Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Fifty Shades of Black

Tessa Thompson stirs the pot in Dear White People.

««« Dear White People. Written and directed by Justin Simien. At selected theaters.

Depending on where you stand, we Americans either don't talk enough about racism, or we never stop talking about it. There's no shortage of solemn calls to "have a national conversation about race." But when conservation does start, it too often devolves into lecturing, hectoring, shaming—everything but listening. Many blacks justly see whites as oblivious to the enormous challenges of their lives, subject to a system of institutions and attitudes that preserve white privilege. Many whites, demographically downsized and economically squeezed, laugh at the notion of being "privileged" in a society where the only truly advantaged color is green.
          Justin Simien's Dear White People won't solve any of this. It does manage to do the next best thing, though: to enact real conversation about race, instead of just overlapping monologs. It is largely for this reason that it was one of the big hits at the Sundance festival last year.
          It's important to acknowledge first what Simien's movie isn't. It isn't a "Spike Lee joint" like Do the Right Thing (1989) or Lee's black college movie School Daze (1988). Both of those films covered similar territory, but along with the politics Lee showed great affection (or nostalgia) for the deep heritage of black culture. Simien has little of Lee's visual flair, and none of his brotherly sentimentality; his "black community" as really just a collection of individuals, each with bitterly conflicting agendas. Dear White People isn't laugh-out-loud funny. It is sharp, though, with moments of dialog that snap and cut like icicles. In short, where Lee made poetry, Simien is more of a prose satirist.
          His script concerns the simmering racial scene at fictional "Winchester University". Biracial student Sam White (Tessa Thompson) runs a campus radio show called "Dear White People", where she knowingly stirs the pot of racial anxieties in the college's white majority. ("Dear white people—it is no longer OK to call us 'African-Americans'," she announces. "If you're afraid just saying the word 'black' will make you seem racist, then you probably are racist.") Among her peers are Coco (Teyonah Parris), an ambitious blogger with a reactionary bent, Troy (Brandon P. Bell), scion of the school's first African-American dean, and Lionel (Tyler James Williams), a writer and gay man whose social alienation is equal-opportunity. Simien sets his characters in motion in and around the staging of a campus Halloween party that supposedly celebrates "the end of racism" by inviting white partygoers to don black-face, act gangsta, and quaff "purple drank" (an event Simien based on real occurrences at various, mostly-white colleges).
          To say Sam, Troy et al. object to all this is both to state the obvious and do it no justice, because it's just about the only thing they agree on. Simien's complex, conflicted souls, black and white, give him scope to air the anxieties of both sides. Stereotyping and lumping—respectively the bread and butter of prejudice—are hard to sustain when Simien insists on treating his characters with such tender specificity. Here, race colors everything, but can never be separated from issues of power, privilege, and personality. And nobody is just a victim.
          It's become a truism to say that race is a "cultural construction". Indeed, it is often declared as if mere awareness of this fact will set us all free. But people have deep cognitive need of their "constructions". It's hard to say what will eventually replace the defining power of skin color in a post-racial America—but Simien has gone the farthest so far in exploring the possibilities. It will be interesting to see where he goes next.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Furious Basterds

Pitt and Co. pause on the way to Berlin.
««1/2  Fury. Written and directed by David Ayer. At area theaters.
The heart of David Ayer's  Fury is right in the first shot. It is 1945, with the coup de grâce about to fall on Nazi Germany. A lone figure on horseback rides out of the mist, looking oddly archaic in what we've been told is a movie about World War II. The rider turns left, passing a knot of deserted, burning tanks—until an American GI jumps out and kills him. Then the American (Brad Pitt) gently untacks the horse and sets it free.
          So there it is: Ayer sees these guys in tanks as the inheritors of knightly chivalry—but also its murderers. There's truth in this theme, both in how armored soldiers saw themselves and how they (and the machine gun) ended three thousand years of cavalry dominance on the battlefields of Europe. There's a bitter sort of beauty in how Ayer envisions it. Trouble is, he has no idea how to make the rest of Fury as evocative as these first few minutes.
          Pitt is Sgt. "War Daddy" Collier, a veteran tank commander who aptly summarizes the arc of his story by saying "I started this war killing Germans in Africa. Now I'm killing Germans in Germany." As portrayed by Pitt, he's exhausted by his war but also savors it, as if he knows nothing else in his life will compare to it. He's promised the men under his command (including Shia LaBeouf as a Bible-quoting gunner and Logan Lerman as a quaking greenhorn) that he will bring them home alive—an absurd but perhaps necessary lie. His boys even start to believe it, until their "War Daddy" tells them they must stand alone to defend a strategic crossroads against an entire German battalion.
          Americans have a particular talent for seeing themselves at the Three Hundred at Thermopylae. We're always the intrepid band of defenders against the barbaric hordes—even when we're really more like the Persians, gifted with overwhelming force. Steven Spielberg got away with this conceit in the final thirty minutes of Saving Private Ryan, largely because what came before was so magisterial we'd have gone with him anywhere. Ayer, alas, is no Spielberg. Despite a few inspired moments, Fury never gathers enough momentum to blast through the clichés of this genre. Of course the rookie learns to kill; of course the guys feel victory in their grasp but their humanity slipping through their fingers.
          Few Hollywood films about World War 2 find themselves in truly new territory. With the possible exception of the Western, no genre is so thoroughly picked-over, so challenging to present in a new light. Spielberg, and to a lesser extent Quentin Tarantino (Inglorious Basterds) came the closest recently—and they are two of our most naturally gifted filmmakers. Ayer, whose directorial credits so far include a few undistinguished cop dramas (Street Kings, End of Watch) has a way to go to enter that company. Though Fury makes a credible run across the battlefield, it still ends up a burning wreck in the end.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

Burning Bed

Rosamund Pike is a revelation in Gone Girl.

«««1/2  Gone Girl. Written by Gillian Flynn, based on her novel.  Directed by David Fincher. At area theaters.

The nation is in the midst of an apparently endless debate over the right of gays and lesbians to marry. The conservative argument against gay marriage is it somehow "ruins" the institution. But given its manifest problems, given that its legal advantages could readily be enshrined in civil unions, why would anyone fight for the right get married at all? The rest of America already seems to be going the other direction: according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, for the first time in history, more than 50% of American adults are now single. Given the demographic trends, our LGBT brothers and sisters seem to be rushing onto a sinking ship.
          David Fincher's Gone Girl is ostensibly just a Hitchcock-style thriller about a man suspected of killing his wife, but its point isn't crime and punishment. Its real subject is the central conundrum of marriage—that the imperfect, constantly evolving natures of individual human beings can or should be bound in an institution that involves the concept of "forever". It should come as no surprise that the script by Gillian Flynn (based on her 2012 novel) has more on its mind than twists and thrills. Even Hitchcock's films were rarely just about what they were about.
          Nick (Ben Affleck) is a magazine writer of less-than-certain income. This is dangerous territory when you're married to Amy (Rosamund Pike), a beautiful woman from a privileged background and very high standards for the kind of man worthy of her lifetime loyalty. Their romance was so storybook at first that neither could believe it ("We're so cute I want to punch us in the face," she says). Nick's unemployment soon leads to money problems, and the strains that can lead to infidelity. But his problems really start when, one ordinary afternoon, Amy disappears from their home. There's sympathy for him at first. As the façade of their marriage begins to crack, public suspicion inevitably shifts to Nick, who likewise begins to suspect he never really knew his dearly beloved at all.
          Gone Girl is a smart thriller with enough kinks in its plot to make nearly two-and-a half-hours go by very quickly. In the tradition of the genre's best, it not only keeps us all guessing, but uses that uncertainty to force audiences to see the characters in constantly new ways.
          Director Fincher (Seven, Fight Club, The Social Network) is a master craftsman who knows how to propel a story, and knows how to get good performances from his leads. Even as his character seems more and more like a shit-heel, Affleck retains that movie-star superpower that keeps him likeable. Rosamund Pike—a British actress who has flitted on the edges of stardom for well on a decade—is nothing less than a revelation. Catnip to men, burning with an intelligence she has no good use for, this character is the most compelling femme fatale since Linda Fiorentino twisted all those men around her little finger in The Last Seduction (1994).
          Ultimately, there may be one or two twists too many in Flynn's script to make sense. By the time this becomes obvious, though, Gone Girl has really become about something more important than solving a mystery.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Skeletons Out of the Closet

Wiig and Hader get serious in The Skeleton Twins.

««« The Skeleton Twins. Written by Mark Heyman & Craig Johnson. Directed by Craig Johnson. At selected theaters.

Craig Johnson's The Skeleton Twins sounds like a Tim Burton movie, but it isn't. It stars Saturday Night Live alumni Kristen Wiig and Bill Hader, but it isn't an overblown skit like A Night at the Roxbury or Austin Powers. Here's what it is: a spare, well-wrought drama about a pair of mismatched siblings who happen to be indispensible to each other. Insofar as it's about a couple of damaged people trying to find a way forward, it's much like Silver Linings Playbook—except without that film's "love conquers madness" magical thinking. Depending on your inclination, you can take it either as an amusing movie about depression, or a grim kind of comedy.
          Wiig and Hader are Maggie and Milo, twins who parted in mutual distaste a decade earlier. When Milo attempts suicide after a bad breakup, the equally glum Maggie plays the dutiful sister, inviting him to recuperate with her. More out of embarrassment as need, Milo accepts. Of course, by inviting her brother into her house Maggie is also inviting the past, which inevitably up-ends the rapport they forgot they shared.
          It should come as no surprise that sketch comics like Wiig and Hader are capable of delivering plausible, touching performances. They were part of the strongest SNL casts in the last decade or two, and anybody who can wring laughs out of the occasionally paper-thin writing on that show has to be talented.
          True, there's an element of waiting for the punch-line here—the suspicion that Wiig must inevitably come forth wearing doll baby arms, and Hader lapse back into playing "Stefon". It's an inevitable risk when any of Lorne Michaels' crew attempts a dramatic role. (Everybody remembers the lonely Bill Murray of Lost in Translation, but what about enlightenment-seeking Bill Murray in 1984's The Razor's Edge?) Newcomer Craig Johnson keeps a lid on Wiig and Hader's broader antics, but lets them off the leash enough to let laughs become the currency of their relationship. It's a real accomplishment that he found the right balance.
          This film has come while many are still puzzling over the suicide of Robin Williams. That such a wrenching contradiction is possible—that a man with such irrepressible instincts to amuse others could be so inwardly miserable—came as a surprise to many of us. But as The Skeleton Twins shows, while laughter can be part of happiness, it can never be the entirety. "Laughing until it hurts" is a cliché, but laughing because it hurts is close to the truth.
          That said, this writer will be looking forward to the deleted scenes on this movie's DVD edition. We can only hope Wiig didn't forget the baby arms there.
© 2014 Nicholas Nicastro