Friday, February 15, 2013

A Character Study of A Character Study: Neil Labute's Your Friends and Neighbours


Your Friends and Neighbours looks at the lives of 6 people and finds themes of anger, repression, denial, indifference, selfishness and downright cruelty. It's a comedy. If it's title weren't so fucking sarcastic it would play like a tragedy of pompous, high class, human waste. Instead it's a pernicious and hilarious indictment of these sad sack New York City assholes.

That people like this exist is the tragedy. That writer/director/adaptor-of-his-own-stage-play Neil Labute exposes their truly ugly natures and revels in how rightfully they deserve one another to the absolute bitter fucking end results in a savage comedy. In Labute's world, we are most definitely laughing at you, not with you.

Because Your Friends and Neighbours is essentially filmed theatre (Labute is certainly more comfortable with his words and as director doesn't do much but film them), and because theatre likes to find themes inside of character, the best way to approach it is probably to break them down individually.

Ben Stiller plays Jerry, an insecure dramatic arts professor who has a flair for Greek tragedy and is better suited to be teaching about the raw, hard sex of his most beloved works than the limp, wheezing train wreck that is his sex life. Jerry has a severe case of mental little dick syndrome. He's prone to over-analysis of everything that enters his mind, making everything that surrounds him into a grand study of complex artistic discourse. Even during sex he'd rather yammer on out loud than simply get it up and get down. It's a lonely world for a man who values the challenges of great art and literature over that of true human emotion.

He's with Terri (Catherine Keener, brilliant as always) a writer who's menial job involves writing captions on the sides of display boxes for grocery store products. She's cold, fancies herself, as most failing writers do, as an unrecognized genius, sees right through Jerry and his histrionic academic bullshit and hates him for his success. She also wishes everyone around her would just shut the fuck up so she can be left alone to think. It's a lonely world for an intelligent woman who is emotionally inert and fancies herself smarter and more deserving of grand recognition than everyone she meets. That Labute manages to drop one of the best uses of the word "cunt" in cinema at her expense is no real surprise, if you catch my drift.

Jerry's best friend is Barry (Aaron Eckhart), a bloated businessman with a married-douche-bag moustache, who classifies his best sex as being with himself. This explains why he can't get it up for his wife who lays, night after night, facing away from him as he cuddles her desperately close, making the same bullshit excuses as to why it wasn't any good again. Until, of course, she falls asleep and he can tug one off beside her. It's a lonely world for a man who's never been jerked off better by anyone but himself as he clings to a the safe haven of marriage so he won't need to recognize what a selfish pig he is.

That wife is Mary (Amy Brenneman), an average woman who thinks she desperately wants to be fucked, hard, by a man who is not her cowardly, insecure, self absorbed husband. Maybe that's why she agrees to a proposed affair with Jerry, leading to one of the film's many cruel and hilarious set-ups and pay offs. It's a lonely world for a plain, married women who can't even get the man she is committed to until death do them part to pay attention to her other than to make excuses as to why they don't have a serious problem.

Best friends to Barry is Cary (Jason Patric in the performance of a career). Cary is the epitome of Labute's favourite kind of character: smart, strikingly attractive, oozing animal magnetism and completely emotionally turned off from the world. Cary has the brain and the will to destroy just about anyone upon initial contact. He's already got you pegged after but a few words have been exchanged and will use this to decide your fate in his presence. He's the form of playboy that would, many years later, be muted and transformed into a lovable sitcom character in the form of Barney Stinson.

Patrick's scene in a sauna in which he is asked to describe his best sex is horrifying, hypnotic and hilarious all at once. And all delivered in one incredible unbroken take as the camera slowly creeps into a powerful close-up.

Labute, like the best playwrights, knows how to balance the grey areas of the emotional spectrum perfectly. We don't like these people, but we aren't asked to feel sorry for them either. They deserve whatever cruelty the universe throws at them and Labute allows the savage in us take pleasure in laughing at their ignorance, selfishness and misfortune. Redemption isn't even an option in Labute's world. If you're born this way, chances are you'll fucking well die that way too.

There is a 6th key role, Cheri (Nastassja Kinski) who approaches each character separately in the same art gallery, while they are looking at the same painting. The conversation is always the same. These people are interchangeable, their names all rhyme, they all think the same, behave the same and in a cruel twist of irony, have the same fucking problem: they are all too wrapped up in themselves to even fathom the possibility of someone else in this world being their equal. Lonely is the world indeed.

On second thought, maybe this is a tragedy after all?

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Today In News I Don't Know How to Feel About:

I woke up this morning with the inexplicable feeling of getting fucked in the ass by a mouse. It was non too surprising then to bring up the trusty Hollywood Reporter who reported that Disney CEO Bob Iger has announced that they have tapped both Lawrence Kasdan and Simon Kinberg to work on stand-alone films in addition to the newly planned trilogy of sequels to one of filmdoms most beloved Kurosawa rip offs, Star Wars.

Wait, what?

So let me get this straight. Within a 6 year period, starting in 2015, the world will not be getting three new Star Wars films, but actually five from the Mouse House? The two in question will apparently stand outside of the new trilogy and revolve around lesser known characters from the Star Wars universe, one of which I hope will be this girl:

Back on track...

Editorial rant on market over saturation aside, the choice to have Kasdan's name associated with a new Star Wars film is intriguing. His first screenplay credit after all was on a little film you may have heard of called The Empire Strikes Back, which he then followed up with Raiders of the Lost Ark. He also took a writing credit on Return of the Jedi, making him associated with 2/3s of the original trilogy. This guy is no slouch, although yes, I do recognize that he's been in a bit of a decade long cinematic limbo.

Kinberg's name does not inspire similar enthusiasm. His credits include xXx 2, X-Men 3, Jumper, Mr & Mrs. Smith and This Means War. Maybe in his Star Wars film Boba Fett will get caught up in an intergalactic romantic triangle with a fellow bounty hunter? Did I mention this girl?

Right, back on track...

Although there aren't many more details on the subject, it seems there's an interesting dichotomy going on here. On one hand is Kasdan, a man of a bygone era of Hollywood entertainment and one of, at the time anyway, Hollywood's best screenwriters and Kinberg a man who once wrote one of the most poetic lines in Samuel L. Jackson's career: "I HATE JUMPERS!"

You and me both Sam.

So the question begs to be asked: how do you feel about this Star Wars fans? Do you consider these to be promising new developments or is this simply the beginning stages of the Star Wars Saga's continued Dark Ages? They can't be worse than the Clone Wars movie...can they?    

Monday, February 4, 2013

Django Unchained

When I heard that Quentin Tarantino was making a western, my first thought was that it would more or less be like this:

This is what most Tarantino movies, when you think about it, can be reduced to, isn't it? Or is it just me who feels the need for a towel every time Tarantino jerks a hot new steaming cinematic cumshot onto the faces of the general public?

While watching it, I wondered what the odds were that Tarantino made Django Unchained as a Western so that his violent down South blacksplotation mega-fantasy could take place during a time in American history where all of the white characters could get away with saying "nigger" as many times as their hearts desired without heeding the cries of racism that some of his former films have inspired?

And come on, that's what Django Unchained is. It was advertised as Tarantino's take on the Spaghetti Western, and okay, yes it does have Ennio Morricone music and does take place in the West, but really I think he would much prefer the film be know as the first historical instance of Blacksplotation.

Just like killing off Hitler in Inglorious Basterds, Tarantino has recreated Blacksplotation by taking it back to the beginning of slavery, well before its original cinematic origins. Genius historical revisionism or pompous child-man doing whatever the fuck he wants, however the fuck he wants to? I can't quite tell anymore. Maybe a bit of both?

Hell, even the wife Django is trying to save is named Broomhilda Von Shaft. These two are, in Tarantino's own words, supposed to represent the great great great grandparents of one John Shaft.

Needless to say, Djagno is one bad mutha...shut yo mouth!

As such, Django Unchained is pure Tarantino: hip, fun, violent, over-long, needlessly self indulgent, aimless, imbued with movie references so deep and obscure that it would take a spreadsheet just to track them all and made up of a lot of great scenes which are, as is often the case, cushioned by some awful ones.

Don Johnston's Big Daddy Kane character is a particularly unfortunate creation that doesn't serve a single purpose in a 165 minute film, other than an endless scene in which a bunch of clansmen complain about the eye holes in their hoods. It's the kind of film-stopping scene that you'd expect from an Eli Roth movie.

But yes, ultimately Django Unchained is a hell of a lot of fun. It's well shot, well acted, well scored and, for the most part, well written. For what it's worth, it's also clearly the work of a man with a singular vision.

There's also a lot of bad ass slow-mo shots of Jamie Foxx as Djago unholstering and laying waste to room fulls of people. These scenes are so unabashedly hip that I almost felt inclined to label it gun-fu or something like that. Oh right, John Woo already did that 27 years ago.

Just saying...

So, at the end of the day, either you buy into Tarantino's pretensions or you don't. I personally think he's a talented hack who's brilliance is sometimes overshadowed by the fact that he has no personal artistic restraint and that his films are simply jumbled assortments of pieces from other movies. The saving grace is, of course, that Tarantino has seen more movies than most of us combined and knows it.