Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Diary of a Teenage Girl: Hungering for Sex, Love, and Womanhood

Bel Powley gives a breakthrough performance in "The Diary of a Teenage Girl"
The very first line of The Diary of a Teenage Girl, Marielle Heller's uneven, appealing coming-of-age story, is "I had sex today"; it is immediately followed by a very Fifty Shades of Grey-like exclamation, "Holy shit!" But despite her youth and initial lack of worldliness, Minnie Goetze (Bel Powley) is no Anastasia Steele. She is not timid, nor is she entranced by notions of masculine dominance. She is instead a confident, eager, and often foolish femme who does not apologize for her desires, even if she does not entirely understand them. "I like sex," Minnie tells us early on, and in case you didn't believe her, she clarifies, "I really like getting fucked!" That may strike some as vulgar, but the most satisfying thing about The Diary of a Teenage Girl—beyond the powerful performance at its center—is its frankness in discussing sexual desire and its attendant emotions. Minnie is the hero of her story, she wants sex, and she refuses to cast herself as the victim.

Though she is very much that, at least in one sense. Minnie, as you may have gleaned from the film's title, is a teenager—fifteen, to be precise. That's young enough as it is, but it becomes alarmingly so once you learn that the person she is so happily, repeatedly tumbling into bed with is her mother's thirtysomething boyfriend, Monroe (Alexander Skarsgård). Yet Heller, who also wrote the screenplay (adapting Phoebe Gloeckner's novel), is not interested in the legal or moral ramifications of Minnie and Monroe's illicit union. She is more concerned with exploring how it makes Minnie feel: how it affects her sense of self, her demeanor, and, most distressingly, her relationship with her mother (a very good Kristen Wiig). In so doing, Heller puts a tremendous amount of weight on Powley, a 23-year-old British actress appearing in her first American feature (the movie takes place in 1970s San Francisco). She shoulders the load with aplomb, capturing Minnie's vitality and hunger while also revealing glimmers of her fragility.

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Phoenix: Back from the Dead, But Something's Off

Ronald Zehrfeld and Nina Hoss dance with deception and death in "Phoenix"
Suspension of disbelief is typically a viewing requirement at the multiplex, not the art house. Superhero movies and science-fiction flicks are expected to stretch the boundaries of reality in ways anathema to dialogue-driven dramas and period pieces. Phoenix, Christian Petzold's electric, implausible anti-love story, is the type of muted, modestly scaled film that you wouldn't expect to ask audiences to take a giant leap of faith. But it does precisely that, hinging on a conceit that, if rejected, threatens to topple the entire enterprise. If you refuse to accept the cornerstone of Phoenix's vertiginous plot, you may struggle to find rapture in its supple technique and vast emotions. But if you surrender yourself, you are likely to become intoxicated by its smoky beauty and limitless longing.

I strongly urge you to try your best, though my urgings are insignificant compared to those of Nina Hoss. A German-born actress best known to American audiences as one of Philip Seymour Hoffman's weary spies in A Most Wanted Man (and also the anchor of Petzold's sobering Cold War film, Barbara), Hoss delivers a transcendent performance as Nelly, a concentration camp survivor who was shot in the face during the war (in a wise decision, the details of the shooting are never explained), and who begins the film wrapped in bandages. She's returning to Germany with her friend, Lene (Nina Kunzendorf, perfectly crisp), in order to undergo facial reconstructive surgery. When the doctor asks Nelly whom she wants to look like, she demands that he return her to her original self. "You won't look exactly the same," the surgeon warns her, and the subtitles for that line might as well be accented in bold.

Monday, August 24, 2015

Straight Outta Compton: Defying the Cops, the State, and One Another

Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E come "Straight Outta Compton" and into the multiplex
F. Gary Gray's Straight Outta Compton tells the story of the rise and fall of N.W.A., a rap supergroup featuring Ice Cube (O'Shea Jackson Jr., Cube's real-life son), Dr. Dre (Corey Hawkins), and Eazy-E (Jason Mitchell). For those of you not well-versed in late-20th-century hip-hop lore—not that I have anyone in mind—"N.W.A." stands for "Niggas with Attitude". It does not require a degree in linguistics or cultural studies to recognize that this was a provocative name for a gangster rap group, particularly one that delivered such ferocious, uncompromising anthems about racial inequality and police brutality. The problem with Straight Outta Compton—what caps it at the level of passable entertainment rather than world-conquering triumph—is that it relays N.W.A.'s history through the form of dutiful hagiography. The members of N.W.A. became legends largely because of the way they upended existing notions of how music could be made, but Straight Outta Compton hits most of the expected beats (though it skips a few others) without ever straying from the sheet music. The result is a perfectly enjoyable movie that often feels like a carefully curated Wikipedia entry.

That doesn't make it bad. Much of Straight Outta Compton is easily entertaining, especially its zippy first half. It helps that the actors are appealing, particularly Hawkins, who's able to convey Dre's musical genius without letting loose on the mic. Behind-the-scenes glimpses of artists sculpting their work are always satisfying, and an early scene of Dre coaxing Eazy on his delivery (for a track that would become "Boyz-n-the-Hood") demonstrates N.W.A.'s dedication to musical craft as well as social upheaval. And once Paul Giamatti shows up as music impresario Jerry Heller (marking the second time this year he's played a wig-wearing manipulator of 1980s talent), the movie tracks the methodical process by which a handful of young rappers became objects of fan worship and, more importantly, persons of governmental interest.

Thursday, August 20, 2015

The End of the Tour: Talking About Writing, and Other Demons

Jesse Eisenberg and Jason Segel talk (and talk) in "The End of the Tour"
Writing in the New York Times in 1996 about Infinite Jest, the magnum opus from David Foster Wallace, the critic Jay McInerney wrote, "While there are many uninteresting pages in this novel, there are not many uninteresting sentences." I feel similarly about The End of the Tour, James Ponsoldt's compassionate, provocative, and occasionally dull recreation of the five-day period shortly following the release of Infinite Jest, in which Rolling Stone's David Lipsky trailed Wallace on his promotional rounds. It is not an especially kinetic movie, and if it is in no hurry to go anywhere, its luxuriant patience occasionally creeps into stasis. But it is also a sharply scripted and profoundly affecting character study, tenderly depicting two writers who are deeply committed both to their specific jobs and to the grander notion of composing meaningful words. Wallace and Lipsky both believed that their prose, as painful as it was to conceive, might actually mean something. The End of the Tour nobly honors their commitment, even if certain stretches of its narrative feel meaningless.

The movie opens in 2008, with a dumbfounded Lipsky (Jesse Eisenberg, even better than usual) learning of Wallace's suicide, a tragic event whose dark shadow looms over The End of the Tour. It then flashes back 12 years, revealing Lipsky as a hungry and energetic young writer who keeps hearing about this rapturously received tome called Infinite Jest. Animated by both jealousy and disbelief, he scoffs at the reviews claiming that this mammoth novel heralds the arrival of the next Pynchon. Then he reads it. Not long after, he's pleading with his editor at Rolling Stone to interview Wallace for a celebrity profile, and then he's jetting off to snowy Illinois, hoping to reconcile this generation-defining book with the mere mortal who wrote it.

Friday, August 14, 2015

The Gift: A Thriller of Victims and Villains, But Which Is Which?

Joel Edgerton stalks Rebecca Hall and Jason Bateman in "The Gift"
In an early episode of Seinfeld called "The Male Unbonding," Jerry finds himself trapped in an unwanted friendship with a childhood chum named Joel (Veep's Kevin Dunn), a selfish and fatuous oaf who fancies himself Jerry's best bud. Eventually, Jerry can no longer bear Joel's boorish behavior, and he attempts to "break up" with him; this leads to Joel blubbering in public, followed by Jerry swiftly backpedaling, then spending the remainder of the episode inventing excuses (choir practice! tutoring my nephew!) to avoid seeing him. In theory, this pattern of evasion continued indefinitely, but because Seinfeld was an episodic sitcom, Joel was never heard from again. Still, I've often wondered: What might have happened going forward between these two self-involved men? Would their asymmetrical friendship have faded naturally, with Joel gradually taking the hint? Or would something else—something more traumatic—have occurred?

The Gift, Joel Edgerton's dark and disturbing thriller, plays like a twisted version of "The Male Unbonding". It examines the process by which adults attempt to extricate themselves from undesired relationships, but it also refracts that process through a fun-house mirror. In "The Male Unbonding", Jerry gamely suffers through Joel's antics, repeatedly rolling his eyes, always accompanied by a chorus of laughter. In The Gift, the eye-rolls have given way to cold stares, and the laughter has been replaced by screams.

Thursday, August 6, 2015

Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation: Keep Hold of That Plane, and Your Breath

Tom Cruise keeps on trucking in "Mission: Impossible—Rogue Nation"
Just what is the Rogue Nation, anyway? Is it the Syndicate, a group of presumed-dead spies working covertly to kill or corrupt fellow agents across the globe? Is it the IMF (that's "Impossible Mission Force", not "International Monetary Fund"), a disgraced organization that operates without oversight and that has come under legislative fire for its "wanton brinksmanship"? Or could it be the Mission: Impossible franchise itself, a series of supremely entertaining smashes that exhibit no interest in playing by industry rules? In an era of world-building and synthesis—of movies meshing with TV and of Batman battling Superman—these films are largely self-contained, eschewing continuity in favor of methodical reinvention and authorial vision. (Each installment has been helmed by a new director.) Models of energy, style, and craft, the Mission: Impossible movies don't care about building a world; they just want to astonish an audience.

And does Rogue Nation ever do that. The fifth and flashiest entry in the Mission: Impossible series, Rogue Nation is a fleet and exhilarating affair, dazzling viewers with gripping stunt work and expertly conceived set pieces. To complain that it elevates action over story is to miss the point. Here, the action is the story. Each crackerjack chase sequence, each audacious stunt, each close-quarters combat scene—all are executed with the rigor and thoughtfulness typically reserved for screenwriting. When two men in this movie trade blows while cartwheeling along a rafter beam hundreds of feet in the air, you aren't just taking in an obligatory fight scene. You're watching art.