The Night Clerk

Release: Friday, February 21, 2020 

→Netflix

Written by: Michael Cristofer

Directed by: Michael Cristofer

The problem with The Night Clerk is not its depiction of a developmental disorder or that it tries to be two movies in one. It’s that those two elements — character study cum genre film — don’t properly coalesce. It works actually quite well as the former but the crime mystery aspect leaves a lot to be desired. Yes indeed, there will be no mistaking this for a Hitchcock thriller.

In fact it works so much better when considered as a character piece that any other label feels like an irresponsible misnomer. If I were compelled to review this movie accordingly (that is, as a crime drama/mystery), then writer/director Michael Cristofer has just redefined the slow-burn with The Night Clerk‘s super-cautious, almost tedious tip-toeing toward exculpation. Viewed through this lens this Netflix film becomes quite possibly the most uneventful crime drama you’re going to see for some time.

Bart Bromley is our conflicted main character, a hotel clerk with Asperger’s played by Tye Sheridan, a young actor seemingly born for stardom having graduated from high-quality dramas such as The Tree of Life and Mud into full-blown Spielbergian spectacles. The Night Clerk offers him a chance to strut his stuff as a legitimate leading man and Sheridan does not waste the opportunity, providing a complicated protagonist whose humanity extends beyond a neurodevelopmental condition many movies have been guilty of identifying as their character’s most significant trait. He pours into the performance a sincere commitment to the details: struggle with eye contact; lots of long-winded, one-sided conversations; a level of self-awareness that nods toward him falling on the high-functioning end of the spectrum.

After what is basically another routine shift change — save for the fact his co-worker, Jack (Austin Archer), arrives 15 minutes early to relieve him, something Bart’s endearing meticulousness does not allow to go unnoticed — he witnesses the woman he recently checked in getting assaulted by an unidentified man who comes to her room. He’s privy to the drama due to his rigging up of small cameras around the room, which he has linked to half a dozen monitors back at home in his basement-level bedroom and through which he studies other people’s behavior so as to improve his own social interactions. Bart’s reaction to what he sees sets the action, as it were, into motion and a criminal investigation follows.

The Night Clerk is driven more by mood and feeling than mysterious twists and shocking reveals (the movie does present some of those, though shocking might be putting it too strong). Cristofer’s screenplay really drills into the loneliness, creating an environment in which Bart’s relationships with everything are fleeting and mostly experienced at a distance. It’s a tough circumstance because if Bart’s voyeuristic approach seems creepy, it definitely is, and yet the more direct route to getting to know people, learning how to “blend in,” is often barricaded by the insensitive, ignorant attitudes of others.

The humanity it seeks justifies both The Night Clerk‘s glacial pacing and its flirting with the basic structure of a crime mystery. While it has some activity going on in the background the story spends most of its time inside Bart’s head and heart as he wrestles with his increasingly strange predicament. To Detective Espada (John Leguizamo) the body language and passionate over-explaining are big red flags. To Ana de Armas‘ beautiful and mysterious Andrea Rivera, the movie’s great anomaly who accesses Bart in a way not even his mother (Helen Hunt) has been able, his social awkwardness is more charming than off-putting.

The Night Clerk manages to strike some poignant notes in its observation of a life lacking the nutrients of social connection. It plays with morality and culpability in some interesting ways, not quite absolving anyone from some kind of guilt. Everyone in this movie does something wrong. As far as unraveling the sordid crime, it’s nothing a gumshoe couldn’t solve. The worst thing about The Night Clerk, as is often true in social situations, is the inaccurate labeling.

What is this pain in my heart?

Recommendation: If complicated resolutions are what you seek, you should probably avoid checking in with The Night Clerk. For a great performance from Tye Sheridan and a rare sighting of Helen Hunt (!) you might want to pay attention to the details here. It’s a good movie, and even better if you just don’t think of it as a crime drama. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 90 mins.

Quoted: “That’s a very complicated question.”

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Photo credits: IMDb

Searching

Release: Friday, August 31, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Aneesh Chaganty; Sev Ohanian

Directed by: Aneesh Chaganty

Searching is undoubtedly among the year’s most pleasantly surprising discoveries. Featuring a unique presentation style that repurposes your local big screen as a 20-foot-tall facsimile of your own favorite personal devices, as well as a crucially sympathetic performance from star John Cho (of Harold & Kumar fame), Searching is an über-modern thriller that’s as technically impressive as it is emotionally involving.

You read me right. The internet-set Searching earns a Roger Ebert 👍👍. It’s hash-tag legit with the way it makes you 🤔 and 😮, effectively doubling as a police procedural in the age of social media-fueled misinformation and obscured identity. In it, father David Kim (Cho) engages in a desperate search for his daughter Margot (Michelle La), who disappears without a trace after attending a study group one night. A Detective Rosemary Vick (Debra Messing) is assigned to his case. She and her team will carry out the ground investigation, while a dismaying David is tasked with tracking Margot’s online activity for any potential digital leads.

Aneesh Chaganty’s first feature film proves nothing less than a feat of meticulous craftsmanship, one in which identity becomes the key search term. The story is fairly simple but the canvas is anything but basic — an ever-shifting landscape of multiple open tabs which expose everything from chat history to diary confessions to bank account anomalies. What David thought he knew about his daughter, who’s on the cusp of high school graduation and appears ready to take on the world, turns out to be woefully inaccurate as his necessary privacy violating offers a heartbreaking discovery process steeped in today’s en vogue communication tools — FaceTime, Skype, Facebook, Instagram and YouCast to name a few.

As the investigation heats up and earns national attention viewers are led down a dark, twisting path paved with red herrings and often culminating in frustrating dead-ends. The screenplay, co-written by Chaganty and writer Sev Ohanian, is intelligent and sharply focused. Limited as his physical appearance is, Cho rises to the occasion and builds an affecting portrait of a father way out of his depth. Learning on the fly the basics of life on the internet, David’s newbie status offers parents in the audience a fresh set of nightmares to contend with, simultaneously cautioning millenials over the dangers of volunteering up sensitive information about themselves to third parties. Importantly, this never becomes a lecture. All of these realities are seamlessly woven into the fabric of a genuinely gripping story.

As a film centered around relationships — arguably the lack of them — perhaps the most fascinating one is that which it establishes with us. Watching David’s face contort in anguish and confusion while Twitter users come out of the woodwork calling him a pervert and more besides, we find ourselves in the awkward position of being on the other end of a live stream in which we are unable to interact, try as we might. It moves us to commit major moviegoing sins like breaking out our phones and seeing what it is that we can do to help find the missing Margot. The drama is that authentic and that urgent. It inspires reaction to the point of interaction, and that’s a kind of depth paradigmatic films such as Unfriended and its sequel The Dark Web failed to tap.

Quite hash-tag honestly, it carries a profundity that a great many films fail to grasp, however they are presented. This is a must-see movie folks. 👏

Recommendation: Bubbling with emotional conviction and stuffed to every corner with detail, Searching is a beyond-impressive début feature from a man who knows a thing or two about what the internet can do (director Aneesh Chaganty used to work for Google). Judging this particular film by its cover/poster would be a rather unfortunate mistake in my view. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 102 mins.

Quoted: “I didn’t know her. I didn’t know my daughter.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Experimenter

'Experimenter' movie poster

Release: Friday, October 16, 2015 (limited)

[Theater]

Written by: Michael Almereyda 

Directed by: Michael Almereyda

When all is said and done Experimenter feels like a strange dream you had one night, some semblance of ideas and imagery that hits you kaleidoscopically. Michael Almereyda’s biopic about controversial American social psychologist Stanley Milgram is hypnotic, and to a fault, but it still manages to encourage a terrific performance out of its star, the underrated Peter Sarsgaard.

It’s a film that lives up to its title, blending a number of stylistic flourishes together to create an experience that is as experimental as it is unique. From the fourth-wall-breaking narrative to bizarre set designs — most notably the deliberately cheesy green-screens and stage-like sets — and curiously stilted performances from the supporting crew, Experimenter is one you’ll remember if for no other reason than just how odd it is. It’s a film unlike any you’ve seen before.

Well, maybe not entirely. Acknowledging the rise in popularity of meta films in today’s market is just another reality we must accept and if you’ve ever taken the time to soak up Charlie Kaufman’s punishing Synecdoche, New York, you’ll be prepared for the surrealistic imagery and have some sort of grasp on Sarsgaard’s place in this similarly sardonic world. Visual aesthetics aside, Almereyda’s work is far less ambitious and emotionally taxing. That doesn’t mean the film is appropriately less effective, although, confusingly enough, it is a film that becomes noticeably less compelling the longer it drags on.

Stanley Milgram was best known for his Obedience Experiments conducted at Yale in the 1960s. Milgram, a Jew born to Romanian-Hungarian parents in the Bronx, became obsessed with understanding and evaluating the institutionalization of violence, à la the systematic annihilation of millions during the Holocaust. So he designed a set of tests that would measure participants’ willingness to obey commands delivered by a man in a lab coat, commands that would ultimately inflict pain upon one of the subjects. One participant would assume the role of Teacher, while the other would become the Learner. For every incorrect response that was given by the Learner, who was separated in an isolated booth, the Teacher would have to deliver an electrical shock, and the severity of the shocks would increase each time they responded incorrectly.

What resulted was not so much a predictable human response — far more participants continued to obey even knowing that they were delivering multiple, potentially lethal shocks to the stranger on the other side of the wall — but rather a disturbing revelation about human psychology. Milgram found many were unable to justify why they continued, why they obeyed a man in a lab coat rather than honor the requests of the Learner to stop. Throughout the process he would take note of the myriad reactions of those in the role of Teacher: some would get fidgety and scratch their foreheads, others would show deep remorse, others still nervously laughed. But an overwhelming majority of the subjects “completed” the test by inflicting the maximum punishment (450 volts) despite their complaints and obvious discomfort.

Milgram went on to conduct other renowned experiments as well, the most notable being The Lost Letter Experiment and his Small World Phenomenon studies — the former being a way to evaluate how willing people are to help strangers who are not present at the time, as well as their attitudes towards certain groups; the latter, seeking a way to expound upon the theory that all persons in this world can be linked to one another through no more than five intermediary contacts. (The term ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ is often associated with Milgram’s work but incorrectly so; although, strangely, Experimenter has no qualms with embracing that false reality.) Interesting as these pursuits were, the Obedience to Authority tests proved to be both Milgram’s greatest endeavor and his greatest struggle.

Milgram all but became a pariah of the social psychology community following waves of criticism that accused him of the unethical treatment of subjects, and that his experiments were designed with deception in mind rather than revealing truths about sociological tendencies, even patterns of behavior. He was challenged, scornfully, to take the Obedience Experiment to Europe, Germany in particular. “It would feel more authentic that way.”

Experimenter is a tale of two halves — or maybe thirds — with a large chunk of the narrative dedicated to his years at Yale, and the remainder accounting for the fall-out, both publicly and professionally, that resulted from his Obedience tests. While sad and often bizarrely frustrating — Sarsgaard‘s cold, monotonous delivery of lines drenched in scientific jargon makes for a character that’s pretty hard to empathize, much less identify with — the second half (okay, the last two thirds, really) is predictable and quite tedious to get through. It’s the story of geniuses spiraling into madness, only without the obvious madness.

Throughout, it’s Sarsgaard who compels us to keep participating in this experiment, becoming a thoroughly burdened and disheveled-looking man come the late ’70s and early ’80s (he would pass at the age of 51 from a heart attack, his fifth). Winona Ryder plays his dedicated and theoretically equally intellectual wife Sasha, though she’s relegated to a near-silent role without depth. She does help mold the family unit around this man who starts off seemingly dispassionate and of the type you’d assume would later prove villainous. No such trickery here.

There really are no twists after we move beyond Yale, and that’s kinda the problem. After such a strong, deeply involving and uncomfortable opening Experimenter turns to more conventional tactics as his life’s work threatens total irrelevance after several board meetings that don’t go well, a failed attempt to gain tenure as a Harvard professor, and the attendant circus surrounding the TV-movie The Tenth Level, a dramatization of that most infamous experiment. The frequency of bizarre set designs increasingly intrude as well, making for a watch that becomes much less about the actor carrying the burden of portraying such an intelligent yet embattled individual, and more about the ornate, lavish decor.

None of that is to say that Experimenter ever approaches banality. It just becomes less rewarding the more you seek answers and a clear path through to the end. Almereyda has a clear admiration for the guy, and the intricacies of his latest film are married perfectly with the innate complexities of this intriguing life. It’s still a journey well worth taking.

Recommendation: Followers of Peter Sarsgaard’s work should take some time out of their day to track down Experimenter, a unique and puzzling quasi-biopic about controversial social psychologist Stanley Milgram. Acting as a kind of time capsule in its quaint stage-like production design, Experimenter rewards those with a lot of patience and a thirst for intellectually stimulating cinema. 

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 98 mins.

Quoted: “Human nature can be studied but not escaped, especially your own.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

TBT: The Graduate (1967)

new tbt logo

For the second pick of November ’15 we’re going back to what has been referred to me time and again as a classic. A coming-of-ager to end all coming-of-age films. It’s Dustin Hoffman’s second big screen appearance, one that officially opened up the doors to a promising and diverse career, one that I am ashamed to admit I have experienced precious little of. My world has been rocked today as I have learned that 1) Dustin Hoffman, and I mean this in the most complimentary of ways, has been around much longer than I had thought he had been; and 2) I hadn’t planned this at all, but this TBT is in a way commemorative. Today marks one year since the sudden and tragic passing of the much-acclaimed director of 

Today’s food for thought: The Graduate.

'The Graduate' movie poster

Worrying about the future since: December 22, 1967

[Netflix]

An idle mind is the devil’s playground, some Philippians once decreed. Given that, I had an entire sandbox and an assortment of twisty slides to go down thinking about all of the dirty things I could be doing instead of watching this incredibly annoying movie. This character (yes, that’s right, the graduate) doesn’t do anything the entire movie but complain about upper middle-class white male privilege. “Oh no, my life is going in no direction in particular. Guess I’ll go float on a raft in the middle of my pool for the rest of the summer.”

A solid basis for a Kevin Smith movie. Let’s just watch Dustin Hoffman look really good for an hour and 40 minutes in a sun-tinged pool in some swanky house in Burbank. Or wherever the location was. I do find it kind of ironic: I have drifted for much of my post-collegiate life (because I’m no good at making actual, important decisions). I’m middle-class . . . maybe not upper-middle-class but I’ve been fortunate. Where are the cameras? Oh yeah, that’s right, I think out loud, snapping back to reality.

Two things, one probably more important than the other: 1) I’m not an attractive, young movie star and 2) I’m not an attractive, young movie star who gets his bones jumped by Anne Bancroft. See? I’m telling you, this is a movie about privilege.

The Graduate is supposed to be this whole quirky, kinky romantic thing involving Hoffman’s Ben Braddock and a family friend, the lovely but pathetically insecure Mrs. Robinson (Bancroft). The film is hardly romantic and it certainly isn’t charming. Although it does tick the quirky and kinky boxes. It all starts when she asks Ben to drive her home after a welcome home party in Ben’s honor.

Things get a bit awkward as Ben suddenly finds himself alone with her in her room as she undresses. But they won’t do the dirty here — no, they end up getting a room in a hotel where apparently all manners of trysts and assignations occur. This is where we get that iconic shot of Bancroft’s crossed legs in the foreground, with a smitten Ben Braddock lingering in the background, hands in his pockets. Perhaps if Ben weren’t such an incorrigible stiff — I mean that in the least sexual way possible — this movie would be over a heck of a lot sooner, saving me and anyone else who can’t buy into whatever charm Hoffman’s supposedly laying on in his second big screen performance from another 80-some-odd minutes of flaccid comedy.

Complications arise when Ben’s parents set him up on a date with the Robinson’s daughter, Elaine (Katharine Ross), much to Mrs. Robinson’s disapproval. She hates the thought of Ben going for someone his own age. (Yeah, what a pervert.) When Ben eventually falls in love with Elaine, following a rough first date during which he attempts to distance himself from her at the behest of her mother, all bets are off that Ben’s once quiet life will continue as normal.

Early in the film a family friend encourages the young man to live a little, to enjoy himself just for awhile before he settles down. That was actually Mr. Robinson (Murray Hamilton) who gave him that advice. Ergo, anything comical about The Graduate stems less from performances and situation as it does from our omniscient vantage point. We know everything and the poor husband knows nothing. I saw more disdain for living than pleasure in embracing life’s unpredictability. Less comedy and more pent-up sexual frustration. The Graduate is all about the latter; I’m not so sure about the former. I suppose one thing that was pretty amusing was how adamant Ben was in ensuring Mrs. Robinson he isn’t a virgin.

More mysterious than how this film has garnered such popularity is Hoffman’s awkward, wooden performance. The goal is to exude that post-graduation malaise but his delivery doesn’t seem very assured. Not to mention, being a womanizer first and a stalker second doesn’t really speak to my experience. And I doubt I’m alone. I’m also not a saint, but if The Graduate is supposed to be a commentary on that awkward ‘next step’ after college — his insufferable parents would like it very much if he attended graduate school; after all, what were those four years of undergrad for anyway? — it’s painting anyone who hasn’t had a life plan in broad strokes and in a pretty ugly color.

Setting aside thematic content, The Graduate just isn’t that creative. It assesses the budding relationship between Ben and Elaine as they continue finding common ground, while an ever envious Mrs. Robinson goes out of her way to make life exceedingly difficult for Ben. It’s another tale of home-wrecking and heartbreaking. The malleability of a young man’s happiness: if he can’t get this, then he’ll settle for that. If not that, then something else. Ben, in the latter half of the film, goes into full-on creeper mode, seeking out Elaine after a major reveal causes her to move out of her parents’ house and back to college, where she apparently is now with some other guy. And while the conclusion ends on a curiously ambiguous note, it’s not wholly unpredictable. The whole damn thing has been about indecision.

All of this ho-ing and hum-ing is set to the tune of a fairly inspired Simon & Garfunkel soundtrack, which is one of a few things I’ll take from this movie and cherish. The film is brilliantly scored. So here’s to you, Mrs. Robinson. Seems other people will love you more than you will know. Just . . . not . . . me.

Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft in 'The Graduate'

Recommendation: If you like your movies testing your every last nerve, you might try out The Graduate. Yeah, it’s an early Dustin Hoffman performance but I didn’t find it a great one. A coming of age movie with almost no wisdom to impart, I have to say I am massively underwhelmed by this thing. 

Rated: PG 

Running Time: 106 mins.

TBTrivia: In Dustin Hoffman and Anne Bancroft’s first encounter in the hotel room, Bancroft did not know that Hoffman was going to grab her breast. Hoffman decided offscreen to do it, because it reminded him of schoolboys trying to nonchalantly grab girls’ breasts in the hall by pretending to put their jackets on. When Hoffman did it onscreen, director Mike Nichols began laughing loudly offscreen. Hoffman began to laugh as well, so rather than stop the scene, he turned away from the camera and walked to the wall. Hoffman banged his head on the wall, trying to stop laughing, and Nichols thought it was so funny, he left it in.

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.jakenewton.wordpress.com; http://www.ngpopgun.wordpress.com

Enough Said

105562_gal

Release: Wednesday, September 18, 2013 (limited) 

[Theater]

I miss big Jim. While I wasn’t the most dedicated viewer of The Sopranos (I have yet to see a single episode), it just seemed appropriate that I go catch his last big-screen performance in Nicole Holofcener’s Enough Said, which pairs him with Seinfeld star Julia Louis-Dreyfus in a romantic comedy that is both timely and by the same token, almost unbearably bittersweet.

That Gandolfini’s last role would be a tender one like this only makes his departure feel all the more surreal. He plays quite the lovable slob in this down-to-earth, feel-goodsomething comedy; an outing that’s written as if real life were unfolding on screen — much credit needs to be awarded Holofcener in that regard. She’s a dual threat as she penned this poignant and deeply personal screenplay, as well as direct it; both appear to be capacities in which she finds great comfort and confidence.

At the heart of Enough Said is a relationship that develops in quite an unusual way. Imagine if by some random chance you were able to get some perspective on a person you’re currently dating, from an ex of theirs. This isn’t the usual gossipy kind of get-to-know-you kind of methods of socializing we’re dealing with, either. Your trump card is that this person you’re talking to on the side has no idea you’re currently their ex’s new flame. Your identity will remain this way unless you accidentally are outed (spoiler alert) or say something to reveal you know too much. What would you do? If you had the chance to find out directly from a second source that your special someone likes to pick their nose and eat it when you’re not around, would you really want to know? Or would you rather wait and find these kinds of things out as you continue to invest more time in this person?

Indeed, this is the conundrum Eva (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) finds herself in while getting to know the sweet, kind but ultimately unmotivated Albert.

Working as a masseuse, Eva gets a new client after meeting them at a party one night. She and a poet named Marianne (Catherine Keener) become close, and when the conversations turn to relationships and so forth, the film becomes delightfully complex. Eva learns she’s divorced and that her ex is a slob, a person she could not be intimate with, and whose habits drove her crazy. The things she’s learning seem familiar to Eva but she can’t place a finger on it. One day, as Eva drops by to provide another massage she catches Marianne on the phone with someone, a man named Albert. . . her ex-husband. The same man Eva’s been seeing for a few weeks.

Enough Said is brilliantly crafted, and perspective is everything. It probably will be argued what the MOST critical moment is in this film — is it the one in which Eva learns about the true identity of one her clients, or is it when everything becomes revealed to everyone involved? Is Elaine. . . I mean, Eva,  damnable for her actions? What will come of her decision to keep both relationships a secret? Simply put, there’s enough moral ambiguity in her plight for me to write a book bigger than any of the Lord of The Rings entries, specifically dedicated to all the ways in which her character is inconsiderate and weird, and just generally socially awkward. In fact, I’m nearly convinced if [it] weren’t anchored by an equally towering performance from the late Gandolfini, this movie might’ve been terrible. However, his Albert counterbalances perfectly. The couple have a lovely on-screen relationship that makes the movie far more watchable than it might otherwise have been.

Enough Said

4-0Recommendation: Enough Said serves as a heartwarming romantic comedy, but not in the most traditional sense. As strong as the material is here, though, it’s difficult not to go into this movie with far more invested in seeing James Gandolfini on a large screen for a final time. He’s both a great actor in this film and the source of many a tear forming in my eyes. He may be gone, but at least his essence is permanently captured in celluloid-form.

Rated: PG-13

Running Time: 93 mins.

Quoted: “It’s gonna sound corny, but. . .you broke my heart. And I’m too old for that shit.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com