In Which I Recommend Three Movies (Dear White People, Listen Up Philip, and The Tale of Princess Kaguya)

Dear White People

Dear White People

I feel like I need a second watch to solidify how I feel about Dear White People -but with so many interesting new releases hitting theaters in the coming weeks, I don’t know when that will happen. Even then, the first thing I have to say that it reminded me of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing -both favorably and negatively- and not only because of the racial themes. Like Lee’s masterpiece, it was the way Dear White People comes together at the end that revealed it as an incredibly urgent movie.

The bad news is that, unlike Do the Right Thing, the characters are not nearly as specific and original. Dear White People is a comedy satire, and while it makes some pretty cool assessments about the racial politics of such places as college campuses, it feels trapped by a series of recognizable characters whose journeys are a little too familiar. Another key difference is that there are clear villains in the form of the editors of the fratty-humor college publication, while the relationship between Mookie and Sal was one of the most nuanced and winning elements of Do the Right Thing. 

Now, saying that a movie isn’t as good as Do the Right Thing is pretty mean. After all, it is one of the best movies ever made. What Dear White People is, is a very entertaining and promising start to the career of writer-director Justin Simien. Simien uses framing and editing in an almost anarchic way, making the movie look as uncomfortable as the conversations its characters are having. The cast is also fantastic, especially Tessa Thompson, who gives life to a tough-as-nails activist who is a little too idealized for most of the movie, but reveals herself to be heartbreakingly vulnerable in the movie’s latter half.

ListenUpPhilip

Listen Up Philip

The first of three features I’ve watched by director Alex Ross Perry, this is a fantastic portrayal of a very specific kind of person. Now, it is a well-known fact that I don’t read many novels, but the people that do tell me that this movie, and its lead character, are very much based on author Philip Roth. Now, I have not read a single thing Philip Roth has written, and I don’t know how Listen Up Philip stacks up to his work, or his persona. But I do know that it is a pretty great movie.

Jason Schwartzman gives a hilarious performance as Philip, a young novelist whose second novel is about to come out and is described in the movie as “notable but not successful”. Philip is also narcissistic to an extreme that surpasses the boundaries of incredibility to become one of the most realistic portrayals I have seen of such people. The movie not only follows Philip, but his girlfriend Ashley (played by an amazing Elisabeth Moss), and an older, more successful author: Ike Zimmermann (Jonathan Pryce). Zimmermann is as much of an asshole as Philip, indoctrinating him in his dick-headed ways, and serving as a possible glimpse into Philip’s own future.

On the other hand, Ashley is just one of the many characters (definitely the most important and well developed) whose lives are affected by Philip’s behavior. The movie strikes gold in the way it uses narration and extreme close-ups to be as detailed and dark as it needs to be to present the full effects Philip’s poisonous view of the world has not only in the people around him, but in his very own future. It is very much a movie about digging your own emotional grave. Deeply dark, but also profoundly funny.

Princess Kaguya

The Tale of Princess Kaguya

After singing the praises of two movies already in this post, let me end by saying that The Tale of Princess Kaguya is one of the very best movies I’ve seen this year, and one that you are guaranteed to see pop up when I release my Top 10 List at the end of the year. So, here’s the thing. Animated films, especially those with female leads, have always been subject to scrutiny as far as their gender politics are concerned. And rightly so. We owe it to our children to expose them to favorable and rich portrayal of both men and women. However, when studios such as Disney have tried to make more progressive movies (such as Aladdin, Mulan, or the recent gigantic hit that was Frozen), we’ve always ended up with more of a post-feminist kind of movie rather than an actual feminist one.

Now, let me explain the difference between those terms (as I was explained one of my classes on gender studies). Post-feminism positions that we have reached equality for women, and thus, strong women could get by on their own based on the fact that they’re strong. That is how, say, Merida from Brave uses her inner strength to get through her troubles and succeed at the end. Now, there’s nothing wrong with strong women characters, but The Tale of Princess Kaguya is the first animated feminist movie that I can remember seeing. In it, the Japanese folk tale of a little princess who grows out of a bamboo tree is adapted into a story about a trapped girl, who can’t really be herself no matter how hard she tries. All of the princess’ attempts at freeing, or carving a better future for herself end in disaster, just because the society she is living in won’t let her.

The movie was directed by Isao Takahata -co-founder of Studio Ghibli alongside the legendary Hayao Miyazaki-, and is a masterclass in the beauty of traditional animation. Every frame looks as a beautiful watercolor painting, with the lines and the movements of the characters adopting an impressionistic aesthetic that makes this probably the most beautiful movie I’ve seen all year. Supported by these visuals, and by the fantastic score by frequent Ghibli collaborator Joe Hisaishi, The Tale of Princess Kaguya was an outstanding experience. It moves slowly, and it gets a little too long in the middle part, but by the end, I was moved to tears, but also infuriated thinking about how many young girls are as hopeless and helpless in our society as this Princess Kaguya.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time and Depictions of Autism

Screen Shot 2014-10-20 at 3.19.28 PMThis weekend, I went to see a play that seems to be on the way to becoming this year’s Broadway sensation. The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Timebased on the novel of the same name by Mark Haddon and adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens, made its American debut after a hugely successful run on London’s West End, which included a clean sweep of the Olivier Awards (basically, the British equivalent of the Tony Awards). The play proved to be a pretty awesome theatrical experience. But beyond the beautiful spectacle of the design, and the strong work of the actors, I left the theater with a lot of uncertain feelings about the play and the experience I had just had.

I decided to write a blog post about it, and as fate would have it, just this morning I listened to the latest episode of the fabulous movie podcast Fighting in the War Roomin which one of the topics, coincidentally and unexpectedly, was not only The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but precisely the question I was wrestling with after watching the show. So, in case you are not familiar with the material, the play centers on the story of Christopher, a fifteen-year-old British boy suffering from an unspecified disorder (most likely Asperger’s or another form of high-functioning autism), which made me think about other representations of mental disorders on art and entertainment, and how much I tend to dislike them.

Now, we all have certain pet-peeves. So matter how much we would like to be open to all kinds of art no matter the content, there are certain subject matters that we just don’t find appealing. In my case, they are narratives about people with mental disabilities. Or at least that’s what I’ve thought ever since I failed to be moved by any of the most famous and beloved “mental disabilities” movies. At one point, I was notorious amongst my friends for not liking either Forrest Gump or Rain ManHonestly, it’s not that I don’t like them, I actually have very strong negative feelings towards them. And if we continue down this road, my worst nightmare might as well be the Sean Penn movie I Am Samalthough to be fair I think not as many people feel emotional attachment to this atrocity as they do to the two I mentioned before.

Anyway, as I was saying, for most of my life I just accepted the fact that I didn’t like narratives about this type of people as a fact. I thought there was something about not being able to have a “normal” mind that made me really uncomfortable. Some sort of fear that prevented me from engaging with these types of stories. That was until a few years ago, when I actually read Mark Haddon’s novel (on which the play I’m supposedly talking about is based). It was recommended to me by my now ex-girlfriend, who made it seem like a pretty awesome book. However, knowing that it had an autistic lead character made me hesitate about reading it. When I finally caved in, I found the novel to be one of the most entertaining books I’ve read.

I’ve heard people complain that the portrayal of autism and/or Asperger’s in the novel is not exactly the most accurate, but that is neither here nor there. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time (the novel) was the proof that I could, after all, enjoy stories about people with mental disabilities. What’s important to know about the novel is that it is told by its lead character, Christopher, as a first-person account. We look at everything from his point of view, which means that while some aspects of his disability might be a little too cartoony, he is a complex character. He is not there to be cute, and for us to be heart-warmed by his quirky comments. He wants things, and most importantly, he is not oblivious about what happens around him. This is what was different between this story I liked and the many movies I detested. I didn’t necessarily dislike the subject, I disliked the fact that people didn’t seem to be able to tell good stories about it.

One of the interesting things about watching the novel transposed onto the stage, under the direction of Marianne Elliot, whose previous credits include the theatrical version of War Horse, is that it wants to present itself as much from Christopher’s point-of-view as the novel. To achieve this, the stage of the Ethel Barrymore Theater has been transformed into a giant black cube, which is meant to represent Christopher’s mind, as drawings and graphics are projected onto its walls, simulating the thought process of the lead character. This creative design injects the show with an unlimited amount of energy, and it serves to create some of the loveliest stage images I have ever seen, including a beautiful moment in which Christopher dreams of flying through space.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a pretty fantastic theatrical experience, but the truth is that, as far as depictions of mental disabilities are concerned, it is on the minority. The most recent popular example of such a character is, after all, Sheldon Cooper from The Big Bang TheoryNow, Sheldon doesn’t officially have Asperger’s, but that is because that show wants to use the tropes and stereotypes about people that suffer from the syndrome, and apply them to a character without having to deal with the more serious issues that affect such a person. As the guys on Fighting in the War Room put it during their discussion, the show just wants to have Sheldon say socially unacceptable things and get away with it under the excuse of “he just doesn’t know better”.

Most other relatively recent portrayals of such characters have also been either too simplistic about the struggles of living under the circumstances of one of these conditions, too cutesy and romantic about the idea of a “purer” mind, or both. Examples of these are Ron Howard’s A Beautiful Mind, or the independent romance AdamI know that I’m putting a lot of different syndromes and conditions in one basket, but that’s because that is what Hollywood seems to be doing too. I guess that what I’m trying to say is that there is no need to be simplistic about these kinds of characters and their stories. We don’t have to be too sentimental, we don’t have to look at them and feel sorry. We should treat these characters as we treat any other, and with the respect that their struggle deserves.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a good example of how this can be achieved. Truth be told, Christopher is not the most nuanced character, but the play’s approach never feels presentational, or meaning for us to observe him like an experiment. We are meant to get into his mind not to think of how complicated or unfortunate his situation is, but simply to understand how his brain operates, and how we would approach the situation if we were him. And please don’t think that I’m saying that theater is a higher art and it has all the answers or some bullshit like that. As a matter of fact, some of the best examples of mentally challenged or disabled characters of the past decade have come from television. I’m talking, of course, about Abed (played by Danny Pudi) on Community, and Jewel (played by Geri Jewell) on DeadwoodBoth are magnificent characters that show their show’s most humane, complex, and detailed eye towards storytelling.

So, please Hollywood, don’t make me believe that I don’t like people with mental disabilities. You can do better than this. You owe it to the subjects of your stories, and you owe it to your audiences. Oh, and of course, if you get the chance, don’t hesitate to get a ticket and go see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on Broadway.

Birdman or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Gave Iñarritu a Second Chance

Birdman

How curious that of all the directors currently working on Hollywood, it would be Alejandro Gonzalez Iñárritu that decided to make Birdman. In an amusing bit of meta-commentary, the Mexican director has decided to tell the story of a washed-up movie star who tries to revitalize his career by staging a “serious” play, meaning that almost in polar opposition to the protagonist of his movie, here we have a director who has been, up to this point, defined by his insufferable seriousness trying to give his career a breath of fresh air by doing a lighter, more comedic movie. At the end of the day, Iñárritu’s sensibilities might be too severe as to give in to the more ridiculous aspects of comedy (a hint is Birdman‘s “alternative” title The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance). But even if I count myself among the many detractors of Iñárritu’s exhaustingly bleak previous output, which reached self-parody in 2010’s Biutifuland even if I still have some doubts about Birdman0s greatness, this is far and away the best and most exciting movie of the director’s career.

The fact that Iñárritu is directing is just one of Birdman’s many meta-filmic elements. For starters, our protagonist Riggan Thomson, is an actor best remembered for playing the titular Birdman, the lead character of a successful 90s superhero franchise. Riggan is played by Michael Keaton, who you most likely remember as the man who played Batman in the late 80s and early 90s. Now that he’s older, Riggan is trying to gain some critical respect by adapting, directing, and starring on a Broadway adaptation of Raymond Carver’s What We Talk About When We Talk About Love. We’re a few previews away from opening night, and Riggan is starting to lose his shit. Not only must he deal with such things as the problematic temperament of extremely “serious” method actor Mike (Edward Norton), and the asphyxiating presence of his just-out-of-rehab daughter Sam (Emma Stone), but he must wrestle his inner demons. And I mean inner demons rather literally, as he keeps hearing the voice of “Birdman” philosophizing in his head.

For the most part, Birdman shows us the world through Riggan’s point of view. Even though there are a number of scenes that occur while he’s not around (the question of whether these scenes exist only in Riggan’s may or may not be answered in subsequent viewings), we spent most of the time almost literally following Riggan, as Iñárritu and wunderkind cinematographer Emmanuel Lubezki stage the movie as a seemingly uninterrupted single take (very similarly to Hitchcock’s Rope or the more recent Russian Ark). But while the visual conceit provides a fun gimmick as well as some gorgeous imagery (Emma Stone, and her eyes in particular, have never looked more beautiful), I feel like this tight focus on Riggan ends up being Birdman‘s biggest weakness.

Let me explain. The movie seems to be divided (like most Broadway plays) in two acts. The first one, while featuring a fair amount of fantastical elements, focuses pretty literally on the comings and goings of getting Riggan’s production to its opening night. This first half provides for the movie’s most hilarious moments. Edward Norton is particularly good in this part as an actor who is willing to bleed for the theater. The only way his performance could be more appropriate is if he secretly were Daniel Day-Lewis. Norton might be the stand-out, but the rest of the supporting cast gets its time to shine too. This includes Zach Galifianakis, Andrea Risenborough, and Naomi Watts, who once again proves that she is a much stronger comedic actress than Hollywood is willing to admit.

The second part of the movie, on the other hand, seems to take place almost entirely in Riggan’s head. This is the half that houses the movie’s visual and metaphorical centerpiece, as Riggan comes face to face with his super-heroic counterpart in an extended hallucinatory sequence. It’s not that the movie seizes to be entertaining, or that it runs out of steam, but rather that it’s in the second half that the movie must reveal what it is really about. It turns out this is basically another movie about an aging man having a midlife crisis that makes him reevaluate his life choices. The interesting thing is that Riggan’s dubious mental sanity brings up a couple of interesting questions by the end of the film (especially is you take into account my proposed conceit that the scenes in which he is absent take place in his head). Still, the fact remains that, thematically speaking, Birdman feels very familiar.

Now, the fact that I’m not entirely satisfied with the movie’s tight focus on Riggan’s psychology doesn’t mean that Keaton isn’t extraordinary in the role. He is bound to get an Oscar nomination for this performance, and with good reason. It’s true that Keaton never became as big a movie star as some of his contemporaries, but ever since he gave up the cowl he’s been popping up here and there with some very solid performances. His Riggan Thomson is a fantastic lead, deeply human, and instantly magnetic. Most of the movie rests on his shoulders, and he more than delivers. That ends up being my opinion of Birdman. Even its familiar touches can be excused thanks to the extraordinary execution.

Grade: 7 out of 10

‘Jane the Virgin’ And The Dream of Latino Television

Jane the VirginLatinos make up for close to 20% of the American populations. They will probably become the predominant ethnic group in the United States within our lifetimes. They are the highest and most consistently growing market in the country, and yet, they are rarely portrayed in mainstream media. There have obviously been exceptions throughout the years, and considering the way Hollywood operates, now that there is a shit-load of money to be made off of Latino audiences, we will probably start to see more and more movies and television programs aimed at this demographic.

Representations of Latinos in mainstream American media seem to be following a similar path to what happened to black people and their representations. As far as the visual media are concerned, I would say stories about black people entered the mainstream in the early seventies, with the explosion of blacksploitation movies, but it reached new levels in the mid-to-late eighties, when television networks started producing sitcoms with African American casts. The most popular pioneering example of this wave of popularity for black stories in the mainstream is, obviously, The Cosby Show. It was a show that wasn’t only popular with black audiences, but a show that was loved all across America -hell, it was loved all around the world.

No show with a Latino sensibility has been as popular as The Cosby Show. And the way television ratings work now, probably no show (with or without a Latino sensibility) ever will. But there must come a moment in which a show that tells stories about Latino characters and their particular experience in America will permeate into the mainstream cultural conversation. Just like we talk about how Omar from The Wire is an amazing badass, or the way a whole generation has memorized the lyrics to the Fresh Prince theme song, we will be talking about a Latino show or a Latino character. It’s just a matter of time until that show arrives… Isn’t it?

Like I said, the show hasn’t arrived yet, but I think we might have a pretty good candidate in Jane the Virgin. I don’t know if enough people will watch Jane the Virgin, since those things are alway uncertain, but it had some pretty good viewership numbers on its premiere Monday night, especially when you consider that the show is airing on the CW, which is a network with a relatively small niche audience. But if we’re talking about quality, then I think Jane the Virgin has most of the elements necessary to become the most significant portrayal of Latinos so far in American television.

The show is based on a Venezuelan telenovela, a fact that has drawn a lot of comparisons to Ugly BettyBetty was based on a Colombian telenovela, and focused on the story of a nerdy Mexican-American working for a materialistic fashion magazine. It was very popular both with critics and audiences with it premiered, but it lost its appeal pretty quickly, as the writers didn’t seem to know how to move the story forward in an interesting way after the first season. As far as tone and initial reactions, Jane the Virgin has a lot in common with Ugly Bettyalthough it has an even wackier premise, as Jane, who is a virgin (and by the way is played by the extremely charming Gina Rodriguez) discovers she’s pregnant after being accidentally inseminated by her gynecologist.

It is fitting, however, that the show sports such a ludicrous premise, because it seems to be approaching its roots, and pre-existing assumptions about Latin American television, in a post-modern, re-appropriating way. Similarly to the way black shows like Everybody Hates Chris worked stereotypes about black identity into their narratives, and used to them to start a dialogue about what their effects while maintaining a satirical edge, Jane the Virgin is taking the overwhelming tonal shifts of telenovelas and using them to make a story that feels authentically Latino. The characters on Jane the Virgin watch telenovelas, which in turn influence the way they act in their daily lives (as in a scene in which Jane gets advice from a hallucinatory vision of her favorite actor). I don’t want to spoil plot-developments, but by the end of the first episode, the characters’ lives come one very interesting step closer to those of the characters they watch on television.

What’s most important, though, is that the show is not presenting us with a Latino lifestyle, but showing us the story of very particular people, who happen to be Latino and be influenced by a series cultural touchstones that tend to influence Latinos in this country. There is no exoticism to the depiction of these characters. As an example, Jane’s grandmother, despite only speaking in Spanish (a device that has been used many times before for comedic effect), is one of the most serious, deepest, and at first glance, interesting characters on the show.

This is a show with a point of view that hasn’t been explored too many times before. And a show that is trying to pull off a pretty fantastic balancing act. It doesn’t want to be about two-dimensional characters, it wants to be about actual people, with complex feelings and ideologies. It also wants to be a post-modern look at telenovelas, and maybe other cultural elements that are associated with Latino culture, and at least in the first episode, it shows how these two things don’t have to be divorced from each other. By the end of the first episode, I couldn’t believe the number of twists and turns the writers fit into 40 minutes of television, and I was also tearing up at the show’s most emotional moments.

Genuine feelings and ridiculous stories can live together. Jane the Virgin seems to be a smart show, and will hopefully provide a bright future for Latino television. I’ll keep watching, and so should you.

Jane the Virgin airs Mondays at 9 p.m. on the CW. You can watch the first episode right now on Hulu.  

Whiplash: Blood, Sweat, and Drums

Whiplash-5547.cr2

Now, here’s a weird development. I think everyone who sees the movie would agree that the ending of Whiplash, the first feature of writer-director Damien Chazelle, is a great piece of filmmaking. A final confrontation between a young man and an old master that is as violent and exciting as the final moments of the biggest Hollywood thrillers. The difference is that this confrontation, unlike the adventures of a James Bond or a Jason Bourne, doesn’t involve a single gun or explosion, it takes place entirely at a music concert. Our hero is a young jazz drummer, and his enemy -of sorts- is an excruciatingly demanding music teacher who has brought him to the edge of sanity. I’ve written this paragraph hoping to raise some eyebrows at how the outcome of a jazz concert could be as nail-biting as stopping a nuclear device, but I already knew this writer-director was capable of turning the performance of music into a matter of life and death. After all, Chazelle wrote the screenplay for Grand Pianoa fantastic thriller released earlier this year, in which Elijah Wood must perform a perfect concert in order to save his life.

Anyway, like I was saying, Whiplash ends -excuse the pun- on a high note. And yet, it’s ending leaves a couple of unanswered questions that keep it from being a truly great movie. Don’t get me wrong, Whiplash is a really good movie, and it’s relatively open ending gives us enough hints to develop informed speculations about what happens to the characters after the credits roll… But I must admit that it was a little disappointing that the movie ends at the most interesting moment. I just can’t stop wondering where these characters go from here, which is not necessarily a bad thing. I wasn’t expecting to lose myself in the story of Whiplash, and yet I did in a way that hasn’t happened to me in quite some time.

So let’s talk about the plot. Our protagonist is Andrew (Miles Teller), a young man whose only passion is to become the greatest jazz drummer. He goes to Shaffer, a Julliard-style music school in New York City, where he meets Fletcher (J.K. Simmons), the most demanding music teacher you’ll ever meet, but also the head of the most prestigious school ensemble. The one that will get you a job playing jazz music, which is good, since there aren’t many of those. Andrew gets a spot on the band, but Fletcher’s way of getting the best of his students is intense, to say the least. He screams, he shouts, he’s incredibly offensive, and he throws shit at people when they can’t quite play on his tempo.

Andrew won’t give up though, he’s determined to become the next Charlie Parker, and here’s where the thematic undertone of the movie starts to get good. Because who could ever be the next Charlie Parker? Not only was he a once-in-a-lifetime virtuoso, but the world doesn’t care about jazz music anymore. At least not like it used to. All these young people’s hands are bleeding due to long days of uninterrupted practice that will get them to play the most complicated compositions, but what for? Andrew’s whole thing is that he wants to be remembered after he dies. I don’t know if playing the jazz-drums is the way to achieve immortality, but that’s neither here nor there. He’s already in it. He already knows he’s good, and he won’t let Fletcher stop him no matter how hard he tries. And don’t get me wrong, Fletcher is pretty brutal.

While Andrew and Fletcher are duking out on the screen, we can’t escape the voice in the back of our heads that keeps telling us: “all this for playing drums?”. I have a very complicated relationship to music and musicians. I have very little musical talent myself. Just hearing people talk about notes, scales, pitches, tempos makes me start to get nervous. It all feels foreign to me, and so precise that I can’t even imagine how someone could master it. But people do master it. People do practice and they are good, and they are better than others. There’s a moment in the movie where Andrew goes to a family dinner where nobody really understands how important jazz is to him. He talks about winning a jazz competition. “How can you win a music competition. Isn’t it all subjective?” asks his cousin. “No. It’s not” answers Andrew, dead-certain that he can be the very best.

I believe both Andrew and Fletcher are caught in the folly of perfection. Their motives might be different, but all they really want is Andrew to be perfect. At the end… what’s the point? I guess that’s up to you to decide when you see the movie. I highly recommend that you do. Because if nothing else, it’s one of the most entertaining and brisk movies I’ve seen all year. Chazelle is a musical guy -having trained as a jazz drummer himself- and his movie is edited with outstanding concern for rhythm. It moves by at the perfect pace for every scene. For a movie made out mostly of scenes of people playing drums, it is unbelievable how entertaining it is. After Grand Piano and now this, I wonder if Chazelle could make a living out of making strangely disturbing movies about the world of music. He seems to have the talent, and I would love to see him try.

Grade: 7 out of 10

Gone Girl: It Left an Aftertaste, But Also, It Didn’t

Gone GirlThis review contains minor spoilers. 

No matter how you look at it, Gone Girl is an effective movie. It is smartly written, if houses solid performances, and it is especially well directed. It’s redundant to say this at this point, but David Fincher knows how to direct a movie. He directs this thriller about a sick marriage like a slow train. He moves at his own pace, but the force of the giant machine can still be felt. I guess there is no room for sloppiness once you’ve directed two meticulous masterpieces such as Zodiac and The Social Network. Fincher will make anything work, but as well oiled a machine as Gone Girl is, once the train has left the station, all you’re left with is an empty platform. I enjoyed Gone Girl, but I didn’t know what to make with it when the experience of watching it was over.

This is not to say that Fincher is working with bad material. Gillian Flynn adapts her own novel to the screen, and she has crafted a pretty solid story that starts out as a familiar yet unsettling thrillers, and ends up as a pulpy massacre where violence goes back and forth between the public and private life of its protagonists. Nick and Amy Dunne’s marriage seems as prefabricated as their huge Missouri house. On the morning of their fifth anniversary, Nick (Ben Affleck) wakes up to find out that his wife (Rosamund Pike) has mysteriously disappeared. Nick is suddenly in the vortex of a huge media story. Every single move he makes is analyzed by the public, who is growing increasingly suspicious of how calmed he seems about Amy’s disappearance.

As any good crime novel, Flynn’s Gone Girl provides a number of exciting twists and turns. It also provides a couple of hugely inspired moments. One of them comes when Nick tries to deliver a message through a television interview, the other, when the detective in charge of Amy’s case (played by a great Kim Dickens) tries to question a victim that is inconveniently, but expectedly, sheltered by the other police officers. These are moments that make me think about the questions that many critics claim the movie inspires about relationships and the media, but on the grand scheme of things I don’t really see where this critical reactions is coming from.

Gillian Flynn has been quoted as saying that she wishes the movie breaks up as many couples as possible. That’s obviously meant as an attention-grabbing line, but this is a story about two pretty despicable people in a pretty despicable marriage. She might not want to break up couples on purpose, but I certainly came out of the theater feeling uncomfortable and dirty. Like I said, the movie works. As a media satire, it’s also pretty spot on. Certainly, Gone Girl‘s best passages come when Nick and Amy decide to engage on a sort of sick competition, trying to bend the media to their will, and “win” the game that they’ve turned their relationship into.

It’s an interesting experience, no doubt about that. And it’s certainly entertaining. What bothers me is a matter of after-taste. Both positive and negative reactions to the movie had me thinking that there was going to be much to talk about, and I feel like that just isn’t the case. It might be just me, but by the end of the movie Amy was too much of an evil genius, and Nick too much of a clueless victim. I was expecting a little bit more mea to chew on in Gone Girl as far as the “battle of the sexes” was concerned, instead the movie ends up a little too close to Fatal Attraction territory for me. I still enjoyed watching it, I just don’t think it’s a great movie.

Grade: 7 out of 10

Men, Women & Children: Jason Reitman Will Tell You What Your Grandparents Think of the Internet

men women and children

I’m not going to lie. I went to see Jason Retiman’s Men, Women & Children, because of the tepid critical reaction ignited by its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival.

What was I expecting? Well, reviews were terrible. Some of them pointed out to the fact that Reitman seemed to have lost any kind of notion of how human emotions work, others on the movie’s infuriating gender politics, or its overly preachy tone. All in all reviews made it seem as if this wasn’t just a bad movie. Men, Women & Children seemed to be what I call an “Awards Trainwreck”: a movie that comes out late in the year, usually hoping to garner some Oscar nominations, but is really a profoundly confused movie. It think it’s good, but it really isn’t. A good example of this would actually be Reitman’s last movie, Labor Daywhich wanted to present the incredibly creepy and ridiculous story of an escaped con falling in love with an agoraphobic housewife as a sweeping romance, but came out as a seedy, trashy affair.

Somehow, the movie managed to meet my expectations and disappoint me at the same time. Because on the one hand, there is no doubt that Jason Reitman (who came into the scene after directing Juno and Up in the Air) is a person who has absolutely lost touch with what humans are like. On the other hand, Men, Women and Children doesn’t offer any of the pulpy thrills of Labor Day, which might be a bad movie, but an undoubtedly entertaining one. Reitman’s latest is boring from start to finish. Don’t be fooled. It is terrible, but it is by no means the trainwreck I was hoping it would be. It’s just a bad, boring movie.

In case you’re not aware, it is an ensemble drama about the dangers of the internet. It focuses on the inhabitants of a small town, all of whose lives are affected one way or another by the internet, resulting, most of the time, in their not being able to connect with other human beings and find happiness. To deliver its message, it utilizes the subtlety of a sledgehammer, and populates its world with a bunch of one-dimensional characters who only have one aspect to them. That’s how you end up with Adam Sandler and Rosemarie DeWitt playing a couple who look for affairs and professional companionship when their marriage goes stale. Judy Greer as a mother obsessed with making her daughter a Hollywood star because she couldn’t become one. Jennifer Garner as an incredibly uptight mother who monitors her daughter’s every move to protect her form the dangers of the internet, and so on.

That’s Men, Women & Children‘s first huge problem, it wants to say profound things about our existence in a hugely digitalized world when it is barely skimming the surface of its themes. It begins with a narration in which Emma Thompson tells us about the Voyager aircraft that is making its way through the universe and holds records of what life on earth look like, but the movie’s depiction of life on earth could be summed up by a list of stereotypes. If you think the adult characters I just described are bad, wait until you hear about the kids. There’s a boy who can only get aroused by the most extreme types of porn. A girl who uploads sexy pictures of herself because she wants to feel desired. A girl who suffers from anorexia and has a crush on a huge douche. And a couple of kids, played by popular teen actors Ansel Elgort and Kaitlyn Dever, who feel disconnected from the world except when they’re with each other. He’s the guy whose father can’t understand why he has left football in favor of computer games, and she is the girl who wants to rebel because she’s been long repressed by her mother’s paranoia.

If it sounds overwrought and tired, it’s because it is. It’s very clear to me what Reitman is trying to do with this movie. He is trying to tap into the cultural zeitgeist, and have people react to this movie as a revelation of the true colors of their lives in the same way Sam Mendes’s American Beauty did back in 1999. The bad news is that Men, Women & Children doesn’t feature any of the satiric approach of the older movie, not to mention the fact that American Beauty isn’t a particularly deep movie to begin with, but rather a very immature and simplistic one. If there was an interesting movie to be made about the way people relate to the internet and their electronic devices, this is certainly not it. This movie is as scared of computers as a science fiction film made thirty years ago.

But the movie’s fatal mistake is its indulgence in two of the most widely perpetuated myths about youth and the internet. One of them is the paranoid belief that male teenagers don’t want anything but have meaningless wild sex, and that female teenagers only want to have sex because they are pressured by either boys or society into indulging in these perfectly human desires. The other is the notion that friendships and relationships developed online are somehow less authentic than those created in real life. This movie is so outdated I bet it would think that sending postcards and letters with a pen-pal is also more authentic than finding a friend on Twitter or Tumblr. Men, Women & Children has nothing to offer.

 Grade: 3 out of 10