Tabloid

The confessional documentary is as morally gray as a tabloid and as potentially colorless as a broadsheet. If a subject is made to play the fool, whose fault is it? Are they marionettes or the scene-stealing stars of their own one-man shows? Embedded in those answers is our permission to exercise an alienable right that we in the audience want to, but aren’t sure whether to, indulge in: the right to laugh. Is the subject self-aware or has he or she been psychically denuded by the camera—or, in Errol Morris’s case, the Interrotron—and, by extension, the person sitting behind it? Or is it maybe a smidgen of both? Watching Morris’s Tabloid, I laughed like a hyena at the sacrifice of a boar; Joyce McKinney, a former Miss Wyoming and a natural camera presence, seems to have been eaten alive by Miss Piggy, and she spouts the same line about a pasty pudge-ball Mormon (Kirk Anderson) that the Muppet reserves for her beloved, befuddled Kermie. Morris is too smart and experienced a filmmaker to fall into the traps I’ve set for him—he seems almost at the mercy of his unreliable narrator, and he foments the resultant discord as only an artist can; but then McKinney is not as hard a target as a seasoned old pol like Robert McNamara. Or is she? Both the former beauty queen and the secretary of state who transacted the Vietnam War know how to schmooze the cam and cool a hot mic. But I’m pretty sure McNamara wasn’t off his rocker.

The title refers to the venue in which McKinney became a bonafide celebrity. A native of North Carolina who commanded the pageant circuit from an early age, she somehow finds herself, by the mid-1970s, in Utah—and, so she claims, ignorant of Mormonism and its customs. In what might have been a wet dream for legions of other eligible bachelors, she aims her obsessiveness at Anderson, a virginal evangelist who, by her account, punked out on her—leaving Salt Lake City for London to fulfill the same obligation that the young Mitt Romney did when he sought to make Mormon converts in France. (Anderson declined to participate in the making of this movie.) McKinney soon comes into money, by means which are not altogether verifiable and which I will leave to the film to disclose, and uses it to kidnap him; tie him to a bedpost at a cottage in pastoral Devon; and, depending on who you ask, rape him. Repeatedly. When Anderson, who has been freed from his cage like a canary into the dubious solace of smog, testifies against her—she thinks due to doctrinaire bullying from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints—McKinney ends up behind bars. But also on the front page. An innocent abroad, with a gift for gab that overlaps with the poetry of romantic incoherence, McKinney’s antics make her the golden girl of the piss-yellow press—which, as is its wont, micturates on her image as soon as it becomes expedient to.

Like a police dog’s nose, one’s mind automatically slides to the ignominious News of the World scandal from last summer; and, by interviewing two representatives from rival papers that profiled the “Mormon sex-in-chains case” back in the ’70s, Tabloid gives the American viewer a little insight into these thankfully alien, and hopefully moribund, institutions. But I couldn’t bring myself to hate those two crusty old gents, whose intentions probably differ—but overlap—with Morris’s. And though that’s not the most enviable piece of real estate within the Venn diagram, it’s partly exonerated by another recent affair that this movie reminded me of: the Pyrrhic “winning” of Charlie Sheen. He carved his sick self up and stuffed it down our throats. For the paparazzi, it was a veritable free lunch—for weeks—so, as contemptible as their exploitation of a mentally ill man was, he was literally asking them for it, and at what seemed to be a mostly conscious level. He profited from his own breakdown, so all parties were parasites: perfect symbiosis. McKinney’s strange tics may be the product of an imbalanced mind, but she seems to have used her eccentricities to seduce the tabloid reporters, just as she seems to be performing for Morris. Next to Sheen, her self-exploitation seems sweet, even quaint. To some degree, she still sees herself as an innocent, which probably can’t be said for the minus one of Two and a Half Men, who seems to relish in his raunchy guilt.

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The Ides of March

What if George Clooney really parlayed his star power into the sphere of politics? Would the opposing parties occupying Wall Street both decamp? Or would the dreamboat be swift-boated for sinking the ship in The Perfect Storm faster than Bill O’Reilly can cry “Hollywood élite”? (The star’s already been bested at the box-office by the Rock’em Sock’em Robots, which augurs badly for both him and the body politic.) On the evidence of The Ides of March, the fourth feature that Clooney has directed, he probably wouldn’t trust anyone who’d wander down that primrose path called the campaign trail—even if it were himself. He plays a charismatic governor vying to win the Ohio primary and secure his trajectory to the Oval Office—a progressive Democrat who stumps by reading aloud what I imagine to be the bumper stickers on the back of Clooney’s Prius. Gov. Morris’s ad campaign would drive Shepard Fairey to sue for copyright infringement, if the artist was a hypocrite; but, more importantly, it alludes to a real person, the current “leader of the free world.” Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

In Farragut North, the play on which Clooney, Grant Heslov, and the playwright himself—Beau Willimon—based the script, Morris existed offstage: He was unseen and, I gather, left open for interpretation. In the film, he’s like Julius Caesar, who, in Shakespeare’s play, was onstage just long enough to beware the ides of March, but left top billing for his assassin, Brutus. (The filmmakers’ allusion to the ill-fated dictator is as full of holes as he came to be.) Morris’s kinda-but-not-really Brutus is Stephen Meyers (Ryan Gosling), the protégé of the veteran political strategist Paul Zara, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman. Zara’s intra-party rival is played by Paul Giamatti; and one of my biggest gripes about the movie is that these two powerhouses, Indiewood’s go-to everymen, only have about two lines’ worth of screen time together, and don’t even share the frame. Gosling projected a firestorm of psychic tension in Drive, that well-made but buffonic alum from the preschool of vulgarian connoisseurship; it’s amazing how far Method acting with conviction can go in a role for which Ashton Kutcher is overqualified. Here, Gosling imports his heartfelt vulnerability from Blue Valentine to this role of a sleek playa who sees himself as so conscientious that he’s almost in denial about his own sex appeal. (I know of no other leading man who can do a look of self-lacerating guilt as impishly as he does.) He and Evan Rachel Wood, as Molly—a 20-year-old intern who wears the opposite mask; she acts a lot feistier than she is—teem with chemistry together. They give fun, if stagey, japes a refreshing zeal; and I don’t doubt that, as director, Clooney had a hand in their tony cupidity—even if he puts the camera too close to it in a scene set at a mood-lit restaurant. But Molly is the first rung of the ladder that Meyers loses his moral grip on; he descends into the usual corruption—and the story into “tragedy.”

March is howling winter’s final blow; and Cincinnati, where the bulk of the film is set, is home to none of the principals. In some ways, contrary to those expressed by other critics, the sense of loneliness brought on by the limitations in cast and scenery seemed apposite to me. Some reviewers have said the movie was redolent of Sweet Smell of Success, which is understandable; but it struck me more as a downsized Godfather. Unfortunately, the dialogue almost always came out one shade less clever than what I anticipated laughing at; and worse, there’s no moment in this film analagous to that famous hospital scene in the first Godfather film that rechristened Michael as Don Corleone. Stephen’s a literal political junkie; and anyone who’s read Politico, and reacts to its reduction of issues into “politics,” knows that victory’s allure is as potent, and more dangerous, than a nostrilful of coke. But Stephen loses his scruples in one fell swoop; the audience gets alienated from its tragic hero prematurely.

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My Joy

They say one man’s trash is another man’s treasure. But Sergei Loznitsa’s joy is, well, My Joy—even if its own jollity is purely titular. A swinish-looking man, sweat draining down the flaps of his ushanka, smiles nervously as he expounds his philosophy of life—mind-your-own-business non-interference—to a captive audience comprising a solitary, steely-eyed hitcher. Amidst this drear Slavonic setting, discrete self-interest seems about the highest form of kindness payable; acts of charity vitiate in this vortex of ineluctable poverty. The protagonist—if one can call him that—is a truck driver named Georgy (Viktor Nemets) from a seemingly industrialized area; his route takes him through a countryside declared haunted by one of its tarter natives, and it’s demarcated by something of a phantom tollbooth. The road-traffic patrolmen who work there demand your papers, ogle your women, and worse. Their obsession with the local equivalent of green cards is as petty and baseless as it is ironic: My Joy has its own existential obsessions. Identity is fluid, like spittle on the mouth of a vodka flask.

This Cannes selection, which is playing here for a bulimically slim run, is also the first fiction film directed by Loznitsa, a documentarian who hails from either Belarus or Ukraine. (Sources differ on this, probably due to the dissolution of the Soviet Bloc; in the context of this movie, that seems appropriate.) Though the film has fairy-tale elements—roving highwaymen; a witchlike gypsy; raisin-flesh hermits in their hovels; a wolfpack howling at the moon—it was shot by Oleg Mutu, who was at least partly responsible for the kinetic hyperrealism of 4 Months, 3 Weeks and 2 Days (2007). The vision is unsettlingly stark and vivid: inflecting protracted medium shots with slasher-film shivers. And yet the morbid enchantment isn’t undercut by its shortfall of visual fancy. I found the locale transfixing; the wrinkles in time (from World War II to the present day) and personality were so subtly ironed that I perceived them only as one perceives moss gathering on a stone. Georgy meets a mute in a band of thieves, and all we can make out about the mute’s physical appearance is that he’s hidden under a brown beard; next thing we know, summer’s fled to winter, and blond Georgy’s buried alive in a heap of chestnut facial hair. He has even conjoined with the mute’s tragic biography. Compared to this transformation, all that doppelgänging up on Natalie Portman in Black Swan seems as shabby as a ghost costume made out of a mothy sheet.

My Joy is a nightmare critique of Russian authoritarianism: life on the outskirts of a police state. Stalin and Putin and Ivan the Terrible may have worn different crowns, but it’s always been the common folk who have borne the thorns. Unreal as the figures in this fable are—they look like serfs, and both their clothing and cars seem unstuck in time—Loznitsa doesn’t disdain them; he merely sees the cycle of degradation, and how it trickles down. The patrolmen in their fortress are beyond material corruption; they are like Kafka’s gatekeeper with a bloodlust, and it extends even to a Muscovite police commissioner who offers a bribe that’s violently rejected. The film is about hardness, in technique and theme; but it’s a lamentation of sensitivity. Along with the mute and an old man who’s lost his name, Georgy merges with Travis Bickle and Chief Bromden—mute because what he sees is unspeakable.

Moneyball

Moneyball is straight-backed popular art: a folk-hero biopic with a vision as bright and clear as one of Derek Jeter’s urine samples. It’s a year (2001-2) in the life of a crazily American “genius,” Billy Beane (Brad Pitt), who, as the real-life general manager of the Oakland Athletics, was the first person to put Bill James’s theories of statistical analysis into practice for a major-league team. Put simply, he was an algorithmic bargain-hunter; he made it possible for a small-market ball-club with a woebegone budget and “washed-up” players to compete with imperially prodigal sluggers like the Yankees. But the key to his hagiography is the fact that he took a chance.

Freaky things happen when egalitarianism, nonconformity, and competitiveness all commingle: It’s like inviting Kanye West, Taylor Swift, and Beyoncé’s unborn child to the same party. But the movie gets its guests so good and plastered that they lapse into conviviality—of which Pitt’s G.M. is the human crucible. The actor puts on a great show. Although this Beane withholds what he feels—he doesn’t travel with the team, so as to resist bonding with players he may need to lay off—he makes no bones about what he’s thinking; and each thought gets transferred into a gesture. Beane’s aperçus bubble up like coffee in a percolator. What we see seems more like a salty hick than the real Beane, who was raised in San Diego and got into Stanford on scholarship (which he turned down, a decision the movie milks for drama); he seems more like a waggish Heartland all-star—like, in fact, Pitt. But the star is all in and totally convincing—despite playing an uncanny reflection of what seven-out-of-10 hetero guys see when they preen in the mirror. He may not have much money, but he sure has balls—base and otherwise.

For contrast, Jonah Hill plays Peter Brand—the desk jockey who introduces “sabermetrics” to Beane—with as little motion as possible. This Yale-educated goober seems aware that every time he does move, he flubs it up, so Hill acts with remarkable economy, combining his complaisant young nebbish from Get Him to the Greek with his stonefaced Cyrus. The writers throw in some perfunctory benevolent-jock / idolizing-nerd gags that redound to Pitt-Beane’s noblesse oblige; but even doofy old jokes can be told well, and I was not alone in laughing at them. (Besides, nobody’s at risk of taking offense; Brand is a fictitious version of Beane’s real-life collaborator, who was chronicled in Michael Lewis’s 2003 book. The same may not go for Spike Jonze as Beane’s ex’s new husband; he’s a rich ponce, and the condescension, sportive or no, is palpable.) It’s almost as if the supporting actors were all told to stay out of Pitt’s way. The athletes—like playboy nepotist Jeremy Giambi (Nick Porrazzo); Scott Hatteberg (Chris Pratt), the shy career catcher who Beane recruits as a first baseman; and David Justice (Stephen Bishop), whose once-bright star is fading—perform with the trepidation of men on their last legs. As the A’s field manager, Art Howe—the most sympathetic representative of the old guard—Philip Seymour Hoffman is superbly cast; he gives Hill’s underplaying a run for its money. He seems to have come out the womb as prudent as a grampa.

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