REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

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REVIEW: The Book of Henry

19 06 2017

Let’s be clear: Colin Trevorrow’s “The Book of Henry” is a strange, overstuffed movie. Its roughly 100 minute runtime manages to pack in as many traumatizing dramatic plot points as a season of network TV. I can imagine the pitch for Gregg Hurwitz’s script going something like a Stefon sketch. “This movie has everything: quirky families, a precocious prodigy, child abuse, brain tumors, premature death, a love story and a murder plot!”

Just one of its outlandish plot points would be enough to sustain a film of its length. Instead, we get one about every 15 minutes, leaving us no time to recover before the next one happens. “The Book of Henry” thus becomes unnecessarily strung out, which is a real shame as Hurwitz and Trevorrow do manage to capture some candor and earnestness with the story. Their good intentions get clouded out by how busy the film is, however.

In particular, a good portion of the film resonates when Jaden Lieberher’s titular character struggles with being helpless to enable action against injustice. “The Book of Henry” grasps the frustrating limitations of being a child, no matter how smart and well-adjusted you are. (Henry, by the way, is what I imagine the E-Trade baby would look like once he graduated from the crib.) Yet even this gets undermined when the term “child” gets trotted out as a form of dismissal in the climax. This is the film’s confusion in microcosm: a concerted effort to understand a complex problem sabotaged by the need for sensationalism. B-





REVIEW: Demolition

8 04 2016

DemolitionDirector Jean-Marc Vallée might not receive an editing credit on his latest film, “Demolition,” but his fingerprints are as visible in the rhythm as they were in “Dallas Buyers Club” and “Wild.” (Vallée was credited under the pseudonym John Mac McMurphy for the two films, which he also directed.) In many ways, the effort feels like the closing of a loose thematic and visual trilogy for him. Each film replicates the emotional landscape of a character who gets shaken up by the realization of their own mortality and thus makes a drastic course correction in their own life.

For Jake Gyllenhaal’s Davis Mitchell, that abrupt discovery comes about when his wife dies tragically in a car accident – while he, in the passenger seat, escapes virtually untouched from the wreck. The cliché that normally follows such a traumatic event is the overwrought, grief-stricken husband schtick. “Demolition” goes in the opposite direction. Davis feels absolutely nothing. That’s not to say he feels hatred of his late wife or excitement over her passing (a la “About Schmidt” or, heaven forbid, “Dirty Grandpa“). He’s just numb.

Vallée does not shy away from the challenge of portraying such entropy and attempts to replicate that sensation of feeling desensitized and unresponsive to all the cues that one’s surroundings can throw. In “Demolition,” that looks a lot like destroying the “scene” as it is commonly known. Shots bleed into each other, but they also break off mid-thought and even jump wildly to a tangent. Each successive time Vallée has employed this impressionistic style, it becomes less a service to the story and more of a replacement for it. In other words, reactions likely vary based on feelings towards the character or story.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 20, 2015)

20 08 2015

Lily Tomlin won the Presidential Medal of Freedom last year, yet she somehow still feels underappreciated. Or maybe that’s just because she kept a low profile after the peak of her stardom in the 1970s and was known mostly to members of my generation as the voice of Ms. Frizzle on “The Magic School Bus.” But thanks to perfectly tailored roles in Netflix’s “Grace & Frankie” and the new film “Grandma,” Tomlin definitely seems poised for a major moment once again.

But Tomlin’s career is not necessarily being “rescued.”  In fact, some of her best work has come from the slow and steady decades between her peaks of public interest.  Case in point: “I Heart Huckabees,” the film that landed David O. Russell in director jail after he went for Tomlin’s jugular on set.  In spite of that tension, the movie still turned out alright – even if I did not immediately recognize it on first viewing five years ago.

Russell has gained a reputation for stylish, quirky films with his so-called “reinvention” trilogy that began with 2010’s “The Fighter.”  But that idiosyncratic spirit certainly existed before then, and “I Heart Huckabees” might mark its most vibrant display.  Working with co-writer Jeff Baena, Russell crafts a so-called “existential comedy” that mines philosophy and ontology for laughs that might make Woody Allen green with envy.  As such, it merits my pick for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Beneath all the hilarious intellectual banter lies a very simple story about a man, Jason Schwartzman’s Albert Markovski, an environmental activist who just wants to know what it’s all about.  “It,” of course, is the very meaning of life itself.  After a series of odd coincidences, he turns to a pair of existential detectives, Dustin Hoffman and Lily Tomlin’s husband and wife team Bernard and Vivian Jaffe.  This duo claims that they can – with enough field research – determine how everything in Albert’s life connects.  They set out to find his place in the grand plan of the universe, optimistically sure that such a thing exists.

But after a while, Albert falls prey to the Jaffe’s nemesis and ideological counterpart, Isabelle Huppert’s Caterine Vauban. She offers similar services but with the nihilistic assertion that nothing relates to anything.  The longer Bernard and Vivian take to complete their assessment of Albert’s life, the more appealing Caterine’s services look.

Albert’s quest for self-knowledge gets complicated by others who seek out the detectives’ services, such as Mark Wahlberg’s Tommy Corn, a firefighter who can chew anyone’s ear off with his views on the harmfulness of petroleum.  Russell has utilized Wahlberg in three films now, and this is certainly his most ingenious performance among the trio.  While the actor is notorious for his authentic off-screen anger and street cred, Russell funnels those traits into a hilariously exaggerated character professing a hyper-verbal righteous indignation.  For Wahlberg, often more likely to rely on the swagger of his body than the power of his words, the performance feels revelatory (and perhaps indicative of even more untapped potential).

The quirky crew does not end there, with Jude Law also in the mix as Brad Stand, a corporate executive at the company Huckabees determined to take Albert down by figuring out the meaning of his own life.  Naomi Watts’ Dawn Campbell, Brad’s girlfriend and the star of Huckabees’ ad campaign, gets thrown in for good measure too.  Both are slightly minor players but still players nonetheless.

Russell throws some really dense, cerebral concepts out there in “I Heart Huckabees” – and at the lightning-fast speed of his dialogue, no less.  But so long as you can keep up, the film proves a rewarding, stimulating experience with something to say about the equilibrium between pragmatism and pessimism that we need to get through the day.





REVIEW: While We’re Young

6 05 2015

If you mentioned the phrase “my generation” to people my parents’ age (straddling the Baby Boomer/Generation X boundary), they might start humming that hopelessly catchy song by The Who.  Ask millennials like myself what those two words signal and a combination groan and eye-roll will likely follow.

By this point, I have learned to take bulk criticism of people my age in stride, though biting my tongue on the gloom-and-doom predictions made about us does bother me quite a bit.  So long as there have been independently minded youth, there have been an older vanguard of adults sneering at the perceived ruin brought about by change to the establishment.  The lyrics may change over time, yet the melody remains the same.

While We’re Young,” from writer/director Noah Baumbach, arrives whistling that tired tune fearing the slow-dawning apocalypse of those darned kids these days.  What looked like a fascinating examination of intergenerational differences, rivalries, and friendships wound up playing like a cranky old relative or professor erecting a soapbox for themselves to rant about their monolithic conception of millennials.

Whether a running gag about a younger character not offering to pick up a check or Adam Horovitz’s Fletcher ranting about cell phone dependency, Baumbach barely conceals his personal disdain behind the veneer of his fictional creations.  His stance seems to imply the twentysomethings of today are uniquely self-involved, duplicitous, and dishonorable.  Has he forgotten that the Greatest Generation and the older end of the Baby Boomers said the same things about his cohort?  Rather than let his age provide a vantage point of wisdom on the issues he explores, his advanced years appear only to ensconce his bitterness.

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REVIEW: St. Vincent

19 11 2014

St. VincentAs Bill Murray’s zany candor becomes the ultimate cult of personality, it seems that plenty of people are completely entertained by just watching him be – whether in character or in real life.  “St. Vincent” thus assumes the position of a holy text in Murray’s civil religion. Writer/director Theodore Melfi essentially gives Murray an entire film where he can just exemplify his effortlessly authentic mix of odd and cool.

It really does not even matter that the mechanics of his performance are quite rusty, as most egregiously evinced by his seriously spotty Brooklyn accent.  As the harmlessly grouchy titular character, he gets the chance to spout plenty of memorable maxims (or Bill Murrayisms, as they are often called).  “St. Vincent” provides an hour and a half to spend basking in his wisdom for those not lucky enough to run into him at a hotel.

Murray does not just show up, though; he adjusts his acting style as necessary in order to mesh with Melfi’s sentimental but nonetheless winning story.  “St. Vincent” operates from a big, sympathetic heart that it wears on its sleeve.  Melfi could have done without so many mellow music montages to convey that emotion, however, since it comes so naturally from the actors.

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REVIEW: Birdman

29 08 2014

Telluride Film Festival

I hardly think it counts as a spoiler anymore to say that “Birdman” (sometimes also credited with the title “The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance”) is edited to make the majority of the film appears as if there are not edits.  This does not, however, mean the film is intended to give us the illusion of unbroken action.  Breaks in time and space are quite clear, yet the effect of the long take remains.

Director Alejandro G. Iñárritu, as he would now have us call him, achieves the herculean feat of collapsing a timeline of roughly a few weeks into pure continuity.  He’s less interested in continuous action as he is a continuous feeling or sensation, an invigorating break from the oneupmanship that seems to come baked in with long-held takes.

Waiting for a cut or edit in a shot is like waiting for pent-up tension to be relieved, an indulgence Iñárritu refuses to grant.  (Leave it to the man who gave us the debilitatingly bleak “Biutiful” to make us writhe.)  “Birdman” follows Michael Keaton’s Riggan Thompson, a former blockbuster superhero star, attempting to win back his legacy in a flashy Broadway play.  He has struggles aplenty, both with his inner demons and the cast of characters around him, and the film certainly does not shy away from trying to replicate his anxiety in the viewing audience.

This is not just pure sadistic filmmaking, though; Iñárritu’s chosen form matches the content of the story quite nicely.  The film feels consistently restless and anxious, and not just because of the consistent drumming the underscores the proceedings.  These sensations are contributed to and complimented by Emmanuel Lubezki’s cinematography.

After his work on “Children of Men,” “The Tree of Life,” and “Gravity,” it’s a wonder Lubezki had any surprises left in store.  “Birdman” may very well be his most accomplished  cinematic ballet to date, though.  There’s an art and a purpose to every position occupied or every shot length employed.  Pulling off some of these constantly kinetic scenes must have required some intensely detailed blocking with Iñárritu and the cast, but the level of difficulty makes itself apparent without screaming for attention.

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