I’ve never liked Elizabeth Taylor‘s coarse, braying performance as Martha in Mike Nichols‘ Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolff (’66). I always felt she was playing a charicature of a vulgar, bitter alcoholic rather than really letting that misery into her soul. But I’ve watched this film time and again, and the reason (apart from those amusing, inventive performances from Richard Burton and George Segal) is Edward Albee‘s scalding dialogue. Albee died today at age 88 — due respect and condolences, but I have another complaint. I always thought it was absurd to invite guests over at 12:30 or 1 am to start with. Not to mention drinking yourselves into oblivion while everyone’s flaws and foibles are exposed and picked away at, and refusing to end this torture until dawn. Albee got at the fact that back in the early ’60s people of modest accomplishment hated themselves a lot more than they were willing to admit — a significant disclosure at the time.
Antonio Campos‘ Christine (The Orchard, 10.14), which I saw at last January’s Sundance Film Festival, is a smartly assembled if decidedly glum character study of Christine Chubbuck (Rebecca Hall), a frustrated, chronically depressed TV news reporter who felt stymied by the then-emerging tendency among local news stations to deliver froth and diversion rather than serious news or in-depth human-interest stories. She was lonely, bitter and pissed off, and on 7.15.74 the poor woman shot herself during a live broadcast. She died 14 hours later.
Christine is a good film, but it’s about ironies compounded within a hall of mirrors. Irony #1 is that Chubbuck would be unknown today if she hadn’t shot herself (she was never going to be Judy Woodruff), and that the film wouldn’t have been made if not for her tragedy. Irony #2 is that Campos’s film wouldn’t be all that engrossing without the on-air-shooting. Take away that sadness and it’s just a story of a gloomy woman who desperately wanted to do a good job but who wasn’t brilliant, lucky or charming enough to make it in a brutally shallow racket that was just starting to understand that superficial giddiness and bubbly personalities were far more valued by viewers than in-depth reporting.
That said, Christine is a well-written, believable, reasonably engrossing thing. Hall captures the testy anger and increasing desperation that Chubbuck was apparently experiencing on a drip-by-drip basis. It’s the best performance of her career, but God, it’s a downer to hang with this woman. We know from the get-go she has nowhere to go but down, and the film, really, is about how she has to go through eight or nine dispiriting episodes before she accepts this fact herself, and we, the audience, are basically stuck with this process.
Christine is tapping into general feelings of anger and frustation that we’ve all tasted from time to time, but after 90 minutes the downswirl starts to engulf you. I found myself muttering to Hall, “Look, this isn’t going to work out…you’re too pissed off, you lack the necessary charm and you might even get canned by Tracy Letts if you don’t watch it…it’s time to do something else with your life. Become a teacher or a newspaper reporter or sail to Cuba or move to Mexico, but get off the pot and blow this popstand.”
Yesterday afternoon I caught Vikram Gandhi‘s Barry, a modest but sharply etched character study of young Barry Obama between ’81 and ’83, when he began and completed his junior and senior years at NYC’s Columbia University as a political science major, and more particularly when he began to grapple with his half-white, half-black identity.
Yes — another young Obama flick on top of Richard Tanne‘s commendable and charming Southside With You. Barry is obviously smallish but quite fluid and specific — carefully made, nicely layered, more observing of small details and generally a looser, craftier film than Southside, which (don’t get me wrong) I felt respect and affection for on its own terms.
Devon Terrell as 20 year-old Barry (i.e., pre-Barack) Obama in Vikram Gandi’s Barry.
Barack in ’81 or thereabouts.
Barry, in short, is basically a “who am I?” flick about social conflict, racism (both the benevolent and hostile kinds), hesitancy and uncertainty start to finish — a whole lotta frowning and meditating on Barry’s part.
It basically studies this athletic, mild-mannered young dude and gives him the time and the room to find his own way as he becomes friendly with a variety of black, brown and white characters on the Columbia campus and near his off-campus apartment on West 116th Street.
It ends on a note of self-acceptance, as you might expect, along with Obama’s decision to embrace his African-descended side by calling himself Barack, which happens at the end of the film, or sometime towards the end of his Columbia period.**
In his screen debut, Australian actor Devon Terrell plays Barry with enough of a physical resemblance to pass muster along with the right manner, voice and speaking style. It’s a confident, well-rooted performance. Qualifier: Terrell’s nose is a bit too Roman and his eyes indicate some kind of Hawaiian or Maori heritage — his features remind you a little bit of Dwayne Johnson‘s.
I’ll be seeing only two films on this, my last full day of the 2016 Toronto Film Festival. The first will be Walter Hill‘s pulpy (Re)Assignment (formerly Tomboy), which has not only been trashed by almost every critic except for THR‘s Todd McCarthy but appears to the reigning calamity flick of the festival. The second, beginning at 9:15, will be Kelly Fremon Craig‘s The Edge of Seventeen, a teen-angst dramedy produced by James L. Brooks and costarring Hailee Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson. (A friend assures me it works.)
Challenging as it may be, Hill’s film sounds like the more interesting of the two.
Using a plot that seems to resemble Pedro Almodovar‘s The Skin I Live In (’11), (Re)Assignment about a low-rent male assassin (Michelle Rodriguez) who is changed into a woman by a revenge-seeking surgeon (Sigourney Weaver) because Rodriguez has killed her brother. The controversy, of course, makes it feel like essential viewing. Most of the pans are calling it bad or inept or horribly misjudged, and of course the transgender Twitter harridans are screeching about it being politically incorrect, etc. I can’t wait.
The Guardian’s Benjamin Lee writes that (Re)Assignment has been “made with such staggering idiocy that it deserves to be studied by future generations for just how and why it ever got made.” Variety‘s Dennis Harvey says it “gracelessly mashes together hardboiled crime-melodrama cliches and an unintentionally funny ‘Oh no! I’m a chick now!’ gender-change narrative hook.”
And yet THR‘s McCarthy claims that while (Re)Assignment is “a disreputable slice of bloody sleaze, there’s also no question that Hill knows exactly what he’s doing here, wading waist-deep into Frank Miller Sin City territory and using genre tropes to explore some provocatively, even outrageously transgressive propositions.
The last three minutes of this Cenk Uygur election rant is brilliant in the sense that it cuts right to the heart of things. The first seven minutes focus on Hillary Clinton‘s recent downward poll trajectory (i.e., losing in Ohio and Florida) and the possibility of further weakening in other battleground states, but the last three minutes focus on the hubris of the Clinton campaign and more particularly the attitude of denial within her staff and among supporters in the media.
The money portion comes when Uygur speaks to or rather pleads rhetorically with HRC, to wit: “Remind me what you’re running for. ‘I’m With Her’ is not a thing…that’s not a thing that you run for. We all knew why Bernie Sanders was running…income inequality, which he’s been fighting for 40 years. And Trump is a madman, he’s running for his ego, we all know that…but Hillary Clinton, what are you running for? ‘Stronger Together’, whatever that means, but what are you running for? What does Hillary Clinton care about? I don’t know. Do you know? Does she know? Has she communicated this to the American people?