Thursday, November 27, 2014

Big Eyes: The Business Of Art And The Pre-Feminist Stuck-Home Syndrome

Setting the stage for mid-20th century female oppression playing out prior to the women's movement -  as well as in the media  - in Tim Burton's Big Eyes, is Danny Huston's voiceover narrator doing the late San Francisco Examiner columnist Dick Nolan, and subversively cutting to the chase. And all at the same time delivering perhaps the best movie line of the year: "I make things up for a living - I'm a reporter."

Which could not be more to the point, in deciphering through quite metaphorically candid Big Eyes, a financially compulsive US consumer society harboring a dark side just beneath the giddy, deplorable, culturally embedded deceptive commercialism dominating everything. And connected in this case, to domestic violence primarily psychological in nature visited upon the populist artist Margaret Keane. Who was pressured by mid-20th century white middle class limitations placed on women, to essentially collaborate as a component of domestic security and well-being, in her own oppression. And actually, pretty much nothing new, if one considers throughout human history the many women like George Eliot who took male names to have equal access to the privilege of creativity and public recognition. Along with that well known, sadly often repeated rhetorical question historically speaking, why are there no women artists?

Amy Adams projects an alternately subtle and stinging emotional and ethical ambivalence as Margaret Keane, deferring to her arrogant con-man mate Walter Keane (Christoph Waltz), when he assures her that attributing her popular paintings to him instead, is a prudent business move that will substantially enrich their coffers. Which it does.

But this Faustian deception as ambivalent accomplice, driven by her own insecurities as a woman and yearning for a safe haven in a female-demeaning and dismissive world at the time, ironically further entrenches her own invisibility as an artist and human being. And admirably, Burton doesn't simplify the gender based conflict here by opposing a stereotypical female victim with her male victimizer. But rather probes all the self-critical ambiguous issues in between, in crafting a kind of canvas of his own pitting stifled rebellion against embarrassing expediency.

Big Eyes can also claim distinction for probing a less traditionally scrutinized component of domestic violence against women that leaves no physical scars, but destroys countless lives as well - mental and emotional abuse and domination. And perhaps best described in this case, as the Stay-Home Syndrome. And deferring to a husband as dictatorial decision maker, however self-destructive. Though in two instances that might be referred to as sorrowfully sequelized though ultimately triumphant in real life as well, Margaret is seen fleeing two unseemly spouses down the nearest highway - destination scary single motherhood - with her paintings and her child in the back seat in tow.

Then there's possibly Burton's own very personal exploration here, of the business of art. In other words, Walter Keane as symbolic of Hollywood, and the movie industry that aggressively shoves aside any notion of art - when not exploiting and taking credit for it - in the parasitic pursuit of profit. And if this was in fact on Burton's mind as troubling creative subtext, all power to him.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Nightcrawler: Hollywood Hidden Agendas, Hype And Crushing The Competition

Whistleblowing when it comes to media malice, even if fictionalized in movies like Nightcrawler, can't be a bad thing. Even if it's a little like say, treating pneumonia with an aspirin. Or, the police investigating themselves for wrongdoing. Let me explain.

Nightcrawler may have its heart, if not exactly it's calculating head, in the right place as the thriller goes about denouncing television and specifically the evening news for exploiting public fears about crime in racist and class biased terms, in a quest for ratings and profits. And essentially going with stories intended to raise the paranoid panic level in suburbia, about inner city crime crossing the line - literally and figuratively, into their affluent turf.

Not that these sordid manufactured goals are instigated primarily from top down tactics in the film. Rather, it's those from the bottom feeder classes themselves - in similar fashion to the have-nots havoc of those broadcast stories in question - who provide and feed that unethical news cycle in a kind of hypocritical substrata plaguing Nightcrawler. And personified in that particular psychopathic crime scene paparazzi in question, played by Jake Gyllenhaal. Not to mention Hollywood's own looming personal subtextual motives here, in demonizing paparazzi in general.

Gyllenhaal is Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler, a chronically unemployed, alienated young man desperate for work during the ongoing economic downturn, in yet another entry into that growing genre of economic crisis cinema. Stealing and selling scrap metal when not getting into violent mugging, Bloom happens by chance upon a crime scene and the 'vampire shift' free lance LA cameramen who make a living selling those gory photos to television news outlets.

Eventually the deceptively genteel and soft-spoken Bloom ruthlessly eliminates the competition (Bill Paxton), and ends up manipulating and sexually dominating his equally ruthless boss at the station (Rene Russo). And becomes somewhat of a celebrity news gathering predator in his own right, by quite illegally 'creating' his own unsavory crime scenes and scenarios.  

Screenwriter and first time director Dan Gilroy (The Bourne Legacy) has crafted a relentlessly discomforting and disturbing, psychologically dense thriller. But more troubling, is the context. On that note, let's revisit the self-policing metaphor. Are not the big and small screen the very same source of the racist and anti-workingclass fear mongering plaguing ethical values in this country? And in effect, the media assault on the inner city by this fictionalized TV station and  this movie's class based indictment of Bloom, one and the same. And their own offscreen hardly coincidental cultural collusion,  Gilroy and his perp-arazzi protagonist, Gyllenhaal. The latter for his Hollywood rap sheet of not unrelated sordid crime thriller affairs like Zodiac, Prisoners and End Of Watch.    

Then there's the matter of Nightcrawler's dubious division between victims and villains during these economic hard times. Are the bottom feeder designated media monsters in big city underbelly news cycles enriching the coffers of television stations really the impoverished at the other end of the food chain? And in the case of Nightcrawler, even ensnaring their own personal workforce ripe for exploitation? Well, perhaps those feeling most threatened by them think so, or driven by anxieties about ending up there themselves.

And let's not forget that other possible competitive thorn in the side of Hollywood. Namely, the recent small screen surge known as the new golden age of television - a potential challenge both creatively and financially to an industry dubiously turning out movies like Nightcrawler. Along with all sorts of beyond troubling issues in the media not touched upon at all here. Including the one side to every story, brazenly corporate controlled media in collusion with CIA and government entities when it comes to the propaganda relentlessly fed to the public. Guilt by omission? Just some curious food for thought.

Saturday, October 18, 2014

NY Film Festival 2014: Laura Poitras Talks Edward Snowden Doc, CitizenFour

A special, last minute presentation of the just completed CitzenFour documentary directed by Laura Poitras in exile in Germany, was a highlight of the NY Film Festival. Poitras embarks on a real life espionage journey, as she's contacted by Edward Snowden posing as the enigmatic CitizenFour. Which leads her to extraordinary secret rendezvous meetups on the run with Snowden, in Hong Kong and then Moscow.

Following the public screening, Poitras delivered a Directors Dialogue and audience conversation about her not yet released suspense thriller and fugitive from the NSA/CIA escape to freedom documentary. Excerpts from her conversation are below:

More information about the NY Film Festival is online at

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Camp X-Ray: Kristen Stewart Kicks Ass Politically On Screen

Camp X-Ray engages in somewhat of a military drama miracle. Packing in admirably and effectively a grim array of pressing issues in the real world, probing as its title implies national truths rarely covered in films and almost never in the corporate embedded media. And which include what's going down at that surreal and questionable gulag known as Guantanamo, sexual violence against females in the military, and the hundreds of US soldier suicides every year and why. Camp X-Ray is also an immensely devastating and emotionally honest and grueling dramatic showdown focusing on primarily just two characters.

One of those characters being, just as unimaginable, former Hollywood teen heartthrob of the Twilight series, Kristen Stewart. Who apparently, unlike most other movie stars in an avid quest for fame and fortune, has opted for the opposite direction. Intent on mining her talent for raw and real, meaningful hardcore drama instead. You go, girl.

Incredibly first timer young writer/director Peter Sattler daringly flips the official script of the one side to every story media and US government scenarios, in a courageous telling it like it is as to just what may be going down at Gitmo. With recently arrived army soldier Amy Cole, played by Stewart, assigned to the monotonous and unpleasant task of guard duty in a claustrophobic and hostile cell block. Where one of the 'detainees' Ali (Peyman Moaadi) - the soldiers are forbidden to call them prisoners because their unlawful US detention violates all existing international human rights statutes - attracts her alternately curious, repelled and empathetic attention.

The odd couple, in a kind of surrealistic mutual captivity at the camp confining both of them, at first approach one another in negative stereotypical preconceived notion mode. And with Cole astonished to learn that Ali, however understandably enraged at his hopeless plight, defies existing stereotypes as an educated, intellectually and artistically aspiring German national. And whose own perplexed youthful yearnings on a quest to make meaningful sense of the world, quite surprisingly mirror her own.

To say more about this delicately layered and defiant, doomed duet would dramatically diminish its resonance on screen. Suffice it to say that this brave excursion into controversial territory,cuts  through that blind fog of official propaganda, relentlessly fed to the US public on a daily basis.

Two Days, One Night: Marion Cotillard Class Struggle One Hour At A Time


...Cotillard, who is no stranger to tackling complex characters and complicated women in movies, most notably as Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose, plays Sandra in Two Days, One Night, an emotionally vulnerable blue collar worker in a plant determined to pit her against the other workers...


Saturday, September 13, 2014

Maps To The Stars: A Fine Line Between Exposing Hollywood Exploitation, And Crossing it

If decadence and depravity seem to have gotten worse recently in Hollywood, with all the drug scandals, murders and suicides, David Cronenberg (Crash, Naked Lunch, Cosmopolis) and his latest Maps To The Stars should more than reinforce that collective hunch. A rude and raucous LA cesspool reality check especially for the star struck obsessives in the audience, the film nevertheless walks an exceedingly fine line between depicting Hollywood self-dehumanization, and simply crossing it.

Presiding over this cast of beyond degenerate lunatic characters is John Cusack as Stafford Weiss, a motivational mental health and fitness guru to the stars, plying his elite trade with unorthodox methods that include physical restraint, barking commands, and the pressure tactic eliciting of emotional pain. Among his kooky clientele is Havana Segrand (Julianne Moore), an aging diva actress (where 40 is apparently the new 95) longing to play her late screen goddess abusive mother in a new production. And an ambitious obsession that is literally here, to die for - as long as that unfortunate is somebody else. 

Then there are a couple of truly bad seeds that happen to be Stafford's own kids. Including a way beyond bratty child celeb just exiting detox and his pyromaniac institutionalized sister, both with festering homicidal tendencies. Likewise turning up for seemingly sarcastic glee, is Carrie Fisher as herself in this far from coincidental tabloid tall tale touching on abusive parenting and kid counter-revenge. Along with related exploited employee revenge and something to do with retaliatory menstruation on a zillion dollar designer couch, not to mention coincidentally cross-generational arsonist tendencies, death by trophy - don't ask, and malevolent magical realism kicking in. Then there's Robert Pattinson, an LA limo driver for hire drudge who just longs to make in it Hollywood, and appears to be the only relatively sane individual in this multiple dark side menu of mix nuts.

I get it, that this movie is all about life such as it is, played out among stars as diseased hyper-individualism, and an avaricious series of egocentrically ambitious transactions in pursuit of getting ahead. And a society in moral decline and increasingly devoid of any individual sense of self, where identity theft metaphorically speaking, gets concentrated on obsessively burrowing into the imagined lives of movie stars

But there's a troubling irony throughout, that while exposing the malignancy of Hollywood, Cronenberg may be engaging in exploiting it as well. And it's not just the debasing of Julianne Moore as an actress in instructing her to repeatedly fart and wipe her behind on a toilet while getting nosy with her personal assistant through the open door, demanding details about her orgasms.

There's also the curious observation that the Hollywood honchos responsible for perpetrating this culture of insatiable greed are quite invisible here and seem to get a pass, possibly in a bid for the director to preserve his own career as a player in all of this. And much like his characters, hiding self-serving machinations behind a public smile.

And ultimately, yet another movie like so many preceding it, full of sound and fury while signifying no particular point about any of it. And a film world sadly tending to be about so many things, except meaning or art.

Friday, September 12, 2014

The Homesman: Pioneer Women Surviving Prairie Fever On The Bleak Frontier

Much of the depravity, chaos and rage lying just beneath the iconic myth of the Wild West and exhibited as a male manifestation - is in large part attributed to post-Confederacy PTSD among veterans back then. Connected to the sound defeat and enormous devastation visited upon the South, that gave rise to dangerously disgruntled drifters known euphemistically as cowboys.

But there was another rarely spoken about Manifest Destiny madness out on the plains, and equally afflicting men and women due to the harsh living conditions and alienating isolation - Prairie Fever. Though an affliction characterized more in terms of gender, by deeply depressed women and violent men.

And without actually attributing that very real and far from uncommon ordeal among those 19th century heartland settlers, The Homeseman illuminates that state of mind with an astonishing poetic eloquence in portraying the descent into madness of three pioneer women on the Nebraska plains. Directed, co-written, produced and starring Tommy Lee Jones and co-produced by Luc Besson, this stunning, very differently depicted, and vividly conceived journey into the mythic American past likewise boasts a strikingly impressive ensemble cast. Counting in addition to Jones as the title character in question, Hilary Swank, Meryl Streep, William Fichtner, Grace Gummer, John Lithgow, Tim Blake Nelson, Miranda Otto, Jesse Plemons, James Spader and Hailee Steinfeld.

Not exactly a feminist western but powerfully evoking the lives of these scarred and thwarted women nevertheless, The Homesman follows the fate of three young wives (Grace Gummer, Miranda Otto, Sonja Richter) broken by mental illness (involving sexual assault, post-partum depression infanticide, grieving the death of children from a diptheria epidemic, and attempted female implement suicide by darning needle). And being escorted back East, where a concerned church has offered to care for them. The problem is that there are no local men, not even their own husbands, willing to take them by covered wagon on that long and dangerous journey.

Volunteering instead is Mary Bee (Swank), a solitary, pious farmer who courageously works her own land. A member of the town's Ladies Aid Society, Mary is also a lonely woman that all the men around her refuse to marry. Deemed just too 'plain as an old tin pail' Mary Bee is actually not at all physically unappealing. But her toughness, resilience and independent spirit get her labeled as simply too bossy for wedlock. And a pariah within the patriarchal kooky courtship culture on the frontier, despite her persistent proposals of marriage to men.

And self-determined but not impractical, Mary Bee realizes she'd have difficulty transporting these very needy and out of control women alone. So happening upon nomadic army deserter George Briggs (Jones) hitched up to a tree for lynching by an angry mob, Mary Bee saves him in return for his reluctant pledge to assist her on the journey.

The relationship that develops between Mary Bee and Briggs, along with the unusual bonding of these tortured and helpless women, unfolds within a captivating fusion of bleak tragedy, horror, delicate grace and devilishly twisted, dark humor. Along with a perplexing landscape and its oblivious history encircling the lives of surrounding enraged Native Americans and shackled trafficked slaves alike.

And a remarkable performance from Tommy Lee Jones' recklessly rowdy anti-hero never ceases to surprise and amaze. With a begrudgingly kind heart, that is delicately transformative and magnificently nuanced.