Strange Vistas


Adam Driver, Scarlet Johansson, and Azhy Robertson on the Marriage Story poster

Gary Oldman was terrified of playing George Smiley in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. When pushed to talk about it, he said it was for the same reason that the part almost drove Sir Alec Guinness to a breakdown: it had no artifice, no flashiness, nowhere an actor could hide.

That should be the only thing going through your mind when watching Adam Driver and Scarlett Johansson in Noah Baumbach's harrowing Marriage Story. If Oldman was terrified of Smiley, he'd be paralyzed at the thought of Charlie and Nicole.

Anyone familiar with Baumbach's work (particularly The Squid and the Whale) should expect the endearing poster and positive title to be as related to the contents as Deadpool's Valentine's day ads were. Baumbach takes that assumption as his starting point, runs away with it, and vaults over any expectations of unpleasant, cringing moments you could have had.

No, this is not about the relationship, back when it worked. This is about how two people, having drifted apart, aiming to keep some distance, overcorrect and don't just push their former partner away, but punch and stab and maim the other every time they come close.

This is a couple whose stated wish is to resolve things in an amicable manner, without getting lawyers involved, who decide to go against their agreement and proceed to trample all over each other. They step, stomp, scream, mangle. We grimace and cringe and try to get out of the way.

And it's all on Driver and Johansson. Their parts as Charlie and Nicole allow no tics, no mannerisms, none of the easy outward markers that fit well in 10 second Oscar clips. They are just there, on screen, nothing but confused feelings swirling up and emotions lashing out, all frustration and resentment and pain.

It is still not the most uncomfortable relationship movie I've seen.

(Pipe down, In the Realm of the Senses fans).

It is a more straightforward relationship than that in Polanski's Bitter Moon, in a way. In Marriage Story, we know we enter at the point that enough threads have come undone, and our job is to watch the whole construction unravel. In Bitter Moon, we know from the start that things went south at some point, we just don't know when, and we have to keep waiting, watching the instability build, wondering if this is the nudge that will make the emotional card castle topple.

That does not make Marriage Story any easier to watch. There is a scene where things start uncomfortable, before getting tense, then increase in intensity, then keep running past the point you'd expect, a terrifying escalation, to horrendous extremes where you want to step in and beg them to stop, push each into separate corners, or wish that at least one of them would make it end by strangling and castrating the other, just to make it stop. But it doesn't, nowhere near as easily, not until they've gone well past the point they should, where Baumbach has made sure you are feeling as dejected and drained as they are.

All of it just the two of them, in a room, talking. With no artifice.

The supporting performances are impeccable as well, particularly Laura Dern as a carnivorous spider in red stilettos (with a personal agenda to boot). Everyone has you assigning blame. How much of this is the lawyers? How much her, given her own admissions of insecurity, her breaches of agreement, her apparent shallowness? How much him, given his actions, his dissatisfaction, his manufactured authenticity?

It doesn't matter. It's done. They've made their choices, paid their prices, and have to live with it.

Watching it, you breathe out. At least it's over.

#marriagestory #noahbaumbach #adamdriver #scarlettjohansson #drama

Jessica Chastain on the poster for Miss Sloane

(Contains spoilers for Miss Sloane. Just as well, because I can't recommend it)

There are hacks to writing smart characters that make them all look and sound the same. You write their lines shorter, faster, have other characters speak slower or act baffled every so often, have them ask questions that the lead then has to explain. If you are not sure that'll do the trick, then you make the character keep others in the dark, hide information from the audience, and pull out a surprise every few minutes.

Stick to that, and they won't end up coming across as smart – they'll be a smart-mouthed asshole.

Unfortunately for us as viewers, Miss Sloane goes down that exact path. It comes across as wanting to be Aaron Sorkin, without his flair for archetypes or percussive dialogue. It's all a long set up for the ending, and that ending is a kamikaze run on a senator who the movie introduces as a gloating, crusty antagonist, yet later becomes clear is partly another victim of the situation. Sloane's self-righteous takedown makes no sense, and doesn't even reach fridge-logic status: the credits haven't even gotten started when you are already feeling sorry for the target of her suicidal run.

Worse, her ultimate plan was setting in motion the thing that nearly derailed her team's original goal of getting a bill passed... and she enacts it just at the time that they are winning. It is her self-inflicted melodrama that almost kills the bill they are pushing for, not her opponents. That the movie (and character) think we should celebrate her, just because her plan is to cause self-harm and then return things to a status quo, is baffling.

This is not someone righting the wrongs of her past with one last push. This is someone whose entire, self-contained plan starts with damaging their own cause. Nevermind the character: the writer thought that a scheme where Sloane's entire clever plan, her trump card, ends up with them being back to where they started before she enacted it in the third act, was a brilliant reveal.

In a movie this perfunctorily written, you could try and salvage the performances. We almost get that in John Lithgow as Senator Sperling, when he's being half coerced and half bribed into attacking Sloane. His reluctance does more to humanize the senator in one scene than Jessica Chastain does to her character in the entire movie, because Chastain... Chastain has one character, and by god, she's going to play it over and over. Her Business Lady Macbeth in A Most Violent Year was a better use of her limited range.

Miss Sloane is the kind of movie where the character has to keep its one-upmanship with its opponents throughout the film, so they can continue surprising you with their cleverness. If done well (The Usual Suspects), things fit perfectly at the end. If not, the movie ends up pulling dirty tricks and non-sequiturs to be able to get one last gotcha!, and the audience becomes just another opponent.

#misssloane #jessicachastain #johnlithgow #johnmadden #drama #smartass #movies

Contains minor spoilers for secondary characters.

Oleg holding a gun in the forest, Andrzej on the background

Oleg, the second feature by Latvian filmmaker Juris Kursietis, is a mixed bag of sensational performances and problematic elements.

Valentin Novopolskij plays the eponymous Oleg, a timid butcher from Riga who travels to Ghent, Belgium, looking for higher wages. It's not just a chance for a better life – we learn early on that he has debts to some people back home who are not above aggressive collection.

It's a tough job but it pays cash. It doesn't last.

Oleg gets fired when he gets blamed for an accident by a lying co-worker. He can't even get a new job, since his work permit is attached to the current company. He gets a lucky break when he meets Andrzej, a charming young Polish who promises that he will not only get him a job but his own room and – if that wasn't enough – an EU passport.


It doesn't take too long for that to go south. Andrzej is the very definition of superficial charm, a violent psychopath bubbling just below the skin, spilling out at random intervals. Dawid Ogrodnik plays him while avoiding most of the cliches of suave behavior that have plagued filmmaking since Anthony Hopkins won an Oscar. Ogrodnik's Andrzej is not a cold mastermind – he is little but a vicious little creature with low impulse control, looking for the next petty scheme. Oleg isn't a key piece on Andrzej's plans – it isn't even clear if he does have a plan.

The interactions between the two of them, and the way things develop, make the story feel organic. It avoids some narrative clichés (although I won't go into which), makes small moments compound, things flow more or less realistically.

Its internal politics, though, are nowhere near as well thought out.

Lithuanians come across as thick. Romanians steal from their workplace and sell it on the blackmarket. Polish characters range from drunken lying slobs to volatile psychopaths. There are two female characters that get any amount of screen time, and neither comes out well. The first is a shallow, older woman who is happy to fuck Oleg while she thinks he's an actor, but horrified when he isn't. The second is a younger girl who is introduced doing her nails, and whose character arc is from enabling a criminal, to victim, to attempting to use and seduce Oleg, to prostitution. Only Latvian men come across as capable of holding an honest job or doing something other than running scams (a genius theater director).

Even with all that, its main issue is Oleg himself.

We never learn why Oleg is deeply in debt. There's an argument that we don't need to, if we take it only as a motivator, but it would tell us something about this shapeless lump of clay: Is he gullible and was conned into a raw deal? Did his appetite for risk taking burn him, which is why he is now so passive? Is he just terrible at making choices?

This is compounded by his passivity. Oleg only makes one single active choice during the first 95% of the movie, a clumsy but opportune attempt at escaping his situation... and then his next immediate decision wastes it, causing just enough of a delay so that the script can push him back to his captors. While his inaction during key points could be in character – and we don't need every male lead to be a hero – this feels like lazy writing. Oleg has made a choice, has come up with a plan, and then he fumbles it in a writer-mandated way because otherwise the film would end half an hour earlier.

You need to feel that Oleg is trapped by circumstances. You need to see the light coming in through the cell door, and want him to reach for it, then it be snatched away. The movie never gives you that.

Decisions, no matter how big or small, are the what draws the line between timid and bland. Oleg, the man, ends up on the wrong side of that line, and in doing so it only helps highlight how the film portrays everyone else around him.

And then the ice cracks beneath its feet.

#poff #drama #oleg #juriskursietis #latvia

Three kids from Jelgava 94

You've seen this movie before.

Buttoned-down, smart kid is bullied at school, discovers girl, starts trying to find his path. Budding rebellion. Teenage awkwardness. Embarrassing stunts. Tentative renegades. Careless camaraderie. Kids, talking about all the great things they will do, which they will never do.

Janis Abele's Jelgava 94 captures the ungainly freedom of wasted years with mortifying accuracy. It is a coming-of-age movie – one of its first scenes includes a discussion about how our hero is now a man and should decide his future. It's a sweet construction, even if you know the layout of its rooms in advance and only wait to see what the decorator chooses for the drapings.

It connected with me because I was that kid, all gangly steps outside the nuclear family's sphere of influence, all plans for the future, all day spent idealizing foreign culture from a distance, all year with a gnawing dead-end feeling of suspecting that you ain't going anywhere even if you are the best in your class.

If you didn't grow up in a place that was shitty enough to make you feel that way, but maybe not shitty enough to give you writing material beyond a sub-par Breakfast Club, it may not connect with you in the same way.

But even if you've seen this movie and heard this story before, you may find something endearing in the way Jelgava 94 tells it.

Even if you haven't been that kid yourself.

#jelgava94 #poff #latvia #janisabele #drama

The Endless movie poster

“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown”

― H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

That quote has become so threadbare that by now it is the horror equivalent to the fading sign at a decrepit funhouse warning the faint of heart away.

There is truth in it, though, and the line itself encapsulates Lovecraft's output well. He was terrified of the unknown, as defined by anything he wasn't comfortable with, and it showed in his literature – whether this discomfort came from the depths of the sea, foreigners with accents he didn't grasp, or people with different skin color. Lovecraft has become associated more with the tentacle-twisting, sanity-melting that became more fashionable as special effects became cheaper, but his characters were more likely to recover from encountering Dagon than from marrying anyone but a white protestant girl and embarrassing their family.

This is the type of dread that The Endless goes for.

Brothers Justin and Aaron receive a Betamax tape in the mail containing a message from Camp Arcadia, a death cult they escaped ten years earlier. It arrives just at the time that Aaron is getting fed up with the dreary tedium of their bare survival. At his insistence, the brothers take a break from cleaning people's houses, boiling packaged ramen, and going to deprogramming therapy, so that they can check if their old friends are still alive. Justin dragged them both out of there, convinced the cult members were about to kill themselves to “ascend”, so how come they are still around a decade later?

Aaron wants to reclaim the past he sees through idealized memories. Justin wants to humor him, but you can tell that – at least partly – he wonders if he made the right call.

They encounter the suspiciously pleasant and accommodating cult members they escaped, who not only have managed to not “ascend” but not age, and don't exactly look worth escaping.

Until things start getting a wee bit unnatural.

The Endless is what a disciplined, cosmic-inclined David Lynch would come up with, and I was so stuck on my preconceptions that I almost missed out on enjoying it.

Benson and Moorhead don't do horror – what they do is supernaturally-flavored drama. They are resourceful, too. The Endless feels like their largest production and it doesn't feature anyone you'd recognize, keeping it so low-key that the pair stars as Justin and Aaron, likely to save the budget for more expensive things.

The trouble with writing these pieces is that it changes how you watch movies. Often, you sit down to see a movie while a few hundred words coalesce in your head about how something matched against what you expected of it. You are not appreciating the ride as much as you are chronicling its major turns.

I came into The Endless expecting a fun romp, a slightly less deranged The Void on a shoestring budget. I was writing even before the credits came up, mostly around its being a prosaic approach to a supernatural mystery (which I didn't mean as unimaginative but as commonplace or unromantic).

Then it hit me that was not what they were going for. Benson and Moorhead, who had also created Spring, get a thrill out of setting the brothers' story against what might be a Shub-Niggurathian backdrop, but they spend as much time with the family struggle as they do with the metaphysical mechanics around camp.

Did Justin make their last decade unnecessarily harder by letting his preconceptions get the best of him? Does Aaron belong there more than in a city? Have Justin's prejudices against an oddball religion and I-know-better-ness irreparably damaged the relationship?

Those are more important questions than what exact brand of weirdos the camp members might be.

#theendless #horror #drama #justinbenson #aaronmoorhead

Nocturnal Animals poster






The language Nocturnal Animals' characters throw around is one of violence, abuse, coiled rage pushing against a barely closed lid. Decades of literal films have us conditioned to expect this anger to build up until it explodes, sharp tendrils lashing out at those around it.

It's not so easy.

Susan, an unhappy gallery owner in a decaying marriage receives a novel manuscript from her ex-husband Edward, who she left 19 years before in a way that she feels guilty about. She doesn't need to say it outright. You can feel it on Amy Adams' face, Susan's choice of words. Edward will be in town and wants to meet for dinner. She hesitates, wavers, while she reads the novel.

It's a grim story, about a man who can't defend his family. It touches her, pulls her in. All around her, the environment itself makes her think of retribution.

We wait for Chekov's gun to fire.

Tom Ford's movie, on the other hand, is more literary than literal. It feels like reading a novel, turning pages at your own pace, savoring the long tension between setup and resolution.

We get to see the novel itself, too. Shared actors between the novel and the real world leave no doubt about how thinly disguised the characters might be, how close they feel to those who knew their source material. We're seeing these people in Susan's head. Others join them soon. A feral Aaron Taylor-Johnson, his behavior unrecognizable as Ray Marcus, is the perfect wandering monster. Michael Shannon's Bobby Andes, a wax figure of a police detective, hungers.

And we wait for both threads to collapse into one. We expect them to materialize in the real world as agents of fate.

The blend is harrowing and hypnotic. Characters let the plot drag them along, put them through those meat-grinder defining moments because they know that whatever they choose to do will define who they are. So they plow through, reading to the end to figure out who they could have been had they made different choices, hoping there's a second chance waiting for them there.

#suspense #drama #tomford #jakegyllenhaal #amyadams

Spotlight poster

I could go on about the technical aspects of Spotlight, Tom McCarthy's movie about a group of reporters digging into the Catholic church's cover-up of child abuse in Boston. I could speak about the master camera work and narrative pace. Maybe praise how despite multiple opportunities to do so, it never turns sappy.

I could praise how Mark Ruffalo is still a pleasure to watch, how Michael Keaton will probably get all parts requiring a gravelly-voiced boss for the next ten years, give kudos to Liev Schrieber's restraint.

I could nitpick how it doesn't follow up on some interesting characters, probably because it's not about them.

Fuck all that.

I grew up in a mostly Catholic country and went to a Catholic high-school. I did well enough – academic topics came easily to me. I was still careful on tests, making sure I reviewed everything, trying to minimize mistakes. Those grades would eventually count towards my college admission, and I wanted to make that easier.

But there was this kid. Let's call him F. He was not only brilliant but hard working. Even after I'd left a test that I was sure was easy, F. remained behind reviewing his work. We got along well, so another friend and I usually waited for him right outside the classroom. You could see how nothing else in the world existed for him other than the questions he had answered, and he wanted to be sure he squeezed every minute out of the available to review time to remove any minor mistakes.

His situation was difficult: my family wasn't well-off by any means, but I knew F.'s family struggled; I didn't know if his dad had died or just left but knew he wasn't around. It was obvious F. wanted to maximize his odds of getting a scholarship later and continue studying, as he wouldn't have been able to afford college otherwise.

Never mind college. With F.'s potential and work ethic, I was sure he'd end up in NASA.

There was a priest called Father Murillo. He was in charge of overseeing the most junior students, the 12- and 13-year-olds who just started seventh grade. I don't recall where he was originally from – he had been transferred there from a different country. He was affable, likable, a people person. Everybody loved him, and he loved everyone.

I got along with him well too. Lovely chap. Kept an open-door policy, and used to encourage kids to stop by his office after class, at any time, for anything they wanted to discuss – even after they were no longer juniors. I used to take him up on that myself when something was weighing down on me. Who better to talk to than a professional confessor?

F. used to be there more often than me. In retrospect, Murillo was probably filling in as a father figure.

I can't say quite what it was now, but midway through my third year, I noticed something off in Murillo's behavior. I couldn't put a name to it. Just a small accumulation of signals as he had been getting cozier and friendlier. It made me uncomfortable. I stopped visiting.

F. didn't.

I transferred out of that high-school at the end of the ninth grade, for unrelated reasons, and didn't think of it anymore. I didn't really keep in touch with most of my schoolmates (never mind pre-Facebook, this was pre-mobile phones).

F. remained there.

Later the next year, I heard that Murillo had been transferred elsewhere – his missionary work with the order called. I had forgotten about those momentary misgivings by then. When his religious order brought Murillo back to the country a year or two later, to help run a Catholic bookstore, I got in touch with a few of my schoolmates and went to visit him.

F. didn't get back to us. I didn't give it much thought – it was easy to fall out of touch at the time, and I figured he'd be cramming for college admission.

In fact, I forgot about the whole thing for about four years. I was dating this girl, and her bus stop was in a not-very-nice part of the capital. I used to walk her there at night, eyes darting everywhere, all paranoid about who was hanging around.

As I was scanning the couple dozen people standing in line at her bus stop, I immediately seized on this young, sketchy-looking fellow. Alarms went on, briefly, until I realized that he was with a girl who was probably younger than me, and had a couple kids with him. Still, he looked more like a mechanic for the Hell's Angels than I was comfortable with.

I didn't process it at first when he said hi. It took an eternity to realize it was F..

I don't have a clear memory of the exchange. I was in shock. He introduced the young girl as his girlfriend, the baby she was carrying, and the maybe-1-year-old tike as his kids. We exchanged some pleasantries, I dropped my girlfriend off and shambled away.

I had no idea what had happened. Why wasn't F. in college? Hell, why wasn't he at NASA? Why did he look so sad and worn out? I called a few people who had stayed in the same high school, but they hadn't been close to F. They only knew that at some point F. had started behaving erratically, in the same year that Murillo had been transferred, and had eventually dropped out. The most insightful of them chalked it to the loss of the father figure.

I couldn't figure it out until almost a decade later, when I heard of the Catholic church's habit of shuffling around child abusers, quietly placing them in a new parish or position, not saying anything about their proclivities to anyone.

I'm still revolted by the cynicism of how the church approached the problem. Caring more about maintaining the status quo and the institution than about their stated principles. Caring more about their public image than the people they were expected to help. Sacrificing their weakest constituents to preserve their revenue stream and status.

Of course, I don't know for a fact that this was what happened here. I may be getting correlation and causality wrong. Maybe it just happens to quack like a duck and walk like a duck. But for more than a decade I've wondered what would have happened if I'd been able to name my misgivings about Murillo. If I'd been able to narrow them down, and brought them to someone's attention.

I couldn't have. The idea of any priest doing something like that was unthinkable for me. Dozens of them in a single parish? And the entire church conspiring to cover it up? I'd have first assumed they had been taken over by the Insects from Shaggai.

The people behind the Spotlight exposé had to fight for every centimeter, every bit of information that they get. It makes a compelling story, and it's well-filmed and narrated, but it goes beyond that. It's an important movie, a public service announcement masquerading as entertainment. It tells us how abusers preyed precisely on the poorest, the orphans, the lost. On those needing a father figure.

Its true value is in bringing to light the signs, the symptoms. Maybe that way others like myself, who'd have considered impossible such behavior from an institution they've been told is benevolent and infallible, will be able to spot them and act.

And yeah, it's a pretty good movie, too.

Originally published at my old blog

#spotlight #michaelkeaton #drama #markruffalo #tommccarthy #rachelmacadams #lievschreiber #stanleytucci #billycrudup

Arnold Schwarzenegger and Abigail Breslin in Maggie

Maggie, a movie about how small families, individuals, and groups of friends deal with the fallout of a zombie epidemic, is a meditation on career choices.

First, it wouldn't have come on my radar if it didn't star Arnold Schwarzenegger as a father grieving for his slowly un-dying daughter, instead of his usual turn as a human bulldozer. It's too low key and, while it does a decent job of aping The Fly's subtext of using a horror trope as a wasting disease, it doesn't do it well enough to be heard above all the other voices shouting for attention. Casting Schwarzenegger is the movie's way of loudly clearing its throat.

Director Henry Hobson almost makes it work. He sets the mood well, building a world where we can believe families – and society at large – start to deal with such an epidemic. Some artistic decisions muddle the waters, however. There are background mentions of crops helping spread disease, used as an excuse for some moody scenes of Arnold backlit by burning fields. It's just never clear why, and wondering about such things pulls me out of the story. Should I worry about what the family is eating, on top of everything else? Or are they saying that zombies hide in the tall grass?

Those are not as distracting as the various goofs, though, like lost fingers re-appearing and disappearing, cataracts clearing and coming back, make-up becoming lighter or heavier. You should be more careful in a movie where you're telling us how sick a character is based on glued-on prosthetics.

The same way you should (circling back to career choices) do something about Schwarzenegger's grimace.

Nobody ever accused Conan of being subtle, and he's doing his best to act restrained here, but his facial range is limited to three options: smiling, blank, and scowling. The first two fall away as the story progresses and Maggie deteriorates, and glaring becomes the default state. He's not cut out to play someone who has the self-imposed burden of choosing if he's going to hand his decaying daughter over to the authorities for a painful death by poison or kill her himself when the time comes.

It's a damned-if-you-do damned-if-you-don't situation. Don't try your hand at a movie like this, and people mock you about being 68 and still trying to be The Terminator. Do, and your decision to branch out feels like a late-life audition tape for dramatic roles with better directors.

Maybe he should have tried his hand at different styles 15 years ago instead of running for governor. Can't say if it would have made him a better actor, but he'd have had a shot at his peak. You can't wait until nobody pays for your usual schtick before trying to make your Dead Poets Society or Truman Show.

His fumbling indecision echoes through Maggie, leading to a resolution that is both the best scene in the movie and, in being too little and too late, acts as a synecdoche of what brought him here.

Maggie does a decent job of representing the human cost of a horror story. However, unintentionally, it does an even better one on the price of putting off decisions until it's too late.

Originally published in my old blog.

#drama #maggie #arnoldschwarzenegger #abigailbreslin #henryhobson

Jesus Christ.

I know I’m late to this conversation, but… Jesus fuck.

So many movies and books about the arts are about someone being innately brilliant (cough cough Amadeus, The Fountainhead cough) then facing a jealous, traditionalist world that does not acknowledge or is threatened by their genius, so they have to fight to overcome all the doubters and haters and people who would drag them down so they can let their inner brilliance shine and finally be recognized as a prodigy.

So few of them are about working yourself to the bone trying to have a chance to stand out. Just for a shot at getting close to maybe living up to your own expectations.

J.K. Simmons is the very definition of a supporting actor – he makes the cast around him stand out. If he doesn’t win that fucking Oscar I’m going to throw a cymbal at someone.

Fletcher screaming in Whiplash

(Originally from my old Tumblr)

#whiplash #jksimmons #jazz #damienchazelle #milesteller #drama