Kicking the Tweets

A Most Violent Year (2014)

Corleone 2.0

Though set in the early 1980s, J.C. Chandor's A Most Violent Year is a fine, new-millennium gangster drama. At its center is a home-heating-oil entrepreneur named Abel Morales (Oscar Isaac), who finds himself surrounded by corruption. He's targeted by everyone from the District Attorney (David Oyelowo), to a cadre of competitors, to a mysterious band of armed robbers who keep highjacking his trucks during New York City's most violent year on record. Though this may sound like another tired blood-and-honor riff on The Godfather, writer/director Chandor presents us with a sort of alternate-universe take on Michael Corleone--one whose aversion getting his hands dirty ensures a lifetime of hardship in a world that requires it.

More on that Corleone comparison: With his sunken, soulful eyes; tall, slick, black hair; and an intensity meter that ratchets from "Philosophical Calm" to "Betrayed Outrage" on a dime, Isaac at times resembles a CGI stand-in for early-70s Al Pacino. He's terrific here as a charismatic, sympathetic character whose moral code is as complicated as it is absolute. When pressed by the DA to admit that his business may not be on the level, Morales counters with legalese about complying with industry standards and practices. It's an artfully filtered evasion: Morales can't guarantee that every single aspect of his growing empire is legit, but he's also not the kind of leader who would countenance sabotaging competitors.

We quickly understand that Morales has constructed a sturdy fortress of plausible deniability within his own mind. He trusts his attorney (Albert Brooks) when he says that there's A) no merit to the DA's case and B) the 30-day land contract he's just signed for a 10,000-gallon-capacity shipping port will go through without a hitch. He trusts his wife (Jessica Chastain), the tough-as-nails daughter of a local crime legend, when she says she'll let Morales handle his business without getting her family involved. He trusts that his two biggest rivals will quit causing trouble for everyone, and thus get the law off everyone's backs.

Day after day, this month-long saga (A Most Violent Year begins and ends with the land contract) pushes Morales harder against a wall he helped build through his misplaced faith in the storybook American Dream. Chandor and Isaac build to an emotional climax that a lesser film would have telegraphed in the trailer. Abel Morales is unlike any character I've seen, a principled warrior who stands up to the universe and is undeterred by his subsequent pummeling. I need to revisit the movie, I think, to determine whether or not Morales winds up being insanely lucky, or if he's simply rewarded for surviving a gauntlet of fools, cowards, and back-stabbers.

Sorry if that was a spoiler. If you go into A Most Violent Year expecting, or even hoping for, the ninetieth coming of Goodfellas, nothing I write will disappoint you any more than you are already likely to be during the movie. That's not a knock on Goodfellas, or on you; A Most Violent Year just isn't a showy picture full of gruesome deaths, quotable mobster-isms, or colorful Pesci-types. This is a serious character study that questions what it means to be a "man", a provider, and a leader.

Using our collective knowledge of crime pictures against us, Chandor amps up the dread in very familiar key scenes: the big-boss sit-down, the carjacking, the wilderness-set captive hand-off. The intensity of these moments is just as pulse-quickening as the climactic car chase (and ensuing foot chase). Working in concert with editor Ron Patane, composer Alex Ebert, and cinematographer Bradford Young, Chandor casts a vision of a prosperous city on the verge of hemorrhaging its secrets--one in which a well-to-do-looking businessman's quiet drive home can end up as a bloody fight with hired scum.

I have one nit to pick with the film, and it's so tied to the greater theme that I'm usure of how to resolve my complaint. Elyes Gabel does some really great work as Julian, one of Morales' drivers. Unfortunately, Chandor's screenplay transforms him from catalyst to Maguffin by placing him in about three too many scenes. I understand this, from a story-structure and pacing perspective, but his final appearance in the film is far too great a coincidence to let stand without comment. It's a hell of an exit, and Julian's exchange with Morales underscores just how high a price one can pay for righteousness. But I had to walk back the character's last few scenes to figure out how it made sense for him to wind up where he did. The math works out, but it's a stretch.

Quibble aside, I highly recommend A Most Violent Year. It's a different breed of crime drama, one in which avoiding crime is of paramount concern to the main character. Fueled by bold ideas and strong performances, this is two hours of morally complex, stomach-turning tension that live up to its title in ways I didn't expect.


Silver Screen Fiend (2014)

Dawn of the Night Cafés

Full disclosure: I haven't reviewed a book since high school (they were called "reports" then). In the early aughts, I earned gas money critiquing comic books; not the same commitment as a novel by any stretch,* but it was writing about writing just the same. That's a long way of saying that reviewing Patton Oswalt's new memoir, Silver Screen Fiend, is new territory for me--and that a crucial lesson from his book, about not admitting professional shortcomings in public, hasn't quite sunk in.

That's not quite true. Silver Screen Fiend is a film disguised as a book about the movies. Oswalt follows up his collection of essays, asides, and autobiographical teases (2011's Zombie Spaceship Wasteland) with a more straightforward account of the four-year celluloid obsession that nearly killed him. It begins with the young comic discovering L.A.'s New Beverly Theatre in 1995 and culminates in the collective pop-cultural life-reassessment that accompanied Star Wars: Episode I in 1999.

Fans of Oswalt's comedy should know that this book is not a placeholder for a new stand-up album (though I highly recommend the audiobook if, like me, you need a fix). His literate wit and evocative imagery are all intact, but the humor melds with startling confessions of cinematic myopia: he lost relationships, friendships, work opportunities, and precious, precious time by sitting in movie theatres--by dreaming of a filmmaking career instead of making it happen.

Sure, he maintained a steady stream of road gigs, club gigs, and a ground-floor spot at a little club called Largo, but Oswalt's true passion lay in a direction that required demolishing his comfort zone; for nearly half a decade, he watched idols fight, laugh, and dance across the screen, dutifully collecting a database of cinematic history by checking off films in one of three battered, self-annotated film encyclopedias. But he lacked ambition--a key ingredient to success that best describes the heroe's journey at the heart of Silver Screen Fiend.

At several points in the narrative, Oswalt addresses his arrogance as a young stand-up. Working with other young comics who who seemed to both know what they wanted out of life and how to get it was frustrating, and sent him into a depressed spiral of comfort food, movies, and delusional inner monologues about how much everything sucked. This deadly psychic cocktail led to a deliciously uncomfortable-to-read account of a failed MADtv sketch pitch, and a terrifying cautionary tale about cramming too many films into an unreasonable time frame.**

For as skin-crawlingly honest as Silver Screen Fiend is, the book is not a downer. In fact, it is one of the most hopeful and inspiring things I've read in a long time. Using Vincent van Gogh's painting "The Night Cafés" as a framing device, Oswalt walks us through seven key moments in his life that propelled him out of the toxic messages rattling around in his skull and into bold, new adventures that reconnected him with people,*** posititivity, and possibility. Sure, it's easy to argue that being on a sitcom for nine years and voicing the lead character in a Pixar movie would open just about any door, but Oswalt makes clear that he wasn't just handed these things. He took small steps and then bigger ones, and always heeded the cosmic beacons when he felt a change in the air.

Damn it, now I'm making this sound like a Tony Robbins book. Well, does Tony Robbins talk about eating mushrooms, bumming around Germany with an unknown Louis C.K. or putting on a comic-improvised version of Jerry Lewis' unseen disasterpiece, The Day the Clown Cried? Nope. But Patton Oswalt does, and with three-thousand percent less dental real estate to navigate.

I'll wrap up this review with my highest recommendation, as well as a warning: If you're a creative loafer, a dreamer, or a kinda-sorta kind of person, Silver Screen Fiend will shake you to your core. I devoured every last word, and re-listened to several passages twice. At the end, I was left in a daze, a hard-core existential crisis. Who am I to criticize anyone's art? What latent or forgotten talents of my own have I allowed to atrophy into uselessness, scarred over by the lure of corporate-gig comfort? Do I even have dreams anymore?

I'd love to say that Patton Oswalt not only woke me up, but also pointed me in a solid direction. Who doesn't love a book review with a fairy-tale ending? But his lesson is that no external force can set you on your path; destiny is a unique code that we must unlock for ourselves. Sure, we have art as guideposts, but we can't spend our journey merely dissecting those guideposts and buliding shrines to them. Don't worry: I'm not giving up writing about movies (or books, or burlesque shows); it's as legit an artform as anything else. But I'm more conscious than ever of the need to keep growing, to keep learning, to keep doing and receiving--to remember that I'm the screenwriter, and not the audience.

Chicagoans! At 7pm tonight, Patton Oswalt will appear in conversation with film critic Richard Roeper at North Central College's Wentz Hall in Naperville, IL. Tickets are still available, and include a copy of Silver Screen Fiend, which you can have signed at the event!

*Except for a long weekend in 2003, when I read Palomar as interview research. All I remember about The Hernandez Brothers' soapy, 512-page graphic novel is a sped-up carousel of black-and-white images and the clock on my cable box, cheerfully gobbling time like a Langolier.

**Oswalt calls the result "slippage", a word that, in addition to the phrase "surfing in the foam of chance", shot a rocket through my third eye like Méliès' man in the moon.

***The kind you sit next to in a theatre, and not just watch on screen.


Inherent Vice (2014)

Pynchon a Loaf

"Remind me why I should give a shit again?"

--Josh Brolin, Inherent Vice

In the end-of-the-year package-push that is Awards Season, I sometimes receive promotional booklets in the mail, along with whatever film a given studio wants to promote. I didn't read the attractive, oversized collection of character bios that came with Paul Thomas Anderson's Inherent Vice until after I watched the movie--when it became invaluable to writing this review.

I'm unfamiliar with Thomas Pynchon's 2009 novel (which Anderson adapted for the screen) but the promo material did more to spark my interest than the actual film. Maybe I shouldn't call them "bios": a still of each actor, in character, appears over a descriptive passage from the book. With a few sparse paragraphs, Pynchon paints a dreamy, gritty, and paranoid portrait of early-70s California, which Anderson mistakenly (or brazenly) ignores in favor of set design, costuming, and helping his asleep-at-the-wheel cast shine through artificial, heaped-on sleaze.

Joaquin Phoenix plays Larry "Doc" Sportello, a pot-prone P.I. who gets a visit from his distraught ex-girlfriend, Shasta Fay Hepworth (Katherine Waterston). She wants Doc to investigate the disappearance of real estate mogul Mickey Wolfmann (Eric Roberts), who may have been wrongfully committed to an insane asylum by his wife, Sloane (Serena Scott Thomas), and her lover, Riggs Warbling (Andrew Simpson). The case also draws the attention of local super-detective/aspiring TV star, Christian "Bigfoot" Bjornsen (Josh Brolin), who alternately helps and hinders Doc's investigation, while cooking up plans of his own.

That's the most basic overview I can give and, aside from the resolution of the Wolfmann case, the entire substance of the film. In premise and practice, Inherent Vice is as formulaic as every other hard-luck-dick/femme fatale story you've ever seen--or ever seen parodied. So, why is it two-and-a-half hours long? Simply put, Anderson (not Pynchon, necessarily) buries his plot under countless, meandering scenes that have little to do with the problem presented our de facto hero at the outset. This is literally a movie comprised of maguffins, helmed by a Teflon auteur of the highest order.

Doc talks at length with junkies, feds, informants, neo-Nazis, king-makers, dentists, and Lord knows who else--each with impossibly colorful names that register but don't stick from scene to scene.* They're not meant to, and neither are the myriad plot threads. I suppose the somewhat knowing look on a certain character's face during the final shot might reveal a deeper layer of complexity--but by the time I caught it, I'd run the marathon and just wanted a cold blast of water to keep from passing out.

I should clarify that "asleep-at-the-wheel" comment. Inherent Vice is crammed with talented actors whose mere presence delighted me as a fan of their work. Michael Kenneth Williams, Jenna Malone, Martin Donovan--I could go on about the movie's frequent, unexpected micro-blasts of warm fuzzies. Sadly, the actors quickly wear out their welcome, falling into the same narcoleptic style adopted by Phoenix and Waterston.** Only Brolin manages to inject some personality into his character; as his hard-nosed cartoon cop melted into a pool of disillusionment and drugs, I wished to God this had been Bigfoot's movie.

Anderson's biggest problem is that the material has been more effectively mined in other movies--not just covered, mined. Inherent Vice lifts thematically from The Big Lebowski (stoner gets in way over his head with nefarious high-society types), L.A. Confidential (showbiz-obsessed detective gets in way over his head with the corrupt forces upstairs), and, to a lesser extent, Get Shorty (the reluctant protagonist interviews a parade of colorful characters while stumbling his way to victory). The parallels aren't perfect, but it's hard to watch Inherent Vice without thinking of films that have already said the same things--with voices that, despite dire undertones, infected the audience with their creators' mischievous humor.

The multiple plots, subplots, asides, and ham-handed social commentary,*** causes the movie to simultaneously flail and drift, half-heartedly grasping at a reason to exist. The fact that no one has adapted Pynchon before is not an excuse to be boringly faithful. Like the water planet in Interstellar, Inherent Vice has tremendous breadth, but is plagued by an oppressive narrative gravity and shallowness that requires one to take a break every few minutes and decide if forging ahead is worth the effort.

Perhaps Pynchon wrote his book in a pop bubble (as the dated yet anachronistic references to Friday the 13th and A Nightmare on Elm Street suggest). Or maybe Anderson did his best to tart up a skeletal nag. Regardless of the effort, the result is a glossy yet forgettable misstep in a career marked by (until recently) unforgettable characters, stories, and the raw elation of epic, daring filmmaking. In a sad turn of events, Paul Thomas Anderson and Wes Anderson appear to have temporarily swapped places.

Where is this movie's Daniel Plainview? Its Eddie Adams? Its Frank T.J. Mackie? Who is the soul of Inherent Vice? Joaquin Phoenix reprises his disconnected, mumbling schtick from I'm Still Here, but his character suffers a lack of contrast; he's just another spaced-out dude looking for something--could be a land developer, could be his car keys. Whatever, it's all groovy, man.

To be clear, I can't fault the film on any technical level. Anderson is a brilliant artist who brings a crew of A-players to the court every time. Inherent Vice looks great, sounds great, and feels expensive, but so do Michael Bay's Transformers movies--which incur a derision that Anderson's recent work does not. Despite similar run-times inflated by multiple, pointless storylines; razor-thin characters; and an unofficial invitation by the director to tune out, it is blasphemy in some circles to compare Anderson and Bay. Chalk that up to branding, I guess.  I submit that if one were to take Anderson's name off of this picture and show it to an audience, those who stayed awake through the end would ask, "What's with this art-house-Lebowski crap?"

Lest you think I'm just being a hater, I should mention that I watched the film twice. Yep, like Alex DeLarge, I submitted myself to another round of cinematic waterboarding--just to make sue I hadn't missed something. I enjoyed Inherent Vice slightly more the second time around, simply because I knew it would eventually end. The jokes still didn't land, the characters still didn't leave an impact, and the main plot's resolution (such as it was) still threatened another forty minutes of Return of the King-style housekeeping.

On the plus side, Pynchon's lush language struck me from the pages of that promotional booklet, and I may pick up his novel sometime. My infatuation with Anderson is officially over, though, and I predict a heavy-lidded, Doc Sportello shrug the next time I hear he's got a movie coming out.

*I invite you to use the names Petunia Leeway, Sauncho Smilax, Japonica Fenway, Puck Beaverton, Coy Harlingen in a new drinking game called "Pynchon Character or Star Wars Alien?".

**The exception is Martin Short, whose character's manic, coke-craving energy becomes exhausting on an entirely different level.

***Did you know that every cop in the 70s hated hippies?


Life Itself (2014)

Mission Critical

Two themes popped up on my radar at the movies last year: the Bible and film criticism. I covered the former in my Exodus: Gods and Kings review, but didn't appreciate the latter until writing about Steve James' beautiful and insightful documentary on Roger Ebert, Life Itself. Where Chef and Birdman mostly dished up the same surface representations of critics we've been fed for years (the stuffy, bitter aspirant best personified by Anton Ego in Ratatouille, whose only relationship to art is destroying it through clever diction) James paints a three-dimensional portrait of a man whose art was the act of making serious film discussion accessible to the masses.

Ebert didn't set out to be a critic. While working as a journalist for The Chicago Sun-Times in 1967, he filled a sudden vacancy at the paper and simply never left. His writing was fueled by a working-class drive; liberal politics; a penchant for holding court nightly at after-hours bars; and, of course, a lifelong love of movies. The resulting colorful commentary convinced readers that they were getting trustworthy recommendations from a friend (or at least a friend-of-a-friend).

The jovial TV critic many of us grew up watching doesn't appear in Life Itself until several minutes in. We're introduced to Roger and his wife, Chaz, at the end of his life--as a recurring bout of cancer gears up for another match. Our engaging orator is chair-bound, unable to speak, and must be fed through a tube that requires regular, painful cleaning. An approximation of his voice emerges, Hawking-like, from speakers connected to his ever-present MacBook, and he cheerfully pantomimes the myriad jokes brewing behind those wide, fiery eyes.

From here, James escorts us on a trip through Ebert's past, via photo-and-clip montages and talking-head interviews with friends; voice actor Stephen Stanton narrates much of this journey, uncannily reading as Ebert from his 2011 memoir.

What a life! Ebert's inquisitive spirit led him to slay many dragons in pursuit of the ultimate real-world screenplay. From beating booze to teaming with a professional enemy* and helping resurrect Martin Scorsese's career, every obstacle was an epic story problem to be solved. He even donned the role of filmmaker by scripting Russ Meyer's kitsch classic, Beyond the Valley of the Dolls, and wrote a beyond-the-spotlight book about Cannes. His reviews and editorials were dispatches from wild adventures--relayed not in the studied, stuffy language of ivory tower elites, but in the sharp, unabashed excitement of a neighborhood raconteur.

I've seen Life Itself twice, and I love it. But I can't shake a couple nagging critiques that, I'll admit, may be unfair. James makes a strong case that Ebert (and, to a great extent, his weekly show with Gene Siskel) not only transformed society's relationship to film criticism, it also informed the generation of thinkers and art appreciators who would inherit the Internet. We're introduced to, a site designed to house the author's life's work and provide a stage for bold new writers worldwide. We're told how influential Ebert was, and continues to be, for digitally democratized criticism. But none of these testimonials comes from an actual Ebert acolyte.

I would love to have seen, even briefly, a "Millennial" address the man's legacy--someone inspired to write about films professionally, having grown up in an age where Siskel & Ebert dominated the pop landscape. Better yet, what about a writer with a different take on Ebert's importance in the everyone's-an-expert era?

The closest we get are two interviews with two filmmakers whom Ebert encouraged to follow their dreams; these are at once lovely and distracting vignettes. Also absent are interviews with (or commentary from/on) the people who famously stepped in after Gene Siskel's passing and Ebert's early retirement from TV. No Richard Roeper. No Michael Phillips. No Christy Lemire. I'm sure there's a reason for these omissions, and maybe I'm looking for a different movie--but at two hours, the film feels a tad incomplete in a some key areas.

I first saw Life Itself last July, in a packed screening room that included Ebert's colleagues, friends, and family. He'd passed away the year before, and this event felt like an unofficial wake. A bouquet of flowers decorated his chair, and sniffles punctuated James' expertly crafted tribute film. There were no speeches; only laughter, tears, and hugs. Walking out, I couldn't have been more fired up to be a movie critic, or more intimidated by the long, loving shadow cast by this eloquent titan of creative populism.

Roger Ebert inspired me to study, to not be afraid of my own opinions,** and to be diligent in my craft. Through his work, I learned that criticism is a craft. When done correctly, it requires just as much education, intuition, and sweat as creating "legitimate" art. The master stroke of an artist's life, however, is achieving balance between an overactive psyche, the creative exorcising of that psyche, and the human need to build a strong relationship with the outside world. Steve James dispels the critic myth, presenting us with a man who loved his life and lived it--instead of sniping bitterly from the flicking shadows.

*The Chicago Tribune's Gene Siskel; the two hosted various movie-review shows for decades and created the controversial "Thumbs" rating system.

**No matter how frequently they clashed with the greater consensus.


Sex Tape (2014)

Winners and Lubers

It's okay to like Sex Tape, right? I mean, by this point I've unofficially forfeited my film-critic bona fides* so often that standing (okay, crouching) behind one of 2014's worst-reviewed movies is hardly grounds for a scarlet letter. I laughed once and chuckled twice, neither of which happened during director Jake Kasdan's previous effort, Bad Teacher--which also starred Cameron Diaz and Jason Segel. Comedically, both films bury the bar, but Sex Tape has just enough spark to recommend as a giggle-free curiosity. 

The premise is sitcom-simple (fitting, since writer Kate Angelo comes from TV): Diaz and Segel play Annie and Jay, a bored suburban married couple with two kids and no sex life--a marked contrast from their pathologically pornographic college days. To celebrate the forthcoming sale of Annie's mommy blog to a huge toy company, the couple enlists Annie's mother (Nancy Lenehan) to babysit while they hole up with tequila, an iPad, and The Joy of Sex. Of course, Jay forgets to delete the three-hour memento of their romp, which soon makes its way to friends, family, and Annie's clean-cut prospective boss, Hank (Rob Lowe). Cue a night-long quest to get all the copies of the video back before anyone has a chance to press "Play".

I've boiled down the plot to help make the particulars make sense. Sex Tape's convoluted carnal capers are forced and unfunny, and serve as a harsh contrast to the relative honesty with which Angelo and co-writers Segel and Nicholas Stoller imbue Annie and Jay's quieter moments. It's refreshing to see the less glamorous aspects of married life in a mainstream comedy. The protagonists never fell out of love, they simply fell into a routine that, over time, has tarnished their once-sparkling romance. Though Kasdan's picture basks in the buttery, white-privilege gloss of a Pier 1 circular (down to his stars' all-hairs-in-place looks and movie-tired-but-not-tired-tired demeanors), Diaz and Segel nail the anxiety and disappointment of grown-up living in their performances.

One moment in particular made me sit up and take notice. Jay receives a text message from an anonymous number, teasing him about the video. He writes back, hoping for a clue as to the person's identity. Instead, he's left hanging for a couple minutes, and the look on Segel's face conveys the dread of being found out, but also the inherent itchiness that accompanies waiting for any kind of response in the age of constant information. The scene belongs in a smarter movie, but it's characteristic of a few observational gems that make Sex Tape work intermittently.

Aaaand there's the problem. Kasdan and crew detour from each interesting path by plowing into mud-traps of desperate farce. The revelation of Rob Lowe's character, for example, as a coke-snorting metalhead who commissions Disney portraits featuring himself is terrific; he's like the wealthy, slightly more balanced cousin of Elijah Wood's Kevin in Sin City. Running parallel to this story, however, is an extended gag involving Jay's encounter with Hank's guard dog, who catches him snooping around the mansion. The scenes drag on so mercilessly that I had flashbacks to This is the End, wondering if anyone would ever escape that goddamned house.

At the very least, we don't have to endure the machinations of Hank finding out about the video and forcing Annie into a compromising position. His story evaporates, making way for a brand new adventure where the family reunites for a midnight trip to YouPorn headquarters--where the person blackmailing Jay has allegedly uploaded the incriminating evidence for distribution online. We do, however, suffer a cameo from the company's owner, played by an awkwardly accented Jack Black. He offers Annie and Jay sage advice about marriage; removes their video from his queue before it goes live; and doesn't press charges for ramming his building with their truck, breaking into his server room, and trying to destroy his information hub.**

Because there are still ten minutes to kill in the run-time, our scot-free happy family can't simply head home for pancakes and therapy. They must attend a fourth-grade graduation ceremony, which will either feature the sex tape on a large screen or Hugh Grant kissing a woman as the curtain flies up. Not to worry: the film may be filthy, but it's suburbia-safe filth. In a weird way, Kasdan wants this to be his Love Actually, not his Bad Santa. Sex Tape is a hugs 'n lessons picture wrapped in the tawdry packaging of armpit licking and crotch summersaults.

Like last summer's Neighbors, Sex Tape offers a more complex look at parenting than we're used to seeing at the movies--particularly in dumb comedies. That film was more insightful and far funnier, but Angelo, Segel, and Stoller at least give sincerity a try here. Too bad for everyone involved that gross-out gags and artificial conflict rarely play well with emotional honesty: seeing Annie turn shrill and angry on a dime is one of the film's more depressing reminders of what we're really watching.*** Still, I've just written nine-hundred words about this movie--something I'd have never thought possible before putting it on. The experience has been oddly stimulating, and no matter how hard my future-self may argue the degree to which I shamefully enjoyed it, the Internet will never let me forget.

*Just wait 'til you see my "Year's Best" list.

**Don't call it a Porn Hub. That's a different site, which we learn when Black "hilariously" lists his competitors' names in rapid succession.

***That and the eyeball-assault product placement for Apple and YouPorn.

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