September 2012

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Reviews by Jonathan Wallace

Guaranteed: many spoilers

Ruby Sparks (2012), directed by Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris, is an almost prosaic fable about a writer who meets and falls in love with a woman he just imagined. This is a nearly blown out trope (second only to the body-switching one) which started to interest me for reasons extrinsic to the story: I knew that Zoe Kazan, the actress playing the imaginary young woman had written the script, and instead of interpreting it as the standard "be yourself and love one another" baloney, I watched it as an essay on what it feels like for a young actress to be restricted to girlfriend roles. There is a moment, late in the film, when she thrashes around, ragefully saying sweet girlfriend lines,which confirmed my suspicion. Of course, you shouldn't have to look to the extrinsics; if this was the goal, she could have made a movie which was madder and more meta-cinematic and more interesting. Its also worth noting what a tiny percentage of movies are named after women characters ("Erin Brockovich", "Ruby Gentry", "Mildred Pierce"--and we probably don't include "Inside Daisy Clover", because that's a porn name). The novel he finally writes about her in the movie is named "The Girlfriend".

Celeste and Jesse Forever (2012), directed by Lee Toland Krieger, is a much better movie with a similar origin: an actress morphing into a writer of autobiographical material. This one, co-written by the fascinating Rashida Jones who also stars, is about a tough, smart woman who was married to a weak, unambitious man whom she has known since childhood and genuinely loves. There is a disjunct between what she needs and what she thinks she wants, something which is epidemic in society, especially in marriages. Among the themes touched on by the film, never didactically, is the very fascinating question of why even strong and independent women are still not comfortable being the stronger, more successful, higher earning figure in a marriage. As we reach a point at which there are more men who are capable of being happy not taking the lead, women are still being programmed to look for someone more powerful than themselves. Jesse is a warm, honest, funny, loving companion and after it is too late, Celeste realizes she isn't going to do better and doesn't even want to. At the same time, the movie is a fascinating vision of a post-racial America. Jones' dad is African American (Quincy Jones) and her mom is Peggy Lipton, the blonde undercover cop in "Mod Squad". Lipton, just to compliicate things even more, is Jewish, and Jones has self-identified as Jewish much of her life. The movie makes absolutely nothing of all this, not because Jones can pass as Caucasian but because it just isn't important. The story she wants to tell, which is intimate and important to her, is not about race, and why should it be?

To complete a trilogy of movies written by actresses about their experience in relationships, I watched Ira and Abby (2006), directed by Robert Cary, in which the lead role of Abby is also played by the actress who wrote the film Jennifer Westfeldt (why is it not called "Abby and Ira"?). Here she is a loving ditz who proposes marriage to the male the night she meets him. Its amusing in places, in a Woody Allen sort of way, but she never coheres into a believable character; she is simultaneously meek and insecure, and a kind of charismatic superwoman who everyone comes to with their problems.

Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), directed by Benh Zeitlin, is one of the best, least classifiable movies I have seen in a long time. Co-written by Lucy Alibar, with whom I did some theater projects a hundred years ago, it is about an African American girl growing up in a hard-scrabble environment called "the Bath-Tub", an area outside the New Orleans levees that the inhabitants know is liable to be washed away at any moment (and it is, late in the movie). The environment, where the five year old (played by an amazing girl, a natural; she may simply be being instead of acting, especially in two scenes where she emits an unearthly scream of pure rageful energy) lives in a trailer next to her dad's. It is almost a dystopian science fiction world (and comes even closer to that line in a series of fantasy scenes in which she confronts the prehistoric aurochs her teacher has tattoed on a leg). At one point, heating catfood for dinner, she sets fire to her trailer, and later her dad says something like: Just because you burned your house down, doesn't mean you can make a ruckus in mine. This wonderful line of dialog is the epitome of successful science fiction writing, where the extraordinary is made ordinary. In another scene, her mortally ill dad, who has seizures, intervenes when another man is teaching her how to finesse a crab out of its shell, and shows her how to smash it instead, as he and the crowd chant, "Be a beast!" The movie, firmly rooted in a detailed and believable world, succeeds as mythology at the same time. Wild talent at work, a film which doesn't remind you of any other.

Hope Springs (2012), directed by David Frankel, angered me. Meryl Streep and Tommy Lee Jones play an extremely dull, repressed middle class couple, who seek marriage counseling in order to renew some passion and intimacy. People at every level of life can show some originality, flair and quirkiness (though I acknowledge the middle of the middle class is least likely to). I got the sense from this movie that the idea was to eliminate anything colorful: I imagined story conferences in which the writer was told that some of the dialog was too original and to make it duller. Also (this seems to be my thing this month) if you put the movie in the context of the people involved with it, you wonder if anyone--producer, director, or writer--has been married as long as the couple portrayed (thirty years). When Hollywood tries to portray ordinary people, it usually fails, but you can detect a tremednous amount of condescension in the effort.

I went on a small kick of reading famous extreme adventure classics I had heard of my whole life. First Joshua Slocum's Sailing Alone Around the World (1900), in which the world's most self sufficient man rebuilds an abandoned sloop, setting it up so that it can run before the wind with nobody at the wheel. There is a beautifully eerie moment where sick and exhausted in a storm, he meets or hallucinates the ghost of Columbus' navigator, who steers him to safety. There are some dangerous indigenes at Tierra del Fuego, whom he stands off with courage, a rifle and thumb-tacks; he is never really in much danger anywhere. The prime minister of South Africa, a flat-earther, compliments him on sailing across the flat earth.

This book, like some of the movies above, raised an interesting extrinsics/intrinsics problem. Unlike fiction (which itself tends to reveal the divide between who the author is and wants to be), autobiography is an inherently suspect genre, because so few people tell the whole truth about themselves (fiction is supposed to be at least partly a lie). Only when I read the Wikipedia bio of Slocum did I discover that before his solo adventure, he had already shot a pirate to death and been tried and acquitted for murder. After returning to the U.S., he was tried for child molestation. Some years later, he and the "Spray", the same ship he took around the world, vanished while sailing to the Carribbean, though dying in the boat he built was not necessarily a bad or unwanted end for him. However, the calm, magisterial man of the book is forever replaced in my imagination by the chaotic Slocum who really lived.

Apsley Cherry-Garrard's The Worst Journey in the World (1922) was fascinating and very disturbing. He was an upper class young man who bought his way into Scott's doomed last Antarctic expedition with a 50,000 pound contribution. Despite being rich and something of a supernumerary in the Antarctic (he was very nearsighted and couldn't do anything as well as the other more professional team members), he seems to have been a thoroughly nice, goodhearted and modest young man, an enthusiast, genuinely eager to be involved in any way possible. And he also has the intelligence and the emotional distance to analyze what went wrong. The most stunning moment in the book, which I analyze in this month's Rags and Bones column, and which the author did not personally witness, was Scott's abandonment, in the final weeks, of a working class team member who became ill and couldn't keep up on the way back from the Pole. This is a classic story about extreme conditions, to which any student of human nature or ethics could profitably pay attention. Garrard seems to be more honest an autobiographer than Slocum, though Wikipedia indicates that he too suffered from mental illness after returning from his extreme adventure.

Premium Rush (2012), directed by David Koepp, is a wonderful, rare example of a small, unpretentious movie that wildly exceeds expectations. It is a thriller about bicycle messengers, leading me to wonder why nobody thought to do one before. It could easily have been silly and contrived, like movies about skateboarders, roller skaters, etc. The writing is so expert that the braided strands are believable, lively and funny: Chinatown gambling, illegal immigration, and the black market money transfer system all play a role in the story. The mcguffin is a movie ticket for an imaginary noir, "Dark Windows", on which a happy face is scrawled. The hero receives the envelope containing it at 5:30 pm at Columbia and must get it to Chinatown, through brutal traffic, while being pursued by a corrupt, murderous cop, by 7 pm. Highly recommended as an example of something exceedingly rare, a lively, funny, exciting, unpretentious and very original thriller.

Rampart (2011), directed by Oren Moverman, by contrast, is a pretentious thriller, co-authored by pretentious thriller writer James Ellroy. Slow moving, reflective, and with a final stop rather than a satisfying ending, it is still well worth watching for the performances: Woody Harrelson as a corrupt L.A. cop, Cynthia Nixon and Anne Heche as his ex-wives, Robin Wright as a lawyer with whom he has a fling, walk ons by Steve Buscemi and others. Most Hollywood movies are unimaginatively written and in a hurry, so the characters have relatively little inner life or back story. Specificity, especially unusual details, in movies is a beautiful thing (see my discussion of "Beasts of the Southern Wild", above). Here, Harrelson's two ex-wives are sisters, and he had a daughter with each, and they live together in a house he visits regularly, close to each other and in an uneasy truce with him. There is a scene in which one of his daughters asks if she is "inbred".

Raggedy Man (1981), directed by Jack Fisk, was worth watching because Sissy Spacek always is. She's a divorced mom in the 1940's, holding down a telephone office in a small Texas town during World War II. But its three movies in one: a feminist fable in the "Norma Rae" and "Places in the Heart" mode popular back then; briefly, its a horror movie, as two local crackers try to rape her; and then it wraps up as a remake of "To Kill a Mockingbird", shamelessly borrowing Boo Radley for the finale.