From the Archive — Friends with Money

friends

On the occasion of Nicole Holofcener’s latest film making its debut in theaters and on Netflix this weekend, I’ll reach back to the review I wrote of her third feature. Friends with Money is arguably the writer-director’s weakest film, and it still has a lot to like in it. Others can hop onto their soapboxes and offer anguished diatribes about the harms inflicted by the Netflix model on art house theaters. They’re not entirely wrong. But as far as I’m concerned, if the streaming service has an approach that allows creators like Holofcener to keep plying their trade at an increasingly inhospitable time for smaller films in the theatrical marketplace, there is heroism at play. 

I don’t think Friends with Money is actually about having friends with money. While the film is largely designed as an ensemble, Jennifer Aniston is pretty clearly the lead. She plays a thirtysomething woman who is working as a maid to make ends meet after quitting her job as a prep school teacher, perhaps in part because of the wounded pride that comes from toiling away for teenagers driving cars that are worth more than an educator’s yearly salary. On top of it all, her financial struggles aren’t reflected in the lives of her three closest friends, all of whom are successful enough to do things like erect a pricey addition on the top of their house or openly debate which charity is most deserving of that extra two million that’s lying around the house. The set-up definitely feels like it’s leading up to film in which schisms created between people with vastly different bank statements are a central driving theme; class warfare on a personal level.

But that movie never really emerges. There are some nicely drawn scenes scattered throughout, such as when Aniston talks to one of her friends about the investment required to take classes that could lead to a new career path, but it rarely feels like the film is digging as deeply as it could. Maybe that’s because Aniston’s character usually comes across as little more than directionless: there’s no weight to her problems, no sense of the day-to-day, paycheck-to-paycheck struggles that come from working on the front lines of the service industry. She cleans strangers’ homes for money and that’s enough to make us feel her pain, or so it seems. Maybe it’s because there’s so much other ground to cover, so many other corners of the film’s various stories to dig into. Writer-director Nicole Holofcener creates compelling, deeply considered characters, and it must be tempting to follow them wherever they lead, whether or not it adheres to the overarching idea that’s being conveyed.

Holofcener’s previous film was 2001’s smart Lovely and Amazing, which may have skewed expectations for how effectively this new film would cohere. While packed with characters, Lovely managed to continually return to female self-image, particularly body image. It may have seemed a little aimless at times, but every element actually enhanced and enlivened Holofcener’s points, and she demonstrated a dramatist’s skill to keep the proceedings from turning into an awkward op-ed piece on celluloid.

To be fair, I admired Lovely and Amazing far more in retrospect than I did right after walking out of the theater. Holofcener’s lack of bombast or arty inclinations can dull that initial impression, but the intellect of her writing proves more resonant. Maybe that will happen with this film, as well. There certainly is plenty to like. Giving meaty roles to Catherine Keener, Frances McDormand and Joan Cusack merits applause right off the bat, and Holofcener’s dialogue remains as sharp as razor-wire (here she shows a special skill for constructing the escating pettiness of an argument). Yet, while praising the script, it’s worth noting that her writing suffers from a newfound flaw of concocting endings that are too cutesy and pat.

So, what is the film about? Whether or not it’s Holofcener’s intent, it seems to be about the judgments people casually make about other people, the speculation about everything from marital stability to personal hygiene choices. In Holofcener’s view, no one forgoes this unseemly guesswork. It’s the same if you’re driving away from a friendly dinner in a battered old Honda or a big, new, top-of-the-line S.U.V. In that respect, it doesn’t really matter whether or not your friends have money.

From the Archive — The Beatles

beatles

This was written for my former online home, as part of a recurring feature I dubbed “Flashback Friday.” It amazes me that we’ve reached a point nearly fifty years after the break-up of the Beatles and the scruffy fella see in the above picture is still releasing new records and launching another major concert tour that’s selling tickets like mad. And Ringo’s still at it, too, mounting regular caravans of middling legacy rockers. “My only plan is to grow up,” McCartney says at the end of the New York Times articles I nicked to accompany this post. He’s pulled that off with greater grace and endurance than anyone would have predicted.

1970: The Beatles Break-Up

When I was a little kid — meaning kindergarten age — I could confidently identify my favorite band. My youthful record collection was predictably well-stocked with offerings targeted at my barely verbal demographic, but since I also had a stepfather who embraced music with a herbal bliss, my little plastic record player had some more adult offerings stacked up next to it. Sometimes these were albums that my stepfather discovered he’d inadvertently purchased more than once. At least one well-worn 45 was one of the most revered singles in rock history, though I recognized it less as the trippy apex of Brian Wilson’s damaged genius than as a catchy tune that the TV sometimes used to make me crave orange pop. Unmistakably, though, there was one band I loved the most, maybe the one band I could identify by name whenever I heard them. The Beatles.

Maybe because of this early affection, I’ve long had a keen awareness that the four members were never together, never considered themselves a band, during my lifetime, but just barely. I was born in May of 1970, and the band’s dissolution, to the degree that it can be attached to a single date, happened the previous month when Paul McCartney made it official, announcing his departure from the quartet in the press material accompanying his first solo album. The final Beatles album was released three weeks before I was.

It’s astounding to think of what they accomplished in such a short period of time. The band’s first single came out in October of 1962, their first studio album in March of 1963. Their famed appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was in February of 1964, and Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night was in movie theaters that summer. By the following year, they were working on Rubber Soul, the first of a string of albums that, like them or not, redefined pop music. Every time a new record was pressed, the sonic fabric changed. These epochal records, it should be noted, were released on a yearly basis: Revolver in ’66, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in ’67, The Beatles in ’68, and Abbey Road in ’69. There are maybe one or two artists working today who are both significant and prolific, but no one that has matched a run like that.

The accelerated rate of their career means that you can practically hear the band breaking up on record. In particular, the fragmentation is the very character of “The White Album,” which I think is the band’s pinnacle. It sounds like four solo albums smashed together in disgruntled defiance. And each one of those solo albums is already wildly varied, as the individual members are in a heated, implicit battle to prove the superiority of his own personal genius. The diversity gives it a cohesion, the competition gives it a narrative. It is a brilliant mosaic, practically quivering as it threatens to shatter apart. That the band made two more proper studio albums after this is incredible.

In the ten years between the break-up and John Lennon’s tragic death, speculation about a reunion was constant, and constantly thwarted. Fans clung to the idea that they may have recorded together under a pseudonym, and bought pricey Broadway tickets for an incredible simulation. Lorne Michaels made light of it all in what may be his finest moment in a Saturday Night Livebroadcast. They never did truly reunite. I like to think that they never would have. There’s something very satisfying about the clear ending of their career, a point when they decided their legacy needed no further embellishment. The band said so much. It’s fitting that they also decided at some point that they’d said enough.

From the Archive — Rachel Getting Married

rachel robyn

Sometimes I simply get sad that there won’t be any more Jonathan Demme movies. This was written for my former online space.

One of things I most admire about Jonathan Demme as a director is his ability to take on seemingly any type of film and emerge with something inventive and accomplished. I’m not implying that Demme always achieves greatness; he may be to restlessly risky for that. But his films are always interesting, and, when he’s at his best, they’re intricate, deeply personal masterpieces. Rachel Getting Married is an example of Jonathan Demme at his best.

I’ve seen Demme excel with a rueful slice of life comedy, a raucous concert film, and a tense, ingenious thriller. He can make straight, smart documentaries and lithe larks with equal grace, but I’ve never seen him make anything quite like this. Rachel takes place over a weekend as a young woman, as the title implies, gets married. Rachel is not the lead character, however. That is her sister Kym, who briefly exits rehab to attend the ceremony, coming back to her family home for the first time in several months. Demme’s film depicts the pain and anger, the reopened wounds and tentative familial treaties that follow. It is heartfelt and heart-rending. Most of all, it is mercilessly honest about the ways in which the people who know each other best also know, instinctively, perhaps helplessly, the best ways to hurt one another. From the moment Kym walks back into her sister’s bedrooms, the verbal exchanges are quietly charged with years of resentment and anguished confusion. Every sentence has a steely barb attached to it, and Demme’s unblinking camera catches it all.

I’m sympathetic to those who mights suggest that Demme’s camera could have blinked a little more, not because the emotions it captures are too raw, but because it takes in so much. Scenes and sequences go on at great length, such as the rehearsal dinner in which the director is seemingly committed to capturing each and every toast delivered, including those that come after the dramatic crescendo of Kym’s problematic table-side oration. Similarly, the film gives a hearty taste of the full array of musical performances that reverberate throughout the reception. “Overlong” is the word invoked regularly in the less-enamored assessments of Demme’s film, but these stretches feel simply right to me. Demme’s immersive approach adds resonance to the sharp snap of the family fights. We don’t just feel that we know these people, but feel that we’ve almost co-existed with them in a way that is rare in film. It serves to accentuate the wrenching pain of a living room battle or a old forgotten artifact rediscovered at an especially inopportune time.

Demme gets the best out of his actors, too, and they are generally reaching levels (or taking approaches) previously unseen. It’s not startling to see an excellent Debra Winger performance, but, as I noted with Demme, I don’t think I’ve ever seen her do anything quiet like this before. She plays the somewhat estranged mother of Rachel and Kym with a placid antipathy that is ferocious in its understatement. After years of commanding performances, Winger demonstrates the power in drawing in the audience by ceding the screen. While its admittedly a stretch to say so, the performance seemed like a delayed response to the grandly marauding Shirley MacLaine turn she saw first hand–and probably didn’t much like–twenty-five years ago in Terms of Endearment. This, the performance seems to say, this is how you place a fearsome, imperious matriarch.

Besides Winger, there’s marvelous work from Bill Irwin as a man whose walls against his own inner pain are frighteningly fragile, and Rosemarie DeWitt as the bride stubbornly bucking against the tumult chipping away at her day of celebration. And at the center there is Anne Hathaway as Kym, grinding bravely at character’s most unlikable traits and stripping any cliches away with the trembling humanity of her performance. Hathaway avoids actorly signals of her character’s struggles. Instead she drives deep until she emerges with something piercing in its truthfulness. It’s an accomplishment perfectly suited to the movie it resides in.

From the Archive — All the King’s Men

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As we are about to slip from the boom-boom-boom of the summer movie season into a fall stocked with awards hopefuls, allow me to offer a gentle reminder that sometimes even sterling source material, a skilled filmmaker, a cast stocked with tremendous actors, and the best of intentions can add up to a dreadful couple hours of cinema. This review was original written for and posted at my former online home.

The new film version of All The King’s Men is a bad movie. Whenever a movie aspires to something more than just the latest piece of junk off the Hollywood assembly line, the temptation is to celebrate it despite its shortcomings. Writer-director Steve Zaillian is clearly trying to craft something deep, meaningful and resonant here, and while that is more admirable than, oh say, filming a bunch of dolts performing idiotic stunts and assembling the wreckage, it doesn’t automatically means the end result will be worthy. Indeed, it is that very sense of heavy importance, the telegraphed value of what’s been created, that most damages the film. It smothers itself in self-veneration.

Based on a novel by Robert Penn Warren (which was made into a film once before), the film follows a Louisiana politician named Willie Stark as he climbs from discarded local office holder to the most powerful man in the state, a governor who breeds enemies as he employs the nastiest back-room tactics to do the people’s work. Warren’s story means to convey the ways in which the American political system corrupts even the most honest of men. His Willie Stark is a self-described hick, a simple man who drags himself upwards through the system motivated by a persistent need to refute the power-brokers who underestimated him and others like him. As Stark reaches higher office, his morals become just a slippery as those of his predecessors. This doesn’t really come through in Zaillian’s film version.

Part of it may be that, in playing the lead role, Sean Penn seems disconnected from the smaller life of Willie Stark. It’s almost as if he’s biding his time, simply waiting until he can tear into the big stump speech monologues and glowering duplicity that will come. He’s not alone on the list of misfiring actors. Across the ticket, a strong cast is wasted or wandering. Jude Law, Kate Winslet, and Mark Ruffalo barely make impressions with their pivotal characters. Patricia Clarkson tries to wring some life out of the role of political consultant Sadie Burke (although, I’m not sure you’d really be able to even define the character’s role with only this film as reference), which was juicy enough in the 1949 film version to earn Mercedes McCambridge an Oscar in her film debut. We get only glancing exposure to the character and there’s little recognizable from scene to scene; Clarkson may as well have been cast in multiple different roles, given how much consistency is built into the character. And then there’s Anthony Hopkins. Around the time of 1998’s dread-inducing Meet Joe Black, Anthony Hopkins announced that he was quitting acting. You could present his performance here as evidence that he followed through on that pledge; he simply didn’t stop appearing in films.

Zaillian’s screenplay and film show little commitment to developing the characters. There are there and the plot moves around them, but there’s little personal impact, there never seems to be anything at stake for any of the people onscreen. Instead, Zaillian lathers James Horner’s typically bludgeoning music score over repetitive scenes of contrived import. He re-uses footage to a tiresome degree, perhaps believing that the audience needs extra reinforcement of certain points, perhaps wanting to remind us of the elegance of the filmmaking. Regardless of the reasoning, I’d trade the redundant glimpses of a lazy lakefront conversation or clenched jaw plotting in a parked car for some different moments that actually enriched the movie.

Everything about the way the film is put together gives the impression that the filmmakers were deeply respectful of the gravity of their material. All of that leaden seriousness only serves to show us that really, sadly they have nothing to say.

From the Archive — Children of Men

children of men

There are times in the process of seeing, writing about, and, yes, ranking films, when the best feature of the year is immediately evident upon first viewing of it. For me, that was the case with Children of Men. That’s not such a feat in some respects — it was a December release, after all — but it was also a movie that was at least somewhat off the radar, having missed the screening deadline for many critics to include it in their year-end tallies, since that ritual had already moved up to a place on the calendar well before the midnight countdown of New Year’s Eve began. The film is set in 2027, less than ten years from now. If anything, it appears Cuarón and his collaborators were overly optimistic about how long it would take us to get to this broken version of society. I wrote and published this review at my former online home, with the experience of seeing the film still recent and raw.

Alfonso Cuarón’s new film Children of Men is set twenty years in the future and begins as society mourns the death of the world’s youngest person, an 18-year-old male. A generation of unexplained infertility has thrown the world into chaos. England seemingly stands as one of the few intact countries, and it has become a brutal, totalitarian police state, rounding up immigrants (referred to as “fugees”) for confinement and deportation. This information is not delivered with clunky exposition or other tired film contrivances. We know this because we are absolutely immersed in the world of the film. Cuarón skillfully lets the details be revealed by the day-to-day challenges the characters face and the central quest which ignites the plot.

That artful assembly of the building blocks of the story is only the beginning of Cuarón’s accomplishment. Children of Men is a parade of astonishing scenes, notable for their simple wisdom, thrilling confidence, and, in a few key instances, bravura technique. Cuarón inserts some extended tracking shots that are absolutely mind-boggling, holding scenes for long stretches as action unfolds at a heart-racing rate. Whether doing this in the cramped confines of a small vehicle or across blocks of a city transformed into a war zone, he enhances the splendidly offbeat shot choice with perfectly choreographed action in the frame. The image is thick with movement and detail.

This isn’t indulgent technical showboating, like sending a camera through a coffee pot handle just because it’s achievable. Cuarón’s cinematic wizardry has a real purpose: plunging the audience as deeply into the action as possible. Jean-Luc Godard famously said “every edit is a lie,” and Cuarón proves the truth of that statement with these elegant, energized continuous shots. The tension of the scenes is accentuated because we feel completely in the moment, watching action unfold as if we were embedded into the scenes. We are there for the horrors and the momentary surges of hope. Some directors take approaches like this because it is cool, superficially enlivening due to mere difference; Cuarón does it because it’s the absolutely, unequivocally the best way to stage the roiling trauma of the film’s most fraught, compelling segments.

It is also a film fiercely alive with ideas. As in the best science fiction, Children of Men is set in the future to better evaluate the here and now. The socio-political commentary throughout is understated enough to avoid becoming didactic but rich enough to give the film a rewarding relevance. Corollaries can be drawn to multiple ideological battles raging across the Yahoo! news page with the film standing as equal parts cautionary tale and bleak predictor of the inevitable.

While the gifted cast yields no shortage of performers and performances worth celebrating — Julianne Moore, Chiwetel Ejiofor, Claire-Hope Ashitey, and the uncommonly rascally Michael Caine among them — lead Clive Owen is given a complex, internalized character and the necessity of holding the film together, and he responds with deceptively quiet and soundly sensational work. He carries the pain and strain of his character with precious few opportunities for overt emoting. It’s simply not the sort of film that will gift an actor with scenes of showy grandstanding that can readily garner awards attention, but it demands a control and focus that is, finally, far more impressive.

It is another thing to for a film to have something to say, to have a message or a worldview to convey. It is another, more elusive achievement to construct that film so it carries its ideas with the added weight of great artistry. That’s precisely what Cuarón has done with Children of Men.

From the Archive — Pineapple Express

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The arrival of the tenth anniversary of the release of Pineapple Express has led to a small batch of articles reflecting on the comedy-action film as if it’s some significant artifact. I guess. For me, it’s just another entry in the long line of films that demonstrate the dismal effect that Judd Apatow has had on modern film comedy. I actually like Apatow a lot (and owe him eternal gratitude for his central part in making Freaks and Geeks happen), but has he ever brought a proud sloppiness to a genre that benefits from razor-sharp precision. Anyway, this was written for my former online home.

I’ve been trying to figure out how to write about Pineapple Express and, despite my best efforts to avoid it, I keep coming back to Judd Apatow. I’d rather a different angle because I’m not likely to center evaluation of any other film this year around the perceived contribution of the producer. Directors and actors I’ll bring up for certain, and I’ll often consider the screenplay. Cinematography, music scores, editing: these are all fair game. Once I even offered praise for especially interesting and effective sound editing in a film that was not of the sort that usually gets singled out in such a way. But a producer. There are not many instances where I’d be likely to bring up a contributor whose role is nebulous enough that its hard to spot their fingerprints while sitting in the theater.

Then there’s Judd Apatow. Since The 40-Year-Old Virgin, which he also directed, there have been a whole group of films — Knocked Up (in the director’s chair again), Superbad, Forgetting Sarah Marshall — that feel of the same set. David Gordon Green may have directed Pineapple Express and the Superbad writing team of Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg bear the predominant screenplay credit (Apatow has a story credit that, according to Rogen, amounted to little more than coming up with the shell of a premise), but its tone, rhythms and shape (or, more accurately, shapelessness) feels scissored out of Apatow’s well-worn cloth. His influence as a producer is evidently strong enough to make all these films feel like they belong to him as much as anyone else. I can’t immediately recall any other producer skewing the authorship of films to such a degree since Steven Spielberg started amassing producing credits in the eighties and every film seemed to represent some variation on his then-twinkly worldview. This is the kind of impact Brian Grazer dreams of every morning as he civil engineers his ridiculous hair into place.

Pineapple Express is about a pot-smoking summons server and his friendly neighborhood drug dealer who inadvertently find themselves…well…inside an action movie. I don’t mean that literally — this isn’t some sort of meta romp like The Last Action Hero — but the actual plot is so thin and lacking in any sort of compelling intricacies that it’s simply easier and more accurate to talk about the film in terms of its premise instead of its storyline. Besides, it’s not really about that. Like all of these Apatow films, it’s about that fleeting opportunity when a male can reject his own orchestrated arrested development and decide to grow up and take responsibility. This time it’s just framed around rescuing your cohorts from gun-wielding drug gangs instead of devoting yourself to the unexpected mother of your child or the cute girls you hung out with at last night’s party.

There are laughs to be extracted from the situation, mostly from exploiting the contrasts inherent to slobby, clumsy guys who recoil from the very carnage they’re creating or rapidly fold under pressure when playing the hero role isn’t as effortless at it seems onscreen. James Franco is especially good as the generally amiable drug dealer prone to mental wandering. He’s loose enough in this role that it does feel like a liberation from the sort of dour leading man stuff he’s concentrated on since he was the first Freaks and Geeks cast member to achieve visibility apart from the cult fandom of the show. It’s an agreeably scruffy performance in a sometimes disagreeably scruffy film. Overall, it’s still entertaining and has memorable moments, but Apatow is fast approaching the point where he’ll face a similar decision as those thrown at the characters in his films. Does he want to grow up enough to add some focus and discipline to the films that bear his name, or is he satisfied softly plodding along, making movies that pass like a thin, dissipating haze?

From the Archive — Stranger Than Fiction

fiction

On the occasion of Marc Forster ushering into theaters a new film that plays with the idea of famed fictional characters intermingling with the real world, I’ll rustle up my old review for this earlier effort with some superficial similarities. Stranger Than Fiction is a film I found more ingratiating on subsequent viewings, and not just because the “Whole Wide World” scene haunts me as the precise experience I’m sure I missed out on because I never learned to play guitar. 

Director Marc Forster has an oddly toneless quality to his work. His directing is smooth enough, obedient to the writing and allowing room for the actors to bring their own personalities and approaches to the material. And it’s not as if his choice of shots is limited to plain vanilla choices. In his latest, Stranger Than Fiction there’s some occasional elegant shot construction, and a few trick shots (from inside a shower head, for example) that are actually a little off-putting. He’s not a bad director by any means, but across three films of significance (like the rest of America, I never saw Stay) the common characteristic of his work is a lack of that little surge of spirited creativity that can make the end product into something truly remarkable.

In this case, though, the end product is still pretty good. Stranger Than Fiction is the sort of film that Charlie Kaufman made safe for Hollywoodland. In the film, Will Ferrell plays Harold Crick, an I.R.S. auditor who suddenly finds his mundane life being narrated by a voice only he can hear. This development quickly transforms from a maddening annoyance to a matter of some urgency when the disembodied voice promises Harold’s impending death, sending him on a quest to find the narrator and urge her to reconsider.

The metafictional elements are the most obvious tie to Kaufman’s beloved screenplays, but the film also shares his wry romanticism. What it has that’s unique is its literate nature. This manifests itself most obviously is some of the conversations Harold has with a literature professor played by Dustin Hoffman. Getting to the bottom of his situation and finding the author of his life means determining the nature of the story being told, leading to some nicely constructed exchanges that hinge on the trappings of different forms of fiction. But Zach Helm’s script is also filled with warmly witty turns of phrase or simply drawn but nicely eloquent character moments. Here, Forster’s seeming fidelity to the words on the page pays off. Letting the screenplay carry the film proves an effective approach, even if it falters a bit at the end. The problem with writing something so Kaufmanesque is that the same pitfalls he struggles against are likely waiting, and endings are especially difficult to pull off in these existential fantasias.

Will Ferrell fiercely tones down his overwired presence in the title role, proving that his comic timing doesn’t need excessive volume and go-for-broke mania. Indeed, he proves to be an especially charming straight man, wringing laughs from quietly pained reactions to the strangeness of his situation. Hoffman continues his late-career tendency to winningly futz around with the details in performances that hardly test his limits, but are no less winning for it. Emma Thompson apparently chatted a lot with Hoffman on the set, as she basically takes the same approach as the acclaimed novelist who unwittingly presides over Crick’s life, and it proves equally charming for her.

It sometimes seems as if Stranger Than Fiction is striving for bigger, deeper points than it’s really capable of making. It’s not much more than a little, clever entertainment. Sometimes, of course, that’s enough.