“Any escape might help to smooth / The unattractive truth / But the suburbs have no charms to soothe / The restless dreams of youth” – Rush’s ‘Subdivisions’, 1982
After the suburban nightmare of American Beauty, Thora Birch returns to similar teenage angst in Ghost World, starring as the misanthropic Enid. At first joined at the hip with best friend Rebecca (Scarlett Johansson), the introverted outsider graduates from high school but despairs of living in a world populated so heavily by losers and idiots. Deceptively aimless days ensue, but all the while lives are being derailed. This apathetic but confident dramedy wanders but never meanders through its episodic plot, picking up steam as it goes on until it becomes something truly special. Filled as it is by characters who treasure obscure pieces of art, Ghost World ends up being worthy of treasure too.
Based on Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel (which, believe it or not, was required reading for me in grad school), this live-action adaptation more than does right by the source material. The cast makes sense of some of the tossed-off quirkiness of the comic, led by the terrific Birch. Johansson doesn’t make as much of an impression as her, but shows a real talent for underplaying, which has gone on to serve her extremely well later in her career. And after American Beauty, Birch trades in love interests for a definite upgrade: the pretentious Ricky Fitts (Wes Bentley) for Steve Buscemi’s wonderfully endearing Seymour (choice line: “What if I don’t want to meet people who share my interests? I hate my interests.”).
Enid’s renegade rhetorical reaction to society’s bullshit makes her an antihero with a compelling arc; an early act of hers tips over into cruelty, but something entirely unexpected comes out of it. This is a key theme of the movie, as of all things a restaurant is used to make the same point. That’s the kind of quirky storytelling that works beautifully. No wonder that the screenplay (by Clowes and director Terry Zwigoff) was nominated for an Oscar; its trick is to so perfectly balance vignette structure and an A-to-B-to-C consequential plot. Plus, after an early stretch that tries a bit too hard for pithy, it’s damn quotable.
Films like Ghost World and American Beauty are pre-9/11 time capsules, when suburbia-as-hell could fly as a source of emotional malaise. But that doesn’t date Ghost World one bit, and it’s one of the better comic book movies out there. Daniel Clowes’ Wilson was adapted this year into a film starring Woody Harrelson, and if that movie had half the wit and purposefulness of Ghost World, it would have been sitting pretty.
P.S.: Favorite character actor bit part: future Monk actor Marc Vann as a hilarious vinyl snob.
P.P.S.: Stay through the credits.
Philosophy professor Abe Lucas (Joaquin Phoenix) is having a not-too-surprising existential crisis. Life just isn’t worth living anymore; drive and purpose have been lost. Even as bright student Jill Pollard (Emma Stone) becomes fascinated with Abe and their friendship blooms, Abe remains apathetic to his life. That is, until a chance encounter clicks everything into place for the professor, playing out like a cross between Wings of Desire and Kick-Ass… Talking about this film without spoilers is tough!
So let’s get one of the elephants in the room out of the way: like Woody Allen’s previous film Magic in the Moonlight, Irrational Man features an older man who attracts the amorous attentions of a young woman played by Emma Stone. This is just one of Allen’s things. (And indeed, the profession of Abe Lucas in this film is really just a barely-more-explicit-than-usual excuse for Allen’s characters to talk about their problems with heightened pop psychology.) What did initially weird me out here was the inevitability of that set-up in Allen’s screenplay. When the news arrives that Professor Lucas is coming to join the faculty of Jill’s small college, she and other characters make knowing jokes about how she won’t be able to resist such an “interesting” man, beer gut or no. In Jamie Blackley’s Roy, boyfriend to Jill, we also have a character type very familiar to these situations: the boringly supportive partner who is used as a foil of the exciting other (see Hamish Linklater in Magic in the Moonlight; Emily Mortimer in Match Point). It’s all very Woody-by-numbers. But what Irrational Man does with these elements is what really matters, and it more than delivers in twists of the story that lead the film down a rich strain of black comedy.
At the core of the film are Phoenix and Stone. They give very typical Allen-y performances, physically very naturalistic but attuned to his particular psychological frequency. He is all insular world-weariness, wielding a flask as most people wield a smartphone. She is a beacon of intelligent innocence, welcoming novelty amongst her routines. Narration is used via both leads, and it is used to score self-conscious laughs alongside the darker turns of the story. That story is a simple but engaging one, and encompasses a literally done transition from protagonist to antagonist with skill (more on that in the spoilery P.S. I need one when I have to be so opaque in the review proper!).
Woody Allen has directed at least one film a year since 1982, and Irrational Man is a full-bodied and solid entry into his canon. It’s nothing groundbreaking, but neither is it a trifle. I enjoyed watching this film more than any of his since Midnight in Paris, and probably even before. The main body of the film is fun, but there is a bit of a comedown toward the end, giving the feeling of almost paying for the fun you’ve had; it’s a technique that reminds me of The Bank Job, of all things. Allen has crafted an interesting counterpoint film to his bleak Match Point, aided by the easy chemistry and dramatic weight of Phoenix and Stone. Irrational Man is an effective and fun ride, though it is hard to discuss it in detail without spoilers, hence the post-script. 7/10.
P.S.: *SPOILERS* So this is a movie where you watch the trailer, you think, “Huh”, and then you move on. It’s probably only because I’m a completist and Woody Allen fan that I went to see this one, and I’ll say that I now admire the trailer because it doesn’t give away the delightful way that the story just sort of skews and commits to an unexpected new direction: when Abe overhears the story of a mother being legally railroaded by a corrupt judge, he decides to galvanize his own ineffectuality into the goal of killing that judge. And after the deed is done, he decides to kill again to protect the secret of the first murder.
This is what I was alluding to with the literal protagonist-to-antagonist transition. Murder one: Abe wants justice done and proactively kills. Murder two: Jill wants justice done and is stopped by Abe’s attempted murder. It’s a nice and efficient little story trick and I enjoyed watching it play out. And I also mentioned before that Irrational Man is a really fascinating counterpoint to Match Point. In the latter film, Jonathan Rhys Meyer’s main character got away with his murder through sheer good luck in a stunner of an ending; in the former film, the main character is hoist by his own petard and dies through sheer bad luck. The contrasts continue, but that’s the main one, and by extension the moral universes of each film come off very differently: the hand guiding the ending of Irrational Man seems a benevolent one, while the bleak close of Match Point portrays a very uncomfortable and disturbing truth.
Despite Ant-Man being a founding member of the comic Avengers, and also despite a power set opening the door to fun/creative/unique action, the prospect of Ant-Man the film was met with more than a little skepticism. What Marvel Studios has crafted is a well-cooked palette cleanser after the operatic mayhem of each of their films since 2012’s The Avengers. Ant-Man scales back on scope, but that doesn’t mean it scales back on quality or payoff.
At San Quentin, petty thief and absentee father Scott Lang (Paul Rudd) is being released, ready to reconnect with his daughter and former partners in crime including Luis (Michael Peña). Nearby across the San Francisco Bay, Hope van Dyne (Evangeline Lilly) watches as Dr. Hank Pym (Michael Douglas) is shown the fruits of technology he created back in the Cold War era, now weaponized by unbalanced mogul Darren Cross (Corey Stoll). And plans are drawn up to bring everyone together in a web of superpowered shrinking suits, heists, daddy issues, and wacky comedy.
Straddling all four of those elements is Rudd, anchoring the film with his everyman Scott Lang. As both the butt and deliverer of jokes, he’s an appealing lead, equally at home showing off MacGyver-esque chops in a remarkable heist sequence as he is internalizing more dramatic beats. As Ant-Man, his power set is used brilliantly for visual gags and straight action. And no spoilers, but the shrinking and enlarging mechanism of this power is used for a couple extraordinary, punch-the-air moments in the Third Act. You’ll know them when you see them.
As an ant does, the supporting cast also carry more than their weight and taken in ensemble make for an impressive wall of protagonists. Douglas is not trotted out for a few token scenes, but rather given a full, vital, present and active character with an edge and an arc. Lilly is given a strong character in Hope – often female characters in tentpoles are presented more as archetypes than realistic people; to be crude about it, either cuddly or cold. But Hope is in the middle spectrum; confident, knowing her own value, with her ultra-competence offset by snarky as well as warm humor. And let’s just say she looks to have a bright future in this universe. Leading the comic relief, and stealing every scene he appears in, is Peña as Luis. Having established dramatic chops elsewhere, Peña is the MVP in bringing a great Ant-Man-specific comedic energy to the film, precisely because his character is so broadly played.
Speaking of broad performances, Stoll as the villainous Darren Cross fits into this. The only real fun to be had with Cross is with Stoll’s performance. For example, he’s given the ridiculous-as-scripted line, “You tried to hide your suit from me, and now it’s gonna blow up in your face”, and delivers it like a petulant child, making the line sort of work on that level. The big problem here is indeed the character as written. Stoll has said in interviews that Cross’ motivation changed from draft to draft, and boy howdy does that show. There are facets of his character we are constantly told about without being shown; he doesn’t convince as a scientist, and much more importantly, neither as a mentee of Hank Pym. And there are twists in the Third Act about Cross’ character that are worth as much as the added-in-post flimflam that they are.
The villain is weak, and so are parts of the screenplay’s setup and structure. In the early section of the film there are a handful of on-the-nose lines that land with a clang as clumsy exposition. But the bigger picture problem I have with the First Act is that it feels like there are two movies being run in parallel: the hi-tech machinations of Cross with Hank Pym’s countermoves, and the story of Scott Lang and his band of “cute criminals”. And rather than having them symbiotically feed on each other, they feel like each is paying for the other. As if the screenplay wants to counterbalance the straight-faced with the wacky, rather than bringing them into harmony. This is not to mention the half-assed shoehorned romance, which feels profoundly unnecessary.
So with the bad out of the way, Christophe Beck’s score is pretty great. It supports the heist element, and when the main theme is aired, parts of it are like Lalo Schifrin writing for a Disneyland roller coaster! Returning to the use of Ant-Man’s unique power set, its use is really a lot of fun (particularly in a Second Act training sequence) and I feel comfortable leaving the thrill of the ride to the viewer rather than describing it on the page.
Ant-Man is a very enjoyable action-SF-comedy that inverts the stakes of more typical Marvel movies (just look what happens to a big building towards the end). It gets by on plenty of heart and even more humor that together create a fairly unique tone among superhero films, plus it’s not afraid to get a little weird, with sequences that resembles Interstellar and The Rocketeer of all things! Especial props go to the cast, with Rudd, Douglas, Lilly and Peña making for a formidable bouquet of likable heroes. Ant-Man admirably fills in its little corner of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, and its small hero accomplishes big things. 8/10.
P.S.: Edgar Wright, bastion of visual humor and my personal favorite living director, was for the better part of eight years attached to Ant-Man, eventually forced out through creative differences with Marvel Studios. Obviously I would have preferred he stayed on; equally as obviously, I can’t compare the finished product to a movie that was never made.
P.P.S.: I want to talk a bit about the interesting way that Ant-Man is at war with its marketing. We heard over and over again in the trailers jokes that were pretty much saying, “See Ant-Man! And yes, we realize that name sounds ridiculous!” There was even a version of the gag where Scott Lang says, “Iron Man was already taken”. It was a bit savvy, but also more than a little insecure. Now observe how in the film proper, jokes of that type are nowhere to be found! Another fun undermining of the marketing: you see “tough-guy” shots in the trailer of Scott in the prison brawl, but the movie turns that on its head for a neat little gag.
P.P.P.S.: The MCU’s “second phase” closes with Ant-Man, and I noticed something sort of interesting about my opinions of the Phase 2 films’ villains. Iron Man 3‘s Aldrich Killian (good villain); Thor: The Dark World‘s Malekith (bad villain); Captain America: The Winter Soldier‘s Alexander Pierce (good villain); Guardians of the Galaxy‘s Ronan (bad villain); Avengers: Age of Ultron‘s Ultron (good villain); Ant-Man‘s Darren Cross (bad villain).
Inside young Minnesotan Riley Andersen’s mind, Joy (Amy Poehler), Sadness (Phyllis Smith), Anger (Lewis Black), Fear (Bill Hader) and Disgust (Mindy Kaling) have been with her for virtually her entire life. From a central Control Room, the emotions help guide Riley through life, and shepherd core memories into “Islands” that make up different aspects of Riley’s personality. And their subcutaneous work is going very well, all told. That is, until the trajectory of Riley’s father’s career means a move west all the way to San Francisco. Can her emotions help Riley to adjust, or will the pain of missing her comfortable Minnesota life prove too much to bear?
The conceit of this film is a screenwriter’s dream, and endears itself to the audience immediately. From the first scene, it’s a joy to see the concept mined for humor, pathos and unexpected twists and turns; it’s rare for a film’s hook to be so consistently effective, and Inside Out takes full advantage of it. And there’s a fascinating dynamic that informs the emotions’ relationship with Riley, the person they are guiding/controlling/stuck within. It’s most succinctly illustrated in a scene where Joy watches a favorite memory of Riley on the Control Room’s view screen, and mimes Riley’s movements as a fan might mime those of their favorite athlete. There’s something sad and at the exact same time wonderful about the way the relative distance between human Riley and her sentient emotions is portrayed. At once they are at a remove and completely inseparable.
The concept makes for an inversion of the scale we usually see in film; what we are gawking at is not an endless vista from New Zealand or Tunisia, but an equally endless vista inside the mind of a girl. They’re turning cinematic convention inside out. The stakes likewise play into this, as they masterfully stress the heart. As each of Riley’s Islands of Personality is threatened, the audience knows that if it should fall, the consequences are pivotal to Riley’s mental state. A threat to the world, the galaxy, the universe requires a lot of abstraction; caring for one young girl’s emotional well-being is an easier empathetic exercise that gives Inside Out its dramatic lifeblood.
And the story takes some very adult, sophisticated turns. There is a significant character introduced in the Second Act, and the moment this one was introduced I knew which sobering way the story would go. But the adult awareness of this character’s fate only increases the respect due the film from the audience, for not sugarcoating the story.
There is plenty of cinematic awareness appealing to older viewers (such as unexpected references to old classics), indeed many jokes that play decently for kids but on a much more effective level for adults. But also I appreciate the cinematic techniques of the film – later in the film, the use of (simulated) hand-held camerawork in a certain sequence to convey misbalance and dread works a charm. Clever design work is also found around every corner. The emotion characters’ “fuzzy” exterior remind me of certain similarly coated cells, and Long Term Memory (seen below) resembles a host of chromosomes. Add in an impish, freewheeling score by luminary Pixar composer Michael Giacchino, and an excellent production is rounded out.
Now there is one little bit at the very end that weirds me out a bit. I understand why certain visual cues need to be lightning-quick to connect with the wider audience. I understand that these types of joke go down a storm in the theater. But there are a few characters’ Control Rooms that come off as too one-note or simplistic. There’s one in particular to which I thought, “Is that really all this character is thinking about right now? That’s a bit south of insulting.” I also wonder if we’re supposed to read into the relative gender balance of characters’ Control Rooms. Riley’s mother has five feminine emotions; her husband has three masculine to two feminine; while Riley has three feminine to two masculine.
Pixar has long since established a well-deserved reputation for films that make your emotions soar and thrill with pure entertainment value in equal measure. This film upholds that standard and then some. With great humanistic themes, effective humor, endearing characters, vital morals and its own brand of grand visual spectacle, Inside Out is a triumph for Pixar, one of the strongest films they’ve released in their 20 year history. And it’s impossible to walk out of the theater and have a conversation, or do just about anything, without framing it in terms of what the film has shown about your emotions. That’s a powerful film. A strong 9/10.
P.S.: Am I overthinking this, or is the castle seen below representative of the classic Disney castle? When Riley’s world is being turned upside down, is the equivalent of a childhood Disney fandom at risk?
P.P.S.: Here are the father and mother’s Control Rooms, for comparison.
Making a splash at 2014’s Sundance Film Festival was this quirky little indie dramedy delight, Frank. Domhnall Gleeson stars as audience surrogate Jon Burroughs, who finds himself caught up in the wild and inscrutable world of indie experimental band Soronprfbs. Now a new hire on keyboards, Jon finds himself antagonized by unbalanced Clara (Maggie Gyllenhaal) and fascinated by enigmatic lead singer Frank (Michael Fassbender), who never takes off his papier-mâché head. And so Jon begins to constantly wonder “what goes on inside that head inside that head”.
Frank engages its central theme with a laser focus. Jon Ronson and Peter Straughan’s script interrogates our cultural narrative/myth of the musical genius fueled by things like an early trauma or an abusive upbringing. Title character Frank (whose fake head is inspired by real-life comedian Chris Sievey’s Frank Sidebottom persona) fits a stereotype that protagonist Jon actually finds himself jealous of. Jon, an amateur songwriter himself, voices a half-joking wish that he could have had a troubled childhood to unlock the key of musical inspiration. The film plays with this familiar idea brilliantly, and the realization of the truth about Frank is poignant and tragic.
But what I haven’t touched on so far is the humor, which can hit both subtle and side-splitting. The film had me laughing within two minutes, and though I can’t call the film a laugh riot, it balances its humor with its pathos very well, even if it leans very hard into the latter in what you might call a “downer ending”. It is a downer, but absolutely necessary to the story being told here.
The other major concern of the story is a broader satire of indie rock, as Frank is torn in two directions by two bandmates. Protagonist Jon represents the route to mainstream popularity, with his understanding of pop hooks and promotion. Frank’s muse Clara represents the purity of independent music making, the credibility of a hipster’s world of unpronounceable band names and pretentious artistry that even the artist can’t interpret. But both Jon and Clara describe their music as “happy”. The journey of the band’s music tracks throughout the film; when, under Jon’s encouragement, Frank plays for the band “his most likable song ever”, the result is one that amuses me to no end. Your mileage may vary, but I think it’s hilarious.
The character Frank is a great creation, infused with an undeniable screen presence even without the use of Fassbender’s face. Maggie Gyllenhaal also excels as the unpleasant Clara, giving her all to a role she admitted she didn’t “understand” at first. Post-Harry Potter, Gleeson proves he can carry a film, although he doesn’t have much of a load to bear given the fact that director Lenny Abrahamson and editor Nathan Nugent make each shot and each scene carry its weight in furthering the story.
Frank is not for every taste, but it knows exactly what it wants to do, and carries its themes through to their logical conclusions with great insight, humor and drama. The cast is uniformly solid, with the three central standouts sealing the deal of a well-made and substantial mix of amusement and aching drama. 8/10.