Joy – David O. Russell (2015)

Joy might be as close as David O. Russell has come to making a women’s picture in the mold of the classics of the genre, such as Mildred Pierce or Stella Dallas. In many of those films, a plucky and persevering heroine, usually of working-class origin, pulled herself up by her bootstraps and made herself a success despite the odds against her, and usually at the cost of either her sanity, her reputation, or her lineage (the two previously mentioned films feature mothers who sacrifice themselves for their daughters in different ways, only to have the sacrifice result in a deterioration of the bond itself). There is a dark edge to most women’s pictures, which either is ultimately redeemed, or not, but which allies the genre to the film noir and the psychological thriller. (Indeed, Mildred Pierce was adapted from a novel by James M. Cain). Russell’s film shares the plucky heroine, and the blue-collar roots, but has little of the dark edge. Oh, there is plenty of seeming skulduggery in the tale, what with a jealous step-sister, a cut-throat mother-in-law to be, and a scheming Texas moneyman, all of whom want to claim what Joy has made for herself, but the difference is that in the earlier films, the darkness clung to the heroine, and contaminated her psyche. Although usually redeemed in the end, the heroines of those films went through moments of spiritual abandonment, self-questioning, and outright mental torment in the quest to achieve what had often been a status reserved for men. Not so Joy; she has moments of frustration, and discouragement, self-doubt like many of us do, but she always rises above and, by sheer force of will and self-confidence, steamrolls all opposition, always finding, as in another of Russell’s films, a page in her playbook that will lay claim to the silver lining. Unlike the character in Silver Linings Playbook, Joy is not an outsider in any way but circumstance, and the film chronicles, in a kind of soap opera meets Horatio Alger fashion, her continual ascent, with virtue and verve winning out in the end. It makes the tale rather straightforward, and although not uninteresting, gives it a strangely static quality. While some commentators have raised an eyebrow at an entire film being structured around a woman who invented a mop, that detail is one of the main links to the older films in this genre – like Mildred Pierce with her pancakes, Joy and her mop are humble symbols of female frustration taken up as talismans of power. All the same, Joy is not Mildred Pierce, and so it falls onto the shoulders of Jennifer Lawrence to make us care about the fate of this woman’s endeavor, as the melodramatics fall short of the task.

Yes, this is the story of the inventor of the Miracle Mop. Russell begins the tale with an intergenerational framing device, as grandma Mimi (the somehow expected Diane Ladd) narrates Joy’s childhood and signals to us that, from an early age, she was exceptional, always full of drive and entrepreneurial imagination. (Thanks be for another film with voice-over narration this year. When all else fails, tell us how it is, filmmakers). Joy’s ambitions are snuffed out by Mom (Virginia Madsen) and Dad (Robert De Niro), with Dad quite explicitly tearing her dreams to shreds in a moment of pique. Joy doesn’t go to college, but stays home to tend to Mom, who has suffered a nervous breakdown because of her disintegrated marriage, and stays in bed all day, addicted to a soap opera that the movie tries to draw into parallel with the drab everyday of the characters (with mixed results). By the time Joy (Jennifer Lawrence) takes center stage away from granny’s gabbing, she is living in her childhood home with her mother, her ex-husband, her children, and suddenly her father, trying to support them all with her quite average income. While stressed, she is, as Mimi tells us, the calm eye in the center of the hurricane of craziness that is her family. Dad meets a new love interest, the rich widow Trudy (Isabella Rossellini), and it is aboard Trudy’s yacht that inspiration strikes Joy. A wine bottle breaks, and in her attempt to clean the resulting mess off of Trudy’s precious teak deck, Joy cuts her hands on the shards as she tries to wring wine from the mop. While picking the broken glass from her palms later, she has a eureka moment, and immediately retreats to her daughter’s bedroom (and to the creative, free zone of her own childhood’s inspiration) and mocks up a mop that is self-wringing, eliminating the need for touching gross stuff. With the encouragement of Mimi, and of her steadfast best friend (Dascha Polanco) and supportive ex-husband (Édgar Ramirez), Joy builds a prototype and convinces Trudy to invest in her plans. Initially unsuccessful, with Trudy and schadenfreude hungry step-sister Peggy (Elisabeth Röhm) nipping at her heels, Joy manages to snag a meeting with QVC executive Neil Walker (Bradley Cooper) thanks to her ex-husband’s connections. Initially unsuccessful again, due to a botched pitch by a clueless pitchman, Joy strong-arms Neil into letting her pitch the mop to millions herself, and despite (or perhaps because of) her inexperience in the realm of T.V. fakery, she makes the mop a success. Not all is well, however, because Peggy botches a crucial deal, and Trudy, having given bad legal advice early, has locked Joy into a losing business deal with her manufacturer. So in the climax of the film, Joy goes to California, confronts the manufacturer, and then the Texas heavy hitter behind the scenes, to claim her rightful patent, her molds, eventually walking away rich and righteous. In the denouement, we see a kind of Dickensian still life, with Dad, old, frail, and wearing a rather nasty eye patch, and Peggy, looking like a mourner at a wake, washed up, we are told by Mimi from beyond the grave, done in by greed after having attempted to claim Joy’s success as their own. Joy sits behind a big polished desk in her McMansion, attended to by her faithful friend and her ex, as she nobly ushers other young strivers along the road to success she had to roughly hoe out for herself. Yay!

The movie winds up feeling slight because it is so empty of the oddball complexity usually featured in Russell’s films. He keeps the camera moving, and the characters yapping, and throws in some extraneous, and often funny, bits of “meaning” (as in the aforementioned attempts at allegory with Mom’s soap opera), but compared to previous works of weirdness like I Heart Huckabees and Three Kings, it is quite pat. Without the presence of Jennifer Lawrence, who is naturally winning, and who does make us root for Joy, and hiss at the villainous money-grubbers who dare step in her way, we would be rolling our eyes in many spots. We can instinctively understand the appeal of the material for Russell, as his great theme, at least since The Fighter, has been the downtrodden outsider who instinctively understands the system better than the insiders, and fights his or her way to the top. Russell enjoys digging through the rather more unseemly parts of our capitalist, aspirational society, a kind of poet of the glamour of mundane consumption and hoary striving (the chief theme of American Hustle). And since he has a good eye, and also good taste for lumpy, bumpy protagonists weird enough for us to identify with and be fascinated by, he usually, like his heroes, carries the day because of, rather than despite, his unevenness. But what does he have to say about any of his great themes? It is hard to tell. I Heart Huckabees succeeded as an absurd parody of our acquisitive imaginary (and nothing in his work has ever topped Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert trading mud-dunks over a log in the woods), but The Fighter, Silver Linings Playbook, and American Hustle are all, underneath the zippy camerawork, snappy dialogue, and weirdo charmers, very, very conventional films. His style makes Russell look like a loving critic of the culture he portrays, but is he critical, or just loving it? What is he actually saying about being an outsider, or about our breed of later-day capitalist desire? I can’t tell. Joy continues in this tradition of convincing us all that we, weirdos to the person, have a chance at success if we just go with our gut and believe, but, more so than his previous films, the entertainment quotient doesn’t quite carry us through. Would we consider him an auteur without Jennifer Lawrence’s considerable talents? These days, no. David O. Russell makes films that are considerably entertaining, but his films have also been, for the last 10 years, flaccid and easy in retrospect even as they seem sharp and incisive in the moment. What happened to the skeptical cynic who made Spanking the Monkey? I miss that guy.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Danish Girl – Tom Hooper (2015)

The Danish Girl, the story of one of the world’s first sex reassignment surgeries, is obviously a timely one, as this past year has been a watershed for awareness of the plight of transgendered people. Within that context, the film is in one way what you might expect, in that it works hard (and tampers significantly with the biographical details of the account) to soften the tragedy of Lili Elbe’s story and paint it as a tale of heroic sacrifice and redemption. What is unexpected about the film is that it is much more interesting as an account of a relationship, not a singular identity, and that it is really the story of the unfolding of a marriage. Again, the film tampers with the historical facts in this case too, and simplifies what is a much more complex and painful reality of a relationship pushed to its breaking point; but even given that, it still emerges as one of the more interesting recent portrayals of a husband and wife, and this is due to the fact that the film eschews formulaic or stereotypical gender shorthand, instead providing a very realistic picture of how two people, who know each other so well, and are bonded very closely, exist outside of and beyond gender, and accommodate each other as spiritual beings first and foremost. That is to say, gender and sexuality are treated as being fluid a priori, and able to shift and reinvent themselves, because of the fact of marriage. While this gives the film its interest generally, it is also not enough to rescue our interest specifically, which wanes in the second half, as Einar Wegener definitively becomes Lili, and the fluidity that previously defined both the relationship and the portrayal becomes fixed and rigid, a mere retelling of (fudged) historical fact. And in this way, the film reveals itself to be unconsciously pessimistic – the fact of history, the context of the age we live in, ultimately defines the hard parameters of our rebellious attempts at reworking our identities.

The film begins with Einar Wegener (Eddie Redmayne) a successful and respected painter of landscapes in 1920s Copenhagen. He is married to Gerda (Alicia Vikander), a less successful figure painter and illustrator, who he met in art school. Too shy to ask her out, Gerda had to get the ball rolling herself, thus setting the tone for the marriage – a back and forth, with neither partner “the man” nor “the woman,” but passing the roles back and forth. (Einer is the breadwinner, and the success, a support to his wife both materially and emotionally, but is also soft spoken, sensitive, and retiring, whereas Gerda is more worldly and forthright, but neither brash nor particularly outspoken). Asked by Gerda to stand-in for an absent female model (Amber Heard as ballerina Ulla), Einar is at first put-off, but then surprised to find he enjoys dressing up as a woman, and playing the role temporarily. Gerda, feeling both turned on by this and somewhat puckish by nature, suggests that Einar attend an artist’s ball with her as “Lili,” Einar’s “cousin,” partly, we get the feeling, for her own erotic pleasure, and partly to draw Einar out of his shell, and get him to attend a social event he normally would pass on. At the ball, Lili is intriguing to almost everyone, the men in particular, and by the end she is being kissed by Henrik (Ben Whishaw), a gay man who has detected Einar’s ruse, but plays along with it. Upset, Einar gets a nosebleed and flees, and Gerda, having caught them in the act, is similarly upset. Einar enters a period of tempered euphoria, as he feels elated at having discovered his real identity, but is also confused by it, and upset at the implications it has for his marriage. Gerda is also upset and sad at the slow loss of her husband, but, perhaps as a way of coping, perhaps somewhat opportunistically, uses him as a model, and becomes a great success with the series of paintings featuring Lili. She is soon offered a show in Paris, and the couple moves there, with their life becoming more quickly inverted – Lili has no interest in painting, despite Gerda’s admonitions that Einar continue with it, and Gerda becomes the well-known, successful breadwinner. She is quickly lost in her own confusion, however, as she misses having a husband, and while supportive and protective of Lili, is perhaps not a match for her, even putting aside the unsurprising problems in the bedroom. She soon turns to an old friend of Einar’s, the art dealer Hans Axgil (Matthias Schoenaerts), first as a confidant and friend to Lili, and then as a replacement husband and lover (although, it must be said, most reluctantly, and only after Lili has made it clear that Einar will not return). Hans is uniquely poised to be of help, as he shared a kiss with Einar when they were children, but is unabashed by it, and while heterosexual, is not put off by Einar’s new identity or the underlying fact of such fluidity. Einar, wanting to embrace Lili but not finding a through road that will allow him to exist in society as he would want (that is, fully as a woman) searches from doctor to doctor for answers, with naught but suffering and patronizing “help” that often is quite hurtful. Finally, with Hans’s intervention, Einar visits Dr. Warnekros (Sebastian Koch), who does not think him insane, and indeed proposes a radical solution – gender reassignment surgery. Einar is elated that he will finally be Lili once and for all, and fully embodied, and so undergoes the process, which will require two surgeries. The first goes off well enough, given the medical limitations of the period, but Lili, in a quest to complete the process and catch her exterior up to her interior, pushes for the second surgery too quickly perhaps, against the wishes of Gerda, who remains by her side throughout. The second surgery is too much for Lili to bear, and she dies, with Gerda and Hans by her side. The movie ends with the new couple back in Denmark, Lili’s scarf borne aloft by the wind, a sign, we suppose, of her spirit taking flight and triumphing over the limitations of her body.

As you can likely tell from the description, the movie is standard liberal-humanist “triumph of the soul over all adversity” sentimentalism. The historical facts of Einar’s transition to Lili were much messier. Lili died alone, having divorced Gerda before the surgery, and the surgeries were not as similar to the reassignment surgeries of today as the film portrays; Lili died of a womb transplant which didn’t take (as it couldn’t, since the drugs to fight rejection of the organs weren’t introduced until half a century later). Gerda also did not end her life married happily to an art dealer, as the movie suggests, but instead died penniless, bankrupted by an Italian officer. While this whitewashing is a problem, it is a lesser one – although it undercuts the motives of the film by devaluing Lili’s sacrifice and true heroism at taking on a far more radical surgery, alone, and significantly leavens the sadness and tragedy of her hopes of becoming a “real woman” (that is, one able to bear a child). The larger issue for the film is that, once Einar “solves” his problem and fixes his identity as definitively female, much of our interest dissipates, and it becomes a fairly dry, predictable succession of “facts.” The first third of the film is alive because both characters are not one thing or another – the relationship between Einar and Gerda is continually shifting and developing, and the allegiance they feel to one another, and the angst, and excitement, caused by the introduction of this new element, always latent, is fascinating and powerful. As a portrait of a marriage, it is refreshing in its realism; it only becomes an “unconventional” relationship in the second half, when it also becomes an impossible one. Eddie Redmayne does a decent enough job with his role, but he is better as Einar – as Lili, he relies a bit much on mannerisms (in an attempt, perhaps, to capture Lili’s nascence and her biographically correct stereotypical “womanliness”), and as he takes center stage more and more, we like him less and less. This is not because we can’t identify with his transformation (that is for each audience member to experience for themselves), but because, as viewers, we have identified, and feel allegiance to, the couple, and the marriage. His abandonment of that makes it difficult for us to follow him, or to follow Gerda either, although to a lesser extent. The fact is that Alicia Vikander as Gerda has our sympathy throughout simply because she reveals herself to be a remarkable actress. I had only seen her in Ex Machina, where she was quite good, but essentially playing a pseudo-human, so I didn’t know what to expect. Her Gerda, especially early in the film, where she is frightened of Einar’s transformation, yet also turned on by it, supportive of it, curious about it, and wounded by it, is incredible. The film feels more about her experience than it does Einar/Lili’s. For most of us, she is the point of identification, as we also feel, in turn, the same about Redmayne’s Einar. We are excited, aroused, and worried for him as his new identity begins to flower, but as with most bio-pics, we already know how this story ends, and so once he moves beyond Gerda, the film takes on a closed, deterministic air. If only Tom Hooper and screenwriter Lucinda Coxon had allowed the film’s conclusion to follow the historical reality more faithfully, we would have a different set of feelings to transition to – sadness, melancholy, perhaps horror, all mixed with hope. The full weight of the pressure of the this new identity would have been brought to bear on us. Instead, by trying to lighten the impact, we feel the film, like Lili’s scarf, becomes insubstantial – the theme of the film, after all, is the inability of someone to feel that they are properly embodied, so downplaying the bodily suffering is a strange choice. Perversely, by trying to keep a “positive” tone for the sake of people working through such issues, then and now, the film winds up selling them out, getting the nature of their struggle exactly wrong.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Assassin – Hou Hsiao-Hsien (2015)

Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s first film in eight years, The Assassin has been greeted with nearly unanimous rapture. Critics’ reports from Cannes nearly all claimed it the best film in competition, calling it beautiful and enigmatic, and stateside reviews have been just as positive. The film is Hsiao-Hsien’s take on the wuxia genre, which, in both literature and film, focuses on the doings of lone heroes, usually assassins, who wield their martial art skills for the purposes of righting wrongs or restoring the proper balance to tectonic powers. The form is largely a literary one, and Hsiao-Hsien has talked about how such books were an inspiration to him growing up. Many Asian directors do make a wuxia story at some time (usually earlier in their career), so for Hsiao-Hsien, who is now 68, this film is obviously a labor of love. While predominately a genre of Hong Kong cinema (although Hsiao-Hsien is Taiwanese), American audiences are probably most familiar with the genre by way of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou’s Hero or House of Flying Daggers. Such films, while full of drama and intrigue, do usually fall under the category of marital arts film, and you expect at least an equal portion of action to the dramatics. Those familiar with Hsiao-Hsien’s style (he is renowned for his use of a static camera and long takes, as in Flowers of Shanghai, which is comprised of 38 lengthy shots) will not be surprised to learn that his version of the wuxia format takes a markedly, although not radically, different aesthetic tack when it comes to working through the narrative. While not as austere and immobile as his previous films, the camera is still quite static, and the takes are longer than one would certainly expect for an “action” film; the action itself is often discursively portrayed, and even when the focus of a scene, rarely feels immediate or exciting. Whereas in previous films his use of long takes and long shots allowed the story to unfold in a grounded, observational manner (even when characters spend long chunks of time in monologue), here the technique feels an odd hybrid. The cutting is comparatively quicker than in previous work, but still very slow and strange for an action film – often, a character or pair of characters will spend the first half of a shot speaking, and then the remainder of the shot features the character standing and staring, immobile, or with very little affect. I must admit I am completely at a loss as to what the aesthetic value of this technique is supposed to be. It seems intended to impress upon us the import of whatever information or emotion was just imparted or portrayed, but instead it feels leaden and pretentious, stagy and, quite honestly, boring.

The story is quite hard to follow, partly because Hsiao-Hsien does not try to bring us along easily or make relationships explicit, and partly because the concerns of the plot are quite remote to us. The film is set in China during the 7th century, and revolves around a young female assassin named Nie Yinniang (Qi Shu). Yinniang has been in exile from her family for years, training with a nun versed in the ways of treachery on a mountaintop somewhere. Previously chided by her mentor for being too soft-hearted and slow to kill, Yinniang is now tasked with proving her mettle by returning to her family and slaying her cousin Tian Ji’an (Chen Chang) who is the ruler of her home region of Weibo. The nun relates to Yinniang how Weibo previously was on the verge of splitting away from Imperial rule, and it was Yinniang’s mother (if I followed the plot fully) who restored harmony through marriage. Now the province is again on the verge of challenging Imperial rule, and so it is the daughter’s task to kill her cousin to prevent this. The problem is that Yinniang not only doesn’t want to kill her cousin because he is family, but because she is in love with him. Thus the bulk of the film consists of her oftentimes playing the good cousin inside his court, and in the remainder skulking around with the intent of killing him, but never being able to go through with the deed. For his part, Ji’an starts to feel something is not right, and intuits that Yinniang is an assassin and wants him dead – so he vacillates between a desire to prevent this eventuality and, realizing she has done nothing wrong yet, wanting to figure her out (we suspect he also harbors similarly romantic feelings towards her). The film thus becomes a strange pas de deux, with both parties neither able to commit to violence or to ravishment, and so at least this viewer was left feeling similarly unresolved and jammed up. Eventually Yinniang returns to her mentor, confesses her inability to do what she was trained to do, and the movie ends.

Many of the positive reviews of the film I’ve read comment on how wonderfully staged and exciting the action is; am I missing something? Perhaps for a Hou Hsiao-Hsien film it is fast paced, but the action is very minimal indeed. At the beginning, Yinniang jumps out of the treeline and slits the throat of a passing noble. Is there blood? No. Is the camerawork particularly interesting or more active than in a typical such film? No. Are the acrobatics more inventively staged or more dynamic than in your average Hong Kong martial arts film? No, no, a thousand times no. While the film seemingly does not make use of the stupid digital effects of Crouching Tiger, which at least keeps what is portrayed rooted in reality, I did not find the martial arts segments (which are what makes a wuxia a wuxia after all) terribly interesting. The most interesting thing about the action sequences is that the majority are abortive, unresolved, and (unlike the introductory assassination) staged at a distance. For instance, we will see, in a long shot, guards on patrol within a treeline. Suddenly we see the branches bobbing and dancing, and can just make out, within the treeline, Yinniang appearing and disappearing, apparently killing some guards. Then, just as soon as the disturbance arrived, it departs. We don’t see who died, or even have an idea if anyone did, or why the attack took place at all. (I fully admit I might have missed crucial information throughout that would clarify such things). In all, almost nobody dies in the film, and the action is there only to foreground the impossibility of acting for the protagonist. So we have a few scenes like that, and then many, many scenes set in palace interiors, with characters talking, or more often declaiming, and then posing statically until we go to the next such scene. While I will admit I am vexed by the film, and intrigued by Hsiao-Hsien’s intentions, the experience of watching it did not deliver any immediate emotional or even intellectual payoff. Yes, it is a “beautiful” film, in the way that many international art film directors can deliver a “beautiful” film (especially when dealing with a remote time period) – the lighting is rich and natural, candles make interiors dens of shifting shadows, cast in a golden hue, there is much flowing fabric and verdant natural surroundings, and the sound design is quite good. But the results are soporific. For all the accusations that it was totalitarian, I will take Yimou’s full-blooded Hero any day of the week. If this marks me as a philistine, so be it.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Green Inferno – Eli Roth (2015)

There are without doubt many reasons to repudiate The Green Inferno, Eli Roth’s new film about a cannibalistic Amazonian tribe that makes more than eye candy out of a clutch of young, attractive, white college students. I think that one could reasonably claim that the representations within the film are racist. The film features much gory human butchery and more partaking of “the other white meat” than The Cook, the Thief, His Wife, and Her Lover, Alive, and Eating Raoul combined. Indeed, as anyone who is familiar with both Mr. Roth and the genre of cannibal films instantly recognizes, this film is an homage to Ruggero Deodato’s indelible and notorious 1980 film Cannibal Holocaust (the working title of which was, in fact, Green Inferno). And without doubt, Mr. Roth’s contribution falls far short, both in terms of power, and in terms of queasy exploitation, of that earlier title. And yet… there is something going on here. Do not be alarmed, my fellow cinephiles, when I ask you to lend me your ears, for I am indeed here to bury The Green Inferno, and not to praise it. Still, although the film deals in racist imagery, and is not making a cogent or self-aware critique, it does reflect something other than the disavowed inferiority, the desire to other strange cultures, and the unmitigated disgust of difference that forms the bedrock of true racism. For this film is not about people, but images; it does not even reach the threshold of having a relationship with reality. This is not to say that Mr. Roth knows what he is doing, nor is it an attempt to excuse or elide content which many will find repugnant. It is, instead, an attempt to understand why the film, for all its purportedly stomach-churning and repulsive imagery, is a strangely anodyne experience. For if many films, Cannibal Holocaust among them, concern themselves with the horrors of humans becoming images (call it objectification if you like, but it is, to my mind, a process more haunting and tragic than what that term implies), The Green Inferno concerns itself with images, pure and simple. Or, impure and slightly less simple.

In a move with echoes of Sade, the film opens and closes with our heroine, a young woman and upper-class college student named Justine (Lorenza Izzo), as she moves from innocence to “experience.” This seeming naif, primed for corruption (as any good cinephile can tell from the very first scene, as she rouses from her slumber underneath a poster for Jean-Jacques Beineix’s 37.2 Le Matin, commonly known as Betty Blue), is the daughter of a U.N. ambassador, and an idealist who wants to make a difference. In reaction to her cynical (yet wise?) roommate Kaycee (Sky Ferreira), who mocks all things authentic, Justine is fascinated by the hunger strikers on campus who are agitating for social justice. Radicalized by classroom representations of female circumcision, and then drawn into the group of protesters by the equally idealistic Jonah (Aaron Burns), who also has a crush on her, Justine quickly embarks with them on a mission to the rain forests of Peru, in an attempt to stop an oil company from despoiling the land and destroying the native populations in its quest to exploit hidden resources. The plan is to put themselves on the front line of the deforestation, chain themselves to trees, and then use their cell phones as weapons, broadcasting outrage directly to the rest of the planet via a phalanx of social media followers, to shame the exploiters into quitting their project. And the plan seemingly works. Soon the group is on a plane out of there, celebrating their victory – or, almost everyone is. Justine is understandably bitter that the leader of the group, Alejandro (Ariel Levy), exploited her ambassador Dad, while putting her life at risk during the operation, to make sure it was a success. There is little time for her to parse the realpolitik behind these revolutionary exploits, however, as the small plane’s engine explodes over the deep jungle, and soon it is rocketing to the ground, breaking apart as it does, and leaving half the group, and all of the crew, definitively dead. The small group of survivors is quickly set upon by the local natives; it doesn’t help that everyone in the airplane is still wearing their oil company camouflage jumpsuits. The natives, mistaking them for the enemy (or maybe just looking for a solid month’s worth of eating), quickly blow-darts our group into submission, and when they awake, they are being led through the native village and into a guarded cage. Jonah, being the biggest and meatiest, is the first to go to the butcher block, but it is understood that everyone will meet a similar fate in good time. The girls are quickly pulled out and examined for signs of virginity; only Justine passes the test (of course). She is thus singled out, and saved for last, as she will be forced to undergo the procedure that also radicalized her (oh, the irony). While in the cell, the group discovers that Alejandro is not the fellow traveler they thought, but instead either a very misguided, cynical leftist, or a complete psycho. After giving a nice speech about how 9/11 was allowed to happen by the U.S. government (although the moon landing was real, I guess), he reveals that the jungle stunt he orchestrated was at the behest of a rival oil company, looking to discredit the original one just long enough to jump their claim. No worries, says Alejandro, this is just the way business is done if you want to really affect change, and further, sit tight! That rival company is on its way, and they will soon arrive and slaughter all these horrible natives, saving our skins. (Needless to say, his comrades are nonplussed to the extreme). Not content to sit tight, everyone tries to escape at various points (save one gentle youth who slits her own throat with broken pottery), and pretty much everyone dies in their attempts. By the end, only Alejandro and Justine are left, beauty and the beast in a cell, waiting for the deus ex machina to descend. And lo, it does. The oil company arrives, just as Justine is about to go under a relatively dull looking knife-like implement, and the village rushes off to wage battle. Justine, aided by a young village child she has wooed with jewelry, escapes in her ritual body paint and natural fiber microkini, leaving Alejandro sous vide. She hustles through the jungle, under the waterfall, past the black jaguar, and into the clearing where the oil company militia is taking on the tribal warriors. Faking up a redo of the earlier cell phone activism, she manages to stop the battle and get herself airlifted back home, where she vouchsafes to no one the reality of her ordeal, instead singing the praises of the native tribe, all the better to ensure that Alejandro is eaten up with regret. (But maybe he’s not?!? Possible sequel, everybody).

There is no doubt that the representation of the tribe in the film partakes of racist tropes; it might be off-putting, if it could be taken seriously. The blueprint for the tribe is less Cannibal Holocaust than King Solomon’s Mines. Well, maybe even King Solomon’s Mines looks more anthropological. Perhaps a Tarzan film of pre-Johnny Weissmuller vintage? The tribe is led by what can only be called a sorceress; she has a milky eye, a chain running from her nose to her ear, and earrings that would seem out of place even in an ’80s themed camp fashion show. She wears a weird earthenware gom jabbar on her middle finger, carries a staff, and eats tongue al fresco with relish (and almost no chewing). Her chief henchman is bald, frequently bug-eyed, painted in black from head to toe, and has a nose ring the rises up, up, up around his head. We all understand that these are not people, nor anything near Amazonian tribespeople, but actors, representations of representations. The “regulars” of the village are more problematic, in that they do hew closer to what might be mistaken for reality (Hollywood style, that is, looking more like extras from At Play in the Fields of the Lord). In fact, it is not simply the tribespeople that we have a hard time taking seriously, it is the entire enterprise. Now, in one respect, this is simply the mark of a bad (or more accurately, stupid) film. But it is not laughable, nor played for laughs. In what is its closest connection to Cannibal Holocaust, Roth presents the values and ideals of these college students in a serious, if caricatured, way; similarly, he treats the classroom discussion of female circumcision with anthropological and political gravity. Indeed, given how stupid and crass the subject matter of the film is, almost nothing is played for laughs, or winked at. Is this a case of accidental “virtue,” a kind of Ed Wood “bungling?” One could make the argument. For instance, in one scene during the waiting to be eaten cage sequence, Amy (Kirby Bliss Blanton), the girl who eventually kills herself, is racked with diarrhea, and has a prolonged evacuation in her jumpsuit. (The natives laugh at this, but we are not cued to join them). However, when she is later pulled forward for her virginity exam, her jumpsuit is not only not befouled, she is wearing a spanking clean pair of purple panties that shows not a stain. Did Roth really overlook this continuity error? It is quite possible. There is, however, another possibility. Perhaps this film is not even near the realm of attempting a relationship with “reality.” In the fully post-modern sense (perhaps even as far as Godard is post-modern), we are self-consciously looking at a representation from within. The characters are not people who, through their death, and its subsequent filmic record, are made into images (as in Cannibal Holocaust); they are images first and foremost, no more real, or deep, than the characters in a Coca-Cola commercial. These timeless, placeless young white bourgeoisie are tormented by, if anything, their placelessness. What are they to do? Why do they exist? Just to be flat fodder for a car advertisement? Is that all there is for them? Is that “success?” They want more – so they adventure into the rain forest to “make a difference.” In the rain forest, they are caught between an image of the past and an image of the present that supports them. They are simply puppets of the multinational corporations that are despoiling the “real” world to support our fantasy image of that world – an image of abundance, of easy access to magically produced consumer goods, of ready, easily procured, and cheap meat on our tables. They cannot accept such a situation, as it reveals them to be one-dimensional, powerless, a front for the terrible forces of the “real.” However, what is their other option? The other side of the coin is an atavism that is as alien to them as it would be to the rest of us – a world of true communism, where the individual is lost within the group will, where daily struggle must ensure survival, and where the cruel practices that mark the passage from one modality of life to another are not masked by a neuter symbolism. Thus the behavior of Alejandro, who espouses conspiracies, which run on the logic of images, and who has nothing but optics in mind. It is the hell of no-exit that The Green Inferno documents; it does it through the tropes of a genre film, and it probably does it unknowingly, but all the same, it is a movie about being caught between an image of our past (which has only an imagined connection to past realities) and the realities that support and produce our images (which are our only means of knowing present-day reality). Thus it makes perfect sense this is a movie about cannibalism, as it is a movie about images coming to awareness that they too are mere products, made to be consumed. Thus the dream-like acceptance of their fates, and the lack of horror or feeling on our parts; watching them be led away is no more than watching slips of paper fall into a bonfire. Thus too the ending, with Justine returning and projecting, for those protected and naive images back home (unaware that they are products with a use value), a false image of the tribe. She is forced to create that which does not exist – an ideal outside to the hellish closed circle of unreal existence. Cannibal Holocaust was infinitely more disturbing, as it still could claim a purchase on reality; indeed, the production and reception of the film was imbricated in reality to the degree that it was proclaimed snuff. It is a true image of exploitation. The Green Inferno fits our era as it is post-exploitation. The joke is that we sit watching this film, feeling next to nothing, not realizing it is a mirror, and we are seeing ourselves; with nothing left to exploit, we have begun consuming ourselves, and yet we still believe we do good, that things will turn around, that a resurgence of idealism will arise, ex nihilo, to save us. We can paint the red of hell green, and call it paradise, but eventually, the heat will melt away all the artifice, and reveal truth and reality on a scale we, blinded by modernity, cannot yet conceive.

Two and a half stars out of five

Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck – Brett Morgan (2015)

Who is Kurt Cobain in the year 2015? Kurt Cobain: Montage of Heck, which boasts access to a trove of new material, some of which includes interviews with those closest to the musician, supposes to answer the question of who Kurt Cobain “really” was. Instead, the film winds up answering the question just posed: who is he now, who has he become in the minds of those who knew him, and those who didn’t, some 20 years after his death? The cachet of this new appraisal comes from the exclusive access the filmmaker had to Kurt’s personal archive, as well as from the cooperation of many formerly combative or elusive friends and family, including Kurt’s Mom and Dad, Krist Novoselic, and, of course, Courtney Love. In order to measure the distance between who Kurt Cobain is to us now, and who he was when he died, back in 1994, it is instructive to compare the current film, so very authorized by Kurt’s family, with Nick Broomfield’s muckraking account of the immediate aftermath of Cobain’s death, 1998’s Kurt and Courtney. Rewatching that film recalls the Kurt who was tabloid fodder, often portrayed as an equal victim of his own success and of Courtney Love’s supposedly predatory nature; unlike the Cobain of 2015, who is granted posthumous status as creative genius and social renegade, the Cobain of 1998 was yet another promising rock musician who tragically died young, done in by drugs, seedy hangers-on, and the pressures of success. While Kurt and Courtney is not a hatchet job, it does portray Courtney Love (honestly, in many ways) as the mover in the relationship, with Kurt as a kind of mute enigma, the voodoo doll on which the voluble Love practiced her dark magic. Montage of Heck serves as an important corrective to this vision; it reveals, through the archival materials, a more complex portrait of Cobain, and also a more nuanced, human one of Love. It is important to keep in mind while watching the current film that it is Love’s authorized version of events, and it is interesting to note that Love does take some responsibility for Cobain’s demise within. While Kurt and Courtney spends much of its time dealing with the conspiracy theories surrounding Cobain’s death, and Love’s possible role in it, it is also true that the earlier film has a larger cast of characters testifying to Cobain’s inherent depressive nature. That film becomes much more a whodunit, coming down eventually on the side of “Kurt, possibly with some pushing.” The pushing, in this earlier account, came from Love’s purported infidelity (with Billy Corgan, yuck) after which Cobain attempted suicide in Rome, and then succeeded in the States a few months later. Montage of Heck does not deal with conspiracies, and everyone treats Cobain in a more removed, psychiatric fashion, as a depressed, unhappy person for much of his life, who unsurprisingly killed himself. Interestingly, it is Love who raises the “pushing” theory in the current film, as she takes “responsibility” for Cobain’s death. (She claims she only thought of cheating on him, and Cobain intuited it, which was enough to send him into a profound depression. The context in which she wanted to cheat on him, and the actual details of the aftermath of the suicide attempt in Rome, up through his death in Washington, are never addressed by the filmmaker or Love). Why am I prattling on about this? Well, Kurt and Courtney were, at the time of Cobain’s death, wedded, both in fact and in the public’s mind, whereas now they are much less so, and there was a sense that when one spoke about who Kurt Cobain was, it was impossible to do so without Courtney Love. It feels much less the case in 2015, but if one is interested in the dynamics of the relationship, the two films, side by side, provide some opportunity for a comparative analysis (more of Love than Cobain, perhaps, as she is alive to bear forward her story).

I’m getting far afield of the film itself, though, as anything more than a vehicle for reminiscing, hero worship, or gossipy armchair psychoanalyzing. In tone and style, Montage of Heck is nothing new, or special. It sticks pretty close to the style of gently investigative documentary popular these days, and is also reminiscent of Jessica Yu’s seemingly influential 2004 doc about outsider artist Henry Darger, In the Realms of the Unreal. While the authorial voice is sometimes conspicuous in Montage of Heck, most of the story is told through interviews and archival footage. The film is comprised of four modes, or types of material: the “talking heads” (family and friends); archival video of concert performances, media reportage, and Kurt’s privately shot footage; animated reworkings of Kurt’s drawings, paintings, and objects; and longer, more “realistic” sequences of animation set to Kurt’s spoken autobiography. Of the four modes, the archival footage is the most powerful, and, indeed, comprises the most powerful section of the film, the middle in which the director builds the emotional power of the story to its peak by cutting back and forth between the private video footage of Cobain and Love’s home life with footage of their public one (sometimes music performances, sometimes interviews from the period). This part of the film not only reveals Cobain in close to full detail, warts and all, but also rehabilitates Love as the harpy hanger-on she is often seen as. Bearing in mind the material is selected, Love comes off as intelligent, witty, creative (if destructively so) and in love. Given the amount of archival footage one might guess exists based on hints within the film, if Morgan had stuck just with it, and crafted a documentary almost purely based around montage, he would likely have had extraordinary results. (For a blueprint of how to make this type of film, see Crystal Moselle’s The Wolfpack). Unfortunately, the rest of the modes are self-indulgent, border on the parasitic, and make you question the director’s taste (for instance, the deadly lame title sequence which juxtaposes Seattle punk with educational film footage from the 1950s and atomic bomb blasts). The worst offender in this regard are the animated sequences that feature Cobain’s drawings and other art animated and montaged to his music. Most of this stuff is fairly stupid and cliched, the kind of work you might find in any halfway thoughtful and disturbed teenager’s private notebooks. Perhaps the animations are cliched because Cobain’s drawings and art are cliched (many fetuses/broken dolls with staring eyes and holes in their heads, or Ed Roth style characters with exploding guts), but we the audience wouldn’t know, because in this mode, we cannot distinguish what is the artist’s original contribution, and what is the director’s. Yu’s work on Darger’s art in In the Realms of the Unreal is the first instance I know of where a fine artist’s work is animated for the screen, but it is a hideous trend. This way of dealing with material exists, one supposes, because the director is too insecure or timid to allow the art to speak for itself, the way it was intended – as a static image. By “jazzing up” the imagery to prevent boredom on our parts while simultaneously devaluing our intelligence, the director destroys the integrity of the original work, turning it into something that is far beyond the artist’s original intentions, while perverting the meaning. (Such stuff also smacks of the director trying to steal some of the artist’s thunder, parasitically repurposing the work into their own while also making it commercially appealing). When practiced on Darger, it is tone-deaf and idiotic, reducing the depravity and beauty of his world to twee weirdness. I would think, however, that Cobain would be appalled, as the film transforms his art from exercises in defiance, ugliness, and protest of a reductive culture into the kind of blitz spectacle, ready made for television, that our culture excels at. (Many of the sequences just repeat fragments of text written by Cobain in notebooks over and over again while the music blasts). It seriously leads me to question if the director understands Cobain’s viewpoint. Perhaps he is merely dim, but it comes off as though he is picking over Cobain’s corpse to masturbatory ends. Kurt and Courtney, by way of contrast, barely features any of Cobain’s art, but when it does, we see it in the right way: in the context of his ex Tracey Marander’s home, where it hangs on the wall, and we can take it in quietly. The other animated portions, which were parceled out to a variety of animators and set to Cobain’s spoken word reminiscences, are not as bad, but are far too literal. This overlong film (145 minutes) could have been edited down while enriching the end result by collapsing these two modes and eliminating the animated aspect all together. Why not use still images from Cobain’s archive of art with his spoken word material laid over the top? It would allow us to really see the work, to really hear his words, and further, it would tie the two together by way of chronology – the art would become the expression of the contemporaneous experiences Cobain is speaking of. Even if the director then chose to keep the film at two and a half hours, it would have allowed him much more time for further dipping into the archive, which we obviously barely get to sample. Instead, the director becomes stingy with the material while hitting us over the head with crass, loud displays of his “interpretive” prowess. (The talking heads are a mixed bag; Kurt’s mother, for instance, comes off as self-serving and revisionist, while his father seems anguished. Novoselic and Marander, who is also in Kurt and Courtney, seem to have the inside track on reality. As for Courtney Love, I will leave it for viewers to decide how sincere she is. Overall, there are far fewer interviews, and time devoted to interviews, than the promotional materials for the film suggest). While the ending is abrupt, almost purposefully so, the details of Cobain’s demise are fully chronicled elsewhere (notably in Broomfield’s film). It is a testament to Cobain (and to Courtney Love, it must be said) that despite the director’s meddling and simplification, there is still much of interest here, and much that feels fresh and new, as if we are finally seeing Kurt, for the first time, as himself. Even though we are left with a flawed portrait, it remains a compelling, if ultimately condescending, one.

Two and a half stars out of five

Paper Towns – Jake Schreier (2015)

A paper town is a fictional location inserted into a map by its maker, as a way to guard against plagiarism – if another map with the same town appears, the mapmaker will know her work has been cribbed. Adolescence is a paper town in more than a few ways. For the teenager, identity is often a paper town; a creation that marks the subject as original, one of a kind, even as it has no authentic relationship to a real psychic landscape. Identity, at that age, is often a force of will, an instance of “fake it until you make it.” As an adult, the paper town is an equally inauthentic marker of uniqueness that seeks to validate our earlier ersatz identity even as we disavow it. Yes, we say, we had no idea who we were or what we were doing, but we still stake the claim of our identity to the uniqueness of our own misadventures, even as we understand, and perhaps enjoy, that our own misadventures fit into the same mold as everyone else’s. (We take comfort in the familiarity of such stories, while also sticking to the fantastic ideal that we are unique in our sameness). Both of these conceptions of adolescent identity – the sui generis self-invention that is usually quite false, the after-the-fact recapture of that inauthenticity as the mark of authenticity (often in the case of lessons being learned) – form the substance of the film Paper Towns, adapted (with some minor changes) from the young adult novel by John Green. A seeming portrait of young love, Paper Towns is much more about how we love ourselves, or fail to, revealed through the stories we tell ourselves about who we are, who we desire, and how we got from point A to point B on the always incomplete map of our lives.

The film reveals itself to be a thriller and a mystery rather than a romance in the first shots. Recounted during a flashback voiceover (what film these days does not have a young male voice telling us how it is?), Q (short for Quentin, played by Nat Wolff) recalls his first meetings with his spitfire (or mentally unbalanced) neighbor Margo (Cara Delevingne). She is dark, sassy, older than her years, and generally enigmatic. Q is smitten. The highlight of their young romance, given short shrift by the narrative, is discovering a cadaver in a local park, the body of a recently divorced middle-aged man, gun still at his side, an apparent case of suicide. At least, so says Q, who got his information, it seems, from Margo. Margo is intrigued by this discovery, and we are intrigued that Margo is seemingly so undisturbed at the presence of the freshly dead. Flash forward a decade, and Q and Margo are in their final days of high school. Q has long carried a torch for Margo, but has also pretty much dismissed her as a possibility, as she has not spoken to him in a very long time, and is now the queen of the school, hanging out with the hot girls and dating the jocks. Yes, for those of us in the audience known as adults, Margo screams “stay away,” but Q is undeterred, bedazzled by her high style reprobate ways and wanna-be Joaquin Phoenix looks. So when Margo comes calling at Q’s window one night, needing a partner in crime for the evening (not a metaphor), Q hesitates all of 10 seconds before jumping at the opportunity. Apparently Margo’s jock boyfriend is cheating on her with one of her besties, and so now she is ready to burn her entire social circle to the ground with a night of antics that makes use of Saran Wrap, spray paint, Vasoline, and Nair. Q gets down and dirty, all to Margo’s liking, but hopes of a more permanent rekindling of the gasoline fire are doused when Margo disappears from town the next day (pretty much for the rest of the movie). Q keeps their antics a secret even as Margo’s parents (a schizo mix of blithe assuredness and smothered panic) bring in the cops, but like any good obsessive soon the world around him – his friends, his schoolwork, band practice and college – fade in relevance compared to cracking Margo’s mystery. And Margo apparently wants to be cracked, as she has left a trail of rather strained clues as to what happened to her and where she is. (This has been her modus operandi since youth, so Q has some prior training). Q plays Sherlock, eventually discovering a ratty abandoned souvenir shop that holds, no, not a meth head, but rather all the keys to where Margo went. Now fortified with the self-confidence provided to the obsessive by any shred of shaky information, Q and friends Ben (Austin Abrams) and Radar (Justice Smith), along with their girlfriends, borrow Mom’s car for that short road trip from Florida to the paper town Margo has absconded to (Agloe, a fakeville just outside of Roscoe, New York). Along the way to nowhere, the teens all bond, and share a few low jinks, eventually finding the crossroads of Agloe and the abandoned barn that serves as town hall. When Margo does not appear, Ben, Radar, and co. split, pissed that Q is still huffing Margo’s fumes and yet still grasping at air. Not wanting to be late for prom, they take off, but Q, resolute, lingers. He stays at the barn as long as he can, and then drags himself into the real town, buying a bus ticket back to Florida. Low and behold, Margo happens to saunter down the main drag, and the two finally have a chance to hash it out. Margo disavows any interest in having been found – she leaves detailed clues almost completely obscured just for the fun of it. Margo claims she is in town trying to find herself (although what else she is doing there, where she is living and how she is supporting herself remain a mystery), and Q, satisfied that his love of Margo had more to do with an image he had built up in his own mind rather than with the flesh-and-blood mind gamer before him, gets on the bus and heads back to the life already mapped out for him. (Not before a lame kiss is exchanged and Margo offers that he can stay with her, doing at least a 90 degree turn from her previous disposition). Q gets back home and, like every other film made in the past 20 years, affirms that the real meaning of the journey was the time it gave him with his friends, who are the people who really matter, you know. Everyone dances at the prom, and Margo eventually goes on to be an “actress,” or something. Mmm hmm.

As a portrait of a young man mistaking the narcissistic, somewhat pathological “hot” girl for the love of his life, Paper Towns is not bad, and kind of plays like a junior version of a noir. Margo, while not an evil person, certainly is full of it, playing around with other people’s emotions while maintaining a (it must be said) very weak deniability. At the same time, Margo becomes almost mythic, or rather, a type, the representative of allure and immature desire, a stand-in for adventure and excitement that woman often represents for man in the noir narrative. (And while not fatal to Q, we have a sense that something is not quite right with Margo beyond teenage confusions, as per the opening sequence of her romping around a dead man’s body). You could rightly wonder if Margo exists at all, or is simply the fever dream of Q’s adolescence. (Yes, she exists, as everyone in school knows her, but the film diverges from the novel significantly in the end, which in the book is a group confrontation, but which in the film becomes a somewhat dream-like tête-à-tête). What remains, aside from the dross, is the aforementioned double portrait. Margo’s identity is the paper town of adolescence – not knowing herself, and with no substance to form her core, she cultivates a mystique that ensures her uniqueness, while keeping anyone intelligent enough to sniff out the cluelessness behind the mask at arm’s length. Quentin’s identity is also in name only, but his paper town is the retrospective type – his adventure with Margo is the quirky, strange tale of youthful folly that, while simply marking him as one of a million mixed up teens, also allows him to reaffirm the generic ideals and conventional life choices he subsequently makes (that friends are what matter most, that the journey is more important than the destination, that going to college rather than living as a will o’ the wisp in an abandoned barn is the right way to be). This double portrait of identity in flux, as a tale always being told and retold to ourselves, to solidify who we are and what we stand for, is the strongest part of the film. And the thriller/mystery aspect of what could have been a more straightforward slog is refreshing. All the same, in the end the movie is rather boring, like listening to a friend recount an experience in which you can spot all the embellishments and blind spots. Unlike the films of John Hughes, which it does resemble in passing, Paper Towns is not a portrayal of transition and maladaptation, but a recounting of such a period. Rather than letting the teens speak for themselves (even through an adult, as in Mr. Hughes’s work), Paper Towns, and many recent films of its ilk, uses voice over and a narrator as a way for ideology to speak through the film, in the guise of an adult recounting the past. What makes Paper Towns tolerable is that the ideology herein speaking is also cobbling together an identity, and has blind spots of its own. In its shaky quest to make us understand the risks of self-deception, in attempting to establish how we become what we are, Paper Towns also makes us wonder – who is kidding who here?

Two and a half stars out of five

Spy – Paul Feig (2015)

We live in a post-comedy era. Why wouldn’t we? We’re post everything else. Modern comedy is all meta; nothing but a funhouse full of indexes that point only toward each other. What this means in practice is that we get comedies made about what we find funny, or don’t, rather than comedies that actually are funny. Trying is so ten years ago. I will happily blame Will Ferrell, the comedic master of a no-style form of humor that references “funny” while delivering a parody of comedy. Being unfunny, lame, or simply badly done becomes the point of the joke, such that any scenario played “straight” (that is, acknowledging of its foolishness while carrying on with it sincerely) becomes comedy. In such a mode, any stupidity or crass conceit succeeds simply by being executed with a po face. In fact, add an out of left field reference to any fairly straight scene of rote dramaturgy, beat the presence of the oddball element to death (or have everyone ignore it), and you have the recipe for the secret sauce. Thus we veer in such films between strange clumps of exposition, where the only cue as to the parodic element of a topic is conveyed by the florid churlishness or stupidity with which it is expressed, and longueurs of profanity filled rants, as characters roll their eyes at having to restate the obvious, the obvious being the way they (and the other characters) fail to fit into expected stereotypes. Yes, we all know what would happen in this type of a situation, and regardless if what is expected happens or not, the characters pitch a fit at having to contemplate which side of the cartoon border they fall on (Tijuana on one side or the arid desert of Wylie E. Coyote on the other). Most often, a character will spit out some over-the-top profanity about how annoyed they are at having to remind the other characters what a stereotype like themselves should be able to expect from a stereotype like these others, and then we are supposed to laugh, either at the stupidity of living in a universe of stereotypes, or at the inclination that anyone could, in the realm of a representation, take their representations seriously enough to expect anything of them. All this adds up to a flat world where what is “funny” is basically playing off of or reinforcing, in sarcastic fashion, what we expect, and is thus “reflexive.” “You expected this, but ha, you got that” trades off with “you expected that, and fie on you, so take this.” The historical nexus of this type of comedy, albeit modulated by fewer profanities, arose, I would guess, in the mid-90s on SNL, the golden era of comedians laughing at their own inert material, playing out gossamer thin concepts until, at the 10 minute mark, you couldn’t believe it wasn’t 1 a.m. yet. Lameness, self-awareness, and baroque concepts were elevated, actual wit, inventiveness, and the visual (unless it be a one-note shock) were forgotten. This is the cinematic world we live in today, a world where we see so much material that is “funny” that we laugh as a conditioned response. We know funny when we see it, and we’ll laugh because we see it – all the better if everyone else around sees it and laughs too, confirming us in our good humor. The result is like Facebook (and much of our culture) – an echo chamber of lame toothlessness that we all “like,” and accept, because that is the nature of being on Facebook. To behave otherwise on Facebook is anti-Facebook. In a similar way, to remain unamused at a comedy is anti-social.

Getting around to the inevitable, Spy is very, very mediocre. I like Melissa McCarthy well enough; she is a solid actress, who, I must say, has not had good enough material yet to prove her mettle. Her elevation to exceptional status and cultural hero says more about the pathetic condition of women within the image factory than it says about her prowess as a performer. If she were really breaking any new ground, would she always be cast in comedies, and always comedies that revolve around how unexpectedly (normal, nice, intelligent, able, sexy, etc.) she is, given that she’s “real?” Anyone who thinks that this film is not primarily humor about being large, dowdy, and female needs to reexamine this film. Yes, we are no longer in the era of making fun of someone for being dowdy; we simply make fun of dowdy. As long as we make the stylish, thin people “mean” or “shallow,” and the large, dowdy, and normal-looking folks “decent,” and on the road to newly discovered self-esteem, it’s all good – we can proceed as usual. I am not offended by such things, I am simply bored senseless. Films like this seem to mistake casual observation for sharp parody. Spy films of this ilk have been self-parodies ever since Roger Moore (even the era of Connery was tongue in cheek) – Spy simply heightens some of the more ridiculous aspects of the genre, has every character comment on themselves, or the goings on, in a self-aware fashion, throws in a damned generous handful of non-sequiturs (truly Ferrell’s biggest contribution to the current style) and voila! Let them eat funny cake. It is all very lazy. For instance, in Spy, technology has become intensely useful and good, to the point that Melissa McCarthy, sitting at her terminal in D.C., has more information about what is about to happen to Jude Law than Jude Law does. She guides him through all the tough parts, like the love child of Siri and Jiminy Cricket. If anyone were to protest how much of the plot is driven by ludicrous technological machines of the deus-ex model line, that person would be laughed at as a tinfoil hat wearing doofus. Of course it’s ludicrous! It’s a comedy! Yes, parody is that which exculpates any type of narrative stupidity, and allows laziness to be recast as a virtue. The problem is, wit is the least lazy form of all. Ultimately, we have the comedies that we deserve – slack affirmations of self-congratulation for the increasingly empty-headed, glazed-eyed consumers we have become. Nothing is deadlier to comedy than complacency, or affirmation. There are indeed some funny set pieces in the film, and if you’re a fan of Anchorman et al., I’m sure you’ll be satisfied. As for myself, I swear my standards aren’t that demanding. Since I’m feeling generous, I’ll give the film a star for each of the laughs it provided.

Two and a half stars out of five

The Age of Adaline – Lee Toland Krieger (2015)

That’s right, I saw this movie. I have a heart, and like it to be exercised occasionally. If only The Age of Adaline had given it the workout I was hoping for! This is the story of a woman who is trapped in the nightmare of looking like Blake Lively. Born at the turn of the 20th century, Adaline, upon acheiveing maturity, marries a young engineer, gives birth to a little girl, and then is promptly laid low by the unexpected death of her husband, felled by an accident during the construction of the Golden Gate bridge. (The majority of the movie takes place in San Francisco). Making her way as a young single mother, things take a turn for the weird, if not worse, when her car, caught in a freak snowfall on the way to visit her parents’ cabin in the woods, veers off the road, and into an icy body of water (river? lake? I don’t recall). She effectively dies from hypothermia (not drowning?), or so we are told by a pseudo-scientific voice on the soundtrack, but is jolted back to life when her watery grave is struck by an even freaker bolt of lightning. This gets her heart going again, sends her crashing back into the airy reality all but merfolk are forced to exist within, and also compresses her RNA mitochondria (or something like that), giving her the freak trifecta and winning her eternal youth – stuck forever at age 29. We get a general sense via montage that life at 29 is not all it’s cracked up to be, especially when your daughter starts to look like your sister, then your mother, then a very old Ellen Burstyn. Hassled by the Feds during the Red Scare for nothing more than looking damn good at 46, Adaline goes underground, changing her identity, and her locale, when needs be. This paranoia, goaded on, we suspect, more by existential issues than by fear of winding up vivisected in a government lab, or worse, as the last cover girl L’Oreal will ever require, causes her to become hermetic in order to avoid the allergen of intimacy. Hence, her windfall is squandered, and this lovely, old fashioned, and, by the present day, incredibly learned and accomplished lady has not had a date in half a century. There was one suitor who wormed his way in, back in the swinging ’60s, but he was jilted, left in the lurch on a park bench clutching his engagement ring, never to know why Adaline scorned the affections that she also sought out.

Cut to the present day, where Adaline, not looking a day over 29, duh, is working in the San Fran library, and in the company only of a dog whose lineage is as vintage and untouched as her own (sired, seemingly, by parthenogenesis). Friends with a blind pianist, she is invited along to a gig at a swanky hotel downtown on New Year’s Eve. It is here that the saga of love begins, as she is spied across a crowded room by Ellis (Michiel Huisman), a massively rich coder philanthropist gadabout, who helps himself to a meet cute in the elevator. He pursues her doggedly, and she, old fashioned as she is, rebuffs, refuses, and then, eventually, relents (being modern enough it turns out to hop into bed on date two). She tries to ditch him, claiming she is moving to Oregon (which she is, to be near her aged daughter), but his stalkerish ways eventually convince her, and she travels with him to meet his family. This is where the movie picks up what emotional content it has, for, in a turn of events either romantic or incredibly awkward and with a perverted lining, Ellis’s father is indeed her old ’60s jiltee, William (Harrison Ford). Now happily married with kids, one of whom Adaline enjoys having sex with, William nearly swallows his false teeth upon seeing this seeming revenant, and for a while at least buys into the argument that she’s really Adaline’s daughter (she goes by the name Jenny these days). A telltale scar gives away the secret, and Adaline/Jenny flees the happy home, despite William’s pleading that she not repeat history and leave Ellis an island. Luckily for everyone, Adaline encounters another freak snowstorm on her way out of the woods, winds up in a gully (although not submerged), and helped along again by cold weather and an EMT with a defibrillator, she is brought back not only to life, but into the stream of life, her mitochondria stretching out comfortably and giving a sigh after 70 tense years. Ellis and Adaline reunite in the hospital, she spills the beans about being forever young, and they live happily ever after – or for maybe 40 more years, as even more happily, Adaline discovers she is no longer a spring chicken and is, indeed, going gray.

I fully admit that was more glib than the film actually warrants, but everyone needs some fun. Truly, the film is not awful. The tone, I think, is supposed to be modern-day fairy tale, what with the gently intoning voice-over, continual coinkydinks and all. The problems are not major; there is simply little feeling to the proceedings, little weight. I blame the acting. Blake Lively is fine as Adaline – she is not deep, but she gets the job done, and the role asks her to be little more than a pretty face that is tormented by that fact. (Okay, more like somewhat depressed and sulky). Huisman is a bigger problem. He lacks charisma, and his line readings are stilted – both of them seem like they’re rushing through their dialogue, which undercuts whatever chance the script had of being affecting (it is literate and does not lack for some degree of intelligence). So the first part of the movie is, like Adaline, pretty and amusing for its surface charms – where else can we see “A trip down Market Street before the fire,” circa 1906, blown up to be the equal of Vin Diesel’s bicep? – but it is otherwise dull. We keep waiting for the emergence of, if not heat, then at least light, and begin to fear that all is vanity. That is, until the oldsters arrive on the scene. Harrison Ford does his best acting work in ages (not a high bar to meet, admittedly) as the non-pervy old man who desperately wants to spare his dull, muscly son the pain that he endured so many years ago. (Seeing him galumph through the forest, trying to catch up to Adaline, is indeed heartening). Ellen Burstyn also does admirable work, bringing true depth and believability to the awkward situation of looking like your own great-grandmother – the scene at the end, in the hospital, where she says, unbelieving, “He knows?” in response to Adaline’s revelation that Ellis has just been brought up to speed was indeed effective, raising a lump in my throat as it revealed the true weight, and cost, of forcibly kept secrets, even as blithe and loopy a one as this. Otherwise… eh. The fairy tale aspect has validity if we consider the plight of women trapped by a culture obsessed with youth and beauty at all costs, but this heft is undercut by the voice-over which, acceptable as a mood setter, albeit a nutty one, at the film’s opening, devolves into outright laughability in the finale (where it should have been cut). Not a good film, not a bad film, very few highs, no lows. One and a half lumps in the throat. I have nothing more to say – I can hardly believe I’ve gone this far.

Two and a half stars out of five

American Sniper – Clint Eastwood (2014)

American Sniper is a perplexing film, and I have no good idea why Clint Eastwood felt compelled to make it. As an investigation of what it means to be a sniper, and in particular, this sniper, the deadliest in our history, it falls short; it is most definitely more of a biography of Chris Kyle than anything else, and his sniping career is relegated to some highlights early in the film, with the balance concerning itself with his actions on the ground, fighting more conventionally (if we can call asymmetric urban warfare conventional at this point in time). I’m sure the detractors of the film, most of whom I would guess have not actually seen it, would say, “Well, he made it as a hagiography to a war hero,” as there is a perception that Eastwood is somehow a conservative or reactionary in his choice of subjects and in his political views. Putting aside his bizarre and pathetic performance at the Republican Convention in 2012, I have always found this view of Eastwood troubling, as his films do not support it. I’ll admit, I am a fan of his work, both before and behind the camera, but even good ol’ Dirty Harry is not the right-wing vigilante freak everyone thinks – or at the least, such a reading is terribly one-dimensional (admittedly, he did not direct Dirty Harry, and while the sequels do go more toward establishing Harry as a reactionary, they are some of Eastwood’s least interesting work, and still, there is nuance to all of them). Eastwood has portrayed violence and war, at least since Unforgiven, as a weakness and a failing, albeit at times as a purposeful one. But I am digressing.

What makes me question the nature of this film is that Eastwood does, for the majority of the running time, take a critical view of Chris Kyle. Critical in the sense that many knee-jerk lefties would want? No. He does not castigate his subject. That would not be art, but mere propaganda, folks, and Eastwood is an artist, even if you dislike the portraits he paints. By critical, I mean that he portrays Kyle as a fairly simple man who doesn’t think about things too deeply, and who represses not only the bad experiences of the war, but lives in denial about the horrible things he has to do in combat. And those things are portrayed as horrible. I have read many a commentary on Facebook (if not from critics) by those who feel that the violence is staged in a way that gives the audience a vicarious thrill – for instance, the slow-motion “bullet time” sequence that serves as a kind of climax, and results in the death of the dread enemy sniper. This is patently untrue. The violence in this film is staged in a way that is little different from many other contemporary films about the Iraq conflict (such as Hurt Locker). It is bloody, brutal, and grim, and the principles involved obviously take no pleasure in it. The style highlights the confusing, ugly nature of the battlefield, and the soundtrack, devoid of music except for low electronic atmospherics that build dread during these sequences, follows that lead. Now, I have also seen arguments to the effect that any film that portrays warfare is, de facto, providing the audience with a vicarious thrill simply by portraying such things for us, safe and snug in our seats. To this I can only say that, while perhaps this is so, I find a world of politically correct, policed representations boring at best, and smug and censorious at worst. How exactly are we to make sense of the world around us, or engage in a discussion as a culture, outside of representation? I would ask those who think along these lines to read Paul Virilio’s excellent book War and Cinema, for he explicates that the technologies, and modes of viewing, that make both war and cinema possible are deeply intertwined, and have been from the beginning of film history. If you want to give up viewing film totally because it is implicated in violence, go ahead; I don’t disagree, but I won’t be joining you.

Still, I am digressing. Let me get specific. At the beginning of the film, we witness Kyle sniping a child and his mother, seemingly of necessity. We then jump back in time, to his own childhood, and witness his father taking him hunting, and standing by while he makes his first kill (a deer). The death of the deer is played down in favor of Dad lecturing him on how to properly treat his weapon. So in the first few moments of the film, Eastwood is linking the idea of Kyle’s skill (shooting well) to the death of the innocent (and of innocence itself, I would argue): the child in the street, used as a pawn, and the animal in the forest. We then get a sequence wherein Kyle’s father attempts to justify how he can use his skill, obviously a menacing one, for the greater good – he is the sheepdog, one of the elect few that can protect the majority of humans (the sheep) from the evil-doers (the wolves). We sense that Eastwood is already skeptical of such a schema, as he portrays Dad as a gruff hothead, containing the implicit threat of violence about to uncoil itself, and we sense this nice little story is of the type that can bend at will to make sheep into wolves as need be. The rest of the film, we expect, will be, if not a judgement on this origin story, at least an exploration of its truth value. A short while later, we see Kyle exit from a barn the outside of which is covered, somewhat ominously, in the antlers of many animals that he has obviously taken with his “skill.” Kyle, during this pre-military portion of his life, is portrayed as a roughneck without much motivation or introspection; not a bad guy, necessarily, but no sheepdog either. He is soon shaken out of this sleepiness (not too convincingly, I might add) by the attacks on the U.S. embassies in Kenya, and, after enrolling as a Seal, at the ripe age of 30, is further convinced of his calling by 9/11. All of this Eastwood portrays more or less flatly; the boot camp sequences are fairly devoid of the usual humor that binds the audience to the recruits in terms of point of view, and Kyle seems a little bit of a fish out of water, and still a little dim.

The tone throughout the film stays mostly in this mode. Kyle is not portrayed as a hero, and Eastwood is “critical” in the sense that he most identifies with the point of view of Kyle’s wife on the home front. Kyle is, instead, portrayed as being in much denial: of his growing PTSD, of his addiction to combat, of the impact of his choices on his family. He views the Iraqis as “evil” and calls them “savages,” and while Eastwood doesn’t really correct this view, he does question it, particularly with the figure of Marc Lee, a would-be pastor from Oregon who calls Kyle out on his faux-religiosity and his one-sided denials. (At the same time, it can also be said that Eastwood provides few Iraqis in the film who aren’t complicit with the terrorists. At the same time, he does humanize Kyle’s rival, the sniper Mustafa, by lingering on a photograph of him before the war, as a clean-cut looking young athlete, medaled and on a podium). Throughout, Kyle’s viewpoint is portrayed as simplistic and, if not dangerous, at least becoming self-destructive. The film is hardly the portrait in heroism and an apology for war that its detractors would make it out to be.

Except… Eastwood falls down in the end. Having set up this growing critique of Kyle, and the original moral question of self-justified violence, Eastwood refuses to follow through. The film ends in a blur of unsatisfying sequences that seem to self-abort rather than make a judgement. For instance, a trip out hunting with Kyle’s own son, where we’d naturally expect some sort of dramatic counterpoint to that first such sequence, now with the added weight of Kyle’s horrible experiences behind the scope, is short and perfunctory. He says something to the effect of “Today you’ll take your first life, son, and I’ll be right there with you.” End scene. I guess he doesn’t fetishize the weapon like dear old Dad, but is this an improvement? Kyle comes off, if not still in denial, as one-dimensional as ever his thinking. Kyle’s trip to solve his PTSD, which, given the depth of his denial, we expect to be fraught, goes quite easily – he denies he has a problem, the VA doc introduces him to some disabled vets who need his help, and he helps them… by taking them target shooting. Suddenly Kyle seems back to “normal.” Again, end scene. The final sequence of the film, which alludes to the Marine who allegedly murdered Kyle, portrays him suspiciously, from the point of view of Kyle’s worried wife, peeping out the cracked front door, seemingly having a premonition of something bad coming. Eastwood could have here made the connection between Kyle’s PTSD and this man’s state, as brothers in arms equally unhinged – or, even if not taking it that far, at least as the consequence of PTSD not so easily “cured.” Instead, Kyle’s wife shuts the door, we get a quick title telling us what happened, and then cue file footage of Kyle’s heroic death parade. Roll credits. Did Eastwood lose his nerve? This is my only theory, as the rest of the film is too much like Eastwood’s other films – that is, the work of a questioning artist, not a hack. But the ending is, sadly, very weak, if not hackwork.

All of which makes me again question – why did Eastwood make this film? And why are audiences attracted to it? It is well made, and well acted, and does raise some issues discursively, but all in all it is bland, does not offer vicarious thrills, and provides a payoff that is unconvincing and feels like it is pulling punches. It does, in its mixed way, offer a place that all sides can converge on, not feeling offended or preached to, a site that provides the opportunity for real discussion. At the same time, as a work of art, it is quite disappointing. The film is very far from the exercise in jingoism it has been made out to be, but it is also far from the best film of the year, and does not deserve Oscars. As someone who expects more from Eastwood, I left discouraged. There are too many very good films about the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan for this to rank among the top tier. In particular, I’d recommend Nick Broomfield’s criminally underseen The Battle for Haditha (2007), a masterpiece of verité filmmaking (although it is a “fiction” film) that treats all sides of the conflict with equanimity.

Two and a half stars out of five

Maps to the Stars – David Cronenberg (2014)

Maps to the Stars is really a film with one story, about a dysfunctional family that has little to do with celebrity except in the most superficial way, that tries to pass itself off as a portrait of Hollywood and its denizens. At least, that’s how it feels, although on reflection, the only other storylines going have to do with Julianne Moore as a less than relevant actress trying to revive her career, and Robert Pattinson (now Cronenberg’s go-to blank face) as a limo driver with aspirations, and both of those threads weave into the main plot fairly tightly. (At least Mr. Pattinson has moved from the back seat to the front – perhaps next time he’ll be allowed to exit the vehicle). No, this is not The Player, even if the trailer gives the sense of that type of insider satire coupled with some possible body horror elements. Really, it has some satirical elements, which will quickly date as the names drop away into the tidal basin of history, but in fact the film wants to be a mythopoeic saga of family discord, with enough incest zest to connect it, constellation-like, to the ancients and their worldview. Yes, this is Cronenberg, so while the Freudian elements should be running freely like sap from some cosmic tree (or, if that’s too much to ask from him lately, at least stacking up like the Collected Works), we are instead in the mental realms that generated Spider and Eastern Promises; that is, the realm of scripts unwritten by Mr. Cronenberg. I’m not sure why Cronenberg has bowed-out of the writerly side of things, but his late period works (everything since Crash) have pretty much given up the ghost. Some of his late films are good, many are not – Spider in particular was boring and mannered – but I do enjoy his style, as it has shifted from the scruffy-yet-controlled early genre days to a super-controlled crispness that I do find refreshing (like snow down your sock – a snowball to the face is asking overmuch). Anyway, what about the movie? Okay, yes, it is not boring, and has decent to good performances from actors working with characters that are just-compelling-enough, but everything is half-baked and underdeveloped. The family dynamics and psychological aspects are never given full force and are overly broad, and the satire, while humorous in parts, is likewise too specific. It is better than the aforementioned later films, and one gets the feeling that without Cronenberg at the helm, this would have been much worse, veering quickly into quirk and/or tedium. What spoke to him in the script is hard to guess. This film contains the pastiest John Cusack ever, as well as the worst digital fire ever.

Two and a half stars out of five