Sunday, October 27, 2013

Haven't we suffered enough?

Julianne Moore tries to convince Nathan Lane they make the script work.
The English Teacher (2013) is about a woman who mistakes a bad script for a good one.  But enough about Julianne Moore, let's talk about the character she plays in the film.

This woman reads nothing but great classical literature but somehow becomes convinced that the faux avant-garde playscript written by a former student is immortal art, the implication being that she is biased because the writer IS a former student.

It is possible that the writers of this film not only don't know any English teachers, but never had any English teachers.  Maybe they always cut class.  Most English teachers I know care for their students very much but start out with the assumption that whatever they write is going to be absolutely terrible and that the teacher must decide how and what is fixable before this writing is unleashed on an innocent public.  They do NOT begin with the premise that their former student's play is going to be a piece of genius, such that they walk around in a fog for WEEKS until they SUDDENLY realize that the play was crap all along.  I mean these people READ FOR A LIVING.  It's questionable whether the writers and producers of such drivel are literate at all.

This is also the kind of movie in which nobody notices that Julianne Moore is hot because she is wearing classes, and nobody notices that Nathan Lane is a pompous fraud because, well, actually, I have no idea why they don't notice that.  He virtually has it tattooed on his forehead.  (And why haven't Lane and his boss, played by Norbert Leo Butz realized that instead of running this crummy school, they should be co-starring in a HILARIOUS Broadway musical?)  Moreover we have to endure the movie-high-school-play-production cliche that the acting is terrible but the set, which is either beautiful or hideous, is in any event, completely professionally assembled, clearly painted by members of Local 829 of the United Scenic Artists who happen to still be attending high school.

Most insultingly, we are also subjected to the common Movie World idea that all of high school is permeated with a sweaty cloud of sex.  Now while a lot of our students may be walking around in that sort of funk, no faculty I have been a part of (and I have taught in rural, suburban AND urban settings) is anything but a bit ascetic.  Frankly, you can't survive in a school setting without a parental mindset.  Teachers call their students "my kids" partly because it's useful shorthand, but partly because there is some truth.  To a limited degree they are your kids.  You share responsibility for part of their lives.  Any teacher who does otherwise is dangerous and may even be psychologically unstable.

[UPDATE:  I've since heard an interview with the writers which implied that they had no intention of portraying real teachers, but reflecting a students-eye view of teachers.  That would have been nice if your screenplay had articulated that idea.  From what is on the screen, I can only presume that the script reflects the writers' own immature ill-formed ideas of who teachers are.  Look, kids, I never said teachers don't have illusions.  They do.  But somebody already made a GOOD film about a teacher having his illusions stripped away.  It's called ELECTION, it's adapted by Alexander Payne and Jim Taylor from a very good novel by Tom Perotta and you should be required to watch it twenty times from beginning to end before you're allowed to try and write another script of any kind ever again.]

I've already spent more time, and wasted more of YOUR time on this thing than is worth it.  Much, much better films have come and gone without comment by me.  (But I'm working on catching up.  Really.  I am.)  But this is a milieu that I knew well.  That, in fact, MILLIONS of people know well and the sheer effrontery of preserving and rehearsing these destructive old cliches about schools and teachers is especially galling.

Still -- somewhere there's a movie co-starring Nathan Lane and Norbert Leo Butz waiting to be made.

Thursday, October 17, 2013

Prisoner of love

One is a princess, one is a genius, both confined for being women.
They're going to have to make a mini-series about Leopold Mozart, father of Wolfgang Amadeus, in order to explore all the stories and complexities of this ambiguous figure in music history.  In Amadeus, he was the enabler, in Mozart's Sister (2010), the disabler of musical genius.

I presume you can guess at the story premise from the title.  René Féret, the film's writer-director, has imagined that Nannerl was not only a fine performing musician, but an incipient composer, an idea which can be neither proved nor disproved, since although we have no surviving compositions by her, Féret proposes that she burned all her manuscripts when her path to composing became impassable.  But it feels plausible, especially given the very nice music composed for her by Marie-Jeanne Serero.  (In time Nannerl is persuaded by her father Leopold to give up the man she loves and marry a nobleman of his choice, then to turn over her only son, named Leopold for her father to raise in case he was also a musical genius, which he was not.  She died blind and impoverished, having turned almost everything she had, material and spiritual to her voracious father.)

Féret's screenplay makes Nannerl the confidant of princesses, most notably the youngest daughter of Louis XV, who had no contact with her parents after early childhood and eventually became an abbess, turning to the only people who had shown her love, the nuns of the abbey in which she was raised and lived.  Louise and Nannerl (shown above) are played by daughters of Féret, which raises questions as to how much of a Leopold Mozart is the director of the very film we are watching, and is the whole thing just a hall of mirrors?

Two more observations and I'll go.  First, this is a very difficult type of film to make without the audience getting lost in the elegant surfaces of late 17th century court life.  It helps that the Mozarts are often living in shabby circumstances which diminish the glam factor.  And starting the film with Nannerl peeing in the snow might help some people.  But I suppose we can never resolve the tension as to whether people of previous epochs are just like us with fancy clothes, or utterly unlike us other than a superficial flesh resemblance, albeit the flesh factor is magnified by the film medium.

Second, it's odd to see Wolfgang Mozart relegated to a small supporting part as a bright-eyed, somewhat mischievous but still rather sweet child.  Maybe Amadeus would have been easier to take if we had seen that he once had not been an insufferable pig.

Third (I know I said I'd confine myself to two, but I thought of another and if you really want to hold me to my word, you're going to have to stop reading because Lord knows, I can't control what you do with your free time), I don't know whether it's Féret or just being French or even being European, but the film is a little bit like that person you're trying to finish a conversation with and he makes his point and you acknowledge that you understand and accept that and now it is time for you to get in your car or the elevator or what-have-you but you can't because he is making that same point again, and you are politely nodding and trying to indicate with body language that you are ready to move on and that he should be, too, and yes, he nods his head suggesting that he has read your non-verbal message and you are about to turn away but still he takes on that pre-emptory inhale that warns that long-winded important things are to be said, and alas, they are the very things that have been said.

The point is, we know that it sucks to be a woman and that it really, really sucked 275 years ago and we never really believed that she was going to make a career as a composer because...guess what...we've never heard of her music.  So, M. Féret, we're way ahead of you and we stay ahead of you for most of the two attenuated hours.

But there is no question, as far as performances by the daughter of the director go,  has got Sofia Coppola beat six ways from Sunday.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliquescently...

The Kings of Summer perform the primal drainage pipe dance.
So in comparing The Kings of Summer (2013) with Not Fade Away (inevitable because, not only are both first features by refugees from television and both are male coming-of-age stories, but Not Fade Away is the film I saw immediately prior to this one), I must address the age-old critical dilemma -- is it better to aim high and fall short or to have more modest goals and achieve them?  Because Kings of Summer lands with an assurance in its off-kilter humor and a skepticism toward its central character that Not Fade Away can not manage, still nursing 50-year-old resentments and injuries.

But Kings of Summer knows that we grow and change and has the preciense to reconstruct our larval selves with an ironic and skeptical eye that renders the vision more accurate than Chase's precise recollection of every fight, every betrayal, every abandonment.  But Chris Galetta, the writer of Kings and its director, Jordan Vogt-Roberts, knows that those clashes that formed the crucible of our character are long forgotten, plastered over in our memory by the sheer pleasure of having survived it all and having become who we are.

This is a great example of how you can be less realistic and be more true.  Early in the story, best friends Joe and Patrick acquire a completely unexplained mascot, Biaggio, who provides much of the energy and variety of the piece.

As played by Moises Arias, likely to become a significant comic personality, Biaggio proves to be the glue of unasked-for, unearned loyalty and affection that holds the boys and the film together.  Biaggio is ridiculous, he resembles no actual human being who lived and yet there is an essential truth to both his weirdness and his steadfastness that no character in Not Fade Away can lay claim to.

But finally the difference between the two films is that Chase has still not left television.  His film is made up of pictures of people talking (to use Hitchcock's phrase) and dialogue is the key to understanding the characters and their relationships.  Chase does not even demonstrate much skill in staging and the use of space to delineate his ideas.  He wisely puts his rebellious teen across the yard in a grey-looking barbecue scene, but proceeds to break up the scene in a set of reverses that obviates any relationship between Alienated Youth and the family trying to act out a scenario of happiness.

The Kings of Summer is all about control of space.  The boys want to escape their parents' spaces and create a new one of their own, the house they build in the woods out of scrap that provided the original name for the film -- "Toy's House."  Instead of imitating their parents lives, like the frustrated and frustrating teens of Chases's film, Joe, Patrick and Biaggio try to reinvent life from first principles.  Sadly, both films revert to the Yoko trope, the Girl Who Wrecks Everything.  In fact, in both cases, the girl in question has been with multiple boys in the band, real and metaphoric in the respective films.  But Kings of Summer doesn't even need that idea -- it seems merely a device to create a separation between Joe and Patrick.  Joe takes command of the space by himself and defends it against the ultimate Edenic intruder, a poisonous snake, defending girl, father and almost Biaggio, who inserts himself in the snake's path to his regret.

At the end of both Not Fade Away and Kings of Summer there is a supporting character in the hospital.  In Not Fade Away he provides a small plot development, pushing the hero to the West Coast by himself (reinforcing the narcissism of what is supposed to be the identification figure).  In Kings of Summer, Biaggio finds himself under medical care due to a heroic if misguided gesture that resonates with the central themes of the film.  But Mr. Galetta's and Mr. Vogt-Roberts's craftsmanship and emotional logic are far more impressive than that of the famous, grouchy and evidently self-absorbed David Chase.

BTW -- are Nick Offerman and Megan Mullaly now the center of the Six Degrees of Separation game?   They are becoming ubiquitous lately.  I think Nick Offerman has appeared in more movies this year than Bryan Cranston, which is saying something.  (Incidentally, he's just fine, although Mullaly is a bit cartoon-y, as is her wont.)

Finally, I can recommend Kings of Summer to any women who want to understand men of any age in the way it lays out that the specifics of that narrow passage from adolescence to the beginning of adult life.  That is truly news you can use, if you have males in your life.

Saturday, October 12, 2013

You Can't Always Get What You Want, Can You David Chase?

Regrettably, David Chase did such a thorough job plumbing the psyche of his own youthful self in writing and directing Not Fade Away (2012), that the result is not merely a misfire, but a peculiarly adolescent one.

It is sort-of embarrasing to see a man in his 60s, a few years older than me, with such a stunningly successful body of work behind him such as creating and guiding The Sopranos through seven seasons, to succumb to his own undigested influences in this flailing, unfocused, imitative film.

Chase blows the gaffe halfway through when hereo Doug's college-educated girlfriend Grace takes him to Blow-Up, which he professes to be confused by, given the lack of narrative or underscore music  ("I think the trees are the music," says Grace, acting as ventroliquist dummy for writer-director Chase), despite the fact that Doug is supposed to be interested in filmmaking. But it is all a cover for the fact that Chase is himself attempting to make an Antonioni movie set in 1960s New Jersey, made most apparent in the brief final sequence in Hollywood, when Doug makes a desultory attempt to hitchhike at Hollywood and Vine and then his teenage sister pops up onscreen to narrate a thematic conclusion and then do some unmotivated and unsolicited go-go dancing (I wish I could find a video online to show you).  Chase's art-house ambitions couldn't be plainer by these theatrical affectations.

Some of the narrative failures couldn't be more basic.  One can almost hear young Chase whining to his screenplay professor, "But I want to make an ENSEMBLE story...that's why there are all these random, incomplete storylines."  Despite good intentions, the film clearly takes sides, telling Doug's story from beginning to end.  So the rambling and unrewarding thread about his girlfriend's hippy sister rebellions against father Chris MacDonald (and is there anything more cliched than being opposed to Chris MacDonald?  They even do it on network television) and the emotional thrashings of confused erstwhile lead singer Wells lead nowhere.  Even Gandolfini's gruff grumblings, as Doug's working class father seems a pointless warming over of familiar tropes, both of working-class dads with college sons, not to mention Gandolfini's own grouchy turns on The Sopranos.  Not even his contracting cancer can lead significance or originality to his story.

A sympathetic producer or story-editor could have helped Chase realize what his real story was, and stop trying to represent the entirety of the 1960s as seen from the suburbs of Essex County.  But them he or someone would have realized that what they had was a standard-issue bildungsroman adorned by some good old tunes and at least one good new one, heard in this clip in which they audition for a Bigtime Record Producer.

To its credit, the bands always sound like real bands playing at a realistic level of skill in real rooms for real people.  But other filmmakers have crashed on the same rocks, trying to avoid the cliche of show biz story crowned with success by having the hero crash through to the middle, or to nowhere, as this hero does.  We know the sequel -- our hero quits music and goes into TV, writing fine shows like The Rockford Files and Northern Exposure and still covering himself in the self-loathing that hovers every frame of this movie like the odorous haze over the Jersey Meadowlands, and prevents the audience from taking pleasure in even the most triumphant of scenes.

I understand that Mr. Chase is a fairly prickly and difficult fellow.  God knows, if he had any friends, they might have looked at this film and helped him to make something genuinely original and rewarding from it, instead of the desultory, self-indulgent thing it is.