Jeremy Renner,) and a number of Congressman who are all taking bribe money in an attempt to rebuild Atlantic City. Complicating matters is Irving’s wife Rosalyn (Jennifer Lawrence,) who as a passive-aggressive she-devil is a psychotic wildcard that could blow up the whole operation.

Granting that I’m not a professional actor, these motley characters seem like they would be a lot of fun to play. Yet aside from Jennifer Lawrence’s all-out caricatured portrayal of a jealous wife and a smaller role from Louis C.K. laying down some levity as Richie DiMaso’s much more cautious boss, nobody appears to be having any fun at all. Instead each actor punctuates each line with the grandiose significance of someone with Oscar’s in their eyes. This is more a product of the material, which is frustratingly safe, than it is any choice by the actors. The script needed to be either a lot smarter or a lot dumber.

A smarter film might have bit harder with its criticism, taking its characters to darker places and spending a lot less time telling us what it is about. A dumber one might have been more comfortable with simply telling a weird and goofy story with characters that are more overtly likable. Instead the film languishes in a middle-brow Hell, telegraphing its every move and delivering middling results. It isn’t without its charms, particularly from the wardrobe and soundtrack department, but with a cast this loaded with talent and a director with a reputation for mischief, it should have amounted to something more than a moderately entertaining bit of puffery.

3/5

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