Sunday, May 31, 2020

Invisible Man: THE ASSISTANT

Kitty Green’s The Assistant is an invisible man movie—a slow boiling subterranean sense that something’s not quite right even as the main cause is just out of frame, unseen, unheard, but looming all the same. It’s a story about how so many companies are built with a bureaucratic structure that absorbs internal criticism and protects their powerful members from having to care about their underlings. It stars Julia Garner, whose curly blonde locks and latent America’s-sweetheart energy (twenty years ago, she’d be a Meg Ryan type) deceptively does stoic stress or patient unresolved suspicion better than just about any young actress, who here plays an assistant to a high-powered movie producer. Over the course of a quotidian day at the office, her suspicions are confirmed: the boss is one of those moral monsters we’ve read about, that class of powerful man so familiar from business and politics who are exposed as abusers. We observe as her convictions grow that a change must be made. She wants to warn someone, alert the mechanisms of justice, find a way to protect herself and others.

What Green, a documentarian making her first fiction effort, does so well is observing the ways in which this young woman’s options are quickly closed off. There’s the casual routine through which the others in her place of employment minimize her, shuffle off her complaints, and redirect her outrage — the better to out-wait her desire to speak up. When the human resources department circles the wagons, it’s not to protect the people inside the circle; it’s to keep the news from getting out. Key to this is a standout supporting turn by Matthew Macfayden as a chillingly dispassionate suit who all-too-easily pushes and prods at the problem—which is quickly clear he sees as Garner, not the boss, who remains off-screen throughout.

The movie captures the drab grey office life that hides this strategy of jargon-infused obfuscation and minimizing under bland corporate speak and deceptively calm orderly cubicles. For running less than 90 minutes, it’s full of dead air and routine tasks that slow the pace and the pulse. There’s a patience and a slowness that reflects the lack of urgency all but our lead feel about getting to the bottom of this rot at the core of their company. After all, jobs depend on this powerful man, or so they all think. The movie’s stillness and simplicity, its allusion and implication, are key to its effect. Here’s a picture that’s less a narrative, and not much a character study, but is, at best, a cold, clinical biopsy into the heart of corruption that runs all the way to the top.

Friday, May 29, 2020

Listen to the Skies: THE VAST OF NIGHT

The Vast of Night is a small feature cloaked in the mysteries of twilight and the possibilities of mid-century speculative fiction. It is a confidently hushed work of mood and tone so spare and so careful that I felt myself practically holding my breath lest I break its fragile, entrancing spell. It’s set in a small southwestern town at the tail end of the 1950s, a time when the future was still something imagined with regularity, the promise of technology and research more open to possibilities than closed-off with dystopian alarm. The film takes place all in one night. Most of the town is crowded into the school gymnasium for the big basketball game. This leaves our characters — two cute, bespectacled teens, giddy with energies of curiosity and potential — alone in the darkness that stretches across the horizon. They have jobs to do, he (Jake Horowitz) the only radio station employee on duty, and she (Sierra McCormick), a brisk walk away, manning the town’s switchboard. Their isolation is broken up only by the crackles of static over the airwaves and the pools of brightness under the sparse streetlights, the warble of the music over the radio, and the hushed conversations they have over the lines. They clearly like each other, and have sweet chemistry, but their affection is unspoken subtext behind their teasing interests in each other’s nerdy pursuits. These teens are creatures of small-town comfort and analog habits and the film follows suit, much like the camera tracks along in its long opening sequences. The camera glides down the town’s alleys and sidewalks, through the crowds a block away, and then settles still and attentive as the characters lean intently into the mysteries of the night. The film builds its power over their isolated connection, leaning into sophisticated sound design, layered in like a radio play over the perfectly composed frames that allow for the actors, and the patient pacing, to breathe, inviting you to lean in with them.

It proceeds with slow-drip suspense as the characters find the empty nocturnal streets reason to let imagination run wild. Unless they aren’t imagining things. An unidentifiable signal — bursts of whirring electric something — cuts into the phone lines. It briefly interrupts the radio broadcast. Is something out there? The characters call back and forth from the station to the switchboard, as microphones crackle on, connections are clicked in with a clank, the radio fuzzes and reel-to-reel tapes are futzed with. Each new tactile technological wrinkle — cutting edge for their time — draws them deeper into their wondering, inspired, no doubt, by a prevailing science-speculation urban legend of the time, that the broadcast might be coming from unseen visitors above. First-time director Andrew Patterson sustains a simple story, a tremulous fermata of mysterious tension, stretched across just shy of an hour-and-a-half, without a wink or a smirk, and without tipping its hand. I almost wish it didn’t have to literalize its suggestions in its final moments, but they achieve a haunting inevitability nonetheless. The movie’s subtle showiness — taking in its note-perfect performances and tactfully evocative camera work, and trusting we’ll recognize we’re in sturdy storytelling hands — comes from its reserve, letting its narrative unspool in long phone conversations, half-whispered recollections in dark rooms. It doles out its information with teasing, natural ease, letting its endearing lead characters’ increasing need to know what’s happening develop along with ours. Screenwriters James Montague and Craig W. Sanger somehow sidestep cliche in what could’ve been a familiar story by clinging so tightly to these characters and their moment-to-moment experience, painting in precisely calibrated expressive detail like the best Ray Bradbury short stories or Twilight Zone episodes. It gathers up a haunting power, balanced between period signifiers and the ineffable possibilities in the enormity of the night sky.

Monday, May 18, 2020

Cooking the Books: BAD EDUCATION

Bad Education is set in schools, but concerns no actual classes, and certainly not any dynamics of students and teachers. It doesn’t tell us about curriculum or class sizes or demographics or unions — but it does crow that the schools at its center, a well-funded Long Island district, have a growing reputation for sending kids on to prestigious colleges. It’s a fact that causes local real estate to steadily grow, and to attract the sort of high-earning parents looking to keep their offspring on cushioned, easy paths to privilege. That we don’t know any details about the schools’ actual contents beyond that seems to be part of the point. Director Cory Finley, whose chilled observational eye was attuned to a dead-eyed emotional violence of bored rich girls of suburbia in his accomplished debut feature, the creepy domestic drama Thoroughbreds, now turns his attention to a house of cards built out of criss-crossing pressures on school administrators. He finds there, in this based-on-a-true-crime picture, a cauldron of false appearances that brew up the opportunity for massive embezzlement. Finley keeps the film’s style cool and collected, staging unassumingly and clearly scenes that take in squirming unease as officials get suspicious, the frazzling of authorities as they’re implicated, and the icy office power plays as various administrators makes moves to preserve their own prestige and influence. He’s out to show how so much of a whole town’s educational and economic interest can be built out of not looking too closely at the details when the big picture appears rosy.

It’s a film full of people projecting an idea of themselves into the world, desperately trying to hide the shallowness and sneakiness beneath. Yet it starts with one of the uncomplicatedly good characters: a reporter for a high school newspaper (Geraldine Viswanathan), tasked with an article about impending construction, who starts poking around in the finances of a new capital outlay project. Something doesn’t add up. Then the ne’er-do-well son of the district’s assistant superintendent (Allison Janney) gets caught using a school credit card around town. There’s scandal brewing, and the charming, hollow superintendent (Hugh Jackman) finds his unflappable local celebrity calm breaking a sweat as he tries to keep it secret, minimize the damage, and keep up appearances of success as it all threatens to fall apart. He’s a man of secrets — a closeted gay man, yes, and also carrying on an affair with a former student, and sneaking off for cosmetic procedures — who has intermingled his reputation with that of his schools. He likes looking like an important man, a big grin and slicked back hair matching his easy superficial charm. We see him quizzing himself on teacher’s names and positions so he can slide through a faculty mixer with chummy ease. He works hard to keep up the looks of a man on top of the world. Jackman plays the razzle-dazzle well, and cuts it with a hunger and a sadness. He’s a desperate man, even before scandal erupts. Maybe he really wants to help students; there’s a real note of melancholy when he admits to sometimes missing being in the classroom. But he’s consumed with keeping his secrets, and so too, in its own way, is the community. Finley’s movie is a narrow character study, tunnel-visioned into the tick-tock details of how some well-regarded community leaders lose their reputation because that was all they had. The movie is poignantly sympathetic to the damage they caused themselves with their sociopathy, and subtextually troubled by the ways that psychological problem is aided and abetted by similar surface-level impulses that can be the only thing holding a community together.

Saturday, May 16, 2020


The trick of Sally Rooney’s novel Normal People, the buzzy, intimate coming-of-age sort-of-romance published last year, is that it’s closely observed, but incredibly narrow. We are treated to scene after scene in which the interest is entirely in the gestures described, the subtle give and take of awkward adolescent power plays, the earnestness with which its characters trick themselves into and out of interpersonal relationships while chasing an elusive something that’ll take them to the rest of their lives. The point, in other words, is in the subterranean emotional development conjured by Rooney’s descriptions, and not so much the story itself which starts at a place of pro-forma young adult relationship — he’s lower class popular; she’s more well-off but an outcast; they’re drawn together and yet mutually agree to keep it a secret, sometimes — and is then dressed up in artful elision, skipping weeks or months at a time, with Rooney describing mostly intimate bedroom moments, or polite chatter at dreary high school and college parties. How normal, indeed. It was also a bit stifling for this reader, for as well drawn as these normal moments are, and how deeply the author knows her characters’ minds, that’s about as far as the book imagines. It has texture, but no space. Therefore the interest is not in what they do, but in how they feel about it. We’re in their heads.

This presents a problem for directors Lenny Abrahamson (Room) and Hettie Macdonald (of British theater and television), and a team of writers including Rooney herself, in turning the novel into a miniseries. When stripped of interiority, the plot is incredibly mundane, and when each scene is dutifully staged with naturalistic performances from fine young leads (relative unknowns Daisy Edgar-Jones and Paul Mescal), the whole thing goes vacant. Without imagining how to present the minds of these characters cinematically other than the occasional cross-cut flashbacks, we’re left with scenes of those boring parties and molasses-paced exchanges. The bigger ensemble scenes play out on occasion with what suddenly sounds like boring teen soap dialogue, the college scenes are built out of English major Mad Libs, and yet the pillow talk between the leads is soft and stumbling, more raw than the poorly imagined setups to their grinding payoffs. But no matter how committed to the naked emotionality of these young people the performers are, the filmmakers aren’t interested in framing more than a two shot, or tight close-ups in shot/reverse shot conversations between flatly lensed establishing shots. The whole thing — six slow hours over the course of twelve thirty-minute episodes; long for a movie, short for television, in another one of these intermediary neither-here-nor-there slogs — is inert. The leads are stranded in the dishwater dull visual style, stretching to communicate the unspoken in ways the writing and production can’t complement.