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