Chi-Raq – Spike Lee (2015)

Chicago holds a special place in my heart. I called the city home for six years, and grew to love it. I consider it my spiritual hometown, and so was very interested to see Spike Lee’s take on the gun violence that has plagued the city and filled anyone who loves the place with despair. Living on the south side in the early aughts, I am familiar with many of the places and neighborhoods portrayed in the film, although the violence was nowhere near the level then that it is now (and even so, I was living in a fairly protected enclave). Many Chicagoans have been vocal about the name of the film being pejorative, and the film itself reflecting negatively on the city; while some of this is understandable and perhaps justified, in truth it seems to have more to do with Lee’s outsider status, and positions him as a kind of carpetbagger or tourist of tragedy. The fact of the matter is that the level of violence Chicago has experienced in the past decade is staggering, and anyone with Lee’s status who wants to draw attention to the problem should be commended. Yes, his film is a polemic, and yes, its didacticism has no interest in drawing a nuanced, wide-ranging portrait of the city in full. This is not a problem, but a strength. Anyone who is concerned about the numbing level of daily (gun) violence in America should be thankful this film exists; that we might be amazed it exists is a measure of how acclimated we have become to living in a nightmare (and how easily we can deny that nightmare as long as we are able to quarantine it within certain communities).

The film works in a few different modes or registers. We begin with a straightforward sequence laying out the facts of the problem that is quite unlike anything you have seen in the past thirty years in mainstream American cinema – the frightening numbers of dead and wounded are laid out as an anguished, angry rap provides the subjective view of this violence. We then move to a nightclub, where a shooting is about to take place during the performance on stage; right before the shooting, however, the action freezes, and our narrator/chorus Dolmedes (Samuel L. Jackson) explains, in verse, the structure of the film, and that it is based on Lysistrata by Aristophenes. Many times during the course of the narrative, Dolmedes returns to comment on the unfolding action. The narrative itself, pitched, like Lysistrata, as a farce, concerns two warring gangs, one run by rapper Chi-Raq (Nick Cannon), the other by the older Cyclops (Wesley Snipes). Lysistrata (Teyonah Parris) is Chi-Raq’s girlfriend, and starts the movie without much awareness of the terrible conditions of her community, and in denial about her boyfriend’s contributions to the problems. She is radicalized both by the death of a child and by her neighbor Miss Helen (Angela Bassett), who encourages Lysistrata to use the power she has as a woman in a political way – that is, she starts to think about withholding sex as a way to control Chi-Raq and tamp down the violence he thoughtlessly causes in the community. At this point, Lee mixes in “documentary” sequences that highlight the present day reality of this tactic, such as the peace movement in Liberia led by Crystal Roh Gawding that sought to end that country’s civil war in a similar way. Lysistrata’s task is to convince not only her fellow gang wives, but those of Cyclops’s gang, that such a move is in the best interests of the entire community. As the action begins to take root and show some success, the movement grows not only city-wide, but worldwide, as women everywhere begin to use sex as a tool of peace. Eventually, Lysistrata and her “army” nonviolently seize the National Guard barracks in Chicago and a stand-off between the men of the city and the women ensues. On a somewhat separate track, we have the story of Irene (Jennifer Hudson), whose child was collateral damage in a gun battle. This death is partly what influenced Lysistrata, but Lee returns to Irene and her grief, making the child’s funeral a central sequence in the film – it is during this church service, led by Father Mike Corridan (John Cusack), a character modeled closely on the real life Reverend Michael Pfleger, that Lee, through Corridan, gives voice to one of the most scathing indictments of the American way of death, and the economics undergirding it, that we’ve ever seen in a narrative film. Eventually, the “armies” of men and women square off in the persons of Lysistrata and Chi-Raq, with the first to orgasm the loser. Before anyone can win or lose, however, Cyclops and the other male representatives of the community (not just gang members at this point, but men from all walks of life and levels of “respectability”) intervene and force Chi-Raq to concede. Lysistrata carries the day, and in the denouement, everyone dressed in white (suggesting heaven and an ideal conclusion that cannot be realized in this world, sadly), Cyclops and Chi-Raq sign an accord to stop the violence, and Chi-Raq begs the forgiveness of Irene, confessing that it was he who killed her child. He then willingly accepts his punishment, and implores those in attendance (and, by extension, the viewers of the film) to use his case as a negative example.

I fully admit the description does not do the film justice. You might be able to tell it is a fairly radical work as far as mainstream cinema goes, especially these days, but it is pretty radical even by Spike Lee’s standards. His anger is often palpable, but what I don’t convey well is just how funny the film is. Jackson’s Dolmedes is outright hilarious, and even though we are in the realm of the serious, the film is a farce first and foremost. All the same, the ending is quite powerful, and moving, and much of that can be chalked up to Nick Cannon, a huge surprise in his controlled and astute portrayal of Chi-Raq. Really, though, the entire cast is excellent – the purely farcical characters, such as General King Kong (David Patrick Kelly, channeling a union of Generals Buck Turgidson and Jack D. Ripper from Kubrick’s Dr. Strangelove) come off the worst, as they seem cartoonish and shallow, but those with a serious mode are very affecting. (John Cusack is unexpectedly great in this way, but I must also give a shout out to Wesley Snipes, who returns to the screen with an affected character who could easily be dismissed, but owns it, being by turns ridiculous and serious as needs be). Like many other of Spike Lee’s films, though, Chi-Raq has problems. Lee is just not good at dramaturgy, and his narratives are often lumpy, misshapen, and lack momentum. In his best work, such as Do the Right Thing, he triumphs in the end – but his best work, to my mind, is his earliest and least experimental. As he has gotten older, Lee has been willing to try new forms – Bamboozled, for instance, is audacious, but overlong and tiresome. More conventional fare, such as Summer of Sam, comes off as pointless and downright boring. So while I prefer Lee in his experimental mode, in any mode his films often have long, tedious parts. This is partly due to a lack of structure, but the greater problem is his inability to write characters that are both believable and who convey emotion and motivation through action rather than words (another reason Do the Right Thing works). Often the acting in his films seems bad, as in the embarrassingly hysterical Jungle Fever, but it is not really the fault of the actors – the characters are simply too often types or obvious contrivances, spouting dialogue that communicates Lee’s point of view straight-up. They rarely feel organic, or fully formed, and tend to lack ambiguity. We get a taste of this early in the film, especially with Angela Bassett’s character. Such ham-handedness makes the proceedings feel amateurish, like an overly earnest After School Special. In Chi-Raq, though, it works to his advantage a bit, because the whole film has an improvised air, and often seems like a piece of filmed street theater. Lee makes use of real locations, and foregrounds the artificial, and temporary, nature of the production, for instance by using fabric signs hung on the side of buildings in place of billboards or real signage. This tactic reinforces the universality of the material, suggesting that Chicago is just the most recent stop on the tour of this immortal agit-prop theater troop. Ultimately, for me Lysistrata is just a very odd choice for source material given the topic Lee wants to address. A gang war is not like other wars – as Lee makes apparent, it is the product of structural forces beyond the control of the disempowered actors in the street. And the gender aspect of the play, while providing much of the comedy, is a strange fit as well for the subject matter. Yes, it makes sense in that the mothers of the dead might ultimately be the loudest, and angriest, voices, but the sex comedy side feels odd. I would wish for a film that is angrier, tougher, and wrings tears from the audience throughout, rather than waiting for the post-climactic afterlife. Still, even though the film is uneven, and even though it does not touch a nerve as forcefully as it needs to, it is an essential film for our time, simply because it is so unique and addresses a topic that no one else of Lee’s visibility is touching.

Three and a half stars out of five

Mistress America – Noah Baumbach (2015)

It is less than six months since While We’re Young graced our nation’s screens, and already we have another offering from Mr. Baumbach? Incroyable! This time around Baumbach has re-teamed with his real life teammate, and Francis Ha collaborator, the indomitable Greta Gerwig. Like that film, Mistress America concentrates on Gerwig as a seemingly unflappable striver, besotted with more ambition than good sense, and focuses on her attempts to climb, if not every mountain, at least the social ladder of the Big Apple, such as it is in 2015 (that is, there’s a lot of horizontal clamoring from one social media platform to another). The mode of Francis Ha was a bit more down to earth, a bit more realistic, a bit more subdued in its portrayal of a woman trying to exceed herself – the performances were relatively toned down, the main character more vulnerable, the city more shaded in grey (indeed, Mistress America is the only case I can think of with a reverse bait and switch, as the trailer I saw earlier in the summer was in black and white, but the resulting feature in color). So, yes, if you are expecting Francis Ha Part Deux, you will be disappointed, but there are many moments of bleed over. A more useful comparison might be the more recent While We’re Young, however, as it allows us to sample Baumbach solo against Baumbach plus femme. And let me break it to you right up front – for the most part, Baumbach is better with Gerwig as a cowriter. One of the problems with While We’re Young (and, come to think of it, almost all of Baumbach’s films in the past 15 years) is that the female characters are underwritten and have little to do except act as sounding boards and useful narrative devices for the male characters. (Yes, there is Margot at her sister’s wedding, but the less we speak of her, the better, for both our own and Mr. Baumbach’s sake). With Gerwig on board, females move front and center – in Mistress America, it is the men who serve as backdrop and mirrors for the female characters. The plot concerns a neophyte New Yorker, Tracy (Lola Kirke), an 18 year old recently arrived at Barnard from suburban New Jersey. The first quarter of the film concerns her attempts to get her bearings at college, where she feels out of place and struggles to fit in (whatever that might mean). She strikes up a friendship with Tony (Matthew Shear), a similarly literary type who also shares her seeming middle-class roots; over screwdrivers, they swap stories which they hope to get into Columbia’s literary magazine. At first this alleviates her alienation, but she soon discovers, much to her chagrin, that Tony has a girlfriend, Nicolette (Jasmine Cephas Jones). Feeling rootless once again, Tracy takes her mother’s advice, and contacts her soon to be step-sister, Brooke (Greta Gerwig). Brooke immediately takes Tracy out for what is supposed to be a crazy, enchanting introductory night on the town, and by the end of the evening, Tracy is smitten, crushing on older, charming, “kooky” Brooke while Brooke relishes having a protege and an always interested ear. Soon Tracy is crashing at Brooke’s place in Times Square (which is zoned commercial – yowza!) and, while not ignoring her studies, is definitely more invested in living vicariously through Brooke than striking out on her own. Her early story rejected by the literary mag, Tracy makes use of Brooke as a character in a new composition, an act of self-assertion that will eventually come back to bite her. The rest of the movie revolves around Brooke’s attempt to get a fledgling restaurant (to be named Mom’s) off the ground, as the financing originally provided by her unseen Russian boyfriend falls through when he, apparently, breaks up with her (she returns to the edgy domicile one night to find the locks changed, but somehow seems to continue living there, after having to pathetically crash in Tracy’s dorm room for an evening). To secure the now absent financing, she is directed by a medium to travel to Greenwich, Connecticut, for a visit to a well-off frenemy who formerly stole Brooke’s even richer fiancé, along with a golden idea for graphic t-shirts. The second half of the movie portrays this road trip, with Tony and Nicolette along for the ride (as Tony provides the ride, and jealous, suspicious Nicolette won’t let Tony out of her sight). The quartet arrive just in time to crash an art discussion group slash pregnancy coffee klatch, and during a long, awkward afternoon, Brooke pitches her idea first to her former friend, Mamie-Claire (Heather Lind), and then to her more enthusiastic ex-fiancé Dylan (Michael Chernus). Banter zings and pings off the walls, and the occupants of this modernist house on a green hill are joined by expectant lawyer waiting for a ride home Karen (Cindy Cheung) and intruding neighbor Harold (Dean Wareham, making the most of his return to official Baumbach supporting player status). The core group, observed and commented on by this peanut gallery, work over past animosities, try to reconcile old grievances, and make new plans for the future. Some hatchets will be buried, and others will be brandished; by the end of the evening, all will have turned against Tracy, as Nicolette reveals to the group the former’s unflattering “fictional” portrayal of Brooke, and Brooke will reveal that she and Tracy are no longer step-relations to be (as her father has called off the impending marriage to Tracy’s Mom, who apparently does not have it going on). In the denouement, Brooke returns without her restaurant money (as Dylan is willing to give it to her only if she does not start a restaurant, instead proposing, not so subtly, that she take on the role of his city lady in waiting), and Tracy gets into the literary society she yearned for. Tracy feels unsatisfied, though, and rather than sell out as a literary phony, she rejects the Columbians and files to start her own society of letters the next semester. She makes up with Brooke, who she once characterized as a failure, now recognizing her as a success in providing the zing, not to say the tang, to the unimaginative, bored rich who are her obvious inferiors.

The first half hour of the movie is, like Brooke, very striving. The cutting is so fast, and the dialogue piles up so quickly, that we could be forgiven for thinking we are still watching the trailer; we begin to wonder if the movie will ever take a breath, settle down, and recognize what the word expose is doing inside expository. It has the form of an ersatz screwball comedy, but without the laughs, or the debonair sheen of old Hollywood money. It is “witty,” but like much Baumbach, it is hard to detect if this is the real McCoy, or a simulacra of intelligent humor (we suspect the later, as we are rarely laughing). This reveals what is perhaps the key feature of Baumbach’s work, for good and for bad – the inability to discern if his characters are parodies, if he is a satirist and is using his characters as a means to splay open the unattractive guts of upwardly mobile wannabes, or if he is identifying with them, and takes their foibles and follies to be endearing, humanizing traits. Perhaps an example will help illustrate what I mean. Early in Brooke and Tracy’s whirlwind romance, they are in a bar having a drink (in Baumbach’s world, IDs never figure, apparently) and are approached by a woman who happened to have gone to high school with Brooke. At first it seems like it will be a pleasant reunion, but the woman soon takes Brooke to task for having tormented her back in the day by continually approaching her with a similarly too cool male pal, touching her skin, tasting it, and saying, “Mmm-hmm, bitter.” Brooke has no recall as to who the woman is until this jogs her memory, but her response to the woman’s request for an apology is, to say the least, no. (No luck with sympathy or recognition of grievance either). After a few rounds of yelling at each other, Brooke returns to her conversation with Tracy, dismissing the whole thing by rationalizing, “Everybody’s an asshole to someone else sometimes.” (A classic from the great American songbook, if I do recall). Tracy seems to pause over this for a second, then quickly accepts it and moves on, as does the movie. What are we, as the audience, to make of the exchange? The behavior is off-putting; we already understand that Brooke is not the type of person for deep reflection, but this introduces a negative aspect to what has been, up to this point, the key to her “charm.” Is Baumbach identifying with her – that is, can he imagine a world where no, not everyone is an asshole to someone at some time? (There is a difference between treating someone poorly with regrets and being purposefully and unapologetically cruel). Or is Baumbach satirizing the type of person so ensconced in her own cocoon of privilege, or so self-involved, that she is blind to another’s suffering? Baumbach does not portray the aggrieved as being unreasonable, and goes to pains, via the woman’s monologue, to elaborate the negative effect the teasing had on her. This would lead us to believe that Baumbach is in the later mode, satirizing blindness and narcissism, but the fact that this is pretty much a one-off, and that nothing ever builds from it, makes it seem as if it’s yet another quirky nugget, another facet of Brooke’s “charm” to be mined for warm laughs and cuteness. I won’t say it leaves a sour taste, but it does recall the flavor of his earlier films where being mean, being funny, and being close and intimate are all pretty much the same thing.

Thus the tone of the film never resolves, even as the plot does, and we are left wondering if we should actually care about these characters (as it certainly doesn’t come naturally) or if we should laugh at their lack of insight and general self-satisfaction. The problem is further amplified by the fact that, while many of the characters do lack insight and are self-satisfied insofar as nothing will deter them from their generally static natures, they are vulnerable. If there is one great theme to Baumbach’s work, and one that he elaborates with some nuance, it is masked insecurity – which, at the other end of his dialectic, becomes a preoccupation with intellectual, artistic, or social status, and with characters who are, or fear they are, legends in their own minds. In his films from earlier in the millennium, this masking might take the form of cruelty and meanness, whereas lately its form (pace Gerwig) has been charm, klutziness, and befuddlement. In both modes, though, it expresses itself through a preoccupation with a kind of arrested development, which is why his first film, Kicking and Screaming, about post-collegiate angst and anomie, somehow remains the genetic blueprint for all further films. It certainly helps explain why he rarely makes a movie about anyone over the age of 30. He is quite effective at portraying the limitations, which go hand in hand with the expectations, of our current age, and the frustration that smart, creative people feel in a world of constant exhibitionism when their talents are recognized by few and often left unrewarded. But what is he saying about this problem? It is hard to tell. We end Mistress America with Tracy’s recognition still waiting in the wings, as she is too young and unresolved to feel herself a failure (although the prospect preoccupies her, which is part of her interest in Brooke). Brooke ends up not speaking for herself (yet another movie with voice-over, yippee!), but is proclaimed fabulous by Tracy as a kind of diamond in the rough, an occult tchotchke whose powers those lessers she encounters, who lack her moxie and verve, make use of as a kind of talisman. But it is also quite possible that Tracy and Brooke are an army of two, clueless and static, legends in their own minds because they are unable to adapt to the world as it is, or, even more mundanely, simply two people who can’t accept that they might not be as great as they’d like to think they are. In this way, Baumbach is our leading expositor of the fear of mediocrity. Or is he? Perhaps he thinks that Brooke has it all figured out in her continual thrashing about. Like Woody Allen, a filmmaker he resembles in passing (the banter in the second half of the film is very Allen-like, and often very funny), one senses that it is Baumbach’s self-doubt that drives his representations. Unlike Allen, though, Baumbach seems to be hedging his bets, and playing it coy – “I’m not all that,” he seems to say, “unless you’d like to think I am!” Both Allen and Baumbach make films driven by a kind of autobiographical impetus, but Allen has always been firmly in the mode of self-abnegation (or at least self-deprecation). Baumbach is too, on the surface, but with a bitterness that makes one feel he is insincere about it; he’s going through the motions, but secretly he’d be happy to discover that he’s great, the hero of his own story, the genius who everyone loves and lavishes praise on despite his (not so?) hidden churlishness. Is he, in this way, the great reflexive filmmaker of his generation? I’m sure he’d like to think so – but it is this very characteristic that leaves his films feeling light, fluffy, and unsatisfying, even as they feel heavy and leaden in their misanthropic undertones.

Three 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

Listen Up Philip – Alex Ross Perry (2014)

Listen Up Philip is a strange hybrid. Stylistically, it harkens back to films of the 1970s, although it is set in the present day. However, the type of film it is recalling never actually existed; instead, it kind of recalls the 70s as a specific aesthetic amongst a specific milieu (New York literary types?). It presents as a strange love child of Tarantino and Woody Allen. Another set of echoes are the recent Whiplash, with which it shares, in transformed fashion, the themes of prickly mentorship and the obnoxious striving of youth, and the literary character of Inherent Vice. (Alex Ross Perry’s first almost-feature length film, Impolex, is an adaptation of Gravity’s Rainbow). So what is the film about? Briefly, it is a portrait of the titular Philip, a relatively young author whose second book (the pretentiously titled Obidant) is about to be published. Portrait of the Artist as a Young Asshole, it could perhaps be called. Philip happens to meet a literary idol of his, the older author Ike Zimmerman (played by Jonathan Pryce, seemingly modeled on a degenerate Philip Roth) and they strike up a friendship. At the same time, Philip’s relationship with his girlfriend Ashley (played by Elisabeth Moss) disintegrates. That’s pretty much it. Like what it parodies, the film is often insufferable and tedious, but within that gambit, it is very often truly funny as well. Faults are apparent, but are they faults or simply features? The film lacks emotional depth, but so does the protagonist. The film is often very static structurally, but then again, this might also be inherent to the subject matter. There is an unrelenting, vacuous, overly-verbose voice-over that is foregrounded, but then again… you know where I’m going. No matter its faults, if that they be, this is not an empty parody of form or surfaces. What gives it integrity and interest lies in the materiality of the film’s construction rather than within its concepts: the ill-fitting sutures that tie segments together, and the great puncta within many shots carry an internal poetry, adding to the humor by undercutting the pretension, and forming a truly distinct style. In the service of what, though? It is hard to say, as the film basically ends where it began, with some laughs along the way, and a nice side trip through the life of Ashley sans Philip. A relationship film though? Not really, unless we are speaking of how an egomaniac relates to himself. I can see this being a film that polarizes, and it is hard to deny that it is one-joke in nature, and we do get it. But is that all there is to get? That question, nagging, is the keyhole through which we might glimpse…

Three 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

Force Majeure – Ruben Östlund (2014)

Force Majeure got little buzz at Cannes, and looked a mix of serious drama and satire, so my hopes were low. Happily, it turned out to be underrated; the satire is balanced by psychological nuance and writing that mines the territory in relationships between the trivial and the weighty. It’s an effective satire of the “Dad impulse” (over-explaining coupled with under-performing) but manages a level of modernist-style symbolism that both keeps the film itself from triviality and elevates it to Euro art film territory (which it easily inhabits). It works on multiple levels. Not amazing, but very solid and memorable.

Three and a half stars out of five