Serpico

Only Al Pacino can play a real person more as himself than as … themself.

Pacino interprets Serpico as some sort of Italian hippie, a guy who’s seen more than you’ll ever see but also has a huge teddy-bear dog named Alfie. A cop who can play the game, but doesn’t know when to stop playing it. A man with sex appeal and psychotic tendencies. Whatever the magic combo is, it works — maybe an obvious statement, considering how nominated and awarded the film was when it came out in 1973. But the fact that its intrigue — and the true story behind it — still holds up is a testament to Pacino’s performance and Sidney Lumet’s direction.

Of course, because I’ve been lax to update this here blog, the details of the movie have escaped me, as I watched it a few months ago. What’s stayed with me, though, is how un-melodramatic the movie was, despite its premise. Serpico transitions from regular cop to plainclothes detective, dealing with unfathomable amounts of stress as he gathers information about corruption within his own department. He struggles to convey his emotions about it to the women in his life, who aren’t particularly important to the film (and maybe not to him) but seem relatively normal, given how weird he is. Yet none of those struggles seem out of his grasp — Serpico the man, the character, whomever, is always in control, somehow, even though he might given the lax, unpredictable impression that he isn’t. He can handle himself just fine — it’s the rest of the world that he finds challenging.

Serpico is a magnificent movie, and maybe the first one where I thought Dustin Hoffman might have rubbed off on him instead of the other way around. The signature Pacino madness is there, but with a bit of Hoffman’s soft lovability. The result is something you should watch, if you haven’t already.

10 Cloverfield Lane

After receiving a recommendation to see this movie, a friend and I made the pretty quick decision to Nike it. (Just do it.) I hadn’t seen Cloverfield, I knew I was getting outside my comfort zone by watching something potentially terrifying, and … actually, I didn’t know much more than that. It was all a big question mark, but every once in awhile, you have to walk into a movie theater not knowing anything.

I’m so glad I did. 10 Cloverfield Lane is thrilling and suspenseful — not actually horror, which I still am not into — and creative and thought-provoking. It really only has three main characters, and it leaves you as a fly on the wall the entire time, wondering what the hell you’d do in the situation.

Mary Elizabeth Winstead is Michelle, a woman who gets into a car accident and finds herself in a fallout shelter with Emmett (John Gallagher Jr.) and Howard (John Goodman). In the span of an hour and a half, she deals with trust, doubt, survival, pain, fear, triumph and defeat. It’s an intense experience, and while I think the movie could have been drastically different with a different actor in the role, she played the “everywoman” in a way that I’m not sure any other actress could have pulled off. That first adjective I listed, trust, is something that actors seek readily out of their audiences, but she didn’t. She didn’t try to get anyone to like her throughout the course of the movie. Her character was focused on figuring out how she got there, why she was stuck in there and how she was going to get out, and pandering to a paying group of numbskulls was out of her jurisdiction. It felt refreshing, honestly, because in the process of not giving a shit about any of us, she made us like her more. Or she made me like her more, at least.

She also held back a lot, probably on purpose, because showing too many cards in a potential hostage situation is never a good idea — or so I’m told in the movies, anyway. As the movie progresses, we learn just how evil and twisted Howard is — he’s convinced there’s been a chemical outbreak and that everyone above ground is dead — but he’s also incredibly adept at playing mind games and finding just the right wording to keep his captives both incredibly close and at an (un)comfortable distance. You’ve probably never seen John Goodman like this before, and you’ll probably never want to again. He’s a two-face, at once fatherly and caring while also holding Michelle and Emmett’s life in his hands. My movie-going friend made an astute observation about him after we left the theater, which was that evil and right are not mutually exclusive in his case. Not that they are all the time, but he’s a wonderful example of complex, subtle writing. A bad character who draws you in for a reason you’re not even sure about.

Towards the end, the movie adopted some supernatural elements, which I wasn’t expecting. I’ve never been huge into the sci-fi genre, yet after about 10 seconds, I totally bought it. The movie itself already feels like it’s in a supernatural world, given the supposed biohazard outside and the confined nature of the fallout shelter. And besides, Michelle ascends to this level of knowledge at that point that feels almost godlike. She surprises herself with her abilities, her reflexes, her inner power, and it would make sense that supernatural forces were at work alongside her.

Hey, they drew me into the movie theater, anyway. Hope they have the same effect on you, because this one is worth the thrill.

An American in Paris (the movie and the play)

If you haven’t indulged in any format of this lovely work, let me warn you: You’re going to be conflicted.

An American in Paris is a lovely piece of art, any way you consume it, but as a female in the year 2016, I couldn’t help but cringe. (And I’m the type of person who lets anachronisms go, because it’s not like they knew any better when they were making the movies, sheesh!)

The cringing mostly happened whilst watching the movie, which I did in preparation for seeing the play. The movie will make you fall in love with Gene Kelly, no matter your gender or sexual preference. He’s deliciously charming and talented and graceful. Watching him perform throughout the movie, I felt exactly like the woman in the background of this screenshot, which is to say, delirious because my smile was too big. (Here’s the full scene, by the way.)

cafe

Anyway. If you think about Gene Kelly and his character, aspiring artist Jerry Mulligan, too much, that’s when things start to get unsettling. See, Kelly was around 40 when he played Mulligan, and the girl he was going after was … let’s say too young. Lise (Leslie Caron) is beautiful and intriguing and doe-eyed and all that, but the age gap is too great to be sweet. And Mulligan, for all his attempted sweetness, is also pretty damn pushy as he’s courting her. I didn’t feel that Jerry and Lise were in love, because I never really saw them together in a way that made me think so. The entire time they were living in a fantasy — which, yes, is the point of the movie — but their love seemed based on nothing at all. Superficially, though, they seem to have a nice time together.

Meanwhile, the story gets tragic for other characters. Jerry straight-up steals Lise from his friend, Henri (Georges Guetary), who is engaged to her. And he jilts Patricia Clarkson lookalike Milo (Nina Foch), his sugar mama, essentially. And then there’s ol’ Adam (Oscar Levant), because everyone needs a bitter musician friend to boost their ego. Adam was my favorite part of the movie — besides the incredible dancing, the Gershwin tunes and the insane black-and-white party they all attended — because he seemed to be the only one with any clarity and logic to his thinking.

The play clears up a lot of the movie’s ambiguity, though Jerry and Lise’s relationship still seems pretty tenuous. In the Broadway production I saw — which was lovely and mesmerizing in its own way — all three men are after Lise, and we meet Henri’s parents as a way of gaining more insight into her ingenue background. She’s an aspiring dancer in the play, too, and a confirmed Jew who’s forever indebted to Henri’s family for getting her out of a bad spot. She’s got actual loyalty to deal with, rather than an overwhelming sense of proto-MPDG, which seems to be her sole motivation in the movie. Her dilemma of which man to choose — Jerry or Henri, because even though Adam is given a shot, he never really had one in the first place — seems grounded in reality.

So here’s what I’ll say. Both are worth taking in, at the very least for the divine spectacle of choreography to Gershwin soundtrack. You know all these songs, but you may not have known that they were from this movie. They’re timeless, even if the production itself is starting to show its age.

The Fortress of Solitude

For the record, I still like Motherless Brooklyn better. There’s something decidedly less self-aware about it. Fortress is painfully, blatantly self-aware — and this matches the main character, Dylan Ebdus, always over-analyzing his actions. Motherless‘ main character had Tourette’s, so he had zero self-awareness. Yet it all makes sense in the end, and it speaks to Jonathan Lethem’s incredible talent.

Fortress of Solitude took awhile to grow on me, but it eventually did. It really was the self-awareness that built a barrier. And the pretentiousness. The number of times that the word “ailanthus” was mentioned — and I still refuse to look the word up, though I know it’s a kind of tree/plant/flower — made me want to hurl, and the pride with which White Guy fetishized Black Brooklyn was nauseating. But I’m also approaching this book from a 2016 perspective, where WGiBB is done, cooked, over, annoying automatically. Back in the 70s, when this book was taking place, gentrification wasn’t even simmering yet, and there wasn’t any telegraphing when it’d boil over. It was new and actually fresh. The eyerolls I’m applying to it are nuanced and layered, unfair and uninformed.

Even though I didn’t grow up remotely close to Brooklyn, I still feel a bond with Dylan. He experienced an intense kind of reverse-racial bullying, which I am thankful I didn’t experience, but I was bullied, too. So many of us were that it’s impossible not to connect to a retelling of it, no matter the context, especially when it’s done well. See, for me, it wasn’t about the physical aspect. Though girls can be physical with their bullying, it’s not as common. It’s about the psychological, about making the bullee feel consumed by the buller, and that’s exactly what Lethem does with respect to Dylan and his oppressors. In addition to being a body to beat up, Dylan is fodder for their fucked-up brains, and yet part of him enjoys it, so he doesn’t exactly retaliate like he should. He craves their attention, and that’s the way they want it.

Lethem also has this wonderfully casual way of mentioning milestone moments, both positive and negative ones. You’re embroiled in the details of a scene, and all of a sudden you realize Dylan’s mother is gone, or Dylan’s become best friends with Mingus Rude, or Dylan’s just had his first real sexual encounter, or the years have just passed swiftly and smoothly. It’s all very matter-of-fact and organic, but the origin of it all is hazy, and that’s okay. There’s always so much focus in fiction on Milestone Moments, when in reality, they happen and that’s it and we sort of forget how they happened. They blend in with everything else.

We really feel like we grew up with Dylan the whole way — the first half of the book plugs through his childhood in third-person perspective, which is akin to how any kid with feelings feels at that time, outside looking in, self-aware but not world-aware. And the second half is in first-person, self-aware as much as humanly possible, infinitely reflective on every little thing, as is the adult way. Dylan is obviously Lethem channeling himself and his childhood experiences, as it’s hard to believe Dylan is a real kid sometimes. But his life is easy to relate to, in spite of its specificity and undeniable hipness. His best friend is an enigma, and yet Dylan is one too, trying to uncover his own identity in the shadow of someone else’s whom he’ll always covet. The supernatural element of the book — the magic ring — feels entirely, completely sensible, even in the context of this very stark, real world. Because there’s a supernatural element to every kid’s being.

Lethem also has a way of characterizing stereotypes one encounters in one’s life in ways that they haven’t been characterized before. His cynicism cuts deeply, uniquely. For Dylan, Arthur Lomb is that friend: “Positioning, positioning, Arthur Lomb was forever positioning himself, making his views known, aligning on some index no one would ever consult” (p. 126). Moira is that girl: “Moira and I were a couple for two weeks from that night — an eternity at Camden, where rehearsals of adulthood were rendered miniature by a compression of time and space” (p. 387). Home is gentrifying before his eyes: “Brooklyn’s bepissed your blonde destiny” (p. 267). Popular culture is dulling before his eyes: “I flashed on a vision of a world dotted with conferences, convocations, and “Cons” of all types, each an engine for converting feelings of inferiority and self-loathing into their opposites” (p. 345), and “Football was an arrangement of failures, a proving how unlikely most things were” (p. 75), and “My black jeans were like a smudge of ash or a daub of vomit in this cream-and-peach world” (p. 322). Lethem and Dylan are critical, sharp observers, ready to slay.

[Even descriptions of daily minutae have this depleted, beautiful poetry to them: “If the Etch A Sketch and the Spirograph had really worked they would probably be machines, not toys, they would be part of the way the adult universe operated and be mounted onto the instrument panels of cars or worn on the belts of policemen,” (p. 9) and “The squirrel moved as an oscillating sequence of humps, tail and spine bunching in counterpoint” (p. 17), and “The bicycle … would be downstairs again, leaning in the hallway like a stuffed animal, a blind chrome elk loaded with his parents’ expectation and Dylan’s dread” (p. 43).]

Mingus Rude, though, inspired completely different ways of thinking in both of them: “Leave it to Mingus Rude to recuperate their differences for his own purposes, for Robin Hooditry in art’s cause” (p. 145). Around Mingus, Dylan wasn’t cynical, at least not initially. He shook up something intangible in Dylan’s demeanor, something that not everyone gets to experience, it seems. Mingus’ shitty situation bred a wisdom that then sloughed off on Dylan, who shared them with us:”You could grow up in the city where history was made and still miss it all” and “The key to mostly anything is pretending your first time isn’t” (p. 259″, and “Each institution carries previous incarnations, like sluggish rivers with another century’s silt at their bottoms” (p. 465).

But perhaps my favorite line in the book comes from the beginning, when Lethem’s adult wisdom still overpowers Dylan’s kid ignorance. This line is so evocative to me, so exemplary of youth and innocence: “They gathered wide-eyed as though warming at a campfire of their own awe” (p. 47). It captures the unintentional egotism of youth, too, the idea that nothing’s more important than what’s happening right now, and that’s a takeaway from the book, too. No matter how insignificant things may be, they’re significant in their own context, in their own little world, in their fortress of solitude.

All Is Lost

All Is Lost is not a comforting movie, or even a movie worth watching twice, but it’s an incredibly important one. It sews together incredible themes, brilliant camerawork and a once-in-a-lifetime acting performance from someone you’d both expect it from and still be blown away by — Robert Redford. (I was pissed Christian Bale got nominated in 2014 for American Hustle, just because of his unnecessary weight gain and general smugness, but now I fully understand the uproar. Bobby Reds deserved that nod over him, no question.)

Within the first few minutes of clicking “play,” I was already stressed out and a little nauseous. You know the solitude is looming — it’s in the title, after all — and you know the ocean is basically the globe’s own biggest weapon. Yet the unexpectedness begins early, too. Redford — who I’ll keep referring to as such, because his character’s name is simply “Man,” and I have no doubt the actual Redford would behave identically in real life — is a prepared person, but “prepared” is sort of insulting, actually. He’s an Eagle Scout inside of an ER Technician. He makes MacGuyver look like a clown. (Okay, most people do.) He is a nautical genius, a professional seaman, a true captain. He’s thought of everything. He has waterproof pants. He knows how to ration. He can tie knots. He can purify saltwater. And most importantly, he can keep his shit together.

The script for this movie intrigues me to no end, possibly even more so than the finished product, because it’s gotta be a dreamy haze of description. There’s no dialogue, as Redford isn’t the type to talk to himself to keep company. He’s a student, figuring out the minutae of a sextant in his spare time, rather than bawling into his empty bean can. Yet even with his stoicism, his sternness, he still expresses such nuance and depth of emotion that you truly can’t imagine anyone else playing this role. He survives insurmountable challenges to keep himself alive, and without uttering a word, he builds a history for himself that we can see plainly on his face. When he writes that note, and chucks it into the ocean, it’s the first sign of remote weakness he allows — and it’s not weakness so much as relief. He lets himself stop trying, because he’s done all he can to stay afloat, literally. It’ll rip your heart out.

I’m even more curious about J.C. Chandor, the director, because he’s got a pretty diverse C.V. to date. Between this, A Most Violent Year and Margin Call (which I shoulda seen), he’s proven himself in three very different genres. He’s got an Iñarritú thing going on, or maybe a Lee. He puts his own color palette on the film — blues, grays, harsh warm shades — but he knows when to let the genres do the talking, too. I’m stoked to see what he comes out with next.

And, while I’m at it, a semi-non-sequitur. A recent episode of The Last Man on Earth, “Pitch Black,” also touched on the concept of being marooned on a boat — except here, there’s a comedic bent, a post-apocalyptic setting, and an extra guy. Yet the sentiment is still so strong — there’s something incredibly unifying in that type of terror. It’s hard to imagine reacting differently than Redford or Mike (Jason Sudeikis on LMOE). Both of them stayed at the top of their intelligence (to borrow a phrase from improv) and did exactly what they thought was right to survive. In the case of Sudeikis’ character, he abandoned his compatriot. In the case of Redford, he abandoned himself. I won’t give away either ending, though. You’ll have to watch.

Casual, Season 1

I am in love with this show. Or, the first two-thirds of it, anyway.

Casual, found on that Hulu thing we all have, is worth watching despite its shortcomings, because the list of ’em is relatively just that — short. Let me get to the good stuff first, though. At the top of that list is Michaela Watkins, just the loveliest person to watch on screen. She has such a dead-on “fed-up” face, one that evokes sympathy that you’ve actually felt for a real person, because everyone she portrays feels real precisely because she is playing them. (I loved her on Trophy Wife, too. And the new Wet Hot episodes. And everything else I should have seen her in by now but haven’t.) Her Val has this probably too-close relationship with her brother Alex (Tommy Dewey), but it’s so enviable and honest to watch that you push aside anything that seems gross about it for the sake of enjoying it more. They operate on cynicism and oversharing, but not in a petty way. They’re not only casual about dating (as the title refers to) but also casual about life. They complain, but only when they really need to. They judge, but they recognize the futility of it. They take themselves zero percent seriously, and for that reason, they’re not bad people at all. They — and the whole show, really — also know when to be silent. The patter is quick, but natural, too. Dewey’s portrayal of Alex is wonderful, too, especially because he’s an outwardly functional depressed person. That doesn’t happen often on TV, and it should. It’s not only more fascinating and better television, but it’s important for the sake of erasing stigmas and building awareness of depression, even in fiction.

The rest of the slate is solid, too — Frances Conroy as their mother is genius casting, of course, especially considering the resemblance between her and Watkins. Fred Melamed steals every scene as their father with his basso profundo. Nyasha Hatendi as Leon is… frankly, just better seen than explained. Eliza Coupe as Emmy, Alex’s love interest, oozes the same casual as he and Val, which makes her blend in perfectly. And Tara Lynne Barr as Laura, Val’s daughter, reminds me of a less vain version of Haley on Modern Family. She makes dumb teenage mistakes, but she’s a hell of a lot wiser than she acts.

However, Laura is the jumping-off point for the one-third of the show that I didn’t love. See, all the while, we follow these folks in their complicated lives, and they return to each other with their issues and sort them out (or not), but they all consider each other safe havens, especially Val, Laura and Alex, because they live under one roof. They’re united against Val and Alex’s parents, at least for a time, and they have each other’s backs. But when a love triangle emerges between Val, Laura and Laura’s teacher, it shatters the show’s already-fledgling sweetness. Yes, it’s a disruptive plot point, but it’s a cliche, unnecessary and unbelievable one. Val is a therapist, for shit’s sake, and she may not have it together enough to know how to date, but she sure as sheep should know to stay away from her daughter’s teacher no matter what. The show exacerbates the situation by having Val sleep with Emmy, too. By the end of the season’s run, I ended up hating Val and loving Alex — the reverse of the start — and felt let down by its promise. The point of it is their special sibling equilibrium, and without it, Casual becomes just like every other half-hour sitcom — predictable.

I’m curious to see how the writers will dig themselves out of the first season’s hole, but I’m also confident that they’ll be able to do it, because the first chunk is so strong and unique and likable. Let’s hope they downplay the drama and get back to the title again.