From the Archive — A History of Violence

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As the striking of the twentieth anniversary of the 1999 resounds, there’s been a revived interest in arguing that the bygone year in question might have represented the best twelve month span in the long history of cinema. That’s a notion Entertainment Weekly stumped for as the year was still unfolding, so I’ve had plenty of time to be not quite convinced. I might be more inclined to co-sign if more of the ’99-inclined film writers entered David Cronenberg’s eXistenZ, released twenty years ago this week, as the chief exhibit. Plenty of Cronenberg’s films are imperfect, and I’d argue a couple are outright bad, but in the undeclared battle between iconoclastic moviemaking Davids, I’ll always vigorously champion the Canadian with plenty of dried blood under his fingernails over Lynch. I have one last review of a Cronenberg film that hasn’t been carted over to this digital space, a consideration of A History of Violence, arguably his last truly impeccable work. This was written for my former online home.

The are certain things you need to be prepared for going into a David Cronenberg film: unflinching gore, tricky explorations of the ways in which sex and violence intersect and a deadpan approach to these things that, by itself, can be off-putting. Luckily, you usually need to be equally prepared to dissect a piece of art that is more complicated and nuanced than the average Hollywood Important FilmTM or even (especially?) the latest example of dark, edgy, filmic genius. Even when his films aren’t very good, they’re interesting and challenging. And A History of Violence is very good.

The film is based on a graphic novel by John Wagner and Vince Locke that was issued through the marginally successful Paradox Press line of DC Comics. I’m not going to say much about the plot, because it’s definitely one of those films that benefits from knowing as little as possible going into it. For one thing, Cronenberg’s odd rhythms will probably work better for those not trying to anticipate when certain plot elements will kick in. According to our expectations of a typical narrative, very little happens in the first reel. There is character development and the establishment of plot points, but Cronenberg seems to be primarily laying the groundwork for the themes he’ll explore through the rest of the work: identity is pliable, violence begets more violence, sometimes we choose the lie because it’s preferable to the truth. There are moments in the first portion of the film that are very stiff and stilted, but I think that’s by design. Cronenberg wants us to see the rigidity, bloodlessness and finally fakery of the idyllic, standardized world that his characters live in. That’s not to say that Cronenberg is satirizing and condemning American small time life, an approach that is so overused that it’s become a sure sign of creative laziness. He’s simply pointing out that’s a falsely constructed reality; that doesn’t mean it may not be a better choice than the honest reality that eventually intrudes.

There’s actually not much violence in the film, basically a few relatively quick scenes. There are some gruesome sights, but they come and go quickly. Cronenberg doesn’t let his camera linger. There’s nothing gratuitous about the especially graphic moments, something Cronenberg has occasionally been guilty of in the past, which he basically acknowledged and satirized in what I think still stands as his best film (although, I’ll concede that this one might actual deserve that title—I need to think on it some more). Every moment, no matter how difficult to look at, makes sense with and contributes to what Cronenberg is trying to say about violence.

The movie gets extra credit for being the first to properly showcase Maria Bello. She’s long been the best actor in bad moviesthe only actor maintaining some respectability in horrible movies, or the most neglected actor in mediocre movies in which other actors are celebrated to a baffling degree. Here Bello gets to really dig in and connects in moments both large and small.

And how did it take this long for Cronenberg to cast fellow space alien Bill Hurt in a film?

From the Archive — The Squid and the Whale

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I’m entirely sincere when I note it’s pleasing that so many media outlets reported on the surprise arrival of the first child of a movie biz power couple by neglecting the papa. In a culture that still routinely refers to an incredibly accomplished human rights lawyer and activity as as “George Clooney’s wife,” it’s heartening to see Greta Gerwig given top billing and her partner shunted off to the side of the spotlight. It’s okay, Noah Baumbach. We know you make movies, too. This was written for my former online home, upon the covered film’s initial release.

It’s been ten years since his debut Kicking and Screaming, so it’s a little jarring to realize how few films writer-director Noah Baumbach has had his name on since then. Until he replaced Owen Wilson as Wes Anderson’s duly appointed writing partner (beginning with last year’s The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou), Baumbach hadn’t been heard from since 1997’s widely unloved Mr. Jealousy.

Baumbach clearly prospers when he traffics in the highly personal. Kicking and Screaming felt like a brutally honest (and quite funny) self-portrait, capturing that time right after college when the sudden absence of a school-dictated game plan leaves one lost and wandering, unable to face a future that, for the first time, needs to be created rather than met. Anything is fodder to forestall the decision-making and forward progress, even, in a favorite moment from the film, a laundry detergent commercial.

His fine new film, The Squid and the Whale, takes place in 1986. Jesse Eisenberg (from Roger Dodger) plays Walt, our Noah Baumbach stand-in. Walt and his younger brother Frank struggle to endure their parents’ messy divorce, complete with power-play custody arrangements, poorly thought out décor in new second bedrooms, and awkward rebound romances. There is a lot of humor here, but Baumbach doesn’t shy away from raw emotions, either. These characters make rash decisions and lash out forcefully at one another. The laughter tempers it, but there’s some real pain onscreen.

The broken marriage at the center of film is perhaps explained in an observation delivered by the mother of the family, played by Laura Linney. Pressed to explain why she’d married in the first place, she reminisces about discovering this intellectual man when they both lived in Ohio. She gets a distant, appreciative look in her eye as she talked about how different he was. It’s easier to stand out as a bohemian in Columbus than in New York City, where college students and high school administrators sing the praises of New Yorker articles. Sometimes it’s not people that change, but the contexts in which they live. Of course, there’s ample cause for disillusionment in the relationship, regardless of mailing address. To that end, Jeff Daniels plays the father with a fearless command of the man’s poisonous self-regard.

The film itself is a fast 80 minutes. Some scenes come and go so quickly that it sometimes feels like glancing at a film rather than watching it. This can give the film a satisfying feeling of memories captured and conveyed, but on occasion it just makes the whole endeavor feel a little disjointed. After all those years between films, Baumbach clearly has a lot to say. When the movie moves by so quickly, it can feel like he’s not giving himself quite enough time in which to say it.

From the Archive — Transamerica

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I’m not sure I’ve watched more than a couple minutes of Transamerica since my first viewing, and I’m skeptical about how well it holds up. If nothing else, it’s clearer by now that casting a cisgendered actress in a transgendered role is a problematic choice. At the time, though, it was a major step forward to simply afford a character such as Bree dignity and agency. I might write this piece differently now. This is how I wrote it then. This was originally posted at my former online home.

Felicity Huffman is terrific in Transamerica. She plays Bree, a transgender woman days away from the operation that will provide her with the biological sex that matches the one already firmly established in her heart, mind, and soul. In presentation, the role holds an element of stunt to it. We watch, at least initially, to see how Huffman will tackle the contours of the character’s conflicted nature. What cues of body language will she employ to illustrate the dueling genders beneath the surface of Bree? How will she shade her voice? It is the actor as magician and we’re watching a little more intently to discover how the trick is done.

To her credit, Huffman avoids this trap. She quickly settles on some simple, effective bits of physicality that help define Bree: a certain stiffness in her comportment, a simple series of body language cues to keep others at length, all the better to prevent close inspections. With these elements sketched into place, Huffman concentrates on finding and relaying Bree as a person impacted by her trans identity but not defined by it. The impact is deep, of course, but, as opposed to what other good actors might do, Huffman uses it as an entry into fully understanding the whole character. Bree is shaped by her nature, an existence in which many of her external expressions of self are contradicted by her own physical features. In a way she is engages in an ongoing masquerade of her own future, who she is announced in a mixture of hope and personal definition by force of will. Huffman uses these things as a means to key in to Bree’s frustration, self-reliance, loneliness, and caution.

She fares better than the film that serves as her vehicle. First-time feature director Duncan Tucker is clearly well-intentioned, and he deserves credit for his part in the collaboration with Huffman that created so rich a character as Bree, but he has also constructed a weak product built on that hoariest of filmic frameworks: road movie with two mis-matched travelers. The plot is set in motion when Bree journeys from California to New York City to meet the son she unknowingly fathered some two decades earlier. She buys a car there and the pair begin a cross-country trek back to Los Angeles, with the son unaware of the family connection between the two of them. The stops along the way lead to situations that are didactically manipulative, broadly comic, and, by the time they get to Arizona, a muscle-tensing combination of both.

It’s significantly better when the film stays in the car with Bree and her son (played well enough by Kevin Zegers, who has apparently logged several cinematic hours with a highly athletic golden pooch) because then we focus on the characters rather than watch them flounder around in the constructed conflicts of uninspired screenwriting. Tucker has created some interesting people, but his strained story keeps getting in their way. It certainly doesn’t stop Felicity Huffman from turning in an inspired, committed performance, but it makes you wish the film itself had come somewhere near her level of accomplishment.

From the Archive — Brokeback Mountain

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A few days after the annual Oscar nominations announcement is still a time of bliss, when justice is possible. No matter how many personal favorites have been overlooked, there inevitably remain contenders imbued with uncommon cinematic beauty. Maybe those creative triumphs can win and decades of the Academy too often defaulting to the tired, superficially noble option will no longer be a reliable forecaster. Anyway, I wrote this review upon the original release of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain. It appeared at my former online home.

In the rare instance that you see the name of screenwriter used prominently in the promotion of a film, you know the studio is going for something specific. In the case of Brokeback Mountain touting the contributions of Larry McMurtry is likely meant to connect the film to his various acclaimed westerns. But this is not the McMurtry of Lonesome Dove, this is the McMurtry of The Last Picture Show and Terms of Endearment. He has an uncanny ability to fill out characters and draw us close to them by showing us the scattered pieces of their lives. He doesn’t tie everything together, but gives us the means to do it ourselves. The film doesn’t stop to tell us about these characters with momentum clogging exposition, and yet, by the end, we know them.

The other author connected to this film is Annie Proulx, who wrote the short story on which it is based, has made it clear that the shorthand description of this film as “the gay cowboy movie” is wholly inaccurate. These characters are not cowboys, she has said, but are instead “two inarticulate, confused Wyoming ranch kids.” It’s an important distinction and one that cuts to the reason the film is so effective. The film is not about cowboys, but rather about two young men who have bought into the cowboy myth, and are trying to forge their personal identities on the basis of that rugged persona.

Jake Gyllenhaal initially seems a little off as Jack Twist, one of a pair of men earning their summer wages by looking after a flock of sheep on the the titular geographic landmark. He is too soft, too eager. He doesn’t match our perception of a man finding his future on the frontier as effectively as his cohort Ennis Del Mar, played with a rugged mumble by Heath Ledger. That mild disconnect between actor and role is actually perfect, as the character he portrays is role-playing himself. These two men are fighting to find themselves, define themselves. In the process they find one another, romantically, sexually and deeply. It is that connection that truly sets them on the path to self-discovery.

For all the hand-wringing over the supposed sensational elements of the film, Brokeback is not a treatise or a manifesto, a modern version of a Hollywood message movie. It is a small, sad story beautifully told. It may not be a booming box office success when it starts to book theaters outside of the major cities, but I think that will be due as much to the slow, considered pace of the film as anything else. Director Ang Lee presents his story matter-of-factly, resolutely refusing to punctuate or underline individual moments. He has supreme confidence in his material and his actors to create the emotional resonance of the piece. Lee captures it and emerges with a film that is breathtaking in its honestly stated heartache.

From the Archive — Hard Candy

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Our household is in the usual movie-viewing mad scramble that happens around the end of the year, striving to catch up with all of the titles we missed that could be a factor at the Academy Awards and in our personal “best of” lists. But we still have time (and, truth be told, a sense of obligation) to engage with the pop culture sparkler of the moment, which meant dutifully manipulating a streaming service’s slickly constructed interface to compel a fictional character to tug on his earlobe (or at least fretfully resist that particular command). So with a hit tip to the flawed feat Black Mirror: Bandersnatch and its director, David Slade, I’ll today unearth my review of the Hard Candy. It was Slade’s first feature, which might not have aged into the #MeToo era particularly well because of some of the flaws identified below. In truth, it’s possible its basic premise reverberates me strongly these days. What I am certain of is that it established — one year ahead of Juno — that Ellen Page has wizardly acting skills when provided with material that’s anywhere near worthy of her.

Hard Candy begins with an online conversation between a professional photographer in his thirties and a fourteen-year-old girl. They flirt, joke, and agree to meet at a local coffee shop. That feeling of dread you have is well-founded.

That’s all I’ll reveal about the plot, despite the fact the the progression of the story has been given away in most reviews and even the film’s trailer offers some clear indicators of otherwise unexpected turns. There’s a clear intent in the film’s construction to maximize the impact of certain revelations, not in the manner of those filmmakers that have made yelling “gotcha” their stock in trade, but instead to emphasize the danger of truths withheld. These characters reveal themselves to each other slowly, reluctantly, painfully, and we in the audience take the journey with them, ready or not.

The film is largely a duet, an exercise in audacious acting performed in tandem. In that regard, it’s a smashing success. The photographer is played by Patrick Wilson, who the numerous musical devotees who peruse this sliver of the Web may know from a slightly more foppish role. Wilson’s task here is a combination of reaction and endurance. He digs deep and claws his way out, but there are built-in limits to the breadth he can bring to his character. For the broader range, there’s Ellen Page as the younger of the two principals. The bulk of the film rests on her tiny shoulders, and she carries it with a tenacious creativity that seems to announce the emergence of a ferocious talent. It will be very strange indeed to see her in her next role, which is very different and, presumably, far less demanding.

The film itself burns with a breathless edginess. It doesn’t just push buttons, it smashes its fist right into the control panel. First-time feature director David Slade holds it all together expertly, especially since the screenplay, credited to Brian Nelson, grows more and more dependent on familiar thriller contrivances as it goes on. Of particular cause for complaint is that word-processed crutch of a character blessed with implausible foresight in lining up the proverbial dominoes that will tumble towards the denouement.

Finally, it should be noted that it’s a bit of a disappointment that the film itself finally seemingly has so little to say about the provocative situation that sets the story in motion. There are moments, especially early on, when some pointed observations about children pretending to be sophisticated, sexual beings and the adults that will aggressively encourage and exploit that behavior. When the proverbial noose tightens and the film starts to go for antagonized jumps rather than woozy worries, it still provokes a palpable reaction, but some of the impact is lost.

From the Archive — The 40-Year-Old Virgin

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One of the cute celebrity stories that made the rounds this week was Steve Carell’s talk show tale of meeting Kelly Clarkson, more than a decade after he shouted her name while getting his chest hair waxed off in The 40-Year-Old Virgin. It’s not much of a story, but anything mildly interesting enough to briefly disrupt the news cycle of constant misery is always welcome. And if Carell can find a reason to bring up The 40-Year-Old Virgin, I suppose I can, too. This review was written for my former online home, and it was one of the very first instances of me reviving my old film critic tendencies for digital disbursement. I was still figuring out if tapping out my reactions to new cinematic releases was something I wanted to undertake again on a regular basis. Thirteen years later, I guess it was.

The 40-Year-Old Virgin has gotten attention for its dirty-ish premise and as part of the “trend” of R-rated comedies coming back into fashion. It should be getting attention because it’s a very funny movie that actually has a few things to say. Not only does Steve Carell play the title character, Andy Stitzer, with a lot of dignity, but he plays him as something more than a vehicle for jokes, the main downfall of all his cohorts in the Anchorman/Dodgeball/Elf brigade.

While the film developed from an old Second City bit that Carell cooked up, he’s actually thought through and developed the character and the story into something wise and a little moving. As the character notes at one point, the only reason he’s really reached this point is that he “eventually stopped trying.” He’s a little socially backwards, but he’s not some of outcast held up for ridicule.

The ridicule is reserved for the hyper-sexualized culture that we live in, and all of the supposedly sexy things that are out there to entice us, from pornography to seductive behavior to Tijuana floor shows. All of these things are called out as at best embarrassing and at worst downright scary. It’s actually reminiscent of a great and kinda daring episode of Freaks and Geeks, the television series that stands as the high water mark for Judd Apatow (well, okay, maybe it’s tied for the career peak), making his directorial debut here. The Freaks and Geeks squad get a few shout-outs here, with a couple teachers from McKinley High making cameo appearances and old “Ken Miller” faring nicely in a supporting role. More importantly, the film shares that late series’ compassionate but unyielding scrutiny of the foibles of life.

Besides, the whole movie really boils down to an argument that falling in love with Catherine Keener is a good thing, and I’m certainly not going to argue with that.

From the Archive — Richard Linklater films

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On the occasion of Last Flag Flying, the new Richard Linklater feature, arriving in theaters — at least in New York City — here are, I believe, all of the reviews of the Texas filmmaker’s work that I’ve written, but that haven’t previously shown up in this digital space. While there are plenty of titles in Linklater’s filmography that would cause me to offer breathless raves, all of these are lesser, deeply compromised efforts. Of course, in the case of most of these, Linklater was also in the extended process of making a flat-out masterpiece, so I give him a pass on these varied misfires.

Tape (Richard Linklater, 2001). Released the same year as Waking Life, Linklater’s trippy foray in animation and dream analysis which perfectly suited his penchant for talky philosophizing, Tape is comparatively small-scale. Without any specific comparison, it’s bland and unimpressive. Adapted by Stephen Belber from his play, the whole movie take place in the confines of a dingy little motel room as two old friends wage a battle of psyches over a long-ago transgression. It’s not an issue that Belber and Linklater chose not to open up the play, leaving it much the same way it probably was when it played out on the confines of a stage (in fact, Linklater’s few attempts to create some dynamic camera angles to shake things up are weaker than his more flatfooted presentation the material), but someone should have reminded the actors to adjust the level of their performances. Ethan Hawke is especially over-amped, pitching his take on an admittedly anxious character somewhere between the Phantom of the Paradise and Daffy Duck. Uma Thurman fares somewhat better as a woman intrinsically involved in the dispute between the two friends, but her role is a much a dramatic device as a fully drawn character.

Bad News Bears (2005)On paper, this has a lot of potential. The screenwriters behind Bad Santa recondition the 1976 Michael Ritchie film for the foul-mouthed frontman Billy Bob Thornton and turning it over to director Richard Linklater, who proved his slick entertainment chops with School of Rock. In execution, however, it’s a real mess, somehow managing to be both weirdly tame and pointlessly profane.

Fast Food Nation (2006). Eric Schlosser‘s 2001 book is a mind-spinning feat of investigative journalism, examining the insidious influence of fast food on the American culture in a way that goes well beyond the sort of health-based condemnation that’s become commonplace. Schlosser digs into the nasty child psychology manipulations employed by the big chains and considers how the meat-packing industry has dangerously cut corners in part to meet the high-production, low-cost demands of the top clients. Linklater works directly with Schlosser in adapting the book into a fiction film and that sort of ambition remains in place. Unfortunately, the material seems to repel these efforts. Linklater and Schlosser throw a bunch of stuff at the wall to see what sticks only to find themselves staring down a blank wall. Nothing ever gels. Individual story threads just drift along and sometimes vanish for lengthy stretches, leaving them feeling especially underdeveloped (Greg Kinnear’s fast food exec is unseen in the last third of the movie, only reappearing for an afterthought coda). It’s a bad sign when the throwaway details–like a man toiling away at the meat packing plant despite missing a good chunk of one of his arms, undoubtedly sacrificed to the machinery earlier in his career–carry more impact than the big scenes taking aim at the powers-that-serve-burgers.

A Scanner Darkly (2006). Have no fear: Robert Downey Jr’s trademark style of fidgety overacting can survive the process of being rotoscoped into animation. He’s as distracting as ever in writer-director Richard Linklater’s adaptation of the Philip K. Dick novel A Scanner Darkly. It maybe unfair to lead with that bit of snark since Downey is hardly the biggest problem with this well-intentioned but sadly inert drama of paranoid science fiction. For one, it hardly seemed necessary for Linklater to return to the animation technique he employed in his excellent 2001 film Waking Life. In that film it helped him to create imagery with the fluidity of a dreamscape, merging his philosophical meanderings with visuals that were as casually exploratory. Here, beyond realizing a couple of concepts in a way that would have difficult to believably pull off with the most advanced CGI, there seems little reason to have taken the steps beyond using the filmed footage of the actors. The story itself is grim, probably more faithful to Dick’s original vision than is usually the case and a bit of a bore.