As I AM: The Life & Times of DJ AM

It’s such a good feeling to watch a documentary and feel truly enlightened. This one provides that experience exactly, with some added Hollywood flash, of course. DJ AM was a special guy, and I was so glad to learn about his life.

I didn’t know much about DJ AM, unfortunately, aside from the fact that he dated Nicole Richie for awhile and that the Palm in Vegas turn out the lights in the P and the L on their sign when he died. I’m admittedly not big on DJ and club culture, but there was something that struck me about him, always, in how incredibly normal he looked, and I jumped at the chance to see this film at Tribeca. It also seemed like a hot ticket.

Right off the bat, we’re introduced to the real DJ AM, Adam Goldstein, whose normalcy was further enforced by his real name. Behind all the fame, fortune, and success was a nice, relatable, overweight Jewish kid, and in this film, that really came through. Goldstein was in theory a good kid, raised by an attentive mother, but even she couldn’t prevent him from messing around with drugs. Of course, it didn’t help that his father was a massive toolbag, so it just goes to show what unpredictable results each person’s upbringing can have. It’s all relative.

We also see how, even with all the substance abuse, his talent couldn’t be suppressed. He found beats in everything, and if he couldn’t, he created them himself. He was truly destined to be a DJ, to seek out patterns in unlikely places, to bring songs together in creative ways, and to help people have a good time and think about music in a different way. Occasional snippets of interviews with him——those that don’t ask asinine ego-boosting questions, anyway——reveal just how much of a nerd he was. And all that nerding out led him to become one of the first DJs, as I found out, to pioneer mashups. (It’s weird but pretty neat to think that stuff like this wouldn’t be possible without him.)

Another great element of this documentary is the diversity of sound bites and talking heads amassed. Not only do we hear from his aforementioned mother, but we also hear from a huge number of DJs, producers, and close friends. (I only wish that some of the colorful graphics hadn’t eclipsed their names; sometimes the text was impossible to read.) My uninformed, naive impression of the DJ world had been one of constant competition and publicity-filled feuds, but as far as I could tell, it’s not like that at all. At least in AM’s circle, they all support each other, marvel at each other’s talents, and feed off each other’s energy. They also take it hard when one of their own, like AM, succumbs fatally to a powerful addiction.

The documentation of his struggle with addiction was really wonderful, especially considering how much audio and how little video footage from meetings that director Kevin Kerslake had to work with. It was slickly subtitled and wholly revealing, and as we saw him crawl out of the darkness and into a stage of his life in which he tried to help other addicts, it seemed so impossible that he’d spiral downward again. But he did. (The friend I saw it with actually didn’t know he had died, so the “ending” to the movie came as legitimate shock to him. Ouch.) It made me wonder what someone like him really needed from his friends, even when it seemed like they gave him everything, and he had every resource he could have possibly used. Maybe that’s not enough for certain people. It’s sad.

See this movie, if you can. I’m sure it’ll be released in theaters. You’ll hear Goldstein’s humble, kind, Dane Cook-esque voice, you’ll remember that he was involved in the creation of this gem, you’ll be saddened all over again by his death, and you’ll become more aware of addiction around you.

The Driftless Area

I love everyone in this movie. I love Zooey, I love Aubrey, I love Alia, I love J.Hawkes, I love C.Hinds, I love F.Langella, and I even love Anton because I recognized him from Charlie Bartlett and he has a sweet face. I even loved the idea of this movie and the beautiful, sweeping landscapes. But, oh dear God, I hated this movie.

It really pains me to say this, because as I was watching, I was cringing, longing for it to be over, befuddled by how so many great people could be apart of something so incredibly pretentious. I think it had the potential to be wonderful, but somewhere in the middle of the forest, that potential got lost and replaced with heavy-handedness. I was intrigued enough by the story to know that The Driftless Area, the book, has to be excellent, because it drew these kinds of people into the project. I haven’t read it, but after seeing this movie, I know it was meant to be in print and stay in print. Some stories are better enhanced by our own imaginations.

Every single line said by every single character felt over-rehearsed and under-delivered. A slow, deliberate theater piece set in a gorgeous natural background. A world filled with people who think too much about very unimportant things because they have nothing else going on, and who indulge each other’s idiosyncrasies instead of pushing each other to be better. Maybe I expect too much of my movie characters, and maybe I want to see progress over the course of two hours, and I shouldn’t expect that of every movie. I know that’s certainly not the point of every feature-length film. Whatever the point of this one was, it was buried deep in the aforementioned forest, and left buried there.

The timeline of the story is a bit askew, and the logic leaves a lot to be assumed by the viewer, but suffice it to say that Yelchin’s soft-spoken Pierre finds himself in quite a pickle after bumming a ride off of Hawkes’ creepster Shane. All Pierre was trying to do was deliver some flowers to his shut-in, possibly ghostly lady love, Deschanel’s Stella, when his car broke down and he was forced to hitchhike. Shane wants the flowers because he’s an irrational dick, Pierre doesn’t want to give them to him, things get bizarrely confrontational, and Pierre maybe kills Shane but he’s not sure. Shane rolls with a shady crowd, including Plaza’s very slutty Jean, and the whole thing turns into an unnecessary, slow-moving vengeance tale. Oh, also, Stella and Pierre met because Stella was walking through a field (again, possibly as a ghost — she was killed-ish in a house fire set by Shane) and she heard a noise in a well. Pierre had fallen into the well. She rescued him, saved his life, he showed her how to live again, all that shit. I mean, she sort of had a life coach in Langella’s Richard Nixon Tim Geer, but he was to old to get down with if you know what I mean. And poor Alia’s Carrie got relegated to the Cute But Not As Hot As Zooey role of Pierre’s Best Friend and Film Narrator to Help Explain What the Fuck is Going On.

I normally don’t recount plots like this, but written out, I feel like the absurdity becomes more abundantly clear. It’s impossible for any of these characters to talk about anything shallow or fun, which sometimes helps viewers get to know them. The only relatable character in this whole thing is, of course, Carrie, because she does have a perspective that none of the others do. She doesn’t imbue her speech with poetic molasses. But she’s in the minority.

I’m wondering if reading the book will provide some much-needed enlightenment into the importance of this story, or if it’ll just reinforce my aforementioned belief that some pieces of art are meant to exist in their original medium. In any case, if this film makes it to theaters, be advised that it won’t be what you want to see from any of these people. They’re all superb actors, caught in a cinematic world that takes itself way too seriously.

King Jack

This little movie won the ol’ audience award at Tribeca, which I guess is sort of neat because it happened to be one of the movies I saw. But! I have to admit I wasn’t the biggest fan.

It’s not a bad movie. The actors in it are really great, and unassuming, and the grime on the kids feels real and earned. In a coming-of-age story in this day and age, that authenticity is really appreciated. But I couldn’t shake the fact that the entire flick was trying to shove poignancy in my face. Coming-of-age movies have been done and done and overdone, and I feel like I’ve seen them all, even though I most definitely haven’t. I’m also a sucker for well-done heartfelt moments in cinema involving kids (the long-winded way of saying “coming-of-age stories”), which is why it’s a little odd that this one didn’t quite gel with me. I have a theory, though.

As I mentioned, the acting was fantastic. The titular Jack, played by Charlie Plummer, is as charismatic as he can be, even with a terrible haircut and an even worse attitude. He’s the kind of kid that you wish would just “get it” one day, and get the hell out of his constricting small town. But his head is too big, and his focus is too small, and so instead it becomes a frustrating, sad experience to watch a kid dig himself deeper into a hole that he won’t be able to climb out of. Jack’s life is very insular; he lives in a small town, is bullied by really infuriating, perpetual assholes, and has a mother Who Can Only Do So Much. This is a story you’ve heard and seen before. I’d heard it and seen it, too, and after awhile I just didn’t want to watch it for the umpteenth time, no matter how stellar Plummer was.

Jack gets a brief glance into an outside world—not the—when his cousin Ben (Cory Nichols) pays a visit. Ben arguably has it worse than Jack, but Ben doesn’t have the egotistical streak to act out about it, either. The two of them bicker as boys do, which is to say that they don’t communicate that much, and when they do, it gets heated. They also have positive effects on each other; as you might be able to predict, Ben’s demeanor rubs off on Jack, and he learns to cool down his hot-headedness. Jack’s confidence oozes into Ben, and he stands up for himself in situations he wouldn’t have before. It’s nice to see them both change.

The movie covers such a small window of time, however, and such a narrow fraction of these kids’ lives, that it’s impossible to have that “good feeling” you get at the end of a movie when you see a character change. I left the movie doubting that Jack and Ben would really remember what they’d taught each other. I also left the movie doubting their future success in life. We saw Jack hanging around girls, but we didn’t get to see what he was interested in outside of dicking around with them and shooting his mouth off at other people. And every kid has some sort of interest. I had no reason to really, truly root for Jack (or Ben) because neither of them gave me a real reason to. Perhaps the poignancy was meant to lie in how unfortunate or hopeless their situations were. When the lesson’s that futile, I don’t want to learn it.

Ashby

This movie made me smile so hard. I really don’t need to say more, but I’m going to. Writer-director Tony McNamara deserves some major love for it, and the Tribeca Film Festival premiere didn’t seem to do much for it, which is unfortunate.

I’d dare say that this film falls in the Sorkin/Sherman-Palladino camp: The characters all speak on an unrealistic, supremely witty, frustratingly quick plane, but they’re so lovable and fascinating that you can’t possibly hold this quality against them. Their verbal wordplay is fun to watch, more than anything. And, lest we forget, movies should be fun to watch sometimes!

I hadn’t heard of Nat Wolff before this movie, but it turns out that he was a Nickelodeon star and is a talented musician. All that, and he’s got the comedic timing of someone well beyond his years in the vein of Michael Cera. He’s a 20-year-old person, playing a 17-year-old senior, causing this 28-year-old woman to develop a crush. (Which is perfectly legal.) He facially resembles a young Sandler at times, but where Sandler used to fill blanks with coy stares and eyebrow raises, Wolff fills it with supreme confidence. I saw a preview recently for some absurd looking film adaptation of a teen novel that he was starring in, and the second he came on screen I wanted to see that movie, even though I completely don’t want to see that movie. Wolff is just that good.

He’s also got great chemistry with Emma Roberts, who plays his love interest. The two have an interesting dynamic, and they represent a new era of teenage movie characters. Wolff’s Ed Wallis is the new guy in town, and he’s an outsider, but he doesn’t ever let that deter him from finding his stride. He uses his charm to find a way onto the football team, he pursues a friendship with Roberts’ Eloise, he treats his mother with respect, and he earns the trust of his crusty neighbor. (I’ll get to the mother and the neighbor in a minute.) Eloise is a nerd, but she’s also completely gorgeous, too. Nerds can be beautiful. Beautiful girls can be smart. They don’t have to be mutually exclusive. They also don’t have to be outcasts, either. What a wonderful world. Of course, Ed and Eloise deal with some standard bullying from the more thickheaded members of the football team, but there are other teammates that stand up for Ed as well. The more that kids see portrayals of other kids standing up for themselves, and separating from the pack when they feel it’s right, and notice that this behavior isn’t a bad thing, the less hellish high school will be. I’m convinced of it.

Onto that mother and that neighbor. The role of Ed’s single mother, June, was played by Sarah Silverman, and probably written for her, too. Silverman really does not get enough credit for being a wonderful, delicate actress. It’s odd to see her embracing a “mother” role like this, only because she looks so incredibly young, but the casting really is on point. (She’s a youthful 44 in real life, so the math checks out; I aspire to look half as good when I reach her age.) Anyway, her June is sexually honest but also very self-deprecating. She’s a cool mom, but a somewhat insecure one, too. And she raised a self-aware, sensitive, curious teenager. This positive portrayal of single parenting is also quite noteworthy, and rare to boot.

And then there’s the title character, the neighbor, Ashby. I suspect this role was also written for Mickey Rourke. And I’ve heard this movie bears a bit of a resemblance to St. Vincent, which I did not see. So while I can’t applaud the movie for complete story originality, I can say that the combination of Rourke and Wolff is about as unique as it gets. Rourke’s Ashby is about 75% Rourke, just as all of his characters are, and incredibly compelling. Ed is assigned to interview an “older person” about their life (an overdone plot, to be sure), but the two quickly develop a friendship and a rapport. You can tell that Rourke really respects Wolff, and Wolff is beyond delighted to share the screen with Rourke. The honesty and trust between them is unique, because Ashby finds himself opening up to this kid, and Ed finds himself stepping up when Ashby’s health problems become serious. They come of age even though they’re both already pretty mature, and they find that they can’t learn what they need to know without the other. I hope this movie makes it out to theaters, because it’s a real sweetheart of a story.

El Cinco

Per the suggestion of A Respected Former Colleague (purely referring to him that way in case he reads this and needs a laugh; hi!), I’ve decided to do a series of posts about the movies I saw at the 2015 Tribeca Film Festival. I have to admit I’m hesitant about this, and it’s for a very stupid, arrogant reason: I didn’t like all the films I saw. And I know that many of the films shown at the fest are trying to get picked up and distributed and enjoy happy, healthy lives. And there’s an aforementioned arrogant part of me that thinks that if I post a review and someone with power just happens to read it (hi!), I’ll have a small hand in jeopardizing their chances. Of course, critics are supposed to be honest, so in that light, I’m going to stick to what I know and write about what I saw. But I wanted to get that off my chest.

El Cinco was not one of the movies I didn’t like. Ha, double negatives. I loved this movie! I’m embarrassed to say that I saw it by happenstance; I purchased a six-ticket package to the fest that only let me see movies playing Monday-Friday before 6 p.m. So my options were limited. I had five movies set and needed a sixth; I saw “soccer” in the description and “Spanish” in the language and went for it. I was half-expecting a documentary. What I got instead was the story of a beautiful young couple.

Esteban Lamothe (who has a birthday tomorrow, just like me!) plays Patón, a gracefully aging star footballer who just can’t keep up with his barely twentysomething teammates anymore. And Julieta Zylberberg plays Ale, his wife, the brains and the beauty. Theirs is a simple tale of what to do next–and “next” is a situation presented to retiring athletes more quickly than the average Joe. When your whole life has been about sports, but then your body decides you’re done, what do you do? It’s a good question.

Patón has a manageable level of fame in his Argentinian town; people revere him, and even idolize him, but his club isn’t big enough for him to be a bona fide superstar. He’s also got a bit of a temper, so he’s not exactly Mr. Approachable. When he’s around Ale, he’s not a different man, though. He’s better. Their relationship is one of deep-set belief in each other, in partnership, in enjoying life. They’re practical at times, reckless at times, but they never drift far enough apart to make you doubt their connection. Their chemistry is really something to aspire to.

I really like that this film portrayed a couple that fights and is strengthened by those fights. Or, let’s call them disagreements. Perhaps it’s an American thing to assume they were fighting. Because, again, I never felt that these interactions threatened the integrity of their relationship. They were just part of the deal that they entered into when they said “I do” en español. Honesty is key in their marriage, and even when they’re acting immature, they’re centered enough to call the other on it. Patón, in particular, recognizes his academic shortcomings and owns up to his restlessness, and leans on Ale to help him figure out what to do about it. Their resulting plan isn’t anything special, though I still won’t spoil it here, because it’s not the point of the movie. The point is that they figured something out, something to do together.

Director Adrián Biniez did a wonderful job of capturing the details of their relationship, the asides that felt so natural that I’d be even more impressed if they were written into the script, the sidelong glances, the sighs, every bit of their emotional reactions to what was going on was captured beautifully. The movie actually had a Friday Night Lights feel to it, in a way. The viewer was like a fly on the wall in a story about a gorgeous man who poured his life into football and the gorgeous wife who supports him as he does it.

I hope many more people get to see this movie. We could all stand to learn a little from the Argentinians about relationships, and about starting over even after you’ve lived your dream.

Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1

A little while ago, I was perusing Netflix, and it occurred to me that I had never seen a Lars Von Trier movie. Netflix has a way with enabling. So, having almost no expectations, and no prior experience with Von Trier or Charlotte Gainsbourg, I dug in and clicked the right-facing arrow. The short conclusion: LVT is not for me.

Actually, I guess I had a few limited, disparate expectations in my mind. Gainsbourg’s O-face on the Vol. 2 poster, which popped up right next to Vol. 1, had a certain Keira Knightley-circa-Atonement quality about it. Since I loved that movie, I immediately, irrationally thought that Vol. 1 would be a more graceful and beautiful than it was—a little more like Atonement, in fact. An unfair standard, to be sure, but it was in my head regardless. Also, the straightforward title of Nymphomaniac, Vol. 1, sets up two very straightforward implications, one being that the movie is about sex, and the other being that the movie does not end with this first installment. Both of those things are true for this movie, but neither of them make it particularly enjoyable to watch. Then again, an enjoyability factor probably wasn’t on LVT’s mind. Instead, his mantra reeked more of discomfort, and in making this movie, he attempted to show the ugly side of something typically deemed beautiful, in a beautiful way. To me, the finished product was… ugly, for lack of a better term.

I sat through most of the movie very conflicted, because I knew I’d hate the second movie just as much as the first. And yet, I wasn’t hate-watching this movie. “Hate-watching” is a term and a concept that I loathe anyway, because no one should watch anything because they hate it. Art and entertainment are meant to be enjoyed, or at least thought-provoking. I certainly wasn’t enjoying the movie, but I was intrigued. My friend Lorenzo and I briefly discussed this frustrating concept via email, how we can’t completely fault LVT for being a sensationalist because, ultimately, the movie does make you think. And not just about sex, as the title would imply. Gainsbourg’s character, Joe, spends the whole movie sitting in a bed, badly bruised, telling her story of adolescent nymphomania to a random, older, not creepy guy played by Stellan Skarsgard. In allowing her to tell her entire life story, in explicit flashback detail, LVT actually presents us with more questions than answers, thus setting himself up to make another titillating movie. We see every man young Joe seduces, and we learn a bit about her father’s (a surprisingly un-slimy Christian Slater) disturbing illness, but we still can’t quite connect the dots and understand why she turned out to be a nymphomaniac, or more immediately, why she’s sitting in that bed with those bruises talking to that guy.

A side note: Uma Thurman has a small, powerful role as the wife of one of young Joe’s lovers, and it basically made the whole movie for me. I’ve never seen at that level, shrieking, imploding, melting down. She is a force, and she is worth watching.

I’m not going to make a point of seeing Vol. 2, because I didn’t finish the movie willing to spend two more self-indulgent, overly-artsy hours of my life tying up Joe’s story. Despite her issues, Joe actually seemed real and trustworthy enough to me that I didn’t feel the urge to “check in” on her and make sure she turned out alright. If she made that much of a leap from youth to adulthood, she’ll be fine. (In a manner of speaking; I did read the Wikipedia summary of Vol. 2 and… “turned out alright” is relative, but I still think she does.) She’s also a pretty empty shell of a person, and not one that I’d want to get to know any more than I already have.

Thanks, though, LVT, for all the intercut thrash metal and close-ups of people’s faces. I’m all set for now.

Wild (the movie)

For some reason I went into this movie semi-sourpussed, convinced it wouldn’t be very good because Reese Witherspoon’s face is too recognizable and nothing compares to Into The Wild when it comes to movies about privileged white people trekking across the wilderness to find themselves.

I ended up feeling pleasantly surprised and wholly empowered by this film, dammit! How refreshing, and how off-putting to my inherent cynicism, to see a film about a strong woman doing something for herself. It’s a solid, quiet follow-up to Jean-Marc Vallee’s Dallas Buyers Club. Reese Witherspoon is inevitably recognizable, but where Into The Wild excels in telling the somber, solitary story of Chris McCandless’ journey, Wild shows that the same sort of challenge can be inspirational, communal, and most importantly, survivable. It seemed like McCandless struggled to make his journey symbolic and pure, and while Cheryl Strayed (Witherspoon) may have begun hers in the same mindframe, she quickly realized that an “imperfect” experience can still be valid. She bummed rides from people, she accepted food and shelter from strangers, she stayed connected to her family, and she still grew and changed and accomplished something extraordinary. She is an example of someone who achieved her goal, social standards be damned, at her own pace.

This movie steers away from heavy-handedness while taking itself seriously when it needs to. Flashback scenes with Strayed’s ill mother, Bobbi (Laura Dern), are weepy and poetic, but they show how Strayed’s rebellious, independent-mindedness morphed from a druggie adolescence into a determined adulthood. And Witherspoon’s small physical stature adds needed comic relief; one of my favorite scenes is just before Strayed begins her hike and is prepping her backpack. She struggles under its weight and looks like a helpless wisp in her oversized REI gear, and it’s one of the most normal images I’ve ever seen on film. You feel her embarrassment, you’re glad no one else is seeing this happen, and you’re rooting for her to pack lighter.

I had one qualm with the film, which was the CGI’d fox that appeared a few times, presumably as the “spirit animal” of Bobbi. It took me out of the otherwise incredibly realistic, peaceful world of Wild, and really, the flashbacks themselves were more than enough. The fox basically prevented us from seeing Laura Dern a few more times, and that’s unfortunate.

However. This discrepancy was cancelled out completely by the appearance of:

michiel huisman

Michiel Huisman. The man, the myth, the gorgeous legend. Yes, please.

And with that, applause.

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