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When the World Goes Kaboom

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, February 10th, 2011

Gregg Araki’s Kaboom might just have the best promotional materials ever. The poster is rainbow and kaleidoscopic — like a still from a Fruitopia commercial but with people instead of pineapples. The press release describes it as “a hyper-stylized Twin Peaks for the Coachella Generation, featuring a gorgeous young cast.” Araki, a pivotal figure in queer cinema and the man behind a multi-pack of indie treats (The Living End, The Doom Generation, Mysterious Skin, etc.), gives us a sun-soaked horror-comedy with nose rings that twinkle and orgasms that blast away again and again to the sound of thunderstorms.

If Lisa Frank had designed a boy, it would have been our protagonist, Smith, played by Thomas Dekker. He’s a timid college freshman, majoring in film studies. His sexuality though is “undeclared.” His lips are the color of bubblegum, and his eyes are so turquoise, they’re almost tacky. He and his best friend, Stella (Haley Bennett), a former goth with a dry wit and tangerine hair, navigate campus life, paying special attention to its more prurient parts. The characters they encounter are familiar, though sexier and campier than the archetypes they represent. Smith suspects and hopes that his roommate, Thor, a boorish blond surfer who tries to give himself blowjobs, is really gay. He enters an undefined sexual relationship with London, a high-spirited and promiscuous English girl, played by Juno Temple. Meanwhile, Stella is sleeping with Lorelei, a luscious lesbian with supernatural powers. Amidst the threesomes and raves and laced desserts, Smith slowly starts to uncover a mass conspiracy, complete with masked men, murdered twins, and a hierarchical cult; it involves not only everyone he’s met since coming to college but his dead father too.

The story is made up of nested realities that are revealed by way of shocking and often silly cuts (a gory bludgeoning turns into a plate of mutilated pie). Its highest-pitched scenes are scored to crescendos that accelerate at almost-intolerable rates until they climax, and we’re dropped into some other silent, unrelated place. The dialogue is reminiscent of a glossed up Ghost World or a Donnie Darko with the lights turned on. The script is peppered with tweet-worthy insults. After having sex with Smith for the first time, London tells him that she’s “had pelvic exams that last longer than that.” Stella doesn’t share Smith’s swoony enthusiasm for Thor. “I’ve met plants with better personalities,” she groans.

Like in any horror movie, peripheral figures turn out to be central schemers and those who we’re inclined to forget of course end up crucial plot advancers. We’re taught to expect retroactive explanation from psychological thrillers. We like to walk out of them feeling as though we’ve reached the end of a narrative that’s situated within a fixed logic, one whose order was only obscured at times by a lack of information. But Araki isn’t playing that game. And for a world without rules, Kaboom doesn’t leave you feeling resentful or cheated or cheaply deceived. Araki has that rare directorial charisma that’s just so generally appealing that his films are likeable for stupid and smart reasons alike. One could imagine Kaboom changing the life of a stoned 10th grader, but it really does have defensible moments of Clueless-level ingenuity. Kaboom’s juiciness actually deserves to be projected on the walls of whatever Bushwick party it’s surely going to find its way onto. There are bright colors, glittery explosions, and smiley faces. It’s a kind of kiddie porn (porn directed by kids).

Kaboom, weird as it may be, is firmly set in the present day with orienting references to Lady Gaga and American Idol. The mystery at the film’s center is reliant on computer communication: mysterious web videos and URLs to temporary Web sites sent over instant message. Witty banter, eatable-looking actors, and psychedelic pleasure aside, Araki’s most impressive accomplishment here is his rendering of the Internet as a schizophrenic dimension, where bright blue links take you to unexpected screens and ads for items you’ve never heard of pop out of nowhere. Memes, those haunting images of senseless ubiquity, blink like PTSD flashbacks. Inconceivable things are only a click away. Without pandering or preaching, Araki forces us to feel the sometimes-scintillating, sometimes-sinister effects of our digital age.

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Mike Leigh’s Another Year: Traditional Happiness Among the Sad and Lonely

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, February 3rd, 2011

Art house darling Mike Leigh is known for his improvisational kitchen sink realism. He’s a master of the sort of small talk that isn’t bleak. His films are like Petri dishes on which everyday Brits divide and join like little cells of concentrated emotion. In his latest venture, Another Year, Leigh makes the case for a traditional kind of happiness.

The film, which is broken into four seasonal chapters, each one titled, starts off in the spring, hopeful and quick, and ends in a winter of sickening sadness. The conceit, while cliché, is not at all distracting or disingenuous; it’s only really apparent in retrospect. Tom, a Barbour-clad geologist played by Jim Broadbent, and Gerri, a linen-loving counselor played by Ruth Sheen, live in a domestic bliss of wine breath and garlicky kitchen smells. They’re almost retirement age but still very much in love. He comes home early to cook supper and refutes her self-deprecation; her eyes eat him up from across the dinner table.  Their London flat has a well-stocked fridge and lots of bookshelves; they read sweetly in bed, side-by-side. They drive a Volvo. If this were an American movie, they would live in Brooklyn Heights and their son would go to Saint Ann’s. They nurture their crops and nourish their friends, trekking back and forth between the city and their country farmhouse. They serve the vegetables they grow at casual dinner parties.

The previews would have you believe that Tom and Gerri are the film’s nucleus. In actuality, it’s their batty, alcoholic friend Mary (Lesley Manville) who subsumes most of our energy. She’s the frazzled administrator at the hospital where Gerri works — always making plans for after-hours drinks, inviting herself over for dinner, appearing at their doorstep unannounced. It’s unclear why the friendship has been given so much room to grow, though pity is surely a key factor. Tom and Gerri treat her warmly; they give her permission to refill her wine glass and allow her to spend the night when she’s had too much to drink. Mary speaks quickly and often incoherently, presumptuously predicting personal questions and hurriedly consolidating her answers to them. She unfolds totally at certain points and admits to her misery. Though quite beautiful and still shapely, Mary is depressed over her divorce and the “pokey flat” she rents. “Who would I go on holiday with?” she wails one evening when thinking about upcoming vacation days.

But Mary isn’t their only sad sack friend. There’s Carl (Martin Savage), also single, who drinks and cries too much as well. Like Mary, he describes his apartment in an unappealing way. Land ownership, that historically British preoccupation, runs quietly beneath the surface of the film. Their 30-year-old son, Joe (Oliver Maltman), is presented as a lost soul until he brings a girl home and it becomes clear that the relationship is serious. Another Year taxonomizes the world into two castes of people: those who have another person and those who don’t. It’s a bolder and less abstract classification system than most are willing to concede. “…but you deserve it,” Mary says wistfully while praising Gerri’s marriage. “You both are such lovely people.” Tom and Gerri are kind and interesting, and though surely it’s their virtues that brought them together in the first place, their union is what blesses them. The contrast of their miserable friends proves this. You could imagine, despite Tom and Gerri’s generosity, being tortured by their happiness and spiting their self-satisfaction.

The final chapter — Winter — brings a peripheral death and the forging of an unexpected affinity. The film ends with Mary weeping, game face melted off, finally confronting for the first time the totality of her despair. It’s a ruthless last scene, and structurally it confirms what we began to suspect “months” ago: that Tom and Gerri, magnetic as they may be, are not the film’s primary emotional concern.  It’s hard to sort out whether their friends and family are happier by association or sadder in comparison. Either way, Leigh suggests that—  liberal politics be damned — it’s hearth and home that make life worth living. Cleave to someone or you’re screwed.

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No Redemption for The Company Men

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, January 27th, 2011

Tommy Lee Jones and Ben Affleck in "The Company Men"

Bad movies can inspire perversity on the part of their critics — finely wrought condemnation and searing viciousness. Panning something can be cathartic, so much so that the pan itself sometimes redeems the schlocky thing that bore it. Then there are movies so bad that they inspire responsibility on the part of their critics, compelling only one, single message: Just, whatever you do, don’t go see this movie. John Wells’ The Company Men is of the latter category.

The Company Men would still have been a terrible film if it had been released a year or two ago, but at least it would have made some sense. It’s a recession tale, one of sold-off Porsches, Greenwich backyards, and corporate downsizing — territory that, while still relevant, isn’t really worth a Hollywood blockbuster at this point, due to a fatigue contracted (mostly) from the months and months of human interest stories we’ve had to endure in the Times.

In September 2008, after twelve years in management positions, Bobby Walker (Ben Affleck) is laid off from his white-collar job. His six-figure salary is automatically funneled into a 12-week severance package. After months of sending out résumés, fruitlessly, he accepts carpentry work with his brother-in-law, played by Kevin Costner. What follows are a series of predictable shop class as soul craft-like epiphanies: Bobby learns the value of tangible results; Bobby learns how to relate (read: play basketball) with his son; Bobby learns how inflated his salary really was. Of course, at the end of the day, Bobby and his family are saved. He gets a job, eventually, and the movie closes with him bellowing inspirational instructions at his new subordinates.

To be fair, summarizing just about any movie plot in a few sentences can make it sound inane. Even the most tired narratives can be restored to luster in the right hands. But The Company Men has real, fundamental flaws — ones that, like the US economy in 2008, feel irreparable. It’s a dangerous move to cast Ben Affleck as a white-collar worker with a vague job description and no interests besides golf. Ben Affleck is that guy at the party who insists you’ve been introduced “like 10 times.” You believe him, but somehow you just don’t remember his face at all. His character in The Company Men comes without any biographical history or memorable traits; it’s all but impossible to care about him. His wife, Maggie (Rosemarie DeWitt), is his tether to an ethical and practical existence. It’s Maggie who refuses to renew his golf membership and insists upon eating in more often. She looks comfortable in her designer jeans, amidst Nancy Meyers-like throw pillows, but unlike Bobby, she comes from humbler roots, made evident by a Boston accent she cruises in and out of, one about as subtle as Julianne Moore’s on “30 Rock.” Maggie goes back to work as a nurse, and spends most of the film trying to buoy the sinking spirits of her husband.

But Bobby, of course, is not alone in his despair. He’s one of hundreds of the company’s layoffs, including its co-founder, Gene McClary (Tommy Lee Jones). Tommy Lee Jones is the film’s primary asset, and the scenes he’s in are the only ones in the black. He looks like George W. Bush’s much smarter cousin: weathered and searching. We’re led to believe that he’s the only man in the company who feels queasy about the mass layoffs or the mega bonuses given to its CEOs. He tells his boss that instead of firing more people, perhaps he should “sell the fucking Degas.” When his wife asks him if she and a friend can take one of the corporate jets to Palm Beach, he gives her an icy stare. “Fine, I’ll just fly commercial,” she huffs. The script is terrible, and lines like this make it seem as though it were written by a focus group. Hey, remember when the Detroit CEOs flew to New York on private jets to ask for a bailout? Well, let’s invoke something like that here!

We know that the economy in 2008 was contracting, and its collapse was startling in its depth. We remember this. Still, despite the dire circumstance, the financial troubles of the Walker family are just plain confusing. How, at the end of his 12-week severance package, are they completely out of money? To the point of selling their house for a low-ball price and moving in with his parents? Don’t they have a savings account? And if not, why isn’t this question addressed? It should be, because as it stands, their situation doesn’t garner too much sympathy. The lazy signifiers of gaucheness are endless: references to Sun Valley, antique tables with outrageous price tags, so many sports cars. Cumulative details do not make a story, and purchasing power does not make a person. This — almost — could the point of the film, and with some major edits (a total rewrite, a different cast) maybe The Company Men could have hit that nail on the head. But it would have been another film entirely. At the apex of his anguish, Bobby tells his wife, “I can’t just look like another asshole with a résumé.” Her response back could be the movie’s tagline: “You are just another asshole with a résumé.”

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Compelling Parts Can’t Carry the Whole in Twelve Thirty

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, January 20th, 2011

Jonathan Groff and Portia Reiners in "Twelve Thirty"

Twelve-Thirty, the fourth feature film directed by Jeff Lipsky, is hermetically fantastic, scene-by-scene, with formal dialogue and stilted acting worthy of Eric Rohmer or Whit Stillman. Lipsky, who founded October Films and Lot 47 Films, was mentored by John Cassavetes early in his career, and like the famed auteur, he shares an instinct for improvisation and the dirty real.

Jeff (Jonathan Groff) is a 22-year-old aspiring architect, but his age and ambition are only secondary characteristics to his virginity. Jeff has thick, senatorial hair. His complexion is translucent like skim milk and his masculine resolve just as insipid. Over the course of the film, he “mans up,” but perversely — by sleeping with a family of women. After bedding his provocative, long-time crush Mel Langley (Portia Reiners), who stains antique furniture and cooks chili, he sleeps with her frigid, formerly druggy sister Maura (Mamie Gummer, Meryl Streep’s daughter), and finally their passionate furrier of a mother, Vivien (Karen Young). But as he makes his way through the women — from youngest to oldest — Jeff tangles their relationships. At first, the confessions and betrayals Jeff instigates seem destructive and awful, but slowly they reveal themselves to be points of bonding for the otherwise estranged women.

There is unexplained rejection, disputed consensuality, and even a bisexual father — all against the bland backdrop of suburban Iowa City. The performances feel like those of a really good school play: earnest and a little self-conscious. Each vignette, in isolation, is captivating, but as a whole, the film seems under-edited and unmotivated. Maura’s best friend is a Satanist, for instance, a pointless detail that impacts nothing. And one early scene focuses on two old British widows, who seem as though they might be lovers. Their conversation is charming and strange (one of them founded a museum devoted entirely to historical keys), but ultimately it comes to naught. Their lines are just as imaginative and empathetic as those of the other characters, but they disappear and bear no relation to any other part of the story. Mel and Jeff drive out to the country to visit a locked church, whose only significance is that its name – “The Church of the Open Door” — is mirrored in the name of the key museum — “The Museum of the Open Door.” But like the grandiose repetitions and vague patterns perceived by schizophrenics, this doubling is meaningless. Underscoring characters’ disconnectedness by creating a narrative with irrelevant parts isn’t so much too obvious as it is too frustrating. It feels like investing a lot of time with a shy person only to discover that their still waters do not run so deep.

None of the sex acts are introduced with any foreplay at all, and Mel is the only one of the three women Jeff kisses, though in a car, hours before they make their way to the bedroom. “I want to have sex with you. Tonight. I’ll be angry if we don’t,” she tells him. Mel presents herself, midday, on all fours, in a brightly lit room. When Jeff has sex with Maura, it’s at a party, in a pitch-black closet (the scene is dark enough for long enough that I thought there was a problem with the print until the lights finally come on, minutes later). Though at first she’s amenable, she soon tells him to stop, and he doesn’t. Afterwards, he sweetens up. “Let me just stay in here with you for a minute,” he whispers. “Is that customary?” she answers back. Later, Maura wonders if she was raped. Jeff’s interlude with Vivien — the girls’ mother — is a chance encounter. The richness of her character is commendable. She’s postmenopausal, but sensual. She wears good underwear, instructs Jeff to stroke one of her mink coats, and barks life advice at him.

After Jeff has penetrated both daughters and their mother (it never becomes fully clear if all — or any — of them know they’ve been shared), the Langleys become closer. Maura confides to Mel about her past adolescent mistakes and takes a long, intimate walk with her father, whose bisexuality she previously disapproved of. Vivien comes clean to Maura about her intermittent regret about having children, the fear that her daughters were what chased her husband into the arms of a man. “I hate that last part honey,” Vivien says solemnly after the confession, “but it’s there.” In talking about her ex-husband, with whom, it should be said, she still has infrequent sex (“the best lover I’ve ever had”), Vivien goes on to bestow some biographically acquired wisdom. “He made me feel like I was protected, and that’s the worst thing that can ever happen to a woman. The worst thing.”  Lines like these, when they’re stated, emerge with expectations that soon shatter. Is this the emotional core of the film? Its message? In the hands of another director, lessons learned and shared adhere characters to one another, but Lipsky seems instead to insist upon interpersonal isolation. The crescendo quits, and we turn to something else.

An exquisitely protracted prank partially dislodges any of the damage we thought Jeff has wrecked on the Langleys. And the film closes with a flashback to the high school detention hall where Jeff and Mel originally met years before. But circular narrative structure is not Lipsky’s aim here. The film, in fact, has little discernable architecture. Each room is pleasant and entertaining, but it’s a house built in a different world, inhabited by relative strangers and without context.

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Blue Valentine’s Exquisite Heartbreak

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, January 13th, 2011

Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams in "Blue Valentine"

Trying to convince someone that you’re mad at them when really you’re sad at them is one of the hardest things to do. The moments in life that require the skill are always dire, the stakes inevitably very high. It’s almost impossible not to choke. Narrow your eyes too much, and you’re done for. Stretch your voice too taughtly, and it’s over. But Michelle Williams and Ryan Gosling hit the note perfectly again and again in Blue Valentine as Cindy and Dean, the emotionally ravaged, sad-at-each-other couple at the center of the film.

Blue Valentine is a chronologically broken portrait of a chronically breaking marriage. Cindy, a nurse, and Dean, a house painter, live in rural Pennsylvania with their kindergarten-aged daughter, Frankie. Williams, who we’re used to seeing in the tabloids, sipping iced coffee, and strolling around Boerum Hill in cool clogs, is a little doughier as Cindy. When she’s not in scrubs, she wears stretched-out t-shirts. Her roots need touching up and her French tips filling in. Gosling disappears into Dean, who is desperate, tattooed, and always in aviator sunglasses, even inside.

The opening scenes portray the frantic, early morning minutes before the family disperses for the day: Frankie to school, Cindy to her shift at the hospital, Dean to the driveway, where he sloppily swears at speeding cars before heading off to pound a beer and paint a house. Cindy prepares oatmeal for Frankie, which Dean criticizes. He then encourages Frankie to “eat like a leopard,” plucking out the raisins, and slurping them off the table with her in neat little lines. Dean is entertaining his daughter at his wife’s expense. Nothing good comes when parents fail to put up a united front, and already we can tell that this marriage is frayed.

But the relationship’s current iteration (Dean, drunk and whiny; Cindy, frigid and short-tempered) is interspliced with flashbacks to their shared, happy past. The cuts are often disorienting — Dean with a full head of hair opening a door to a suddenly younger Cindy, for instance. The impressive feat of the structure is the restraint with which the flashbacks are deployed. You always want more of them, more of the past; it’s a relief when it’s granted, and it’s almost intolerable when we’re thrown back from it, into the ferment. We, like Cindy and Dean themselves, want to spend no time at all in what this marriage has become, though it says something great that we still root for them in the flashbacks, knowing all the while what’s in store for them. After one of their early dates, Dean throws Cindy onto the bed, “BOOM!” he bellows goofily, shoving a CD at her chest. “Everybody’s got a song,” he says, “but they’re lame and they all share them, you know, it’s disgusting. Not us. We have our own song.” It’s a hilarious but haunted line. Like those couples that unknowingly share clichéd love songs, Cindy and Dean are not unique; their misery is not special or distinctive. This is not an unhappy family in its own way, but a family unhappy just like so many others.

Up until the making of Blue Valentine, Derek Cianfrance had only ever directed shorts and documentaries, mostly for TV. The necessary authenticity of his previous form has translated fully here. Both Williams and Gosling inhabit their roles to a degree that a mumbling Marlon Brando could be proud of (the two lived in a remote cabin together prior to production, sharing domestic duties and seemingly simmering with mutual venom). Blue Valentine accomplishes in cinema what Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom does in literature: its characters and story make most other depictions of ruined romance and exhausted matrimony look flimsy in comparison. And like Franzen, Cianfrance here succeeds in telling a non-didactic, amoral story. When characters are rendered this deeply, they don’t speak for anyone but themselves. Blue Valentine is not prescriptive, and no one is exploited for the sake of allegory.

In multiple scenes — arriving late to Frankie’s recital, listening to her father interrogate Dean over dinner — Williams is able summon that silent rage of dumb emotion, the kind that materializes when your mind and vision are whittled into a single point of white-hot feeling. And Gosling’s charm as Dean is not at all canned. When Cindy drives Frankie off to school, Dean waves from the front lawn, shouting, “I love you like crazy. I love you like craaaaaa-zy!” over and over again, in an increasingly cartoonish voice. Not being able to imagine the writer making certain lines up — feeling as though they must be the remembered tics of a real, live person — is a testament to a script’s quality.

The subtlety of the rapport between Cindy and Dean is often snuffed out grandly with shouting matches, bitter words, and bad sex. But in the penultimate scene, in the wake of a violent outbreak that seems to have finalized it all, the sensitivity of their connection reëmerges, though sadly. Their body language exactly mimics their words. They both speak, breathlessly, in contentless repetitions. “Tell me how I should be. Tell me how I should be.” Then: “I’ll do it. I’ll do it. I’ll do it.” Then: “No, no, no, no, no.” Then: kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss, kiss. Finally, she quivers into his arms, not out of forgiveness or love, but out of fatigue and short-circuited verbal power. It’s how you speak and move when you’re in the midst of  total emotional carnage, and the immensity of looming change can only be perceived in momentary flashes, ones that make you stutter and shake.

Like others, my only reservation was with the film’s vast gaps, though they do not leave blind spots or confuse the sequence of events. We see the utter wretchedness of the present, and we see the sugary sweetness of the past. The film shows us the two most extreme poles of a relationship: the falling in love and the already-out-of-love. We see the charm and lust that is preamble to infatuation. We see the scorn that is the epilogue to all those implied nights of proximate neglect, all those tiny, ungenerous glances that seem to multiply by fathomless factors as the years go on. It’s the less cinematic moments, though, that buttress a relationship, and in not revealing them, we’re left with a sense of pity more than gutting empathy. What we don’t witness is the more incremental arc of a shared life: the being in love, not the falling in love; the losing of love, not love’s loss.

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Sofia Coppola’s Somewhere: A Beautiful Ride to Nowhere

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, January 6th, 2011

Stephen Dorff and Elle Fanning in "Somewhere"

Some cinema can be difficult but fortifying: slow, elliptical, and stark. Boredom — or patience — can pay dividends. But rarely does the inverse hold true; it’s seldom that we’re afforded the opportunity of enjoying but not liking a film. Somewhere, which has now been reviewed everywhere, is never boring, despite Sofia Coppola’s insistence upon real-time long shots. The film says nothing particularly new, describes its Los Angeles setting in terms no more specific than its title and its characters as nothing more than “someones.”  But its vagueness is beautiful-looking. This is usually not enough to earn an audience’s attention, but ours is secured here.

Somewhere tells the story of A-list actor Johnny Marco, played by Stephen Dorff, who has quite a charming face for a man with such a decidedly small nose. He resides at The Chateau Marmont, and seems to live a life void of introspection. It’s a world of Blackberries, chirpy PR assistants, and erotic dancers who tote their telescoping stripper poles around with them suite-to-suite. When Johnny’s eleven-year-old daughter, Cleo (Elle Fanning), shows up, supposedly endowing him with a new appreciation for life, we’re meant to believe a real relationship is forged and that she’s activated a hidden strain of humanity in him.

The opening scene, which every single review of the film points out, is a stunning shot of Johnny driving his black Ferrari around the desert in circles. The camera remains static and vulnerable to an exaggerated Doppler effect, our visual and aural perception of the car growing faint and then returning with a sonic swoop. It’s not exactly a subtle metaphor — lost star driving in circles — but as an establishing shot, it works well.

Yet for a film that will go on to prove itself spare, this sort of heavy-handedness is relentless. Johnny and Cleo play Guitar Hero to “So Lonely” by The Police, the literalness of Sting’s lyrics (“I feel lonely, I’m so lonely, I feel so low”) rubbing the sensitive part of the mind raw. Johnny wears a faded Black Flag t-shirt (an early ’80s L.A. punk band), which, like Johnny himself, has seen better days. At a press junket, a journalist asks him, “Who is Johnny Marco.” Of course, he stammers. Makeup artists slather his face in latex to turn him into a wrinkly, liver-spotted old man. He sits in the chair, featureless, spackled in goo, his every breath audible, his every swallow complete. The scene is weirdly weird for Sofia Coppola, and refreshingly so, but its metaphorical use-value too obvious.  It’s as though she underestimates her viewers’ intelligence, which is especially offensive if you’ve ever heard or read her in interview (a fun party game is reading aloud from Sofia Coppola Q&As).

Both the opening and closing credits of Somewhere are printed in a tiny, sans serif font, like an eye chart, which seems appropriate. It’s easy to spend the whole film straining yourself, trying — and failing — to make meaning out of gauziness. Nothing happens in Somewhere, which sounds like a Philistine complaint, but that’s precisely what’s so enraging about the lack of plot – being exasperated by it turns you into a dullard. The characters don’t change; allegedly, a bond is sealed between father and daughter, but there’s no evidence for it. The single scene that captures potent emotion — Cleo weeping in the car en route to camp — ends abruptly and without resolution. Johnny looks over at her and says, “C’mere. Don’t cry.” There’s no “I love you.” There’s no sustained conversation, just a sweetly stated imperative. Then a cut to the smiley pair in a casino.

This isn’t to say though that there aren’t moments of greatness in Somewhere. It’s always beautiful, and somehow never boring. But for every hilarious pole-dancing scene, there’s a gratuitous sequel, and for every lonely cigarette that Johnny sucks in, another beer to be suffered through. But the embarrassing faux-profundity and reiterations of themes from Lost in Translation are all worth enduring for Elle Fanning’s performance. She’s the film’s kindling, and she warms every scene she’s in. Cleo is willow-limbed and pale; her hair will only be naturally blonde for another few years. Her rolling suitcase has light-up wheels. She almost — but not quite — needs a bra. She’s still young enough to mindlessly lean on her dad and put her sneakered-feet up on sofa arms. When an old friend of Johnny starts hanging around, Cleo is quick to laugh broadly at his jokes, as though she’s maintaining a not-quite-crush on him. After Johnny’s Ferrari breaks down, they wait for a tow truck on the side of the road. Cleo stands against a stop sign, playing solitary hand games and swinging her arms forward and back, enthralled by her own momentum. Every movement is familiar. It’s worth noting though how much more interior life is granted to Cleo than Johnny; one suspects this might not even be intentional. If you don’t write real characters, it’s easier to render ones who are too young to have fully-formed consciousnesses.

Films this quiet must be tight — every elision purposeful and every minute of silence intentional. We need to trust that Somewhere is the product of systematic omission, but we can’t. Each error exposes a vacancy, and Sofia Coppola ruins a few potentially great things. In one scene, Johnny sits forlornly on his hotel suit couch, drinking a Corona, smoking a cigarette, and staring off into space. A perfect bowl of uneaten fruit rests at the outer perimeter of the frame (the wealthy are always surrounded by uneaten fruit). It’s a perfect detail up until the point where Johnny picks up an unblemished pear and examines it as Hamlet does Yorick’s skull. An almost-subtle moment taken one move too far.  Throughout the film, Johnny’s arm is in a cast, due to a night of heavy partying (he tells his ex it’s from shooting stunts). The cast could have — and should have — been used like an improv prop, complicating and making funnier otherwise desolate scenes. Once, we see his plastered arm foreshortened, his blurry, hung-over face in the background, half-hidden by high thread count sheets.  And in two scenes, Johnny showers with his arm hanging out the curtain at a right angle, like a traffic signal. This is all slightly comic, but it’s not enough to justify what seems like a random choice. When Cleo finally arrives and saves the film, she’s writing on his cast in black Sharpie: a heart, then a comma, then “Cleo.” This, it seems, is the cast’s real raison d’etre: to recreate a palette for those loopy, teenage margin scrawls we remember Lux doodling on binders in The Virgin Suicides, i.e. not enough to account for a protagonist’s handicap. A stylist at heart, Sofia Coppola probably just thought it would look cool.

Any female under 30 who’s even remotely inclined towards fashion or commercial indie art has described something — a flimsy blouse, a forgettable carport, a scanned Polaroid on Facebook — as “Virgin Suicides-y,” thus mentally bleaching out real life and adding a little lens flare to an otherwise unsparkley sky. Similarly, “Kinda Lost in Translation-y” is now shorthand for overseas alienation. Creating a visual language that people rely on to describe mundane moments really is a feat, and it’s one Sofia Coppola deserves recognition for. But telling a story is so much harder. The Virgin Suicides is by far her finest film, but the script was based on Jeffery Eugenides’s novel. If Sofia Coppola is to continue directing, she should use real writers for her plots and characters; she’s stranded nowhere good without them.

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Saint Misbehavin’: Wavy Gravy and the Culture of Fools

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, December 16th, 2010

Wavy Gravy

I grew up in California where kids are taught to pursue happiness above all else. The wealthiest people I knew were only incidentally affluent: They invented some kind of organic juice or they started Banana Republic way back when. There was no correlation between success and persistent hard work, between achievement and academic rigor. If you were 16 and wanted to go the beach after school instead of doing your homework, that was great, for as anyone — even parents — would tell you, it was “beautiful out!” I resent this now, and when I see such a lifestyle depicted in books or film, I get riled up. Michelle Esrick’s documentary, Saint Misbehavin’: The Wavy Gravy Movie, stirred these foul sediments of my past.

There’s nothing funny about The Funnies. And sorry, but there’s nothing comic about clowns. Before he was the emcee of Woodstock, or the official clown of the Grateful Dead, or founded the world’s longest running hippie commune; before he was even Wavy Gravy, Hugh Romney was a beatnik who read poetry and played folk music at The Gaslight on MacDougal Street. But the man at the center of Saint Misbehavin’, at least in his current iteration, doesn’t seem like the type to inspire playful nicknames from B.B. King or the sort who Bob Dylan might want to share a room with. Apparently though, he was.

The film reminded me of what it felt like to be confronted with voluntary idiocy. I don’t like, at 23, to be made a Scrooge, but I also don’t like the conflation of “being critical” with “being judgmental.” Wavy Gravy and his cohort are definitely non-judgemental — they’ll be the first ones to tell you that — but they’ll also never be critical. Neither will the people I grew up with. It’s around the holidays that these bitter thoughts begin to worm their way into my consciousness. I’ll be back in California for Christmas, and I bet you $100 that within twenty-four hours I’ll be told to relax.

The film opens with Wavy Gravy at his commune house in Berkeley. It’s his night to prepare dinner for the dozens of people with whom he lives. Wavy Gravy gets in his van (hippies love Dodge Caravans) and drives to Ben and Jerry’s to pick up some pro bono ice cream (a flavor is named after him, and it is, of course, a stoner’s dream: caramel-cashew-Brazil nut base with a chocolate hazelnut fudge swirl and roasted almonds.) Most everyone in the film looks like frizzy haired Edward Koran cartoons. “I know this is trivial,” a friend said to me en route to the subway after the movie ended, “but why was everyone obese?” Maybe it’s all the free dessert.

The interviewees speak to radical politics and how good it feels to be empowered, but of what they’re opposing or what they feel liberated to actually do remains unclear.

Wavy Gravy wears a rainbow felt jester hat around, miniature bells tinkling off the tip of each floppy point. He makes a stabbing effort to intellectualize his garb, explaining that by dressing up like a clown, or Santa, or the Easter Bunny, he’s protected from the police; a man in a silly costume is non-threatening. It might be true that such characters aren’t threatening, but they’re also not particularly effective. Ram Dass, the author of Be Here Now, says that “he’s infused politics with humor.” But Wavy Gravy, nice as he may be, is neither of those things: political nor humorous.

There were more abstract nouns uttered here than in your standard Chelsea gallery press release. The talking heads describe Wavy Gravy as “unique” and “amazing,” that with him comes a spirit of “trust” and “freedom.” For a subculture so insistent upon creativity, originality, and “intense elevated shenanigans,” its members all seem to be strikingly similar. Wavy Gravy’s personality is indistinguishable from his peers’. “We’re all the same person, trying to shake hands with our self,” he says fauxosophically towards the end of the film. Well, mission accomplished! Even the young children who attend Camp Winnarainbow, the circus camp that Wavy Gravy founded, talk this way. In between sessions of juggling, stilt-walking, and trapeze, Esrick interviews some of the campers. When prompted to describe Wavy Gravy, Dylan, who is no more than nine, looks straight into the camera and says: “He’s hilarious. He’s everything.” Children, it seems, are indoctrinated with vagueness at a young age, rendering the speaking patterns of grade schoolers and retirees identical.

The documentary is pretty evenly split between present day interviews and archival b-roll footage, and the juxtaposition between the two often yields unintentional comedy. When Wavy Gravy’s wife, Bonnie Beecher, talks indistinctly about wanting to “involve people,” for instance, the camera cuts to a pie-eating contest. And it’s when the commune members start talking about being non-judgmental that we learn Wavy Gravy’s son, Howdy Do-Good Gravy Tomahawk Truckstop, changed his name to “Jordan” on this 13th birthday. In interviews, he speaks positively and warmly of his parents, but it’s still obvious that he embodies a counterintuitive kind of rebellion. Jordan, who has close cropped hair and a presumably more traditional job, is now married and lives in a single-family home in Philadelphia, where he doesn’t “have to share a wall with anyone else.”

Wavy Gravy co-founded the Seva Foundation, an international health organization that works to perform cataract surgeries in Asia. The last quarter of Saint Misbehavin’ focuses on the charity work. It’s heartening to see the buffoonery of a bubble-blowing clown channeled into a worthy cause. But for the sake of sounder rhetoric, this section should not have been tacked onto the end of the film as some sort of altruistic redemption for the years of fun and folly. Rather, it should have been incorporated consistently throughout or even frontloaded to justify all the casual time we spend with Wavy Gravy and his bumbling jokes.

The interviewees speak to radical politics and how good it feels to be empowered, but of what they’re opposing or what they feel liberated to actually do remains unclear. At one point, the social circumstances that allowed for the Summer of Love to take place (the invention of birth control, the nonexistence of AIDS) are literally refused in favor of the argument that “it was a time when people were thinking they could make the world a better place.” It would be one thing if these hollow anthems were trumpeted only by Wavy Gravy and his acolytes; the problem is that Esrick’s angle reinforces their misguided, nebulous ethos. I don’t mean to be cruel to Wavy Gravy, someone whose unanimous reputation is one of kindness, joy, and generosity. There’s nothing malevolent about having fun, playing the banjo with your friends, or being generally optimistic, but when those values trump everything else, including a realistic grasp of history or the proper use of language, it becomes infuriating to witness. Just relax, I tell myself. But that only makes me madder.

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His Opposites Attract: Ryan Gosling’s Twee-Man Allure

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, December 9th, 2010

Ryan Gosling in "Blue Valentine"

Occupying a singular role in someone else’s life is gratifying: knowing that you’re the only one who can cheer up that certain friend, knowing that you’re the only one your boss trusts to take charge when he’s out sick. This is what’s so great about sad-looking guys. It feels good when you’re the one who ekes that rare smile out of them. There’s almost nothing better than being the one to shut off a person’s default depressive settings.

This is my theory about Ryan Gosling. He’s not the most obvious leading man; actually, he always looks like he’s about to cry. But the ladies love him! He seems like he needs protecting, and also as though getting him to laugh might be a real challenge. But he has a deep voice. And bigger arms than you might think. And that combination of baritone and biceps steer him clear of that soft, puppy eyed, Elijah Wood territory he might otherwise be mired in forever. The collision of opposites – twee, but manly – make him a perfect, if not obvious, candidate for all those dark, stormy hero roles he seems to pick. That’s what really pitches his boyish pallor into such blinding relief; he’s been cast as a freebasing middle-school teacher, a trial-obsessed prosecutor, a socially inept lover of an anatomically correct doll.

What’s there not to love about a boy with a fondness for Danzig and a last name that means baby duck?

All Good Things opened last Friday, and it’s Gosling’s first film since 2007’s Lars and the Real Girl. In it he plays an increasingly deranged and ultimately murderous real estate scion. He goes catatonic at times, releases blood curdling screams at others. His sweetness turns believably sinister. And if that isn’t enough, we even get him in some Tenant-esque, Polanksi-type drag. All Good Things really is a good thing. Despite the grim plot points (marriage disintegration, psychotic breakdown, homicides), Andrew Jarecki pumps a lot of wish fulfillment into 101 minutes. The early courtship is meltingly romantic, and the proposal scene actually made me gasp with delight. There’s a natural food store in Vermont, there’s tennis whites, there’s cocaine in the bathroom, there’s Studio 54. There’s everything you could ever want.

Gosling looks like a friend’s little brother all grown up. You can see younger versions of him in his own face, as you can with someone who you’ve known for a long time but never really bothered to examine closely. Like Andy Warhol, he’s monochromatic: hair, skin, perennial tighty-whiteys. That non-color is what happens when blond boys grow up. Gosling’s a bit lunar, as though he’s subsisted off a steady diet of bee pollen his whole life. His agent must have sat him down a few years ago and said, “Ryan, you’re only to appear in films with overexposed cinematography. Do you understand that? It’s crucial for your brand.”

In All Good Things, we see Gosling in his natural habitat: lens flare, dappled light, winter skies, deciduous trees. His co-star in the film is Kirsten Dunst, and watching the two together, you realize how similarly seductive they are. They’re creatures of the same environment. They have nostalgic, vintage-y faces — Polaroid faces. They both appeal to mainstream audiences (The Notebook, Bring It On) and indie audiences (Half Nelson, The Virgin Suicides) alike. It’s true too that they both resemble glow worms.

Blue Valentine, which opens on December 31st is also a portrait of a splintering marriage, but with Michelle Williams in the place of Kirsten Dunst as the betrothed blonde. Gosling has three more forthcoming films slated for 2011: The Ides of March, which is in pre-production; and then Crazy, Stupid, Love and Drive, which are both in post-production. He’s been at premiers and Q&As, in promotion of these new films. He’s on the cover of the December 13th issue of New York. He’s all over town! But where has he been? Maybe just “working on his music.” He’s in a band called Dead Man’s Bones, and they’re actually supposed to be good. It’s always satisfying to know that people – public figures, in particular – have a uniform aesthetic or at least a set of somewhat predicable tastes. Dead Man’s Bones. His band name says it all. What’s there not to love about a boy with a fondness for Danzig and a last name that means baby duck?

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On Made In Dagenham and Doubting Your Own Sobriety

By Alice Gregory
Thursday, December 2nd, 2010

There are certain realities that can make a sober person feel stoned: the size of a “small” soda at the movies, Times Square at rush hour, the fact that slavery ended less than 150 years ago. In each case, the same mantra resounds: Are you serious!?

Made in Dagenham, Nigel Cole’s dramatic retelling of the 1968 Ford Dagenham car plant strike, relies on hyperbolic history to evoke this same you-better-believe-it feeling. The film insists, again and again, that you confront just how recently sexual discrimination in the workplace was legal. Led by Rita O’Grady (Sally Hawkins), the plant’s band of all-female sewing machinists walks out in protest of their unfair pay. They first demand that their “unskilled” labor be reclassified as “skilled,” which would upgrade their wages, a request that’s more than just semantics. In a meeting with Ford executives, Rita pulls some leather swatches out of her handbag and demonstrates how they fit together, how none of the seamstresses use patterns. She makes a convincing argument without even mentioning the unethical premise of wage discrepancies between men and women. Inspired by their foreman’s encouragement and local media coverage (“The Revlon Revolution!”), the women make their way from suburban Dagenham to Westminster Palace where they recruit the support of Secretary of State for Employment and Productivity Barbara Castle, who agrees to pass the Equal Pay Act of 1970 within the year.

The film opens and closes with Jimmy Cliff’s manically sunny “You Can Get It If You Really Want.” The women swear like sailors, wear sherbet-hued separates, and ride cute bikes with banana seats. It’s almost enough to make an underpaid overworked life seem like fun! 1960’s ready-to-wear does for women what army fatigues do for men: It makes them look much better than they otherwise would. It’s hard to tell from the interspliced archival footage just how realistic the cinematic portrayals are. Even mid-summer, hard at work, stripped down to their nude, polyester brassieres, the women look luscious. The factory floor is fleshy, full of bosoms, and their boss marches around with his hands up like horse blinders.

But Rita, our heroine, is the least voluptuous of the bunch. Sally Hawkins’s jutting clavicle and rabbity mouth are like the physical manifestations of inner tautness. She isn’t fifty yet, but as Orwell’s saying goes, she has the face she deserves. It’s electric and elastic and half-irritating to watch. Rita, like her fellow factory workers, spends the film steeling herself against unjust men. There’s a lot of lip-quivering and almost-crying. When the strike comes into focus, her family life suffers. Her son watches too much TV. Her daughter’s pigtails are left to the hands of her cartoonishly incapable husband, Eddie. Breakfast burns. He runs out of laundered shirts.  Without Rita’s income, bills go unpaid. Their new refrigerator gets seized. Already used to the daily actuality of strikes — opposed to their invigorating drama —  Eddie tells her, shaking, “Welcome to the real world, Rita. This is being on strike. You run out of money and you scream at each other.”

Made In Dagenham does a few things very right, all to the same effect of complicating what could have been too-neat a human interest story. The side-plots are where the real sacrifices are revealed: Rita’s only-just-saved marriage, her coworker’s hesitation at getting involved with the cause (she doesn’t want to neglect her sick husband), the bitter words from men at the factory whose salary is being held for the “mere principle” of equal pay. When Rita goes to meet Secretary Castle, she wears a flouncy, red dress from Biba, a popular London department store. The frippery is borrowed from Monica, the wife of a Ford executive, who despite reading history at Cambridge, is treated like a fool by her husband. Though Rita’s and Monica’s incomes don’t align, their ethics do. The friendship is another one of the film’s productive, complicating subplots; Monica is an exception to the otherwise all-working class cast, and her support makes the struggle seem larger, more political, less personal.

Made In Dagenham has good intentions. It’s aggressively competent, though maybe not memorable. The story is engaging. The cast is charming. But again, like those experiences that make you doubt your own sobriety, it’s hard for high-pitch history to maintain a lasting effect. I might have been awed at such recent injustice while in the theater, but against my will, I doubt very much that I will remember this film.

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The Familiar Destruction of White Material

By Alice Gregory
Wednesday, November 24th, 2010

Due to the holiday, we are posting this week’s Girl on Film today instead of Thursday. We’ll be back on schedule next week.

Isabelle Huppert in "White Material"

Africa “does” things to people. To white people, that is. It’s a trope with a wicked history. From Josef Conrad to V.S. Naipul to Norman Rush, our fiction is full of characters unhinged by the continent. Narrators become obsessive; they go mad. The landscape often takes on antagonistic, anthropomorphic qualities, and life there appears all but impossible. White women in Africa all end up looking the same, like some variation of Jane Goodall. They dress in white poplin, and they pin their pale hair at the nape of the neck. They don’t wear makeup, but they do always stain their lips a deep red. Tanned arms, ropey hands, weathered face, sturdy walk. Find me an exception.

Isabelle Huppert, who plays Maria Vial, the protagonist of Claire Denis’s newest film, White Material, fits the bill. Maria doesn’t have many lines, but she’s the centrifugal force in every scene. In an anonymous, francophone country, Maria is attempting to preserve the coffee plantation she runs with her ex-husband, Andre. Though civic unrest threatens her family’s safety, she remains dedicated to her ravaged land and unprofitable business. Everyone is trying to get Maria to leave. As the farm’s foreman, Maurice, tells her, “Coffee’s coffee. Not worth fighting for.”

Maria’s survival instinct reins like an unchecked, internal monarchy. Her stubbornness is admirable, but it’s also her fatal flaw – which wouldn’t be quite so tragic if only it didn’t jeopardize others’ lives as well. She’s left the sole spectator to a fiery hell that she could have avoided if not prevented. It’s not as though Maria isn’t warned though. When she finds a bloody chicken head submerged in basket of coffee berries – obviously a threat from the rebels – she buries it immediately, telling no one. But Andre catches her red-handed (the earth here, like the bird blood, is russet-colored). He digs up the chicken head, thrusting it in her face. “You know what this means? We’ll all die.”

We’re continuously faced with Maria’s focused laser-like stare. She’s efficient and doggedly determined. She walks as fast as she can without running. She’s always attending to something urgent, dire, and physically uncomfortable: traveling into town to replace the plantation pickers who have fled; transporting heavy baskets of coffee beans; driving though a gate that needs to be unlocked and then relocked back up again once she’s on the other side. She lives a life of semi-voluntarily toil and incessant hassle. You’re exhausted for her, and Denis keeps the camera close enough to her at all times that you don’t think to question Maria’s larger motives; instead, you feel her every burden. It’s all too easy to remain devoted to an impossible life when its difficulties are acute and constant enough that they defer more major problem solving.

Throughout the film, Maria argues with her “inert” teenage son, Manuel. Tattooed and lethargic, he sleeps all day and seems tortured by his mother’s commitment to an increasingly obsolete way of life. Finally, Maurice cracks. He takes a rifle into the bathroom, shaves off his flaxen mane (“Extreme blondeness begs to be pillaged,” says a rebel earlier.) and storms into the living room, pinning down his stepmother and cramming her mouth with his own hair. He looks like a Neo-Nazi, an image which is made all the more awful by its juxtaposition with the rural setting. Maurice recruits rebels, and they band together, destroying everything in their path. The terror culminates in scenes of child soldiers gorging themselves on imported junk food and prescription pills. They pass out in tepid baths, only to be shot in their sleep.

Denis handles bathetic imagery well. Her arsenal of unsettling set pieces is extensive and affecting: a static radio; an open jelly jar; a lone, ribby horse tied to a tropical hardwood. They stand out as purposeful signifiers of decivilization and domestic wreckage, but somehow their prominence doesn’t seem manipulative or cheap. An unclaimed rubber sandal spotted in a remote forest could easily be a calculating shot. So could an empty house, decorated with tribal masks and gas tanks. A lesser filmmaker might coerce you into feeling more intensely, but they would also make you to identify your reactions individually, piecemeal.

Denis’s directorial tactic is more cumulative; the horror she evokes is constant and literally breathtaking. Even banal, plot-advancing events clobber. The purpose of helicopter landings in film, for instance, is usually transitional. It’s meant to get characters in or out of a scene. But here we’re obliged to witness exactly what a helicopter does to the ground as it touches down. Undergrowth is torn to shreds. Terrible dust clouds form. The noise is deafening. That’s what really happens when a helicopter lands, and you wonder why you’ve never been asked to see it before.

Keeping a mental dossier of the rebels, workers, and soldiers is little difficult – the light is low and the men are all armed. But the mechanics of turmoil aren’t so important here. White Material is a thematic film, not a plot-driven one.  And like in so many a classic myth, degeneration scales. Anarchy is calibrated; personhood, family, business, nation – all deteriorate at once. A good mother gone feral… Machine guns strapped to murderous school children… Africa is good for casting atrocity in a primordial light, good at forcing us to confront our most primeval nightmares.

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