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The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

September 19, 2014
The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby

This year’s prestige season opens strong with The Disappearance of Eleanor Rigby, an ambitious first outing for writer/director Ned Benson. While the film we see now is less impressive than Benson’s original vision, it still boasts two powerful leads in Jessica Chastain — who also contributed significantly to the development process — and James McAvoy, and some confident and distinctive stylistic choices on Benson’s part.

The version being released today is subtitled Them; the original form was a pair of films, shot simultaneously, subtitled Him and Her, showing the two different sides of a period of crisis in the marriage of Conor Ludlow (McAvoy) and Eleanor Rigby (Chastain). Them places both stories into a single context, cutting the running time down from over three hours to around two, but it manages to preserve the distinctive styles of each half.

Her is shot on hand-held cameras, with a color palette built from warm reds, oranges, and yellows. Him uses mostly static shots, and is painted in cold blues and greys; often the only warmth in a scene is the splash of Chastain’s red hair that comes popping out of the screen.

As the couple separates, Her welcomes Eleanor back into her childhood home with her parents (Isabelle Huppert and William Hurt) and divorced sister (Jess Weixler), but Eleanor herself is jittery and fragile after whatever precipitated the breakup. Him sees Conor, depressed, return to his emotionally distant father (Ciarán Hinds), and dive into the failing restaurant he runs with his friend (Bill Hader) the chef.

The fusion of the two may feel uneven if you’re not aware of the history, and I’m looking forward to the release of the separate versions next month, which should allow each side to play out uninterrupted, but the Weinsteins are probably not wrong that a single two-hour film will be easier for most audiences to swallow than two whole features covering the same ground from two biased perspectives.

Her was written later than Him, with much more input from Chastain, and in many ways feels like the stronger piece. Him focuses, apart from the separation, mainly on Conor’s relationship with his father, and on fathers and sons in general, which is far from unexplored territory. It’s still good, solid work; Hinds is always strong, and Hader proves himself capable of handling a more dramatic supporting role than his usual comedic fare.

But Her is where things fire on all cylinders. Chastain may be in fewer films than her annus mirabilis of 2011 — which year played no small part in getting this one made — but she pours all of her considerable talent into this one, both as an actress and a producer. Eleanor’s father gets her into a class taught by a former colleague (Viola Davis), which happens to be on the psychology of identity formation. That seems to be the key to her story; every woman she talks to — her mother, her sister, her professor — speaks of regrets about their identities in relationships. Eleanor’s mother, for instance, had a music career in Paris before becoming a wife and having children, and she worries that she did both too soon.

All too many women have this experience, disappearing into their relationships, becoming roles to others as their own identities fade. We see it in movies all the time, where female characters exist only in relation to men, without their own independent wants and needs. If anything, the title here seems a little ironic: Eleanor disappeared into her marriage long ago; this story is about her reappearance.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

The Maze Runner

September 19, 2014
The Maze Runner

The Maze Runner is the latest YAYAA — Yet Another Young Adult Adaptation — to hit the screen, and one squarely aimed at the preteen boy market this time. It’s thin on story and awkwardly structured, but it does manage to bring some fun and exciting action.

The biggest innovation here is moving the giant, awkward, expository info-dump from the first twenty minutes of the movie to the last. We come in with the young lead (Dylan O’Brian), who appears in the middle of a walled-off meadow along with a shipment of supplies. He’ll later remember his name is Thomas, but at first he doesn’t even know that much, just like us.

The other boys — and they’re all boys — tell us that they call this area The Glade, and outside the walls is The Maze. Every month a new boy shows up along with some supplies. The boys grow food and make whatever they need beyond the supplies. Every day the fastest and strongest of them run the maze, trying to find a way out. But they have to be back by nightfall, when the door to the maze closes and anyone left inside is stalked by biomechanical nightmares the boys call “grievers”.

What and why the maze is are both unclear until the info-dump at the end, but I warn you it doesn’t make a lick of sense even then. We’ve got a Lord of the Flies style boys-colony story on one side, with leaders Alby (Aml Ameen) and Newt (Thomas Brodie-Sangster) holding the toughs like Gally (Will Poulter) back from beating up too much on the newbies and providing enough space for the runners — led by Minho (Ki-Hong Lee) — to do their thing. On the other side, we’ve got a puzzle-box mystery with some solid and exciting action sequences. And, to be honest, it’s pretty great — if disposable — fun until the box opens and we have to sit through an interminable sequence of what pass for answers.

The single best choice director Wes Ball made is not going for 3-D. Unlike so many of these films, much of the action takes place in full daylight and the bright, clear shots are undimmed by polarized glasses. He also shoots the action with fewer cuts and more stable shots than the current fashion seems to call for, which makes it easier to follow and more exciting.

The boys’ story plays out with few surprises until a girl shows up. Teresa (Kaya Scodelario) upsets the balance, but not in the way we might expect from Twilight or its knock-offs. She’s not dumped into a love triangle, thankfully; if anything the boys’ reaction is less about romance and more along the “girls are icky” line, with Gally among the first to call for her expulsion. But while not all the boys are against the idea of a girl in their midst, they — and the movie — still don’t seem to know what she’s for. Two steps forward; two steps back.

While it’s not without it’s flaws, The Maze Runner does boast some exciting action, and closes a lackluster summer on a slight up note.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

David Foster Wallace, Six Years After the Bad Thing

September 11, 2014

I post this as I wake up, around 3:00 in the morning where I am on the East coast, just outside Washington DC. In a few hours, I will board a plane on its way west, stuck — or so it seems at the moment — in a cramped middle seat and unable to look outside as I love to do on those few occasions I do fly. I will also be aware that it’s the anniversary of a day that other people on other planes were concerned with a great deal more than whether the greedy bastard in front of them was about to recline into the last few cubic inches of personal space the airline gods had seen fit to allow a coach-class peon like myself. Maybe that will help me keep some perspective, but problems seem to fall off a lot faster than the inverse square in distance and time: here and now always feels so solid and important; there and then so abstract and weirdly less real.

I’m heading to the West coast, where it is only just now “today”, in the sense that I mean it here and now. Tomorrow my brother is getting married. I haven’t been to a lot of weddings, mostly because those things seem to happen mostly in the mid-to-late twenties, and I spent those years in grad school, surrounded by other grad students who didn’t have time for life-long commitments either, much less to find not only one but two increasingly rare academic jobs in the near future. I don’t see many more coming, and probably not even for myself in any traditional sense; these kind of expensive, impractical celebrations are a younger man’s game. Or so it seems to me now.

Tomorrow is also six years since David Foster Wallace hanged himself in the garage of his Claremont, California home. His head that day is so long ago and far away from my own that it’s impossible to understand what was inside it that felt this was the best choice. All I can understand is that he believed it.

Wallace is often quoted as saying that fiction — including, it would seem, his own — is “about what it is to be a fucking human being”. A big part of that as he wrote it is about perspective. I don’t mean in the diminishing, demeaning, “have some perspective” that scolds and moralizers employ; it’s about getting a sense of your place among and in relation to the rest of the world.

Wallace’s best-known work was probably his commencement address at Kenyon College in 2005, later published as This Is Water. He spoke, in part, about the strenuous effort involved in bridging the empathic gulf between any two people, especially on a day-to-day basis, and especially without an existing relationship to help contextualize the momentary interactions. He suggested that the ability to make that choice was the true result of a well-rounded education.

The near-coincidence of the dates means the two tragedies always come up together in my mind. And since I didn’t live in either New York or DC at the time, Wallace’s death always feels the closer and more real and affecting to me. But, in his way, he manages to point back towards the day that is seared in the memories of all who were aware of anything at that point.

At the time, he was in Bloomington, Illinois, even further removed from the unfolding events than I was in New Haven. The impact was psychically huge, but out in the midwest it was mediated purely by radio waves; physically it was only as big as the nearest screen. What did it feel like to be so far away, and yet paradoxically so close? Wallace recorded it — “very fast and in what probably qualifies as shock” — for Rolling Stone magazine as “The View From Mrs. Thompson’s House”.

Six years after his death, the world indeed continues to spin without Dave Wallace in it. One man more or less is so small, and yet every time I remember the loss it feels enormous. It’s all a matter of perspective, and I remember that everyone else’s is different from mine.

And so, if the gate agent (harried with so many selfish demands that I hate to pile another one on her plate) isn’t able to find a way to put me next to the window, and if the man on my left bulges over the armrest (with a pang of self-loathing after the flight crew debate whether he needs to pay another humiliating surcharge), and if the kid on my right is fussy (the first time she feels the pressure change in her ears it’s bewildering and terrifying), and if the person in front of me reclines (seeking what little respite is possible for their bad back in these cramped quarters), I’ll pull a little deeper into my reading of Every Love Story is a Ghost Story, and repeat to myself that this is the water we’re all swimming in.

And when Patrick and Eleanor stand up tomorrow I’ll put Dave and Claremont and the plane and the twin towers behind me, at least for a while. They may exist for the most part as abstractions to me right now, and their experiences and motivations may be alien to mine, but I will choose to be there and then with them, in that moment.

And, of course, I will wish them way more than luck.

The One I Love

September 5, 2014
The One I Love

The filmmakers behind The One I Love insist that you should go in completely cold to get the most out of it. I think that the outlines of the action can be described without spoiling the whole movie, but just in case: it’s good. Go ahead and check it out without reading anything else I say if you want to preserve every single surprise. If you still want to hear a bit more before taking the plunge, read on.

Ethan (Mark Duplass) and Sophie (Elizabeth Moss) are seeing a couples therapist (Ted Danson, not that we see much of him). He tries various approaches, with little progress. At last he suggests they take a vacation together, and even suggests a rental property. It feels like a last ditch effort on his part, but he swears that every couple who’s tried it has come back renewed.

The place is beautiful, indeed. Ethan and Sophie get their chance to escape their day-to-day world, trying to get back to the couple that fell in love so many years ago, but the going is rough. One minute, Ethan is warm and affectionate; the next, he’s asleep on the couch, claiming he’s been there for hours. One minute, Sophie is accommodating, even making the bacon for breakfast she normally proscribes; the next, she’s chilly and tense again. It’s two steps forward, two steps back.

It soon becomes apparent — and here’s your last chance to stop without hearing even the twist that comes early on — that there’s something weird about the guest house. When Ethan or Sophie go inside alone, they find the other one already in there. But it’s not the other one, it’s some idealized version of the other one. Better-Ethan paints and doers situps; Better-Sophie is made up, even glamorous, first thing in the morning.

Obviously this allows us a great insight into their relationship: what does each of them want — or think they want — from the other one? Just as obviously, they’re not about to approach it like that, and that lets us get to know these characters even better. Ethan immediately wants to dissect this thing, to determine what’s really going on. He mistrusts it, and wants to experiment and turn up evidence. Sophie, on the other hand, wants to enjoy it while it lasts. And these two motives are themselves at odds.

Director Charlie McDowell builds the mystery calmly and effectively. Justin Lader’s script is tight for the most part, with just a little bit of slack that takes some suspension of disbelief. The one real catch is that as the film gets more interested in the mystery of the guest house, it largely abandons the idea of fixing the relationship itself. Ethan and Sophie’s underlying issues are never really resolved, and so the ending — as fun as it is — feels emotionally hollow given where the whole thing started.

Still, it’s a marvelous work of cinematic alchemy. Just take a few, simple ingredients: a couple, a strange location, the one key secret. Put them together in just the right way and we get something fun and fascinating, and even magical.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

The Identical

September 5, 2014
The Identical

When I say that The Identical isn’t terrible, it may sound like damnation by faint praise. And yet, in this case, I’m legitimately impressed. That’s because this turns out to be a Christian movie, and most Christian movies are lazy, unimaginative, phoned-in bores from the word “go”. To be not-terrible is to be head and shoulders ahead of the rest of the genre.

But The Identical is not just any Christian movie. No, as Vince Mancini explains, it’s “The Room if Tommy Wiseau was an evangelical Christian Elvis impersonator making a royalty-free origin story in which he played his own twin, except that instead of a cast of complete unknowns, it stars Ray Liotta, Ashley Judd, Joe Pantoliano, and Seth Green” I get the reference to The Room in that this is essentially a vanity project, but the similarity ends there. Unlike Wiseau, pretty much everyone involved here knows what they’re doing. And, unlike most evangelical Christian movies, they care about doing it well and not just relying on their target demographic showing up after church on Sunday.

As I said, this is basically an origin story for an Elvis impersonator, played by Blake Rayne (born Ryan Pelton), who had his own career as an Elvis impersonator, and by all accounts a pretty good one. But they don’t have the rights to Elvis or any of The King’s music, so he’s is fictionalized as Drexel “The Dream” Hemsley (also Rayne), including an offhand reference in the dialogue to the real Elvis just to be sure nobody gets the wrong idea here.

The hook is that the real Elvis actually had an identical twin who was stillborn. But what if, Howard Klausner’s script wonders, he actually survived, but the Presleys couldn’t support two kids? They said the one twin died, but really gave him to a childless preacher and his wife. Reece and Louise Wade (Liotta and Judd) raise the child (Rayne, as an adult) as Ryan and aim him towards his adoptive father’s vocation.

And yet, right from the start Ryan shows his love of music. He gets in trouble as a teenager with his friend Dino (Green) going to honky-tonks across the county line, and his singing wins the heart of his eventual bride, Jenny (Erin Cottrell). Everyone notices how much he looks and sounds like Drexel; he even gets a job offer from a local mechanic (Pantoliano) over a combination of that and his work on his own truck. But nothing ever really comes of it until he gets dared to enter a Drexel-impersonation contest, which he wins handily, leading to nationwide fame and fortune.

The impressive thing is how The Identical avoids the standard Christian-movie tropes. We don’t have the usual rejection-redemption arc; Ryan isn’t lost until he finds Jesus. In fact, “Jesus” barely makes an appearance here. No, the problems the characters face are all about love and family and good values. It’s smarmy, sure, but it’s not something you need to be religious to get behind, or that tries to shove religion down the audience’s throats.

But this still probably would be a drag if it weren’t for the music. Again, these aren’t the greatest songs I’ve ever heard, but they’re pretty impressive as knockoffs not only of Elvis’ style, but of how that style evolved over the course of his career. To be perfectly frank, I found them catchier than actual Elvis songs, though that may be due to not hearing them so many thousands of times.

It all comes together into a perfectly adequate, family-friendly flick. It may have a few more mentions of God than Seabiscuit, but there’s no reason it can’t fit right alongside that sort of Disney-family fare.

Worth It: it almost is, just to see Rayne perform.
Bechdel Test: fail.

Frank

August 22, 2014
Frank

The longer Frank sits with me, the deeper it seems to get. At first, a silly little story about a quirky experimental music group, it grows into a touching meditation on a number of topics, as honest about each of them as it is weird and wonderful.

Jon (Domhnall Gleeson) is an aspiring young songwriter who can’t manage to actually write a song. He does manage to maintain a social media presence, though. Is it not-quite-honest or not-quite-serious? it’s hard to say, but with only a dozen or so followers it probably doesn’t matter.

And then he stumbles into a chance to join a band: “Soronprfbs”. He fills in for their keyboardist when they play in his town, which leads to an invitation for a thing in Ireland, which turns out to be less of a weekend gig and more of an album-recording at an isolated resort house that stretches out over a year. It’s a little crazy, yeah, but what keeps him there is the promise of living his dream, and Frank.

Frank (Michael Fassbender) is the leader and musical visionary of Soronprfbs, most notable for always wearing a giant fake head, styled after Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom character. The manager and sound engineer, Don (Scoot McNairy), says he met Frank in a mental hospital, but swears he’s the sanest person ever; the head is just part of the same artistic sensibility that pushes each of them to their “furthest corners”. I mean, who hasn’t known an artsy type with some odd affectations?

So Jon settles in among the group, but never really with them. He films clips of their sessions and posts them online, cultivating a connection with the outside world none of the others seem to want. The aggressively protective theramin player, Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal), finds the idea of publicity particularly distasteful, but Frank himself seems excited by the thought of reaching a wider audience. When Jon receives an invitation to perform at South by Southwest just as the band finishes recording the album, it’s clear he’ll be responsible either for truly launching the band — and himself with it — or destabilizing their tenuous equilibrium.

The vertiginous shift in tone may come as an unwelcome surprise for those who showed up expecting a silly, offbeat, indie comedy about a quirky, artsy, outsider musician. But this shift is the real heart of the film; the silly, quirky stuff plays into our popular assumptions, setting us up for the whiplash that brings us face-to-face with them. There are plenty of them, and I keep turning up more as I turn it over in my mind, but most obvious and most important is the idea of a connection between mental illness and creativity.

I hate to bring it back to David Foster Wallace, but who am I kidding, I love to bring it back to Wallace. It’s easy to say that his depression and his writing were linked, and it’s even true in a way. Being depressed brought Wallace into contact with a portion of human experience that he could then use in his writing. If Wallace hadn’t been depressed, he wouldn’t have written “The Depressed Person”, or “Good Old Neon”, or any number of his other works, including large parts of Infinite Jest. But we all too often make the leap to say that if he hadn’t been depressed he wouldn’t have written at all, or as well. We say the same about Picasso, or Syd Barrett, or almost any other “tortured artist”.

And we want to say it about Frank, too. Sure, he’s weird, and maybe some of that weird comes from mental illness. But as long as we think we can get something quirky silly and fun out of it, hey, that’s Frank. We’re glad to take it and have our fun, and maybe cluck our tongues a bit every now and then about how it’s a shame that he has to be crazy for us to get this music or this movie, but man it must be fun to be an artist like that.

Frank sets us up to say this, and then turns us around to face it. As fun as it is to see Fassbender cavort under that big fake head, it’s when the head finally comes off that we can see the face behind it — the man behind the music — and he’s just perfect in a way only Fassbender can be.

It’s an axiom of comics that the less realistically characters are drawn, the more we as readers can project our own ideas onto them. When Frank’s head comes off, we get a sudden rush of his reality. If that makes us feel weird — and not in a quirky, fun way — then maybe we need to think about what, exactly, we were projecting onto that big, blank face.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: fail.

If I Stay

August 22, 2014
If I Stay

All signs would point to If I Stay being yet another teeny-weepy, in the same glurgey, smarmy vein as The Fault In Our Stars, but somehow it manages to rise above that. Yes, there are teenagers, and yes, they’re in love, and yes, they deal with tragedy. And yet there’s something fundamentally honest about it in a way that most similar movies lack.

The story is told, basically, in flashback. Mia (Chloë Grace Moretz) is a talented young cellist in Portland. She meets Adam (Jamie Blackley), who fronts a local rock band that’s starting to go places. Her parents (Mireille Enos and Joshua Leonard) were young rockers once, too, and they’re cautiously encouraging about their daughter’s first tentative steps into young love.

The catch is how the flashback comes in: Mia, her parents, and her brother are in a bad car accident. Her mother is dead on the scene, and her father dies on the operating table. Mia herself is comatose, at least in her body. Her “spirit” is awake, roaming the halls of the hospital, watching how everybody reacts, and remembering her life over the last year or so.

There’s obviously a certain supernatural aspect to the story, and yet Shauna Cross’ screenplay — based on Gayle Forman’s novel — wisely avoids using this as anything but a plot device. There’s no explicitly religious overtones, no population of other disembodied people, and no suggestion that Mia can affect anything other than her own recovery. It’s just a way to isolate her on her long, dark night of the soul. And, in a way, it’s a more effective way than the gimmick in Locke.

Mia has a lot to think about, even beyond what her life will be like as an orphan. Her relationship with Adam was on the way out. She had an application in for Juilliard, and even if she didn’t go to New York Adam’s band would be touring much of the time. Even decades past that point in my own life I remember how that first love feels newer and stronger than anything, and its inevitable end does feel, at the time, like the death Mia faces.

In the flashbacks, Mia and Adam both say and do some dumb, clichéd things, but in this film they feel descriptive of the dumb, clichéd things real teenagers do in their first relationships. This is probably the single biggest improvement If I Stay has over its genre, where normally these big, romantic gestures are glorified and endorsed.

Unfortunately, the story still paints itself into a corner where it can’t reach the real best-case scenario. It portrays Mia’s choice as letting go, avoiding the pain she’ll face if she wakes up, or coming back to a happy ending with Adam. While it’s admirable that the film uses its setup to engage with the issue of suicide absent the usual moral questions of responsibility, we know with our perspective that what Mia really needs is to learn how to recover from the loss, but still go on living without Adam. The end of the relationship is not the end of the world. Younger audiences will probably enjoy the story better without that nagging voice of experience, though.

Despite this flaw, I think Moretz really imbues the film with its heft. She manages to deliver just the right combination of naïvety and confidence that makes Mia work, not entirely unlike the way she played Carrie. And she can really sell tragedy, possibly from her history of working with heavier material than most actresses her age.

Wherever it comes from, If I Stay comes across as fundamentally more honest about the way down than most films that deal with teenage love. It may not be perfect, but something about it just works.

Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.

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