Friday, October 17, 2014

Listen Up Philip

We have all met Philip Friedman at some point during our lives.  Imagine that one insufferable narcissist you know or knew, the kind of person who will tear your soul apart with a few unimaginably brutal words.  If you're lucky you only had a single unforgettably awful conversation at a party with him, then simply took a swig of beer and moved on to another more pleasant social experience.  However, some of us have had to live with toxic people like Philip.  They were either our friends from middle school, roommates in college, or worst of all, we dated the son of a bitch.  And once you've broken ties with this caustic human being, you never quite forget the pain he caused you.

"Listen Up Philip" is about one of those vampiric souls who suck the life out of everybody around them, Philip Friedman (Jason Swartzman).  He is a young writer living in New York City, having just finished his second novel.  Friedman begins the movie discovering just how wonderful it feels to verbally abuse his ex-girlfriend and former roommate, then never becomes more charming.  He ignores and alienates his current lover, Ashley (Elisabeth Moss), he systemically destroys his writing career in Manhattan, and continues to validate himself on his own greatness as compared to the mediocrity of the world around him.  Philip is an unlikable protagonist, yet "Listen Up Philip" is a sympathetic and fascinating character study within a black comedy.

Much of "Listen Up Philip" is a tale of loneliness in its three main characters thanks to Philip's clumsy destructiveness.  Ashley and Philip never have a formal break up, because Philip is too much of a swine to allow the final conversation to take place.  Yet Ashley spends her summer in miserable torment thanks to this man she loved.  Philip's mentor, the great author, Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce) allows Philip to live with him upstate.  Ike then sees Philip repeat the same antisocial behavior as he did in his prime, and suddenly comes to realize how terribly alone he has become.  Philip himself spends his autumn banished away to an upstate college teaching Creative Writing, where he ruins yet another relationship, and in his quiet isolation, unable to understand the people from he is estranging himself.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Superhero Movies)

The arthouse scene seems to be having a small crisis of identity over the rise of superhero films.  Hollywood is riddled with movies ending in "-man":  "Spider-Man", "Iron Man", "Batman v. Superman".  To cinephiles who believe that the superhero fad is an invasion of "low media" (comic books), the future must look worse and worse.  Just one ridiculous costumed hero kicking absurd quantities of ass after another.  If you've built your career on small, quiet movies about simple human emotions, all of this crimefighting must be an unstoppable nightmare.

Earlier this week I saw "Clouds of Sils Maria", an otherwise good movie about an aging French actress, Maria (Juliette Binoche) struggling with the next phase of her career.  Much of the film is a back and forth between Maria and her young assistant, Val (Kristen Stewart*), as they prepare for a new role, while the shadow of the superhero machine looms over them.  Maria and Val go to see a new alien hero future starring a young rival actress.  "Sils Maria" presents this movie as a hideous gaudy chrome-filled nightmare:  lurid sex, bad wigs, and CG violence.  It goes past parody to real hatred for the modern blockbuster, and everything it represents.

"Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)" tries for a more meaningful discussion between drama and action.  It stars Michael Keaton as Riggin Thompson an actor who has bet everything - his career, his ego, and his daughter's house - on a grand comeback as a Broadway star/director in an adaptation of a Raymond Carver short story.  Riggin Thompson once played a superhero back in the 90s called "Birdman", and is looking for a comeback.  Michael Keaton once played a superhero back in the 90s called "Batman" and has been using 2014 as a launch pad for his flagging career, what with roles in awful crap like "RoboCop", surprisingly fun crap like "Need for Speed", and now this.  "Birdman" is a war between artistic credibility and popcorn movies, about working out those sides of your ego and developing a final clear statement of yourself.  And it is a gonzo madhouse of psychic powers, lesbian kisses, and hallucinations.

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

NYFF Press Screenings Week 3: INHERENT VICE and some other movies (I guess) Red Army, Mr. Turner

Pictured in this post is the Walter Reed Theater at Lincoln Center.  This is the room where I have been visiting for the past few weeks watching the selection of Indie films that have been collected for the 52nd New York Film Festival.  So I've been in this very room sitting next to real critics, bloggers who make money, and professional cameramen.  It's been incredible.  These are people who have either worked in the film journalism industry for years, or newcomers like myself.  It really is overwhelming at times.  I'm the guy who reviewed "Legends of Oz" mostly for perverse irony.  And now I get to see some of the biggest and best movies of the year in the same room as great critics.  I sat behind John Waters during "Maps to the Stars".  That's an honor.

At this point it has been three straight weeks of traveling to Manhattan to view movies, so I have forgotten what my normal life was like before all of this.  At some point (next week actually) I will have to stop doing this, the Critics Academy will end, and life will go back to normal.  That will be a depressing moment indeed.   Jesus, I'm going to have to look for a job... again.  [Insert extremely sarcastic expression of joy here.]  But before that misery, let me talk about the three movies I saw last week at the Festival:

First off is a sports documentary, "Red Army", directed by Gabe Polsky.  This is an account of the Red Army Hockey Team, a Soviet institution in the last few decades of the Evil Empire, which dominated the ice throughout the 80s.  The main figure in the documentary is Viacheslav Fetisov, or "Slava", the captain of the Red Army team.  Polsky differentiates his movie from being a simple ESPN sports feature by including Slava in a very unscripted light.  You get the usual interview stuff, but then the fourth wall will be broken with Slava answering his phone or having some banter with Gabe, who is always referred to as "a good boy".

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Freelancin': A Simpsons Guy, An Hour of Tragedy

Apologies about the audio quality this time.  Nothing ever does go exactly right, does it?  It's fine at the beginning and the end, then slowly it builds during the middle.  There must be some static in my mic that I didn't notice in testing, and now it's too late.  Anyway, speaking of incredible laziness, the Simpsons x Family Guy crossover:


Even I do not know how "Family Guy" remains on television.  I don't want to know.  It's bad enough that I'm forced to talk about it once a year as it is.

Monday, September 29, 2014

Gone Girl

A few years ago, I came across a news show run a woman by the name of "Nancy Grace".  I found myself captivated by this woman immediately.  There was a magnetism to her that can only be found in the greatest of geniuses or the most dangerous of psychotics.  She was fascinating in all of the worst ways:  the self-assured crusading, the unceasing fiery anger, the clear insanity in her eyes, so obviously marking her as deeply deranged.  I was certain something had gone wrong.  There had been a mix-up, some mistake.  The anchor of this program was wearing a straight-jacket in a cell somewhere while a madwoman off her meds was being allowed to rant unhinged on national television.  The movie "Network" had come true.  Instead of Howard Beale we had Nancy Grace.  Still just as mad as Hell.

I remember grinning ear to ear.  This was all the validation I needed.  Nancy Grace did her wild song and dance against Scott Peterson or Casey Anthony or any of the other poor people she had set her sights upon.  Furious in her unproven certainty, she simply would throw out ridiculous claims.  Logic or evidence were not required.  I don't know what she used to get her "facts" - gut instinct, woman's intuition, coded crossword messages written by the aliens of Planet Zeta-9?  It did not matter.  She was abuse and rail against whatever creature she had in your paws.  She delighted in destroying people.

And the legal system shuddered before this woman and her army of self-righteous fans.  She had reinvented the media circus.  Grace stared boldly through the television set, triumphantly screaming whatever whim came into her mind.  People listened and nodded slowly in agreement.  If I ever needed proof that American society was rotten from top to bottom, I could not have asked for more.  Nancy Grace is on television, and she is allowed - nay, encouraged - to profit off of tragedy.  We love her because she tortures people both innocent and guilty for everybody's amusement.  You don't need to be without sin to throw the first stone anymore, you just need a Southern accent and a worldwide audience.

"Gone Girl", both in book and film form, is an examination on the effect Nancy Grace and her kind have on real people.  The hero of this story is the typical "bad guy" in the narrative that Grace uses so often to sell her moralizing diatribes to her legions of hungry fans.  This is the usual story of a rich White woman, Amy Dunne (Rosamund Pike) disappearing without a trace.  Slowly everybody begins to suspect her husband, Nick (Ben Affleck) as the killer.  And all the ersatz Nancy Grace in the movie needs to call him a killer is a single selfie taken by a random woman, and a misplaced smile at a press conference.  Forget the actual truth or the real people involved, the Lifetime Original Movie template has very specific tropes.  Everybody has to play their part.