Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Listen Up Philip

LISTEN UP PHILIP (Alex Ross Perry, 2014)

Philip Lewis Friedman (Jason Schwartzman) has every reason to feel important and isn’t shy about letting others know it in LISTEN UP PHILIP. He will soon be releasing his second book, has landed on a list of notable people under the age of 35, and become friends with respected novelist Ike Zimmerman (Jonathan Pryce). Flush with this cultural currency, Philip elects to spend it by being a contemptible person. He decides not to do press for his novel and ditches Ashley Kane (Elisabeth Moss), his photographer girlfriend of two years, for an open-ended stay at Ike’s country house. It’s all done in the name of his art, but in reality it’s because he’s a certifiable jerk.

Eric Bogosian’s narration and Keegan DeWitt’s jazz-inflected score point toward a more literary and improvisational style. LISTEN UP PHILIP is not just the self-absorbed writer’s film. It also takes extended breaks to check in with Ashley as she comes to terms with her life now that Philip is out of it and Ike as he struggles to recapture the spark that had him cranking out books in the 1970s and ‘80s.

Often filmed in tight close-ups, LISTEN UP PHILIP focuses on the comedy and tragedy of characters who have difficulty seeing beyond their situations. It’s a world of petty grievances and scheming and self-sabotage and delusion. Writer-director Alex Ross Perry is merciless in depicting inward and outward cruelty with astringent humor. Philip’s cachet probably doesn’t extend much beyond certain literary and academic circles, yet he mistakes success as license to be surly, as though creative types owe it to the universe to be difficult in order to be taken seriously. Pricking the sense of superiority developed within highly specialized ecosystems is funny because it rings true. Plus, rotten people behaving without regard are amusing when the dialogue possesses sarcastic wit like Perry’s.

Schwartzman is sharply funny playing Philip as RUSHMORE’s Max Fischer as though he has grown up but kept the chip on his shoulder. Schwartzman uses passive-aggressiveness to deflect the miserable pain Philip can be. This technique also has the benefit of excusing his rudeness to some degree as long as he acknowledges he’s being awful. Philip seems more amused with the thoughts in his head than what others around him are saying. His acerbic outbursts are meant as much for himself as those he’s in conversation with. Pryce serves as a kind of Ghost of Christmas Future for Philip and one the mentee seems happy to become. Pryce sidles up to Philip like a vampire who needs to draw a victim close to steal the life force he has in short supply.

Perry is a perceptive filmmaker who uses the novelistic framework to extend empathy to those touched by Philip’s self-loathing and the incorrigible protagonist himself even as he resists it. LISTEN UP PHILIP doesn’t justify Philip’s awfulness or necessarily offer hope that he’ll learn, but in setting aside time to observe the impact he has on those close to him, it humanizes him beyond the arrogance so evidently on display. Bitterly funny and bittersweet, LISTEN UP PHILIP sheds insight on dissatisfaction driven by the creative impulse.

Grade: B+

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Dumb and Dumber To

DUMB AND DUMBER TO (Bobby Farrelly and Peter Farrelly, 2014)

In DUMB AND DUMBER TO Lloyd Christmas (Jim Carrey) has been institutionalized for two decades, although his infirmity has been a extensive practical joke he’s been pulling on his best friend Harry Dunne (Jeff Daniels), who has faithfully visited and changed his diapers every Wednesday. When Harry informs Lloyd that he can’t come any longer because of his own medical condition, the prank is revealed, leaving them to tackle Harry’s issue together.

Harry needs a kidney transplant. Lloyd isn’t keen to give him one of his, but they may have found a solution when they learn Harry is the father of an early twentysomething daughter he never knew he had. The girl’s mother Fraida (Kathleen Turner) gave her up for adoption to a scientist and his wife but does know where she lives. The boys leave Rhode Island to find Penny (Rachel Melvin) only to arrive at her home after she’s departed to make a presentation at a technology conference in El Paso for her ill, Nobel Prize-winning father (Steve Tom). Penny left Dr. Pinchelow’s invention behind, so the two numbskulls are entrusted to deliver it to her as Harry pursues a daughter and donor and Lloyd seeks a bride.

For a film in which a fair amount of the humor involves what goes in and comes out of orifices, DUMB AND DUMBER TO manages to seem inoffensive despite its crudity. The vulgar comedic ingenuity includes a cat’s feathery flatulence and a father’s hilariously inappropriate advice for dealing with menstruation. DUMB AND DUMBER TO serves as a good example of how limitations can work in a comedy’s favor, even one that employs shock value. Although it’s astonishing that the gag with an elderly woman in a nursing home was permitted in a PG-13 film, the rating requires a certain amount of nuance and cleverness that more graphic language and visuals don’t need. The laughs are produced from the tension between what’s suggested and shown. Frankly, it seems like the film gets away with more because it leads the audience to fill in the blanks rather than pounding us over the head with the jokes’ climaxes.

As Lloyd explains to Harry regarding his 20-year prank, some things are funnier the longer the punchline is delayed. Co-writers and directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly smartly execute low humor through constructed gags with several small rewards before the big payoffs. In the case of Harry’s pleasant memory being reproduced on a screen, the funniest aspect isn’t the filthy capper but an aside about shutting the door. DUMB AND DUMBER TO’s greater strength may be in the silly literalness with which its characters interact with the world, though. True to the film’s title the jokes are often dumb, like Lloyd and Harry pedaling their bicycle while it’s mounted on a bus’s rack, and dumber, such as a play on words with a highway named after an actress, but they’re delivered with such brio that it’s hard to resist the stupidity.

The Farrellys and four other credited screenwriters throw plenty of coarse jokes against the wall and many stick, but the film has patchy stretches, especially after Lloyd and Harry reach their destination. The plot merely serves as an excuse to link sketches involving the twosome acting like doofuses and thus doesn’t provide much momentum. Whenever it seems like DUMB AND DUMBER TO may be stalling out, along comes a puerile wisecrack or two to sustain the good will it was starting to lose.

The Farrellys put a good bit of craft in DUMB AND DUMBER TO, even if their film is just an elevated version of kids in the cafeteria trying to crack up their friends. It’s as simple and amusing as watching Carrey wolf down a hot dog as though he’s Homer Simpson and then wiping his mouth with the bun that he throws away.

Grade: B-

Wednesday, November 05, 2014

Pulp Fiction

PULP FICTION (Quentin Tarantino, 1994)

PULP FICTION’s violence, non-linear structure, retro soundtrack, pop culture references, and overall hip factor are what have lingered in the collective memory, but revisiting Quentin Tarantino’s film twenty years after its debut is to rediscover a work whose maker is deliriously in love with the cinema and words. Although peppered with allusions to plenty of films and television shows, such verbal and visual citations are seasoning for the main course.

PULP FICTION is built upon monologues and conversations whose profane musicality engages the characters in lingual dances. Discussions revolve around mundane but humorous things as the differences between fast food item names in the United States and Europe, the intimacy of a foot massage, and the cowardice involved in keying a car, but the actors savor the rich language as though performing Shakespeare.

Told out of sequence, the interconnected stories focus on the criminal underworld in Los Angeles. Gangsters Vincent Vega (John Travolta) and Jules Winnfield (Samuel L. Jackson) procure a suitcase for their boss Marsellus Wallace (Ving Rhames) but face obstacles delivering it. Boxer Butch Coolidge (Bruce Willis) wins a fight he promised to throw but risks skipping town safely by returning home to get a cherished keepsake. At his boss’s request Vincent takes Marsellus’s wife Mia (Uma Thurman) out on the town knowing that a previous acquaintance who got close to her paid a serious price.

Tarantino’s reputation for presenting graphic violence, especially early in his career, exceeded what actually is seen on screen. Perhaps more than anything else, his ability to get a rise out of audiences with what they think they saw, paired with the skill of editor Sally Menke, may be the greatest demonstration of his talent. The notorious scene with the adrenaline shot to the heart never shows the needle being jammed through Mia’s breast plate. The discussion leading up to the act; seven tightening close-ups, including one of the dripping needle; a wide shot of Vincent bringing his arm down; and a thump as Mia jerks awake in close-up give a vivid impression without depicting the forceful injection.

Tarantino’s adeptness with humorous dialogue and mise en scene shouldn’t overshadow his handling of actors. This was Travolta’s comeback role, and he gives a performance that finds him charming and funny, not to mention the delightful moment when PULP FICTION pauses to recall his cinematic past by having him do the twist with Thurman. Jules is probably Jackson’s defining role. He’s playing more than just an intimidating enforcer. Jackson is fearsome when he’s marking his territory and bellowing Jules’ corruption of a verse from Ezekiel. He’s amusing shooting the breeze with a friend and co-worker who he likely thinks he’s a bit smarter than. As the film’s femme fatale Thurman displays her strength with how she lures Vincent into her domain and flirts aggressively without being too obvious for anyone who might be observing them.

PULP FICTION wielded massive influence and imitators, yet watching it again for the first time in years it still seems fresh. Those who tried to duplicate it took all of the wrong lessons.

Grade: A

Tuesday, November 04, 2014


NIGHTCRAWLER (Dan Gilroy, 2014)

NIGHTCRAWLER shares its title with the name of an X-Men superhero, although its protagonist has more in common with the shape-shifting villain Mystique. Louis Bloom (Jake Gyllenhaal) is desperate to make money, and he doesn’t much care how he earns it. What he’s selling isn’t as important as long as he’s selling. Scrap metal, bicycles, it doesn’t matter to the young man with an assassin’s deadliness in the art of negotiation. Louis also possesses a seemingly unlimited ability to adapt himself according to the situation. When he decides that the freelance newsgathering business is where he wants to focus his energies, he quickly soaks up knowledge about the industry.

Louis develops an exclusive relationship with Nina Romina (Rene Russo), a news director on the so-called “vampire shift” for Los Angeles’s lowest rated television station. Having noticed his good eye and lack of compunction, she pays him to get captivating video of crime and accident scenes. Louis is looking for someone as hungry as him but with less business savvy to help grow his news operation, so he hires Rick (Riz Ahmed) as a low-paid intern to listen to the police scanner, navigate, and watch the car while he captures the often horrific images. In no time Louis’s success leads to upgrading his gear and going from driving an old, battered Toyota Tercel to a new cherry red Chrysler SRT. Louis is never complacent, though, and he waits to come upon the story that will boost his power from the little he has as a stringer.

Like its main character NIGHTCRAWLER masks its primary motivation. The ostensible media satire directs NETWORK-like jabs at the sensationalistic aspects of TV news. While writer-director Dan Gilroy makes his points about as subtly as repeated pokes in the ribs, the black humor comes in the recognition that even with wider awareness of this cynical approach to informing the public, viewers continue to reward it. NIGHTCRAWLER’s final shot of broadcast towers on a hill jutting across a full moon in blackest night recalls the spires of a castle in a horror film. As much fear as they might strike in hearts, they are nevertheless alluring.

The fresh criticism aimed at the media has less to do with the content and more with the conditions in which it’s generated. Ratings-chasing news programs are just collateral damage in NIGHTCRAWLER’s mission to fire a scathing yet bleakly comedic critique of the job market and corporate practices. Gilroy unloads on an economic climate that breeds insecurity and instability in the labor force because there’s always someone else out there willing to work harder, faster, and, most importantly, cheaper. An internship system favoring the providers to a lopsided degree takes well-deserved hits . Watching Louis persuade Rick that getting a pittance for his time and efforts is in his best interest stands as one of the film’s timeliest and most wicked jokes.

Gyllenhaal electrifies with a performance that uses politeness to hide a sociopath’s mentality. He’s intimidating because he sounds so assured regurgitating business aphorisms and self-improvement language and doesn’t deviate from following what he has accepted as the one true path. While Louis has designs on being a conqueror leaving destruction in his wake, Gyllenhaal looks more like a scavenging animal as his anti-hero skulks around the wounded and killed to obtain what he needs to further himself. Wearing a haunted look, Gyllenhaal embodies the sick soul of a capitalist doomed never to sleep because there’s always a buck to be made. The scary thing is he’s destined to win.

Grade: B+

Monday, November 03, 2014

St. Vincent

ST. VINCENT (Theodore Melfi, 2014)

Vincent MacKenna (Bill Murray) may not be the last person a working mother would choose to babysit her child after school, but he’s surely toward the bottom of the list. Although his overwhelmed new neighbor Maggie (Melissa McCarthy) isn’t privy to the information that an often-drunk Vincent is indebted to an unsavory racetrack figure (Terrence Howard) and keeps a weekly home appointment with a pregnant Russian hooker (Naomi Watts), the senior citizen’s surly nature should be sufficient to have her look elsewhere for childcare options. Nevertheless, in ST. VINCENT her son Oliver (Jaeden Lieberher) seems to get along fine with the crusty old man next door who begrudgingly helps after the boy’s classmates steal his possessions from his gym locker.

Maggie is working long hours at a new hospital job and worrying about an impending custody fight with her ex-husband, so she’s thankful that anyone can keep an eye on Oliver. Little does she know that Vincent is teaching him how to fight back against the bullies at St. Patrick’s School, letting him gamble at Belmont Park, and taking him to a bar. Oliver is well aware of the pressures on his mother. He covers up and omits telling her his activities with Vincent, leaving Maggie to find out the truth at the most inopportune time possible.

Writer-director Theodore Melfi’s ST. VINCENT seems cobbled from the independent film cliché handbook. It’s slightly quirkier than a conventional network television sitcom yet beholden to a feel-good imperative that isn’t especially convincing. By picking up and discarding subplots like tissues, this maudlin comedy-drama cycles Murray through a range of situations fit for an awards show reel without lending much emotional heft to them.

Murray’s bad grandpa proxy plays best when permitted to be his crotchety self without explanations or excuses. Vincent’s rough edges are never sanded off completely, and Murray is funnier and more interesting when he’s granted the freedom to be as nasty as he wants to be, at least within the limits of this sentimental film. Clearly Vincent is on a course for a redemptive arc, but offering reasons in shorthand for his hardness make him a less credible character. The war between his internal tenderness and external abrasiveness aren’t reconciled so much as they are dispelled by gooey screenwriting conveniences.

ST. VINCENT’s variation on ABOUT A BOY should find its strength in developing the mutually beneficial relationship between a curmudgeon and pre-teen. In piling on the plot contrivances it doesn’t provide the space to observe why their unlikely friendship comes to gain great meaning for both. Melfi has the film chugging toward a prescribed heartwarming conclusion and Oliver’s effective sanctifying speech while Murray’s performance suggests someone who may be touched that the boy admires him but hasn’t really learned any lessons that will significantly alter his behavior. The final scene, with Vincent sneaking a cigarette and singing along to Bob Dylan’s “Shelter from the Storm” during the end credits may be meant as a grace note, but it gives the impression of a character that’s broken away from its creator’s intent.

Grade: C