Friday, October 31, 2014

Dear White People Review

Dear White People
Directed by Justin Simien
Released in 2014

The title is what it is just to get you talking, and hopefully paying. Dear White People is a far more diplomatic, unguarded and ideologically adrift movie than its name or the thousands of defensive (and racist) comments below its YouTube trailer may imply.

This movie arrives at a time when issues of social justice, and the intersection of those issues, has finally, it seems, reached the mainstream, and writer-director Justin Simien packs so much of this political zeitgeist into his debut that it can be said to be, sight unseen, The Movie for Our Time. But while some of its strands wobble or else lapse into polemics, Dear White People assumes a freewheeling, even self-effacing pose in the face of this responsibility, for it knows it is a thoroughly college movie, in both subject and style.

In this film, the world entirely exists on the campus of Winchester University, a sprawl of gothic architecture and manicured landscape bound to be familiar to any Ivy League student. The student body is a white one, with exceptions, of course. We follow four of these exceptions: Biracial activist and filmmaker Sam White (Tessa Thompson); Troy (Brandon P. Bell), suave president of the predominantly black Armstrong Parker House and son of the school’s dean (Dennis Haysbert, excellent); Colandera “Coco” Chanders (Teyonah Parris), a South Side girl with an outsize personality she is pitching to a reality TV producer; and budding writer Lionel Higgens (Tyler James Williams), who is timidly gay and sports a gnarly afro that, in his words, doubles as “a black hole for white people’s fingers.”

Sam hosts the titular radio show, where she addresses the pale majority with such proclamations as, “Dating a black person to piss off your parents is a form of racism.” On top of everything else she is doing, like making the whiteface satire “Rebirth of a Nation” for her film major, Sam runs for president of the Armstrong Parker House on the platform to “Bring Black Back,” though she perhaps has ulterior motives because Troy is an old flame. Surprisingly, she wins, and her outspoken, self-segregating reforms exile the bratty Kurt Fletcher (Kyle Gallner), who is naturally the university’s president son, as well as the soft-spoken Lionel and lead to mounting conflict with the administration, her peers and eventually herself.

But enough of plot — Dear White People elaborates itself more through minute human interactions than through its overarching plot, which it only debatably has. All the aforementioned characters have face time with one another, sometimes in lecture halls and other times in bed. In case the poster and trailer have not made it clear, this is a sexy movie, with attractive people filmed under expressive, not necessarily realistic lighting set-ups. Simien has an eye and ear for sensitive interaction, which notably does not survive in the political arena, even on a college campus.

If this film gets at one of its issues with something resembling clarity, it’s not race, though the treatment of it is revealing and often hilarious. (Like when a huddle of black students browbeats a movie theater cashier over Tyler Perry stereotypes, the film sympathizes with their pent-up frustrations but pokes fun at the misdirection of their discourse.) What Dear White People handles with grace is the interrelated question of identity, and how with all the options and tolerance we cherish today, that question remains daunting. Through wardrobe and hairstyle changes, Sam and Coco take pains to present a truthful version of themselves to the world. Troy struggles to find a balance between appeasing his father and honing his own assertive voice, though that tension is quite clichéd, now isn’t it.

It is Lionel where much of the film’s, and undoubtedly Simien’s, sympathies lie, for he is the most resistant to classification. Like a ronin of questionable skill, Lionel wanders from the dean’s office to Armstrong Parker to the campus newspaper to Pastiche, the humor magazine, victim of Kurt’s homophobic hazing at the latter location and receiving little empathy at the rest. The film forfeits points for veracity by presenting each of these locations as walled-off institutions with strict barriers for entry when in actuality, I don’t know, campus institutions are looser than that, I think? (How else did I get in this paper all those years ago?) Institutions can be as lackadaisical as the people working for them, but a stylized film like this has to cut corners somewhere. So against his stuck-up, careerist or else inhumanly confident peers, Lionel stands out as a relatable and unpredictable work in progress.

Because Simien is black and his movie stars a multi-racial ensemble cast and ends with a race riot (here, in response to a student party featuring blackface), the parlor game of influences will draw us to Spike Lee and, specifically, Do the Right Thing. The comparison is apt, since both movies track multiple characters that encounter prejudice, in its many forms, and alternately ignore, laugh at or lash out against it. But as Sam’s boyfriend guilts her into remembering, “Your favorite director is Bergman but you tell everyone Spike Lee.” Indeed, you can see some Ingmar Bergman in the way two lovers’ faces overlap and are draped in shadow during a post-coital scene, as well as some Wes Anderson in the font and shot symmetry and some Kubrick, circa Barry Lyndon, in the painterly frames that capture ennui at Pastiche headquarters.

There are even a few times when the camera zooms in, slowly and during innocuous moments, like when Troy and his girlfriend (Brittany Curran) scale a set of stairs. That’s a move out of the Robert Altman playbook, another director mentioned here by name, and I’m not sure it’s a wise one. In fact, with Satie, Swan Lake and “Für Elise” on the soundtrack, Simien indulges in the kind of on-the-nose music and visual mixtapes you’d expect from a precocious college student. But for some reason I like that approach, because it’s honest and fitting for the setting. Like the characters in his movie, Simien is still working through his influences to emerge with a voice of his own. That voice right now may be more prolix than clear, but it’s exciting for what it’s trying to say as well as how it’s saying it, and in the world of American independent film, you can ask for little more.

3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Loving and Hating, But on Whose Terms?

In all worthwhile criticism, two inclinations are always at war, and they are humility and vigilance. Too much humility precludes the ability to say anything at all, while excessive vigilance almost always reads as petty after the blood has cooled. Being discerning but fair and above all curious demands a balance, which seems feasible until you’re faced with the question: Do you judge a movie on your terms or its own?

In other words: Do you evaluate a movie for what it does do or for what, in your lowly opinion, it should do? Do you place it against the exemplary works of its own genre and judge accordingly, or do you have the right to rebuke a whole genre, a whole mode of filmmaking, for violating principles you yourself set? These are questions with answers that vary on a case-by-case basis, but like Ready to Die versus Illmatic and sexual preference, you tend to lean one way or the other.

I’ve gotten to the point where I embrace my power to set the terms of engagement. By that, I mean I don’t watch a movie now and give it a thumbs-up or down depending on how successfully and seamlessly it “does its job.” Instead, I see my job, when writing a review, to track down missed opportunities in a movie, moments of shallowness or cheapness that are often reinforced by the codes of genre and narrative. And when a movie connects, the priority is not to judge it against its generic peers but rather for the revelations it touches upon by breaking expectations, by doing what it should not do.

Let me clarify with an example. Over the weekend, I saw that other Brad Pitt World War II movie, Fury. It’s brutal, draining and unequivocally “well-done,” my friend and fellow Sun columnist, Julia Moser ’15, and I agreed. About halfway through, the battlefield carnage halts for a 20-minute interlude in an apartment that two soldiers, played by Pitt and Logan Lerman, have entered with the intent of raping the female occupants. Things complicate from there, and through facial expressions, pregnant pauses and the use of space, the scene vivisects a much less gory, but more entrenched form of male violence.

The movie surprised me there, for its commitment to exploring sexual violence at the expense of on-screen action or spectacle. That’s something not many war movies dare to do, and I give Fury credit for trying. It’s too bad the movie ends with one of those airheaded stand-offs that glorifies the valor in mowing down as many Nazis as possible. It shoots itself in the foot by obeying and so ferociously embracing the “last stand” scene intrinsic to so many war movies instead of subverting that trope in some way. The ending was “well-done,” no doubt, but far and away the stupidest part of the film.

So I reject Fury’s reality and substitute it with my own — or something like that. I don’t care for the “the acting was good, that plot twist was dumb” kind of pseudo-criticism that stays within a movie’s world and makes no effort to bridge it with our own. That line of thinking, or lack thereof, assumes that no film exploits, cash-grabs or, worst of all, panders. Lord, to think of all the pandering we’ll soon slog through with Oscar season now upon us. Time to flex that vigilance I mentioned before, for no matter how polished every Blackfish or Philomena may be, we all have the right, and distinct pleasure, to call bullshit.

This disparity between what is “well-done” and what is actually interesting to each of us, on a personal level, has been reinforced by the illusion that there is any difference between “favorite” and “best.” We lie when we say, “That is the best movie of the year,” yet we feel no personal connection to it, no urge to think it over or watch it again. “Best” most often esteems the “white elephants” in the room, Manny Farber’s term for those lumbering films with loud artistic or thematic aspirations, which are often unpleasing, unimaginative and overlong. The idea that we can objectively judge works of art, as so many gamers insist when a critic entertains a feminist reading instead of just sticking to the “gameplay,” perpetuates a borderline fascistic, anti-intellectual and above all boring culture.

Let your taste carry you, through all the cultures and all the genres. It’s really the only way to open yourself up to surprise after watching hundreds and thousands of movies. I’m guilty of not rushing to see Frances Ha last year because I anticipated just another ditzy indie comedy. When I finally saw it at Cornell Cinema, I couldn’t shake it, and my instincts urged me to keep that opinion to myself because this was, after all, just another ditzy indie comedy and not worth serious attention.

But no, Frances Ha is a masterpiece, and I have no qualms saying it because it is a judgment forged in my soul. It is in turns the funniest and saddest movie of last year, for its depiction of melancholia is all but unspoken, maybe even unrecognized by Greta Gerwig’s protagonist. I ranked it alongside heavyweights like The Act of Killing and 12 Years a Slave in my “Best of 2013” list, and if I could do it again I’d rank it higher. Frances Ha obliterates any expectations of its genre through its command of cinema and its intimate understanding of what it is to be human, and for doing all that in a way that speaks to me, it’s simply my job to meet it with awe.

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Last Days in Vietnam Review

Last Days in Vietnam
Directed by Rory Kennedy
Released in 2014

There is no such thing as a good war, but good people fight in the worst of them. The Vietnam War has never been mistaken for one of the good ones — not then and not now. Yet it is easy to conflate the war’s negative legacies, which include My Lai, Agent Orange and, of course, our country’s defeat, with the worth, or lack thereof, of those who served. Last Days in Vietnam, a clear-eyed and unusually gripping documentary opening at Cinemapolis today, makes the case for the American forces who risked tribunals, not to mention their own lives, in order to evacuate as many South Vietnamese civilians as possible on those last two chaotic days of April 1975.

The film, directed and produced by Rory Kennedy, is a rather straightforward talking heads affair, where you don’t even have time to fumble with a stopwatch before, blah, there’s Kissinger grumbling before his millionth camera. Good thing the film gets him out of the way early on so it can spend the rest of the time with the boots who were on the ground of Saigon when it fell. These men, like Army Colonel Stuart Herrington and Republic of Vietnam Navy Captain Kiem Do, recount the events of the evacuation and little more, which is all it takes for an enlightening narrative of morality during those most liminal hours between war and peace.

Over 16mm footage of the frantic city and maps animating the North Vietnamese Army’s push through Da Nang and toward Saigon, voices of the veterans interviewed frame their “terrible moral dilemma” in stark terms. Would Nixon boost U.S. air power to save them? Could Americans save anyone other than their own? Could they even do that? A target of derision for the first third of this 98-minute film is Graham Martin, the last U.S. Ambassador to South Vietnam, who was seen as “skittish” and aloof of the imminent defeat, and very real physical peril, his people would soon suffer.

As a sign of Last Days in Vietnam’s disinterest in demonizing, with-us-or-against-us rhetoric, especially against those dead and not present to defend themselves, Ambassador Martin develops a dimension or two. We learn that he lost his only son in the war, which is cause for one acquaintance to observe, “One becomes pretty invested in the country.”

Right before Operation Frequent Wind — the airlift of 7700 Americans and South Vietnamese from the U.S. embassy and other points in Saigon, and the specific focus of this film — commenced, Martin pointed to an old tamarind tree in the embassy’s parking lot and said it was “as steadfast as America’s commitment to Vietnam.” The irony that the tree had to be razed to allow helicopters to land and Americans to flee was not lost on him, since he at first stubbornly refused. But obviously he changed his mind, and not just about one tree: One colleague says, “The evacuation of Vietnamese [as opposed to only Americans] happened because Graham Martin wanted it to happen.”

Ambassador Martin bucked orders from the White House in order to see that those who aided America would escape persecution, and he did so with a valiant and orderly cache of soldiers, pilots and sailors committed to this humanitarian cause. The film tells the oral history with more punch than words here might, but it is imperative to mention the wound Colonel Herrington reopens when arriving at the part of the story where they left behind 420 civilians at the embassy without so much as a goodbye. Like Oskar’s final words in Schindler’s List, Herrington’s remorse for “so serious and deep a betrayal” cuts deep and contrasts the film’s narrative of success against all the loss and failure surrounding.

Last Days in Vietnam demands little from the viewer aside from a willingness to learn. If that sounds in the least bit like eating your vegetables, consider the entertainment value of Argo, apply almost all of that to this film, and then remember that this one is a documentary produced for PBS. So, basically: It’s better than you might think. It unfolds a complicated story in chronological order without much effort figuring out what it all ‘meant,’ and so makes it simple. But that simplicity suits these events well, since unthinking heroism is the only genuine kind.

Final Verdict:
3.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

When Story Is Not Enough

“I never remember plots in movies,” Paul Thomas Anderson, director of There Will Be Blood and certified Big Deal, said before an attentive audience Sunday morning. According to Indiewire’s dispatch from the New York Film Festival, Anderson elaborated as follows: “I remember how [movies] make me feel and I remember emotions and I remember visual things that I’ve seen, but my brain can never connect the dots of how things go together.”

Note how Anderson, who I agree with, says “emotions,” and not themes, subtext or any other undercurrent that could be deemed intellectual and thus pretentious. It’s not a matter of reading into a film, at least not at first. Critics — those who write professionally and the rest of us who argue with friends over a film we just paid to see — look for meaning because we have to do something with those emotions a movie brings to the fore. Taking note of what Anderson calls “visual things” helps us comprehend those feelings, and tether them to some valuable lesson, but they stay with us longest when they are incomprehensible. 

I wrote about similar matters in my last column, “How to Read a Movie,” where I detailed a few loose rules to which I hold the films I write about. I do not wish to repeat myself, but with Anderson’s comments and David Fincher’s adaptation of Gone Girl in the air, I would like to defend my first rule, “Story is not enough,” with a few more words. Because, you see, when faced with that standard, Gone Girl does plenty right but even more wrong.

I will not spoil the movie, but let me just get it out there that, regardless of whatever grievances I am about to air, you must see it. Not only are movie people talking about it but also TV people, music people, you-say-I-get-to-see-Ben-Affleck’s-penis? people — all the peoples. For Gone Girl satisfies a basic human need, in that it tells a ridiculously engrossing murder mystery set in small-town suburbia. Gillian Flynn, who wrote the best-selling novel and adapted it to screen, leads you to one assumption before blindsiding you with its inverse, and Fincher is so precise that even those familiar with the book will be surprised by certain cuts, reveals and flashes of light, like those from media cameras refracting through glass onto Amy (Rosamund Pike) and Nick Dunne’s (Ben Affleck) statuesque orange cat.

Yet the movie is so, so compelling for the speed with which it serves its ever-shifting plot that I worry it overlooks qualities that would stand out with subsequent viewings, when the question is not, “Is this entertaining?” but “Is this art? Is this really a masterpiece?” While our conditions for “masterpiece” status clearly differ, one condition I hope we can agree on is that plot for plot’s sake is not ideal, for revisiting a mystery story with the answers in hand usually amounts to diminishing returns. Gone Girl does not suffer that problem, exactly, for it quite loudly and incessantly calls attention to the bloodsucking media swarming the Dunne family, the sexist construct that is the “Cool Girl” and the delusions required to marry and stay committed to another person. At one point a character rants to another about how his/her (I said no spoilers) demands condone murder, and the other character snaps, “That’s marriage.”

The movie is making a Big Point, you see. In fact, it does what critics are relentlessly accused of: overanalyzing a situation. By pushing its multiple critiques so far into the foreground, Gone Girl wants to assure us it is more than pulp, not just meaningless “airport novel” trash. It has things to say all right, but these verbal and visual stingers indicting cable news, marriage and sexism struck me, for the most part, as easy, smug and way too abstract, like the lazier bits from The Daily Show. It’s one of those things where I “get” what the movie is trying to say and then, in my head, scream, “You think I don’t know that already?!”

The indirect reason for this is that Gone Girl spends almost every waking moment issuing plot developments that the psychology of Nick and Amy Dunne never finds time to take root. Now that may sound like a pretentious thing to say, but I am convinced the great movies we return to again and again feature protagonists with tricky and boundless interiorities, snippets of which we see during largely plotless moments.

These moments do not need to be slow, though they many memorable ones are, such as Scottie’s silent stalking of Madeleine in Vertigo or Juliette Binoche’s stare into the camera in Certified Copy (the masterpiece I keep imploring you, yes YOU, to see). We can also peek into the minds of our heroes when the action gets tense, like when Gary Cooper’s conflicted marshall stalks the streets in High Noon. Just so you know I think Fincher does this beautifully in other movies, how about in The Social Network, when Mark Zuckerberg aims his genius at coding, in what we see, through a brilliant, exhilarating montage, to be a misogynistic reaction to an unsuccessful date.

During revealing moments such as the ones described above, these movies cease to be about a story of made-up people or hot button themes but human behavior. There is no phenomenon better suited to cinematic exposure than the way we look, move and sweat, and if the filmmaker is talented enough, those external snapshots will clue us into what lies within, which, as a viewing experience, can be quite emotional.

Gone Girl is so cynical that neither Nick nor Amy Dunne face any chance at redemption, and so Fincher keeps their interiorities, to say nothing of their moralities, out of sight. It’s a shame, because not only did I not learn much new from this slick piece of entertainment, but I left the theater without any empathetic connection to two of the most messed-up characters in recent cinema, and what the hell am I doing to deserve that?

This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Real Estate Concert Review

Real Estate
The Haunt, Ithaca, N.Y.
September 30, 2014

To put to bed the recurring complaint that all Real Estate songs sound the same (and the New Jersey quintet naming one of their best “All the Same” surely didn’t help), just look at the crowd that filled The Haunt Tuesday night to see them. Or, rather, look how it moved.
There was a lot of the head- and waist-swaying you could expect for a band whose signature guitar sound is shimmery, entrancing and quintessentially “chill.” Tellingly, however, the movements of the college students and townies in attendance varied throughout the night: Some songs called for eyes to the floor as fists air drummed along, and others sparked a no-contact variant of moshing that, while respectful, still fueled a most entropic display. During the slowed-down breakdown at the end of “The Bend,” a key track off this year’s Atlas, almost everyone bobbed their heads back a foot and forward a few more, like loyal pumpjacks on an oil field.
A Real Estate concert demands more energy than you might think. For an hour and a half set of spritely indie rock to not just stay interesting but engage every soul in the room says more about a band’s intimacy with its fans than any technical skill. It’s not even a matter of sobriety, or lack thereof, for the parking lots were packed and plenty of friends before the show spoke in hushed tones about how much work they had to do when they got home. But once the show, which was organized by Dan Smalls Presents, got going, it was as if all that baggage fell to the floor and a mid-week respite took on a more powerful, albeit different meaning for each person there. I heard friends and total strangers gush, after the show or mid-song, how isn’t this just the greatest?
Like the night’s headliner, opener Regal Degal exercised surprising control over the audience with their loud, loose and very ’80s post-punk. Frontman Josh da Costa, sporting a possibly ironic mullet, did the typical opener thing where he introduced his band’s name and place of origin (“New York City!”) between every song, which became a running joke that worked because he kept a straight face. He also dropped the vivid titles of their songs, such as “Eaten Alive in Front of Stained Glass,” “I Sit Like a Chair” and “Ruining My Life.” If these guys lack the sincerity of Real Estate, they also boast a crazy sound that shifts with each song, where you get drum machines on one track and Peter Buck-esque guitars on another, with macabre confessionals as the only throughline. My friend Ana Niño ’15 summed them up: “They’re like The Smiths plus The Cure … but adolescent.”
Fading in their performance with “Green River,” a breezy song off their 2009 debut, Real Estate started small in order to build to something big, like the hypnotic “Kinder Blumen” or an energized update of “Beach Comber.” About a third through, bassist Alex Bleeker said as such, “I feel like we can go farther, and push this show into legendary territory.” And they sure came close. That is not to shortchange some of the great songs early on, like “Had to Hear,” “Crime” and “Green Aisles,” which I scrawled in all caps in my notes upon recognizing that opening arpeggio. But once the band got a feel for the audience and their many microphone levels in order, the songs flowed blissfully from one to the next and raised us with them higher and higher, to the point that when it was all over, the band looked sad to go.
The individual members of Real Estate do not appear to carbon copies of one another, in look or temperament, which made watching them live that much easier. Though I could not see Matt Kallman at the keyboard, drummer Jackson Pollis held the rear of the stage with an intensity that matched the deliberate, slightly slower tempo he set and stuck to for the night. Lead singer and guitarist Martin Courtney carried a similar introverted presence, opting to stare into the middle distance as he sang halcyon or else mournful lyrics rather than goof off or move about the stage.
Bleeker fulfilled those duties, being the gregarious one who saw fit to poll the audience for Grateful Dead fans and schmooze about the beauty of Ithaca. Guitarist Matt Mondanile, meanwhile, looked lost in thought during the verses of “Talking Backwards,” where he does not play, and considering he helms a separate band, Ducktails, one can imagine that thought was fruitful. But most of the time he was on the verge of stealing the show, like when he closed his eyes and tore into the simple but lush chords of “It’s Real.”
I’d be remiss not to mention an unexpected star of the night, who happens to not even be a member of the band, though maybe an honorary one at this point. The name “Josh Kay” was shouted right before “Horizon” and popped up every so often to the very end, even serving as the chant that summoned the band’s encore. Like Real Estate and, it so happens, myself, Josh Kay hails from Bergen County, New Jersey, and in an interesting twist of journalistic disclosure, I must admit I’ve known him since high school. He is a senior at Ithaca College with many friends, and while we are not close, we’ve exchanged too many niceties at too many parties, in too many states, for me to not say it was pretty surreal seeing him invited on-stage for the encore.
The band knows and clearly likes Josh, for this was his tenth Real Estate show. I caught up with him briefly after the show and he counted this as one of the best because “they resonated with the crowd.” I’d say that’s accurate, for it is the main reason why a sold-out audience familiar with Atlas and Days ended up, still, so surprised and pleased this great band could be so much better in the flesh.
This article was written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location here.