Friday, April 24, 2015

White Bird in a Blizzard

WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD (Gregg Araki, 2014)

Kat Connors (Shailene Woodley) is 17 years old in the fall of 1988 when her mother Eve (Eva Green) disappears without a trace in WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD. Eve was unhappy in her longtime marriage to Brock (Christopher Meloni) and did not disguise it. Kat’s father even tells her that her mother never loved him. Although Kat doesn’t appear overly distressed about Eve vanishing, Brock insists that she speak to Dr. Thaler (Angela Bassett) to deal with the unexplained loss.

Kat recalls her mother as anything but a maternal ideal. Eve could be brusque and seemed to resent a maturing Kat when she reminded her of her younger self. As Kat reflects on the last days when Eve was around, she admits that it is possible her mom could have been having an affair. In retrospect it certainly seems as if Eve was flirting with Kat’s stoner boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez).

Writer-director Gregg Araki presents WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD’s sometimes lurid story as a mix of 1950s melodramas, 1980s teen movies with a decidedly harder edge, and a little bit of camp. Outsized emotional currents sweep the drama along to where words and developments can be tragic and laughable. Taking notes from John Hughes, Araki douses the film in a post-punk/New Wave soundtrack emblematic of feeling like wanting to dance and cry.

The suburban southern California settings look as if they have been preserved in Lucite. Araki maintains the spaces as though the homes and communities are hermetic places as inescapable as one’s inner conflict about the unremarkable life. The bright and glossy visual texture lends an artificial feel to scenes no one will mistake for the epitome of domesticity. In Kat’s memories Eve resembles Joan Crawford with her glamorous appearance and ability to wreak emotional havoc. Green gets just a moment here and there to leave her mark and indeed makes a striking impression as if Kat’s mother is a star of the silver screen trying to steal the spotlight in her daughter’s life. She’s a presence even when unseen.

Eventually Woodley will age out of these coming of age roles, but again she does good work playing a teenager trying to sort out a murky future. Kat is not naϊve about her sexuality and the power it gives her, but when it comes to understanding who her parents are, WHITE BIRD IN A BLIZZARD shows her to be more sheltered. Kat’s narration, which is hard to place in time, carries the wisdom of years later when she has processed revelations about her parents’ dreams, passions, and disappointments. Perhaps it comes when she can empathize with her 42-year-old mother because she recognizes the mental state and worldly knowledge inaccessible to her as a high school student.

Grade: B+

Thursday, April 23, 2015

While We're Young

WHILE WE’RE YOUNG (Noah Baumbach, 2014)

Each generation tends to look at the next one with some suspicion that they don’t live up to the standards they hold dear. As the saying goes, youth is wasted on the young. With Generation X in middle age, the time has come for them--us, in my case--to judge the habits, interests, and attitudes of millenials. In WHILE WE’RE YOUNG 44-year-old documentarian Josh (Ben Stiller) and his 43-year-old producer wife Cornelia (Naomi Watts) strike up a friendship with 25-year-old couple Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Josh and Cornelia are childless and feeling increasingly alienated from their friends because of it, so they are drawn to the burgeoning filmmaker husband and his ice cream-making wife. Josh is especially taken with Jamie’s relentless optimism, DIY ethos, and unconstrained tastes and tries them on for size.

Writer-director Noah Baumbach opens WHILE WE’RE YOUNG with a passage from Ibsen’s THE MASTER BUILDER about being fearful of young people outside but encouraged to open the door followed by James Murphy’s toy box-sounding cover of David Bowie’s “Golden Years”. The film ends with the Bowie original and Wings’ “Let ‘Em In” on the soundtrack. The quotation and songs provide mirror bookends representing the aspirations Josh and Cornelia examine when faced with younger adults’ ways. Are they serious and cultured or sentimental and domesticized? When discussing their lives early in the film, Josh says, “Maybe the point is we have the freedom. What we do with it isn’t so important.” The pointed comedy of the comment is that the freedom they profess to cherish is really just a wasted resource they cling to rather than admit they’ve entered another time in their lives.

Baumbach mines the humor in the resistance to adapting to a new life stage, the foolishness of trying to act younger, and the perceived ridiculousness of how millenials assert their independence and preferences. Editor Jennifer Lame cuts Cornelia attending a mommy and me music class as if she’s entered a house of horrors. Josh suffers the indignity of looking older than he is by borrowing today’s youth fashion as if it suits him. WHILE WE’RE YOUNG practically drips contempt for what twentysomethings consider cool. Baumbach obliterates some easy targets, but the film is no less funny because of it.

Driver’s embodiment of a stereotypical hipster is a consistent source of jokes. After Josh’s infatuation with Jamie has ended, he describes his counterpart as imitating a sincere person he once saw. Baumbach doesn’t withhold any criticism of a younger generation he thinks can be vacuous and disingenuous, yet he doesn’t spare those in middle age. Where Jamie lacks boundaries and hides his careerism, Josh prizes the purist notion of not selling out and retaining authenticity, which are fine ideals until they become stifling to the point of inaction. WHILE WE’RE YOUNG soaks in the bitter comedy that comes in realizing that everyone is searching for answers.

Grade: B+

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Ebertfest 2015: Opening Night

Ebertfest holds a special place in my moviegoing life because it was the first film festival I attended. The experience could not have been better. The 2001 festival, it’s third edition, featured an exceptional mix of good to great films, was hosted by a film writer I admired and aspired to be, and was down to earth in a way that felt identifiably Midwestern. This was not an industry event but a populist celebration of cinema in a university town. I was hooked, and It’s why I’ve come to Champaign, Illinois every April for fifteen years now.

It may seem strange to see a movie before going to opening night of the 2015 Roger Ebert’s Film Festival, but the Art Theater, a short walk from festival central at the Virginia Theatre, was playing GREY GARDENS, which I hadn’t seen. Ebert mentioned the Art as being important to him , and he certainly encouraged locals at the festival to patronize it those weeks when Ebertfest wasn’t co-opting their moviegoing time. Inside the lobby over the entrance is a mural with the hometown critic sitting in the front row to the side next to Groucho Marx. The seating location isn’t where you were likely to find Ebert when he was at the movies, but it seems right for him to have such a place of prominence, if not the best viewing angle, in a picture featuring stars of the screen. When he attended his own festival, Ebert was always the biggest star in the room no matter what Hollywood performer or filmmaker was present.

Perhaps it was my own reservations about this year’s festival lineup--I’ll explain those feelings on another day--but opening night felt more muted than any other year I can recall. It could be that the lack of a “big” film or guest tamped down some of the excitement in the crowd. Maybe it was that I knew what was coming. To start things off, a 3-D film was being shown for the first time in the festival’s history. Not just any 3-D film, mind you, was beginning the 17th festival but Jean-Luc Godard’s GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE (ADIEU AU LANGAGE). Unlikely as it seems to me, I’d seen it twice before. While I have enjoyed it primarily as an aesthetic experience, GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE struck me as a uniquely terrible choice to start the festival. Late Godard can be hard to penetrate intellectually. Playful as it can be, this rigorous cinematic essay fits the description of a difficult film to a tee. I did not expect GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE to go over well with this audience, which isn’t to say that I doubt their tastes but that this is no one’s idea of a widely appealing film that might ordinarily fill the first slot on the festival schedule.

On viewing GOODBYE TO LANGUAGE a second time I found it extremely helpful to have read David Bordwell’s unpacking of the dense film. Knowing how to watch can make a huge difference in appreciating it. My third viewing didn’t yield any major revelations, but it confirmed that Godard captures images of exceptional beauty. The shot of one hand washing another looks clearer than reality. During a shot of a boat going away from the dock the undulating water looks so blue and welcoming. The doubling and overlapping of images and use and locations of sound make for a thrilling cinematic experience even if I have a hard time making heads or tails of it. To the Ebertfest crowd’s credit, I noticed just a few walkouts from my vantage point in the balcony. Opinions may be voiced more strongly against it while folks wait in line to enter the theater over the next few days, but on this evening my impression is that people wrestled with the challenging work rather than dismissing it outright. Could it be my doubts about the film's reception were unfounded?

Todd Rendleman, Peter Sobczynski, Goodbye to Language's Héloise Godet, and Matt Zoller Seitz
The night’s second session was also something unprecedented at Ebertfest. Instead of showing a film, a Harold Ramis tribute took place. Clips were shown from ANIMAL HOUSE, CADDYSHACK, STRIPES, NATIONAL LAMPOON’S VACATION, BACK TO SCHOOL, CLUB PARADISE, GHOSTBUSTERS, and GHOSTBUSTERS 2. Ramis’ widow Erica Ramis and producer Trevor Albert then joined Chaz Ebert and critics Glenn Kenny and Susan Wloszczyna to discuss his work from the earlier half of his career. Following the conversation were clips from GROUNDHOG DAY, STUART SAVES HIS FAMILY, ANALYZE THIS, MULTIPLICITY, THE ICE HARVEST, BEDAZZLED, ORANGE COUNTY, AS GOOD AS IT GETS, KNOCKED UP, WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY, and YEAR ONE. This portion was capped by a clip of Ebert and Gene Siskel reviewing GROUNDHOG DAY on their television show. The same people returned to the stage to talk about this part of Ramis’ filmography.

Context-free clips don’t exactly serve the work well, so I could have done without them even though I realize why they were incorporated into the program. I would have been content to listen to those Ramis knew and those who appreciated his talents talk about him. I really enjoyed seeing the Siskel and Ebert clip and would suggest knitting them into the festival when possible. How great would it be to watch the films at Ebertfest and follow them with pertinent reviews from the long-running TV show? Granted, these won’t exist with every film selected, and if there was a disagreement between the critics, some of the reviews might make for uncomfortable situations with a festival guest. Still, if done with care, this seems like a natural way of keeping Ebert’s voice in the festival.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

The Longest Ride

THE LONGEST RIDE (George Tillman Jr., 2015)

Although Nicholas Sparks film adaptations don’t cross over with one another like superhero movies, they might as well constitute their own cinematic universe populated with men and women resisting and desiring the love that comes into their lives. The male protagonists tend to have prototypically masculine professions, like soldier or oil rigger, while displaying acute emotional sensitivity. Female leads are often strong and independent yet in need of the right relationship to feel whole. Daily life is slower and quieter in these soft focus, sun-dappled romances, but the capricious forces at work usually demand a third act death. Happy endings are tempered with the bittersweet knowledge of the sacrifice necessary to achieve them. THE LONGEST RIDE sticks to the formula but eases up on the melodrama that has smothered some Sparks adaptations.

Wake Forest art major Sophia Danko (Britt Robertson) is two months from graduation and an internship with a Manhattan gallery when she meets professional bull rider Luke Collins (Scott Eastwood). Sophia doesn’t need the distraction of dating someone in North Carolina when she’ll soon be moving, so she ignores his calls and texts for awhile before agreeing to a date. They spend a pleasant night together, but on the way home Luke spots where a car is crashed through a guard rail. He pulls the dazed old man from the burning vehicle. Sophia retrieves the box on the front seat that the driver mumbles about wanting to save. After taking him to the hospital, Sophia elects to stay until the injured man, Ira Levinson (Alan Alda), is stabilized.

While waiting she opens the box to find many old letters that he wrote to his beloved. She reads the first one, composed in 1940, and is deeply moved by the story of a young Ira (Jack Huston) pining for Ruth (Oona Chaplin), whose Jewish family has relocated from Vienna to North Carolina to escape the war in Europe. Sophia offers to read the letters to Ira. No longer able to read them himself, he gladly accepts. Sophia is visiting with him when Luke drops by the hospital to return an old photo of Ira and Ruth that was left behind in his truck. Sophia is glad to see Luke again, and they decide to discover where a relationship might take them in the time she still has in the south. While they fall into an easygoing rhythm, Sophia’s intention to start her career up north and well-founded concerns over his well-being riding bulls threaten to break them apart.

Needing to attend to parallel love stories separated by seventy-some years, THE LONGEST RIDE is unable to develop both equally. Ira and Ruth’s World War II-era courtship and marriage produce the richer storyline, in part because their flashbacks observe a lifetime of experiences that essentially dramatize UP’s tear-jerking Carl and Ellie montage. Trying to draw comparisons between Ira and Ruth’s joys and disappointments with the thrills and challenges Sophia and Luke go through simply isn’t fair to the younger generation. Despite the obstacles to their long-term happiness, Sophia and Luke’s romantic conflict is also too tidily resolved via a plot point that is very much like one in the last Sparks adaptation, THE BEST OF ME.

When used as narration Ira’s letters sound like they were written to someone who has forgotten everything he’s telling her. The seemingly present-set film perceives World War II as being in the more recent past than it is because otherwise Alda’s Ira should likely be in his mid-90s. These are screenwriting nitpicks, though, for a romance that mostly works regardless of such shortcomings. THE LONGEST RIDE allows characters to spend time getting to know one another and build the natural progression of their relationships. The film prefers to savor Sophia and Luke bonding by sharing tales of their vastly different childhoods and Ira and Ruth finding gladness in their fleeting time caring for a boy as their own child than fixating on the lightning bolt of mutual attraction.

Credit goes to director George Tillman Jr. and the cast for investing lightweight characters with humanity without getting soppy. Robertson and Eastwood exhibit the laidback chemistry of people drawn to each other but not obsessed with whether they may match their preconceived ideas of The One. Huston and Chaplin are attuned to the give and take in a couple for whom interests and personalities differ. As Ira recalls the great love of his life, Alda exudes warmth with Robertson, and she meets with compassion free of pity. Certainly THE LONGEST RIDE is a kind of fantasy, but it indulges the longing for a love story with the complexities of life while avoiding piling on needless twists to make it appear more urgent.

Grade: B-

Friday, April 10, 2015

It Follows

IT FOLLOWS (David Robert Mitchell, 2014)

In IT FOLLOWS Jay (Maika Monroe) is enjoying her time as a teenager in a Detroit suburb until the night she chooses to sleep with her 21-year-old boyfriend. After their coupling, he reveals to her that a previous sexual partner passed along a ghost or monster to him that he has now given to her. It can change its appearance but isn’t visible to those not infected. It approaches at a slow, steady pace, so there can be time to escape it, but whatever it is remains unrelenting in its pursuit it catches you or is passed along to someone else. If that person doesn't give it to someone else or is killed, it returns down the chain to the previous person.

IT FOLLOWS achieves great success as a horror film with an antagonist that can be anyone and anywhere. Is that just a stranger shuffling along in the distance, or is it a mortal threat slowly creeping up? The need to remain vigilant scanning the background for any person coming near Jay and her friends is part of the fun writer-director David Robert Mitchell works into the film’s fabric. In this instance a slow approach is a virtue in developing a sense of perpetual unease. The unnamed menace in IT FOLLOWS scares because its presence does not attract attention and can be escaped for an indefinite period of time but not forever. The camera hunts the characters with frequent slow push-ins.

The thematic richness points toward this thing representing the fear of death itself. Before Jay’s boyfriend infects her, they play a game in which they try to guess what person around them each would like to trade places with. He doesn’t choose the guy with the hot date or the dad with a seemingly happy family but the kid. He says that the boy has his whole life ahead of him, also suggesting that he has not yet lost the innocence of youth. Other conversations revolve around recalled incidents when they lost some of their naiveté. IT FOLLOWS appears to be set during the summer, that seemingly endless time of joy for kids. The vintage quality of its unspecified era, like a slightly futuristic past, gives it a dreamy atmosphere out of time that accretes with reminiscing.

To draw out the metaphor, worrying about mortality is something that can be defended against and delayed, especially through sex according to the Freudian view, but short of a religious perspective, a finite end is in store for everyone. Mitchell presents a good mix of primal anxiety and intellectual deliberation, making IT FOLLOWS terrifying whether looking to be jolted while in one’s seat in the theater or much later when thinking about it all.

Grade: A-

Thursday, April 09, 2015

World of Tomorrow

WORLD OF TOMORROW (Don Hertzfeldt, 2015)

Don Hertzfeldt reflects on mortality with his first digitally animated short WORLD OF TOMORROW. Four-year-old Emily (Winona Mae) receives a communication from a third generation clone of herself (Julia Pott) who lives in the distant future. Using time travel she brings the child, who she calls Emily Prime, to 227 years from now.

WORLD OF TOMORROW considers a time in which the technological singularity resulting in the immortality of human consciousness has been achieved. Physical death is overcome through uploading memories to clones or, if one so chooses, a hard drive. As he similarly studied in his three-short compilation feature IT’S SUCH A BEAUTIFUL DAY, Hertzfeldt provides a humorous perspective that seeks to balance the existential despair of what is to come for every living being and childlike wonder at the beauty surrounding us.

Clone Emily has experienced some generation loss, which is more common with analog media than the digital sources from which she has derived. Her desire to regain and relive in lost memories strikes a poignant note representative of the times when wishing to appreciate better those moments that may have been undervalued as they were being lived. Emily Prime, on the other hand, operates on a more instinctual level. She blurts out direct, simple responses to the stimuli in her environment and possesses no concept, and thus no fear, of the abstract ideas and concerns her future self shares. While not as polar opposite in ages like the caricatures of the old man whose year is ending and the New Year’s baby, these Emilys are essentially the same person concurrently contemplating the life behind and ahead.

Hertzfeldt teases humanity’s fondness for devoting precious minutes to inanity, something increasingly driven by the technological distractions around us. Working in the digital realm for the first time allows the stick figure animator to crowd his frames with all manner of slick distractions in light and color. His imagined outernet, an externalized, three dimensional version of the internet, makes tangible the ephemeral things that can remove us from the space we occupy. In WORLD OF TOMORROW Hertzfeldt frets about what forthcoming days, weeks, months, and years hold, yet he reminds himself and us to retain the openness for awe and discovery through mundane and troubling times.

Grade: B+