Sunday, January 24, 2016

Not to Be Believed

"A lot of movies are about life.  Mine are like a piece of cake," Alfred Hitchcock once said. 

Nancy Meyers is the 21st Century Hitchcock in many ways.  While Hitch hitched his sense of cinema/design/manipulation/aesthetic mostly on the thriller genre, cake-decorating the screen with posh, Technicolor, darkly romantic interiors (think North by Northwest, To Catch a Thief, Vertigo, etc.), Meyers creates a romanticism of conspicuous consumption, making romantic comedies/dramedies that feel both fairy-tale brittle and heavy-handedly delightful.  Her slice of cake is interior-design as fever-dream; each of her greatest films are elopements from reality, and yet so overtly realized and sumptuous as to blow your stinking mind.  I'm talking here mainly about the movies she's directed and written since 2003:  Something's Gotta Give, The Holiday, It's Complicated, and this year's The Intern.  All of these films are sentimental and bland and populated by talky, over-earnest, rich ladies and gents who have successfully created their own destinies through hard work and good living.  All of which would piss any normal moviegoer off, but somehow, due to Meyer's innate, obsessive tendency to manufacture a sincere and scrupulous universe you feel sucked into all her gorgeous business; you feel the pain and triumph of made-up bicoastal white-linen American aristocracy.  You want to be a Meyers-ite from the first glimpse of sunlight through Central Park trees, so iridescent and lyrical as to make you feel nostalgic for experiences you've never experienced, or the sun-drenched ceramic-tiled roofs of Santa Monica mansions undulating into the sunset, or the crisp, bright, efficient stylishness of a Brooklyn warehouse transformed into heavenly office-space.

I could go on.

Meyers, like Hitchcock, seems to be more interested in the stuff involved in making the movie than in the overall movie itself, meaning she has an almost perverted sense of objects, d├ęcor, things.  She's a fetishist in the most regal and Architectural Digest sense of the word.  Her camera lingers across tables, pillows, couches, Egyptian-cotton bed-sheets with a voluptuous voyeuristic slowness and ardor that reminds me of Hitchcock's slow and delicious lingering on lips, eyes, and lady-gloves.  You feel a world opening up inside a mind in Meyers' movies, a wish-fulfillment that somehow allows you access into another dimension where everything is so fucking beautiful you feel both alienated and welcomed home.  But it's not your home.  It's really nobody's home.  It's just some figment, some colossal cottage-castle in the Hamptons filled up with taupe fabrics and antiques and people drinking white wine at dusk laughing about how lucky they are, even though sometimes they get kind of sad because you know everybody gets sad sometimes.

I just saw The Intern, which might be her best.  Meyers captures a phony, gorgeous, intensely not intense NYC in it, with so much aplomb you might view it as some over-the-top parody of a tourist commercial for the Big Apple.  Perfection is not the word here.  The brownstones in it have a heft and grandeur not to be believed, and the office-space overseen by Anne Hathaway's Millennial Internet entrepreneur is a vast white-bricked labyrinth of ergonomic seating and long white tables for laptops and big mugs of tea.  You want to work there, especially because everybody just seems to be meticulously performing work, not really working.  And Robert Deniro, as the titular intern, a Baby-Boomer retiree with a benevolent sense of patriarchy spilling out of his eyes, is a beautiful, static study in sweet, handsome decency:  Deniro in The Intern, in fact, might be Meyers' ultimate piece of furniture, and I totally mean that as a compliment to both.

I want to have a Nancy Meyers movie-night soon, where everybody brings a big elegant throw pillow, a home-made cobbler, and expensive bottles of white wine, and we sit in chunky knit sweaters and act like we're the most important people in the world, while watching the made-up and yet somehow actual and more important people in the world experience all their First World problems on a lush and monochromatic planet called NancyWorld. 

It's a good goal to have.  Makes life worth living.

The office space in The Intern

The English cabin in The Holiday

Meryl and Alec in the NYC hotel bar in It's Complicated

The kitchen and dining area in It's Complicated

The Hamptons house in Something's Gotta Give

Robert Deniro and Anne Hathaway in The Intern

Monday, January 11, 2016

Locking into Place

Of course it's January when David Bowie dies.  Cold silvery light, frosted-hard glass, that sense of loss locking into place:  roads, tree-branches, ditches, power-lines.  He was silvery like that somehow, frosty; you didn't know him, you just experienced his atmosphere. 

That's exactly how I remember him.  Just enough cold to make you shiver, just enough strangeness to make you feel scared, just enough glamor to make you understand, just enough video to freak you out.  Once somebody like him goes, you get what he means, and it's startling.  You've depended on his strangeness to get you through.  I have.  Truly.  Depended on David Bowie's oddness and fearlessness and creepiness, his shapeshiftingness, his ability to disappear and reappear.  It gave me hope.  Gives me hope still.  He pursued a swarm of off-kilter notions that turned into a kingdom.  His musical catalog is an electronic nest of hallways, every word and note merging into rooms that flow into one another and then suddenly you're outside in the cold again, freezing, wanting to freeze:  "Sons of the Silent Age," "Always Crashing in the Same Car," "Boys Keep Swinging," "D.J.," "Wild Is the Wind," "Heroes," "Ashes to Ashes," and so on.  I'm in a Berlin k-hole here, fixating on the albums Bowie made right before, during, and after he moved to Berlin and got God (Brian Eno):  Station to StationLow, "Hereos," The Lodger, and Scary Monster (and Super Creeps).  You can't escape their importance, nor their interstellar drag, a music that defines a secret era through saturation and slurred loveliness.  It's the late 70s and very early 80s, but also it's just Bowie:  disco refashioned into robotic trance, punk recalibrated into thoughtfulness, rock's warmth and stir disconnected and rewired into beautiful crooned terror. 

Bowie was a weirdo that somehow found a way to make weirdness majestic, worth putting up with.  He did this through experimentation, but the experiments, at least those I'm referencing, always paid off, always found their way out of flaunts and fancy-flights into direct bullets to your brain and soul.  It's the kind of music so connected to life it feels foreign to it; you just want to ride inside the spaceships he's made, close your eyes, find that planet of ladies rubbing lipstick off their faces, the planet of furious D.J.s and harlequins entrancing bulldozers.

Even before Berlin, Bowie was like that.  One of the first memories I have of him is from Soul Train.  For real.  Bowie singing "Golden Years" on Soul Train.  Well, lipsyncing at least.  Out of it.  He was thin and regal and looked doped-out, emptied of all feeling, but still into it, lizard-like and connected to some kind of malevolent corporation.  The perfect thing:

All those guises, all those identities.  I was maybe 10 years old.  Loved watching Soul Train.  Bowie's presence, though, made Soul Train feel gorgeously soul-less, like purgatory, and yet you wanted to be there, wanted to figure out what the hell?  That was him:  so strange he defined "strange," and now nobody is strange.  They are just wannabes. 

God bless the Thin White Duke.  Rest in Peace.

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Panic in Detroit

When I think what movie I would consider the best of 2015, I keep going back to It Follows, a low-key, low-budget horror movie written and directed by David Robert Mitchell.  Filmed in Detroit, Michigan, it casts a furious spell; you don't really need to understand what's going on because It Follows follows its own sort of poetic nature out of itself, and as it moves forward you get sucked into its rust-belt-flavored richness, its atmosphere and logic.  The plot details trumped-up supernatural goings-on that don't make too much sense, outside of the fact that a lot of teenagers have to run from zombie-like figures that are conjured when they have sex.  That conceit alone is worth the price of admission of course, like a takedown of all those 80s horror flicks that make violent death the wages of sin, but here there's something else all together happening, not exactly parody or pastiche as much as nightmare-nostalgia.  Mitchell is interested in a certain tone that John Carpenter got back in the day in Halloween, The Fog, and The Thing, a foreboding slow-burn fueled by Moog and mood to the point you start to feel the horrors ripen slowly into haikus:  the way the old sad neighborhood glows around dusk, the way car-lights glare in abandoned parking garages, the way weedy backyards seem to engulf themselves in raw luxury... 
The characters in It Follows exist in a suburban netherworld full of half-lit porches and stony paths, windows ripe for breaking into, above-ground swimming pools full of old possibly toxic water.  The insides of the houses have a claustrophobic stylized blush to them, like the interior-decoration and lighting involved in David Lynch's Blue Velvet.  Lampshades and walls seem to hum like insane asylum residents.  So there's that Velvety quality too, that sense of a director/writer biting into the world so we can digest it.  It Follows is an exercise in ragged spookiness and B-movie acting, but then again there's a glaze over all of it, a glamor borne out of the fact that this movie isn't meant to scare you, it's meant to put you into a Detroit trance.  You don't just watch -- you kind of climb into it, like a cave or the trunk of a great big car. 
Can't wait for Mitchell's next move.

Monday, January 4, 2016

My So-Called Apocalypse

Mr. Robot is a TV show on USA Network that has the dismal glamor and techno-tragic soundtrack of a David Fincher Daydream Nation, a country full of sleek moves and mind-fuck plot spirals, elegant camera slitherings, actors acting in sync with the paranoid, hyped-up surroundings, and an all around genuine sense of beautiful doom.  It's so stylish you forget there's substance being performed;  the story is about what would happen if the Occupy-Wall-Streeters and Anonymous-ers got their shit together and actually did something that meant something, as opposed to posing and hoping something might happen while trying to figure how not to organize while organizing.  It's all about a hacker-generated fiscal apocalypse that happens while nobody and yet everybody is watching.
Director/writer Sam Esmail is the brains behind the operations.  He's dreamed up a universe so skillfully realized and executed you feel right at home in each corporate boardroom and hacker bedroom and back-alley arcade.  Every shot is worth staring at, and the music, by Mac Quayle, is worth pining over,  a hyper-stylized exercise in synth-noir that gives Trent Reznor the what-for.  The music is actually kind of like a character in of itself, all voluptuously, cheesily technological and yet also lyrically nuanced enough to feel as though you're wearing the headphones of the hackers about to steal your identity.
But truly this is Rami Malik's show.  As Elliot, the buzzed-out half-crazy protagonist, Malik brings a gnawed-off energy and ferocity to Mr. Robot that feels authentic, uncooked, and gives the whole enterprise a vibration that doesn't stop start to finish.  Not a star but a sort of stratosphere is born.  He moves through scenes with an ache you can't specify, only feel, and his large, Marty-Feldman eyes feel both lizard-like and beautifully sentimental, both postcard-sad and hell-fire off-kilter.  You don't know whether to look away when he speaks or be drawn in or both.  It's Malik's charisma that transforms all the foreboding plot machinations into character-study material, the same way Jon Hamm's portrait of Don Draper allows you to feel/read the pretentious, arch, often leaden scenes in Mad Men as the poetic objective-correlatives of a whole era. 
It's another zeitgeisty show I kept thinking about, though, as we binged through Mr. RobotMy So-Called Life, the Clare-Danes vehicle that captured the ennui and excitement of 1994 adolescence, with gorgeously written voiceovers and a grim palate of blues, purples and grays.  Malik's performance has that same sense to it of capturing a moment in time, and his voiceovers, although decidedly not about boys and dates and hair color, still have an intimacy and specificity that allow you to enter someone else's consciousness in a way you almost never get to do in TV Land.  Mr. Robot is the My So-Called Life of 2015 actually -- memorializing this fucked-up era with a knife-edged whimsy and chromium focus that make you realize how TV can sometimes be the only platform you need.