Kicking the Tweets

Listen Up Philip (2014)

Chapter Twee

I highly recommend Listen Up Philip for sociopaths, hipsters, and those doing research on both. Just as Wes Anderson aesthetically curates his precious, buttoned-up comedies, writer/director Alex Ross Perry treats his screenplay as the definitive word on the dark inner workings of New York's literary elitists. Yes, I meant to say "elitists" and not "elites": the movie is lousy with aspirants whose inability to get over themselves guarantees a life of failure and self-loathing. Plenty of films have done that, but few are so smugly in love with their rotten characters as to feel they don't need to involve the audience in such trivia as "story arcs", "emotional growth", or "a reason to keep watching after thirty minutes".

Jason Schwartzman plays Philip Lewis Friedman, whom we meet at a cafe, dressing down an ex-girlfriend who, he claims, never supported his dreams of becoming a great novelist. He takes her to task for insisting that he work really hard at his craft and be nicer to people. He holds up an advance copy of his second book and laughs.

Next, Philip visits a college friend and berates him for settling down and not following through with their "take on the world" manifesto. The friend returns fire, before pushing back from the bar--at which point we realize he's in a wheelchair. I suppose this is the kind of joke that open-minded intellectual-types can get away with because Perry and company are clearly not making fun of people with disabilities--they're just having a laugh at a guy in a wheelchair. Totally different, you guys.

The laughs continue as Philip informs his publisher that he refuses to do press for the book; leaves his girlfriend, Ashley (Elizabeth Moss), in their apartment for months at a time, in order to freeload off crusty, once-successful author Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce); and generally finds ways to annoy as many people as possible throughout his "creative process" (lots of staring, walking around, and complaining; very little writing).

With his detached gaze and vitriolic snark attacks, Philip meanders through life with a chip on his shoulder the size of his benefactor's writing cabin. Mercifully, Perry dumps him by the curb for fifteen minutes to focus on Ashley who, for the first time in a long time, focuses on herself--and not just supporting, defending, and combating her boyfriend. Though it's a break for us, Perry doesn't seem interested in Ashley. She goes to the beach, talks to her sister for a few minutes, and adopts a cat.

Were it not for the fact that the female characters are the only ones with souls here (Krysten Ritter plays Melanie, Ike's estranged daughter, with a wounded spitfire quality that comprises one of my year's favorite performances), I would accuse Listen Up Philip of bordering on misogyny. All the women in Philip and Ike's lives are just mouthy props, meant to keep them from having to get real jobs--and to be discarded when they ask too many difficult, big-picture questions. These men are nasty to the core, but they're also, ostensibly, the rough-around-the-edges heroes that socially awkward free spirits in the audience should aspire to be.

Keep in mind, I'm not denigrating the creative process. I know how difficult it can be to get up and write or draw something--anything--especially when the storm front of depression settles in for days (or weeks, or months) at a time. But no one has carte blanche to be this vile to the people around them, even if that vitriol comes out as pithy observations and snort-worthy one-liners.

One could argue that Philip and Ike get their cosmic comeuppance in the end, but we know for a fact that they are incapable and undesiring of change. They are the same ugly human failures at minute one-forty-five, as they were at minute one. And if you weren't absolutely sure, Eric Bogosian drives the point home in a narrative voice-over that is both awful and terrific: awful because he fills in story gaps and motivations that often contradict what's happening on the screen;* terrific because Bogosian saves us the trouble of having to watch more scenes with these despicable characters.

I admire Perry's gusto in delivering a nearly unwatchable slice of filmic toxicity. The dialogue, acting, and direction are so unnervingly good all around that I felt outright attacked as a viewer. Believe it or not, that's a strong recommendation from me, but only for the people whom this movie was designed to speak to in profound ways.

For the record, I never want to meet those people.

*Philip, for example, was apparently once a nice guy who didn't spew verbal diarrhea on everyone he encountered. Uh huh.


Blended (2014)

Trip, Bro? Sure!

My love affair with Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore as an on-screen couple is officially over. They won my heart and raised my expectations in The Wedding Singer, and made 50 First Dates tolerable, despite being generally terrible. Blended reunites them with Wedding Singer director Frank Coraci for a movie that banks on the audience's fond memories of their older, better team-ups. But there's little effort here, scripting-wise, acting-wise, or in terms of filmmaking to make the movie memorable--outside of Sandler's not-so-startling confession that he chose his last several pictures (including this one) based on which vacation destination they were set in.

Africa won the wheel spin this time, and became the backdrop for an alternate-universe Brady Bunch remake. Sandler plays a slob raising three girls. Barrymore plays a neat-freak raising two boys. Through a contrivance I still haven't figured out, both families wind up at a luxury resort in Africa--which happens to be hosting an event for blended households.

Cue the bickering parents and the obnoxious kids, whose happy ending is just one bit-of-sage-advice-from-an-unlikely-source away. The comic bits fall mostly flat, and the parenting insights (mixed-family or otherwise) are nonexistent. This is the perfect entertainment for low-information theatregoers who pick movies in the multiplex lobby the way most folks weigh burger options at McDonald's.

Blended is a bad film, but it's not awful. There was never enough potential in this mix of concept, creatives, and target market for it to be anything but safe, mostly harmless fluff.* The biggest tragedy here is the handful of bright spots in all the sitcom bleakness. Sandler's relationship with his youngest daughters is touching; Emma Fuhrmann and Alyvia Alyn Lind deserve a lot of props for almost wrenching a tear out of me (okay, I guess that means Sandler does as well).

But there's the problem: for every sliver of relatable/comedic/dramatic content, we're bombarded with masturbation motifs, gagging gags, and so much Mars/Venus bullshit that I'm convinced screenwriters Ivan Menchell and Clare Sera lifted half their screenplay from one of Sandler's "serious" projects.

At the very least, I had the pleasure of watching Blended with my wife on Sweetest Day. As Sandler/Barrymore fans, we'd been curious about just how bad the movie could be. Turns out the best way to watch this thing is at home, with a support structure in place. We laughed, we groaned, we yelled at the TV (okay, I yelled at the TV), and we returned the flick to Redbox the next day. Twenty-four hours later, we still joked about the jokes we made about the movie. Wait, does that qualify Blended as a "memorable comedy"?

*One might attribute the portrayal of the African resort workers as cartoonishly racist. And one would have a point. As the swinging, shimmying entertainment directory, Terry Crews pops to perform emasculating Oompa Loompa-type songs, andAbdoulaye NGom plays his wise but silly Willy Wonka. These aren't people, to the movie, but neither are the main characters, either.


Whiplash (2014)

A Snare for the Dramatic

Damien Chazelle knows what the hell he's talking about. Whiplash's twenty-nine-year-old writer/director went through the ringer as a music student, and came out the other side an accomplished, inspiring filmmaker. His story of a first-year drummer at a prestigious New York jazz conservatory (whose hard-nosed instructor pushes the limits of his drive and abilities) is lively, bloody, and merciless. We've seen art-school dramas before, but rarely do they get the details so right. 

Miles Teller plays Andrew, a hot-shot jazz obsessive who, like his classmates, wants nothing more than to win the approval of top instructor Terence Fletcher (J.K. Simmons)l--and a spot in his elite band of upper classmen. Familiar as the premise may sound, this is not Fame, which followed multiple students on their journey to musical greatness. Nor is it An Officer and a Gentleman, wherein the broken-down-by-his-superior-officer soldier still finds time to get the girl by the end credits. Whiplash strays into Full Metal Jacket territory, with a hellfire confrontation between Fletcher and a chubby, insecure student (C.J. Vana), whom he nicknames "Elmer Fudd". But it's not a riff on that movie, either.

Chazelle zeroes in on Andrew's obsession with greatness. The kid practices for hours every day. He barely sleeps, and sometimes carves out time to catch a movie with his dad (Paul Reiser). He meets a student from another school, named Nicole (Melissa Benoist), and they sneak around on Andrew's muse: the sweaty, unforgiving pursuit of jazz mastery.

Andrew believes that notoriety in Fletcher's band will accelerate his education and career. His focus narrows dangerously, and he drifts into an underhandedness that leaves us wondering: can one be great if they waste time being a decent person? If so, is greatness worth pursuing? Chazelle poses this question a few different ways: at a contentious dinner between Andrew and his college-jock cousins; during a hard conversation with Nicole, during which Andrew checks out and his ambitions take over; and in a dozen close-ups of gaping finger wounds and blood spattering across cymbals like water in a sizzling pan. Whiplash is a possession movie in search of an exorcist, where the tormented soul must decide whether or not it wants to actually disentangle itself from the demon within.

Whiplash mostly knocked my socks off. Chazelle establishes a narrative rhythm that harmonizes perfectly with soul-screaming music and two lead performers who will command attention and appreciation once this film goes wide. Teller continues to explore his range as the cocky outcast; having recently graduated from high-school-student roles (with memorable turns in the Footloose remake and, especially, in last year's The Spectacular Now), his latest films feature not-quite-adult characters bobbing for air in the real world. What Andrew lacks in interpersonal skills (he's literally been locked up in padded rooms most of his life, playing drums) he makes up for in drive and ability. Teller doesn't play like an actor who had to learn a skill for a part: to this non-jazz aficionado, he was utterly convincing as a born performer wringing every bit of fluid from his body to achieve perfect time.

The same is true for Simmons. He's the drill instructor, the twisted authority figure, the cranky boss from hell. In short, he's a composite of his two most famous characters: Oz's white-supremacist bully and Spider-Man's blow-hard newspaper editor. His performance is grounded in empathy and compassion for kids who don't realize how damned hard it is to make it as a musician--especially at the level they aspire to. When Fletcher holds up a session for six hours in the middle of the night, so that three students can squeeze out a couple of notes to his exacting standards, I felt the exhaustion, the throbbing muscles, the disappointment. But I also appreciated Simmons' ability to sell us on a teacher determined to not let mediocrity pass (at one point, he admonishes Andrew, "There are no two words in the English language than 'good job'").

Despite this considerable praise, Whiplash finds itself out of tune in more parts than I'm comfortable giving a pass. Though cutting and delivered with conviction, Simmons' dialogue is often attention-grabbing in all the wrong ways. His slurs against races, sexes, and the mentally challenged feel forced--as if Chazelle didn't think we'd get just how intimidating Fletcher is without cartoonish diatribes. In fact, there's more intimidation in Simmons' reflexive, stop-the-music fist gesture than in any challenge to a mousy student's masculinity.

I also didn't appreciate the utter lack of repercussion in one character's two obvious crimes: an instance of public assault, and another of leaving the scene of an accident. In the moment, these scenes work very well, dramatically--but I was left scratching my head for minutes afterwards when the next plot progression didn't involve this person skipping practice to meet with a parole officer.

There's a final itch I just can't scratch here, one that would plant us firmly in spoiler territory. I'll leave it alone for now, except to ask anyone who's seen Whiplash whether or not they "get" Reiser's character's reaction to Andrew's big decision at the climax of the film. It's a puzzling note that feels disappointingly false.

Quibbles aside, Whiplash is one of my favorite films of the year. You'll be hard-pressed to find two more passionate, committed performances in 2014 than those of Teller and Simmons. And Chazelle announces himself as a young creative force to be reckoned with. Just as Billy Bob Thornton blew up after turning a short film into 1996's Academy Award-nominated Sling Blade, Chazelle expands his own short as a feature-length powder keg that, I hope, will ensure we hear more from him in years to come. His honest, refreshing voice made my spirit dance like a fool.

*Vana also bears an uncanny resemblance to a young Vincent D'onofrio.


Rudderless (2014)

Sentimental Values

Like the songs at the heart of its story, Rudderless is a powerful yet incomplete artwork. Billy Crudup plays Sam, an advertising executive so focused on work that he doesn't even know his college-age son, Josh (Miles Heizer), is a prolific songwriter. Josh dies unexpectedly one morning, leaving behind a box of unproduced demos and half-finished lyrics. Two years, one ruined marriage, and a sea of alcohol later, Sam's ex-wife, Emily (Felicity Huffman), presents him with a box of Josh's things. The broken drunk, who now lives on a boat and paints houses to get by, takes up the mantle of performing his son's music at a local bar.

First-time feature director William H. Macy and co-writers Casey Twenter and Jeff Robison turn in a fine film that will likely remind seasoned viewers of other movies. The trouble is, Rudderless contains many glimpses of greatness that are undermined by ham-handedness and clichés. Anton Yelchin is the eager townie who latches on to Sam's music. Laurence Fishburne is the cranky guitar store owner who also slashes prices on sage advice. Sam doesn't tell anyone that the songs are not his, causing a second layer of trouble in the third act.

I've been sworn to secrecy as to the precise nature of that layer, which is a shame. What begins as a somewhat unique story of a dad's efforts to create both a connection to and a musical legacy for his estranged son quickly escalates to an entirely new level of mind-blowing moral dilemma for the audience. It's an elegant manipulation on the part of the filmmakers to give us key information about the characters only after we've become invested in them. By not allowing preconceptions to shade their story, Macy and company give us something to leave the film with, besides remarkable performances.

Crudup and Huffman are stellar here, in roles that could have been weepy, TV-movie stuff in lesser hands. They reminded me of Nicole Kidman and Aaron Eckhart in Rabbit Hole, which covered similar territory (Rudderless substitutes folk-rock for crying and comics). Both sets of actors dial back and thus dial in on the universality of grief--which sometimes manifests as big emotions, but just as often comes out in wistful, resigned stares.

My only grievance against Rudderless (and it's a big one) is Macy's cloying need to balance out his weight-of-the-world themes with goofiness. I appreciate the desire to add levity (or just variety) to the proceedings, but everything that's not earnest drama just falls on its face--and nearly drags the rest of the picture with it. From Yelchin's Scrabby-Doo enthusiasm in the first part of the film (he mellows, thankfully, into a refreshingly low-key cadence later on), to the broadly drawn community of affluent boaters who form Sam's "neighborhood", Macy, Twenter, and Robison too often flee to the opposite end of the honesty spectrum when their movie threatens to get too heavy.*

The filmmakers stumble when they shy away from the raw and unflattering elements that make their movie so special. I'm reminded of Begin Again, which was also about lost souls finding musical inspiration in unexpected places. One film knows it's a comedy with dramatic undertones; the other is a drama that thinks it has to be funny. Ironically, Rudderless' greatest commentary on mourning may be the handful of ways it falls just short of realizing its full potential.

*Late in the film, Sam gets drunk and decides to "stick it to the man" by driving his boat through a regatta. While his neighbors are indeed stuffy, rich, and lame, their greatest crime appears to have been constantly reminding Sam not to pee off the side of his boat. Macy exalts this moment of boozy triumph in a way that recalls the end of One Crazy Summer, while earning neither our sympathies nor our cheers.


Gone Girl (2014)

Alien Abduction

David Fincher enters the 2014 Oscar race with a broken foot and Scotch on his breath. Gone Girl tops my list of Year's Worst films, and I'm still in disbelief that the force behind Se7en and The Social Network delivered such listless garbage. If you're a fan of Gillian Flynn's best-seller, prepare to be entertained (I guess). If, like me, you've only seen the adaptation's trailer, steady yourself for some dashed hopes. Marketed as a roiling cauldron of domestic-violence and mystery, Gone Girl boils down to a tone-deaf stab at black comedy: it's Basic Instinct as an art-house sitcom; Schinlder's List with slide whistles.

It's my own damned fault. Like the perpetrator of Flynn's missing-wife plot, Fincher and company leave clues right out in the open. When a host of comic actors popped up, I thought, "How nice to see Tyler Perry, Casey Wilson, and Missi Pyle working on their dramatic skills!" I was met instead with a gaggle of cartoon characters: the slick, white-collar lawyer; the obnoxious, redneck neighbor; the Nancy Grace-style news-magazine host. Ben Affleck plays the object of their suspicion, a wealthy-by-marriage writing teacher suspected of doing something awful to his not-quite-beloved Rosamund Pike. Sadly, he takes the role seriously, in an off-putting universe of shrill Muppets and black holes where characterization should be.

Like a fool, I trusted Fincher (and Flynn, who also wrote the screenplay) to deliver the taut Whodunnit promised in the previews. You might argue that I should have A) read the book, and B) not held the film accountable for its marketing. The first point is moot, as movies should stand on their own. The second will only get you so far down the logic path: one shouldn't sit down to watch Lincoln, for example, and wind up with Movie 43.

Indeed, Fincher believes, I assume, that he's fashioned a black comedy about the tribulations of marriage. In practice, it's an uneven farce that would stink of incompetence were it not for the brand names involved. Nick (Affleck) and Amy (Pike) are characters defined not by events that we see, but by narration and dialogue that is ascribed to them. Their past and present meld together as Amy's "Dear Diary" flashbacks intersect with the present-day disappearance investigation, but there's no transition between love-struck courtship and bitter married couple. They love each other, then they don't. Nick is a nice-guy slacker (except when he's not), and then a scheming, physically abusive creep (sometimes). Amy is at once brilliant and the kind of idiot who gets caught with thousands of dollars in cash on her person--twice.

These aren't people. They're pawns in a tolerance game perpetrated on the audience by Flynn and Fincher. How many plot twists can we accept; how un-relatable can two people possibly be; how flat and un-engaging can a cinematic mastermind's latest film look--before throngs of opening-weekend suckers call "Bullshit"?

Gone Girl is like a bad Law & Order two-parter that learned viewers will abandon at the third commercial break. Like a hundred (or hundred-thousand, for all I know) semi-procedurals before it, the film hits us with red-herring suspects, red-herring motives, and even red-herring omniscience--all of which hinge on a big, third-act reveal. Fincher's film has about four major reveals, and each one is so gob-smackingly ridiculous that I constantly found myself wishing the material were in better hands.

As a David Fincher fan, I can't believe I just typed that and didn't delete it.

Had Fincher and his team settled on a consistent tone, they might have made the film that's currently being hyped. At every turn, the drama is undermined by "snappy" dialogue that sounds like Kevin Smith copying the His Girl Friday screenplay while zonked out of his mind. The comedy depends on archetypes neither rooted in reality nor the story they're involved with (Patrick Fugit plays a young cop who hates Nick and believes he's guilty--for reasons neither stated nor implied). Like The Boxtrolls, Gone Girl features a lot of tedious "business". Though substantial in terms of run-time, it does little to hide the filmmakers' deist approach--dropping their central secret halfway through, and then walking away from the next hour-and-fifteen minutes.

Even my one glimmer of hope was clouded by ambivalence towards everything that had come before. Late in the film, Fincher stages a grisly, yet unsurprising murder (especially for fans of the aforementioned Basic Instinct). These darkly gleeful two minutes douse the screen in buckets of blood and excitement, both of which drain away at the scene change.

When I say that Gone Girl is one of the year's worst movies, I don't mean that it's technically deficient. Excepting the writing and the director's sensibilities regaring his actors' performances, most everything else here is top-notch. Fincher brings back many of his Girl with the Dragon Tattoo cohorts, such as cinematographer Jeff Cronenweth, editor Kirk Baxter, and composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. But they're given far less room to play than even on their previous book adaptation--which had already been adapted for film. No, the material is the culprit here, abetted by a dependably exciting director whose wicked, inventive sense of style seems to have momentarily vanished.

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