Monday, December 29, 2014


He pulls off such a sturdy performance in Foxcatcher that it seems unfair to compare Steve Carrell's role as John Eleuthère du Pont (ornithologist, philatelist, philanthropist) to his character in The Office, Michael Gary Scott. But thoughts of the hapless manager of Dunder Mifflin's Scranton branch kept ghosting up while watching Bennett Miller's new film. The connection was cemented by one quote from Foxcatcher Wrestler Dan Mayo, interviewed on TV just after du Pont surrendered to police in 1996. "He was strange in some ways," says Mayo, "but he had such a good heart and he meant well, that you dealt with his different ways of dealing with things." Such a line feels like it could have easily come out of a talking head describing Michael Scott on The Office.

Both men fancy themselves leaders of men, use the rhetoric of inspiration, but are not themselves inspirational. They have nothing practical to impart, and ultimately feed off the effort and success of others and congratulate themselves by association. They clank around in the armor of platitudes, and one wonders what kind of spindley frailty is inside. The inner person found in The Office is ultimately endearing and redemptive; the occupant found in Foxcatcher is... Well, you'll have to see the movie.

Of course du Pont was a real man, and it's impossible to know the definitive guts of a human. But we know the outside, and can guess some at the inside. The du Ponts were old money, American royalty - "A Dynasty of Wealth and Power" - who made their fortune with gunpowder and kept the wealth in one place by arranging marriages between cousins. John du Pont was an heir to that wealth and power. His greatest achievement in life - other than penning a few bird books - was being born into that family.

He knows what achievement looks and sounds like, but no idea how to build it from the ground up. This is baldly obvious when du Pont takes on a gold medal-winning wrestler, Mark Schultz. A moving meat machine - played quietly by Channing Tatum - du Pont has no idea how to pilot Schultz. It's Mark's brother David - played so wonderfully and kindly by Mark Ruffalo - who has the learned, caring sensitivity to guide and inform him. Du Pont's attempts are so clueless but performed with such confidence that he can - like Michael Scott - pass as absurd, harmless, and - in the face of better judgement - charming.

When asked at the Film Society of Lincoln Centre what attracted him to the material, writer and director Bennett Miller said "I thought it was funny. Seriously... It was funny, except the outcome was horrible."

And this is the ongoing tension in Foxcatcher, the pall that darkens the large absurdity of a character like John du Pont, and the world and reality he builds around him at Foxcatcher Farm. Whether or not he's unsound, du Pont certainly doesn't know what he's doing, only how to try and make it seem, with speeches, with uniforms, like he knows what he's doing. "What does he get out of this?" David asks as he finds out about this blooming mentorship. Not sure about it himself, Mark responds cluelessly, but confidently: "America. Winning."

In my review of the exceptional documentary The Overnighters, I touched on the idea of American exceptionalism, that belief that Americans are inherently blessed, are predisposed for success. Arguably, there are two types of exceptionalism: passive and active. Active exceptionalism is fueled by the belief that America is blessed, but acknowledges that work is still required, that greatness needs to be renewed constantly. But a person who is passively Exceptional needs only to exist to be great. Their exceptionalism is inherited, victory is certain. 

When a person like du Pont, a proponent of passive exceptionalism, is forced to live in a reality that doesn't care about that inheritance, things won't end well. Foxcatcher, like The Overnighters - and like, excuse me, The Office - dwells on the broken promise of achievement that a person thinks was made to them. The chanting of "USA! USA! USA!" that closes Foxcatcher feels as damning as it does celebratory.

- Andrew

Monday, December 22, 2014


In the segment titled "Delirium" in Jim Jarmush's anthology film Coffee and Cigarettes, Wu-Tang Clan members GZA and RZA are hanging out in a café, discussing holistic medicine - as, I suppose, is their wont. An older man dressed in an apron and paper cap offers to top up the coffee they're not drinking and it's Bill Murray. Or, as GZA calls him Bill "Groundhog Day Ghostbustin'-ass" Murray. At the time, I guess it could be a laughable idea that Bill Murray would serve you coffee, but with the contemporary stories of Murray Encounters abounding, it doesn't seem that odd. I'm sure Billy Murray has hotted up a stranger's cup of coffee from time to time.

Now, I love Bill Murray as much as any 30 year old man does. Don't get me wrong. But I don't think anyone's feelings would get hurt if I suggested Bill Murray has not been a great actor. Bill Murray has mostly played entertaining-as-hell shades of Bill Murray. Peter Venkman, Frank Cross, Phil Connors: all chips off the same Murray hunk. Even Murray's comeback roles in Rushmore and Lost In Translation feel like craggier versions of those chips. From time to time, too, Billy Murray pops up in movies - as he does in real life - playing Billy Murray. For nearly three decades - if we're being honest - it's been altered iterations of Bill "Groundhog Day Ghostbustin'-ass" Murray.

Put down your pitchforks. I'm not expressing complaint; just making an observation.

From time to time Bill Murray retires. He took a bit of a break in the mid-90s, and came back stronger as an older, sadder, no less biting Murray. That career renaissance had a lot to do with how new directors saw Murray, how they cast him. He took another little break around 2010, and returned in 2012, seeing himself differently. Hyde Park on Hudson wasn't the greatest movie of all time, but it was good, and Bill Murray was good in it, for the first time since maybe Where The Buffalo Roam - where he played a more accurate Hunter S. Thompson than Johnny Depp's 1998 caricature - fully inhabiting a character. Murray's Harry Truman was still charming, and was certainly elevated by Murray's portrayal, but it was an autonomous charm. In St. Vincent, the titular Vincent similarly benefits from Murray's established charm, but he's his own person, and sometimes feels like "Groundhog Day Ghostbustin'-ass"'s most accomplished roles.

Like Murray himself - or at least how I imagine Murray to actually be - St. Vincent, the story of curmugeon-turned-babysitter, is gruff and grouse-ful, but gradually reveals itself to be sweet and mushy inside. Murray doesn't necessarily turn in a career-making performance, but it does feel like a career rejuvenating performance.

If it turns out that Bill Murray scoops your popcorn when you come see St. Vincent during the holiday break, don't make a big deal about it. As Murray once told a guy he stole a few fries from: no one will ever believe you.

- Andrew


Monday, December 15, 2014


It's been a while since I've had cable TV. And a lack of heaps of channels mixed with a green, damp December makes for the perfect condition to forget that The Holiday Season is upon us. Because for myself - and I'm sure this is true for more people than just me - The Holiday Season exists primarily on TV. (Inane Christmas music has become so insidious that I don't even hear it in grocery stores and post offices anymore.) TV specials, classic movies, and commercials are common snow globes in varied homes, in varied environs. When those globes get agitated, the swirling response is mostly Pavlovian: I catch just a few minutes of Jonathan Taylor Thomas dressed as Santa, rushing home to his family, or Jim Varney as Ernest dressed as Santa, racing the clock to save Christmas, or Tim Allen "Tool Time" grunting from beneath a Santa beard, and I'm imbued with something resembling "the spirit."

I'll bet you the Terry's Chocolate Orange from my stocking that we - us North Americans - rewatch holiday movies more than we do the films we'd cite as our favourites. Under oath, I wouldn't claim to 'like' Home Alone, but I've probably seen it at least once - sometimes twice or thrice, watching with different levels of attention, inebriation, or satiation - every year since 1990. That's in the neighbourhood of 50 times. I've seen a movie I don't actually care for more times than I've probably been to the dentist. What's wrong with me? What's wrong with us?

Under what other circumstances do we so consistently engage with entertainment that we don't consider "good?" I suppose there are terrible songs that nobody likes - which everyone loves - that get danced to at most weddings, but that's about it. But there is something special about poor holiday... Actually, let's not beat about the bush: these are Christmas movies. And Christmas movies seem exempt from having to be good, they just need to be on. They're less entertainment, more ritual. They're mostly there to float the infrangible idea of Christmas: the snow's always perfectly fallen, downtown stores have animatronic toy displays in the windows, and homeless people are Santa. Like lights strung up on a tree, you can kind of do a shitty job and it'll still look decent when seen from far enough away.

But that's not to say that all Christmas movies are garish decorations we pack away on the 26th. For my money - or, rather, for my second Terry's Chocolate Orange (which I get because my brother doesn't like his) - A Christmas Story and National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation are straight up good. They're funny, and odd, and cynical, but also get around to kowtowing to the "specialness" of the season. I should add, too, that both of these stand out because they're exactly traditional, beginning-middle-end movies. They're almost anthologies, full of observations and set pieces. You can come into and out of them with little effort, getting up for beer and snacks and more beer with relative ease.

But whether they're terrible or legitimately watchable, there's an odd impermanence to Christmas movies. Even if we love them, that certain shine they have dulls when they're seen out of context. You can watch National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation in May, and it'll be okay, but it just won't be the same. These movies are points of access to a temporary cultural tradition, to a most fictional, temporary feeling about the world. Like a Terry's Chocolate Orange, I don't really like them, but Christmas morning just isn't the same without the disgusting things.

- Andrew


The opening shots of Stanley Kubrick's The Shining are majestic and haunting. The camera soars over water and mountain, finding a vein running through that wilderness, spotting a measly yellow VW Bug struggling along that road. A synthed-out Dies Irae ("Day of Wrath") plays and we know, without yet knowing anything, that something terrible will happen to whomever's in that poor Bug. It's a credit sequence, so we don't really question the shot. Most films open with establishing shots that locate their subject and telescope in. This soundtrack and swoop, though, suggest that this is a malevolent POV (point of view). The camera behaves like a bird of prey stalking Jack Torrence, finally taking him as he enters the Overlook hotel.

Of course The Shining has little-to-nothing to do with Birdman. I've just seen Alejandro González Iñárritu's ceaseless stunner the once, and get the feeling that it'll take another few viewings to suitably unpack the thing, bulging as it is with ruminations on celebrity, art, fulfillment, the self, reality. At its core is Riggan Thomson, an actor who made his nut as a superhero before anyone cared about superhero movies. Riggan's washed up and attempting to get people to see him freshly with a stage adaptation of the canonical Raymond Carver story "What We Talk About When We Talk About Love." At the forefront of Riggan's mind now is his reputation, how he's seen. He may have superpowers and he definitely communicates with his albatross, Birdman.

There are no cuts in Birdman. A shot in a contemporary movie will last a few seconds, and there are thousands of them. Done well, you don't really notice the cuts, they accrue to form a spacial, detailed reality. A shot in Birdman is all of Birdman. Aleksandr Sokurov's Russian Ark is the only film I can think of that is truly done in a single shot film, because of course Birdman's continuity is cheated, à la Rope, though pretty seamlessly. In a century of film, the idea of the cut, the assemblage of reality, has become subliminal. We forget that we're not passively seeing something so much as we're being actively shown something. The frequency of cuts in movies today tells us just how far film has gotten from live theatre.

What cutting also lets us do is be in the moment, but not necessarily of it. However, with a single sustained shot, as with live theatre, we're sort of trapped. One of the reason that I'm having such a problem articulating my reactions to Birdman is there aren't really any moments of pause. It's a difficult film to take notes during. Like live theatre, it doesn't stop moving until it's over. And while early films were often just a wide shot of what's effectively theatre, Birdman is full of close-ups. The actors stress the frame. They feel sometimes like their trapped in the consistent shot. It's live theatre. They can't leave.

There's a duality to live theatre that film doesn't have. With film, you're watching a record that's been severely monkeyed with. These performances happened, a guy cried or a car flipped, but any initial reality ends up being mostly chopped out and reassembled into an experiential fiction. But with live theatre, you're watching something fake and something real all at once. The pretend moment and the actual moment rest on top of one another. Keeping one fluid shot, Birdman - a film very interested in the relationship between performance and reality, character and person - maintains that special tension of the live performance better than anything I've ever seen. It's not really live performance, but it has something of its essence.

Another effect of the cut - the cut to scene coverage, or the cut to an object - is it implies a visual ubiquity. The camera becomes an omniscient 3rd person narrator. But with no cuts, the camera becomes a fixed point of observation. An individual view. The only time we ever really see this POV used in movies is in horror movies, when the omniscient camera briefly enters the killer's view, usually hiding in the bushes. This becomes unsettling because the viewer is now seeing the action from a specific vantage, from a specific character. And if we don't know who's doing the seeing, it's all the more disturbing.

And so it begs the question: who's doing the seeing in Birdman? The camera roams freely through the backstage of the theatre, glommed on to the characters. I want to say it was Roland Barthes that stressed we, as readers, always have to ask who's narrating. In film, the camera is the closest thing there is to a narrator, and so the question becomes ever more pressing as the film goes on. To whom or to what does this single view belong to?

I thought back to that opening helicopter shot in The Shining. How that shot is/has a personality. Of course that shot, that POV, is The Shining. It's the story itself that hunts down and scoops up the characters. A point detractors make about The Shining is that Jack Nicholson is too broad, that there's no descent into madness. But what transition do we need? As soon as the POV gets a bead on the Bug, Jack is trapped in the narrative just as he and his family will become trapped in the Overlook. He becomes an actor forced to play out the same scenario over and over. But the POV is also us, the audience. We trap the family. We wouldn't be watching the movie if we thought it was about a struggling writer who takes his wife and son to hotel for the winter and gets all his work done and has a fun time in the hedge maze. We maybe don't want to see him hack up his family, but we sure came to see him try his best.

I said before that, with the single camera so close, the characters in Birdman seem trapped. And indeed they are. They're trapped like the Torrence's are. They're trapped in the machinations of a fiction. They're trapped like the titular bit players in Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, they're trapped like "the shadows" of A Midsummer Night's Dream. The characters are trapped in their roles, as the characters are trapped on the stage. As it's we, the audience - gawking at them from our single POV - that cages them, until they've gone through the meat grinder of human drama we came to see. After it's done, after we've left, who knows where they go.

- Andrew

Monday, December 8, 2014


The hunks of North American cinema are wasting away before our rapt eyes, are going from studly, cocksure, and suave to gaunt, weird, and rickety. It's tempting to be cynical about leading men taking roles usually reserved for character actor roles as maybe a way to gain credibility, but one could also see the trend as a means of making darker, odder fare a bit more palatable for a public that's becoming increasingly interested in challenging films.

(An aside: it's likewise interesting to consider that a new generation of Hollywood blockbusters are relying on unlikely heroes, a trend kicked off with then-unhirable Robert Downey Jr. playing Iron Man and, most recently, the once-portly goof Chris Pratt in Guardians of the Galaxy - both of whom opened up slick summer explosion and tights flicks to people fed up with that junk.)

Jake Gyllenhaal isn't as established a dream boat as the recently emaciated Matthew McConaughey; his role as Louis Bloom in Nightcrawler is more an oscillation back to stranger parts. In certain circles, Gyllenhaal will always be best known as the dead-eyed youngster Donnie Darko, and his fumfering squirrelyness buoyed Zodiac. Bloom is possibly one of the more complex, elusive, and repugnant characters you're likely to see on screen anytime soon - a mix of Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle and that gregarious creep from work that no one really knows anything about - but Gyllenhaal manages to cajole the viewer into liking that unlikeable leach.

There are two movies in Nightcrawler, really. There is the objective story, about a man we know nothing about stealing and bluffing his way through life, eventually stumbling onto "nightcrawling," the disaster-chasing profession of capturing footage of LAs nightly horrors for the "if it bleeds, it leads" news programs. Like backwards Spider-Mans, they descend on the scenes of crimes, sometimes ahead of the police. Wanting to get ahead, Bloom begins to venture past the already blurred moral line of nightcrawling to get to most explicit - and so most expensive - shots. That objective movie, where Bloom becomes more and more a villain, is hard to watch, would compel most viewers to believe that the world is a terrible place full of terrible people. 

But there's also the subjective story, in which Bloom is the hero, rising up from nothing and becoming a success through his wit, charm, and ambition. In some ways, Nightcrawler in fact treats Bloom like the hero, conforms to Bloom's purview. Pay attention to the soundtrack, to the score, as at moments when an objective movie would be subliminally articulating the reprehensibility of Bloom's thoughts and actions, the score instead plays those moments as revelatory and triumphant. Like every character in the movie, we know that Bloom is an odd, untrustworthy person, but just as Bloom - like any good psychopath - worms his way into their favour, so does Nightcrawler tempt us to side with him.

Indeed, Dan Gilroy's directorial debut is very much concerned with the perception and presentation of reality. Bloom brings his ill-gotten footage to newsrooms desperate for ratings, certain they need to shock and scare their audience into watching their show. It's up to the editorial team to decide the most profitable version of reality to portray. What crimes and disasters to report? What broader story of the world are they trying to establish? "We like crime," explains Rene Russo's desperate news editor, "but not all crime. Urban crime. Creeping into the suburbs."

The objective opinion of the world Nightcrawler lays out is troublesome and current, and will probably come home with and gently rankle most viewers. Chances are many would steer clear if it weren't for the comfort and accessibility of having a known face, even if it is more hollow and creepy than usual. A spoon full of hunk helps the medicine go down.

- Andrew

Monday, December 1, 2014


Comparisons between J.K. Simmons's stand-out performance as Whiplash's conservatory jazz tyrant Fletcher and R. Lee Ermey's epochal eruptions as Gunnery Sargent Hartman in Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket are as inevitable as they are apt. Twenty-nine year old writer/director Damien Chazelle has been very open about the Kubrick influence, himself referring to the film as "Full Metal Jacket at Julliard." Both Fletcher and Hartman spume vitriol with the ease and fluency of Shakespearian villains, both with the purported goal of taking a human being apart and reassembling them more to their liking. There's even a sly nod to the abusive, disastrous interaction between Ermey's Hartman and Vincent D'Onofrio's Leonard "Gomer Pyle" Lawrence when Simmons's Fletcher tears a moonfaced, white t-shirt-wearing D'Onofrio-looking student he refers to as Elmer Fudd a new one. In Kubrick's film, Hartman's psychological disassembly of Leonard turns the doughy hick into an ideal, shark-eye soldier--possibly the type of musician Fletcher would like to hone his students into. But if you've seen Full Metal Jacket, I don't need to remind that it doesn't end well. And if you look closely, you may also catch a few of Fletcher's students displaying Kubrick's classic forehead forward, chin down, about-to-snap look.

In Whiplash, Miles Teller adds to his growing reputation as a youngster to watch as Andrew, a repressed pushover attending Shaffer Conservatory to become not just great, but "one of the greats." He has no back-up plan: he'll either be a drummer as talked about as Buddy Rich or Jo Jones, or he'll be nothing at all. It's this slavish, singular devotion that Fletcher spots and exploits. Fletcher will either draw greatness out of Andrew, or he'll destroy him trying. Simmons and Teller together recall and amplify that spittle-in-the-face duoship of Ermey and D'Onofrio, thriving off and taking from each other with such an intensity that, even when the punishment is starting to feel difficult to watch, you can't not.

At the core of Whiplash is the Charlie Parker creation myth. A 16 year old novice honing an imporovisational style all his own, Parker found himself on stage jamming with a band that included venerable drummer Jo Jones. In some tellings, a frustrated Jones tossed a cymbal at the kids feet in reaction to a flubbed note. In other tellings--notably, in Fletcher's telling--Jones Frisbeed the cymbal at Parker's head, nearly decapitating him. In the former version, Jones insults Parker, in the later he physically threatens him, ostensibly seeking to punish Parker's flaw. The film comes to some complicated conclusions about what's required to climb to the top of your game, engages in a sometimes troubling way with the myths of greatness, but whatever your reaction to Whiplash's findings, it can't not be energized by the performances and the bleeding, sweating, drum solo pace.

A year in movies tends to follow a year in reality: as the days get darker, so do the films. The psychological tampering and out-and-out abuse in Whiplash may be challenging for some to be audience to, but the reward is more than worth the effort. Whiplash, mostly thanks to the--excuse me--drum-tight performances from Simmons and Teller, is one of the most alive movies of the year. This is winter cinema that doesn't require 3D glasses to make you feel present and enveloped in the action.

- Andrew


Monday, November 24, 2014


The twilight of the 80s saw a raft of "body swap" movies--what temperature of the times that trend takes exactly is open to your own reading. There was the Two Coreys vehicle Dream a Little Dream, the Kirk Cameron/Dudley Moore dud Like Father Like Son, the similar son/father switcheroo Vice Versa starring everyone's favourites, Judge Reinhold and Fred Savage, and, finally, George Burn's final film, 18 Again! Big, the story of twelve year old pipsqueak Josh Baskin being granted his wish to be "big" by an unplugged carnival game, is the odd log out in this raft. These others slabs of dead wood mostly concern the personality of a rebellious soul being exchanged for the soul of some stuffed shirt and in the end both souls realize the value of one another's lifestyle. Big also stands out because, twenty-five years later, it's still watchable. It's good.

You can only get so far on a tank of nostalgia. No one's calling Big great cinema here, but for what it is, and for where it's situated, it's a rare corker. It stands out and stands up because it takes its absurd premise seriously. All body swap movies have that scene where the passenger sees themselves in the mirror and doesn't recognize the vessel. But beyond that initial forehead slap, the emotional effects of "the swap" become moot. However, Big spends some real time with the fear and loneliness attending Josh's transformation. Yes, there's silly string and inflatable dinosaurs and floor pianos to remind you that Josh is a child in a man's body, but there's also Josh scared for his life in a New York flophouse, terrified of the situation he's found himself in. And there's Mrs. Baskin believing that her son has been kidnapped by Tom Hanks, fearful that Tom Hanks is harming him. Even beyond the situational fear, there's the undercurrent of adult dread, of being ill-equipped--at whatever age, however big--for the real world. When Josh breaks it to Susan (Elizabeth Perkins) that he's really twelve, she parries with: "You think there isn't a frightened kid inside of me, too?"

Of course, Big isn't really and won't be remembered for the current of fear of the adult world that runs through it. Hanks and Robert Loggia performing "Heart and Soul" on the giant floor piano in F.A.O. Schwartz. If we're not willing to call Big classic cinema, I think we can at least agree that that scene is classic. Hanks' floppiness and Loggia's initial debonairness that gives way to childish abandon alone elevates Big from the body swap dross it came up with. Director Penny Marshall, while not an auteur by any stretch of the imagination, but she's adept at making otherwise run-of-the-mill popular movies feel classic. It's that touch of class, I think, mixed with how serious it takes its absurdity, is why we still watch Big and probably wouldn't buy Dream a Little Dream for $2 from a box in a gas station.

And if we want to get really specific about it, I think the source of Big's indefatigable charm can be found with Josh belly down on his flophouse bed, watching TV and tonguing the filling out of Oreos. Hanks performs this bit of business where he's mindlessly flopping his foot behind him, brushing his toes against the wall. Eating the whites out of the Oreos is fish in a barrel when it comes to showing there's a kid in Tom Hank's body, but there's something so special and specific about Hanks' idle foot business that captures childhood and childishness perfectly. When it's at its best, Big doesn't just succeed at reminding you of your own childhood, but of childhood itself.

- Andrew

Monday, November 17, 2014


Future-bound, still aboard the bobbing Arabella, the Hon. John Winthrop Esq. addressed his "great company of Religious people, of which Christian tribes he was the Brave Leader." Their check was in the mail: Winthrop and the Puritans had not yet reached the Massachusetts Bay Colony, had not yet fully added themselves to the American Experiment. Still on the Atlantic, Winthrop described the gas that would fuel this new world: Christian Charity. Famously, Winthrop declared that this new community would be a City on the Hill--a nod to Matthew 5:14 - 16--a forward model for the backwards world they were then quitting. 

"We must delight in each other," he said, "make others conditions our own; rejoice together, mourn together, labour and suffer together, always having before our eyes our commission and community in that work, as members of the same body."

Winthrop's nautical address has become a canonical contribution to the idea of American Exceptionalism--an ongoing belief that America is inherently different, essentially more blessed than any other nation, that it has managed to unmanacle itself from history. "You are the light of the world," goes the Matthew passage, seeming to give America a pre-game pep-talk in this context. "A town built on a hill cannot be hidden. Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven."

At a sober distance--to us who, say, live at the base of the hill--that idea has become mostly risible. But of course there are still plenty of Americans who believe in this warp and woof exceptionalism. And that camp would seem to be divided into those who believe exceptionalism to be a constant state and those who believe that it must be constantly renewed, protected, and fought for. It's been nearly 400 years since Winthrop described his and his people's perfect project and the said lamp on said stand is severely guttering, maintained by so few. Jay Reinke, the subject of Jesse Moss's fantastic new documentary, The Overnighters, is one such person, his hands cupped around that struggling flame.

In the film, desperate, lost, Steinbeckian men flock from all over the country to the oil fields of North Dakota for work, pooling largely in the small town of Williston. Pastor Reinke opens up his church and his parking lot to the migrants, the grand majority of whom are good, respectful men looking for the good, respectful life assured to them by the American Exceptionalism. While the consternated residents of Williston receive these unrequested men with coldness and suspicion, Pastor Reinke receives them with warmth and patience. His church becomes a sort of Shanty Town on the Hill, much to the often hypocritical chagrin of the actual town. As Williston and its residents attempt to hobble Reinke's compassionate efforts through social and legal pressures, the Pastor does his best to soften the situation, going door to door, holding meet and greets; he advises the men--The Overnighters, as they're dubbed--on how to avoid conflict with the townspeople. Talking with one Overnighter, Rainke urges him to simply get a haircut. Even a trim would make him less threatening in the eyes of the put upon community. 

"Didn't Jesus have long hair?" the man asks, in one the more casually poignant exchanges of the doc.

Reinke concedes, adding "Jesus didn't have our neighbours."

The trouble with a passive view of American Exceptionalism is it tacitly implies that there's something wrong with those who aren't thriving. It's a system that can't recognize its own failure. Ostensibly Moss set out to document the dual bankruptcy and success of the American Experiment--or, if not the failure, then the ongoing findings--and through meeting the Overnighters, the Willistonians, and Pastor Reinke, he succeeds at detailing all the rocks, all the hard places. In this way, the doc comes wrapped with a bow: The City on the Hill is crumbled, and this one astoundingly tolerant man is doing his best to salvage what few little corners he can. Of course, being the only one in the heaps of fallout, Reinke can't help but draw the wrong kind of attention to himself.

What could have easily been suited to a ten minute reportage for TV explodes and distorts, however, and Moss is suddenly dealing with not necessarily a different story, but a much more nuanced and complicated one. The thrill that Moss must have felt as his story organically and unsuspectingly opened up is palpable. One can't say too much, as there really is a walloping human twist here, the likes of which are becoming increasingly rare in a genre that's become bloated with essays and agendas and foregone conclusions. But the plastic cover does get popped off compassion and charity, exposing the unsightly snarl of wires that makes it go. The revelation and inspection of these tangled workings transforms The Overnighters from a perfectly fine documentary about a nation struggling to fulfill the promise of its founding to a much deeper look at goodness and compassion, at the failure to live up to expectation, to be honest about the past, to be free from it without ignoring it.

Much of American pride is located more in idea more than deed. The lofty aspirations of the founders are cited more than they are ever tangibly employed, and so much national chaffing seems to come from how a person is and how a person thinks they should be. The Experiment's hypothesis is clung to, the findings largely ignored. On the Arabella, Winthrop implored his boatmates to make others' conditions their own, but what happens when you open yourself to the flaws and struggles of others when you yourself and flawed and struggling? Moss couches us in this conflict with The Overnighters, making for one of the most outward-looking and inward-looking documentaries you're likely to see.

- Andrew 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Guelph Movie Club: Absurdly Quick Growth Spurt Edition

It’s Episode 22 of Guelph Movie Club. Gosh, how quickly you’ve all grown (not terrifying-carnival-fortune-teller-overnight-growth-spurt quick, but you know). We’re watching Big. Big is a personal favourite of mine, so good on you for picking it. It’s Tom Hanks at his pre-serious Tom Hank-i-ness. It’s just good stuff.

On Thursday November 27th at 9:00 p.m., come be a kid again – just for the night. It’s Hanksgiving.

Deep Breath: Next month is Christmas. Depending on your outlook, that’s awesome or terrifying. On the plus side, we’ll be doing our Christ Movie Club. We’ll have more details on the particulars on the 27th.

I try and always use this last paragraph for a plea for awesomeness. In the no particular order, The Bookshelf, Guelph Movie Club, and you are awesome. Spend some money at the Bookshelf – they deserve it because they’re terrific. Come to Movie Club – it’s only as good as the people in the seats, so be one of those people. You. We like you. Come watch a movie with us.

'Til then, see you at the movies!

- Danny

Sunday, November 9, 2014


One of my favourite lines in all of anything comes from Lorrie Moore's story "The Jewish Hunter" from her 1990 collection Like Life. Odette, a forty-year-old poet is set up with Pinky Eliot, a farm lawyer while on a library fellowship in the boonies. Like most Moore characters, Odette is a bit too eccentric for her own good, struggles to be understood by and find happiness with regular people. But Pinky, a regular person with a slightly bizarre interest in WWII, falls for her, views her oddness as affectation instead of who she really is. "Everything's a joke with you," he says one night, after she laughs at an attempt of his to open up, to be serious.

"Nothing's a joke with me," Odette explains. "It just comes out like one."

It's this line--this line that sums up the struggles of the inherently sarcastic, the naturally odd; a club I consider myself a member in good standing with--that kept caroming in my head while watching The Skeleton Twins. Though one of the funniest movies I've seen in a while, it's incredibly serious.

Twins notoriously establish their own language, understood only by each other--idioglossia, if you want to learn a new word today--and Milo and Maggie Dean (Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig), dubbed by their somewhat macabre father "The Gruesome Twosome," communicate almost entirely in their own idioglossia: sarcasm. Sarcasm is the shared lens through which these odd balls see the world. After ten years without talking to each other--being brought back together by Milo's attempted suicide, the call about which interrupted Maggie's attempted suicide--it's through tongue-in-cheek wryness that Milo and Maggie begin to reacquaint themselves with each other.

In the past ten years, Milo has detrimentally stayed true to himself, and Maggie has detrimentally tried to be a different person. They're miserable and lost, each with a closet full of individual and shared (ahem) skeletons. They root through their own and each other's closets with the sardonic distance of teenagers killing time in a store, making fun of everything on the shelves.

If this sounds grim and annoying, don't sweat it. The back and forth between Hader and Wiig, who shared about a decade together on Saturday Night Live, never gets tiresome. If the load is weighty, the delivery's always swift and light. Their sarcastic bandying, while indefatigably entertaining, manages to convey an always relevant depth and nuance. The sarcasm shared between the two is, all at once, a coping mechanism, a defense mechanism, and also a legitimate way of talking about yourself and the world with someone you trust understands you.

Much like a Moore story, the "story" isn't always the strong point of The Skeleton Twins. Estranged siblings, disillusionment, a family secret: it's Indie Film 101. While it might sound trite on paper, the integrity of Hader and Wiig's performances steer the film away from those tired indie tropes. The stand-outs of a limp decade of SNL, Hader and Wiig excelled at giving depth to what would otherwise be shallow goofs. As zany as they might have gotten in their wigs and costumes and accents, Hader and Wiig always managed to play characters in a show rife with caricatures. In a genre that's becoming a bit stale, The Skeleton Twins is refreshingly fresh. This is thanks to the supporting cast as well. Luke Wilson submits one of his best performances here, as Maggie's hapless husband--described perfectly as a golden retriever--drawing a good deal of pathos from what might a cardboard cut-out.

And, like a Moore story, you get so charmed by the oblong characters that you can forget that that humour is both a cover for and a product of a profound hurt, of a troubled lostness. In The Skeleton Twins nothing's a joke, even if everything's hilarious.

- Andrew

Sunday, November 2, 2014


Thanks to everyone who played dress up this Halloween for our Dress With Wes evening. Here are just a few highlights.

Saturday, November 1, 2014


Calling myself a Nick Cave fan would be an insult to all those Nick Cave fans, who have been with the Aussie from The Birthday Party days, with the The Bad Seeds, and Grinderman, who have autographed first editions of And the Ass Saw the Angel and The Death of Bunny Munro. But I just put on The Lyre of Orpheus for the first time and a long time. Mostly gentle and dozy, that album was released as a pair along with the aggressive and dark Abattoir Blues, and this this coupling goes a long way describing the sometimes conflicting variety of Cave's. Nick Cave's kind of a weird old house, but with many ways to get there and countless points of entry. If you're more traditionally minded, you come in through 1996's Murder Ballads, and once in can find something for yourself in previously thought out there Grinderman. Now, 20, 000 Days on Earth, makes for another means of getting in.

Fans of Cave couldn't ask for a better floor plan of that weird old house that he is. 20, 000 Days on Earth consists of conversations, monolgues, therapy sessions, recording sessions, all of which never quite feel completely off the cuff, but never feel completely prepared. In therapy with a nodding Alain de Botton, Cave recounts stories of Nina Simone, or his father enthusiastically reading Lolita to him as a child. Driving through the rain, Cave ruminates at the wheel in a way that may bring Matthew McConnaughey's recent commerical for Lincoln to mind. An ever-greying The Bad Seeds record the new album Push The Sky Away. Cave sifting through his own past--literally going through archives--manages to tell an implied story of how eccentricities refine and mature when a person isn't destroyed by them.

20, 000 Days on Earth amounts to a collage, addressing being an artist and being a performer; the nature of creation, and the nature of being creative. "All of our days are numbered," says Cave in the film. "We cannot afford to be idle. To act on a bad idea is better than to not act at all. Because to worth of an idea never becomes apparent until you do it." It's not likely that the uninitiated will run out and buy Cave's whole discography after viewing the film, but, spurned on by the character and sensibility and spirit of the guy, keep in mind that there's something out there for everyone. And while the aesthetic may change, it all comes from the same place, is a product of the same 20, 000 or so days.

- Andrew

Monday, October 27, 2014


On Friday October 31st we're screening The Grand Budapest Hotel at 9pm, and we invite and encourage you to come dressed as your favourite character from a Wes Anderson film. Looking like Symour Cassel should be reward enough, but in case you need more initiative, did we mention there'd be PRIZES?  Known for his ensemble pieces, there really is no shortage of Wes Anderson characters to arrive dressed as:

Sure, you could just don a red toque, but where's the fun in that?