The End of the Tour


Writer to writer face-off.

Writer to writer face-off.

(2015) Biographical Drama (A24) Jason Segel, Jesse Eisenberg, Mamie Gummer, Anna Chlumsky, Joan Cusack, Ron Livingston, Mickey Sumner, Becky Ann Baker, Dan John Miller, Chelsea Lawrence, Gina Ferwerda, Noel Fletcher, Lindsey Elizabeth, Johnny Otto, Stephanie Cotton, Joel Thingvall, Michael Cunningham, Rammel Chan, Ken Price, Jennifer Holman. Directed by James Ponsoldt

Fame, particularly for creative sorts, is not the brass ring that we imagine it to be. Many writers, artists, dancers, singers and actors do what they do because it is within them, bursting to get out. The wealth is nice mainly as a validation that they are connecting with someone; fame in and of itself is a dog with a temperament that you never know is going to snuggle with you or tear out your throat.

David Foster Wallace (Segel) has found fame, although he wasn’t looking for it. A literature professor at Illinois State University, his 1,000 plus page tome Infinite Jest has made him the darling of the literary crowd, a young American Turk who is proclaimed the voice of his generation. Wallace, somewhat shy and full of insecurities, is uncomfortable with this designation and is trying more or less to keep to himself.

David Lipsky (Eisenberg) has written a book of his own to little acclaim or acknowledgement. He is passionate about writing though and gets a job at Rolling Stone. When his girlfriend Julie (Gummer) turns him on to Infinite Jest, Lipsky realizes that this is the kind of voice that needs to be heard and he persuades his editor (Livingston) to send him to Bloomington, Illinois to interview the reclusive Wallace.

Wallace really isn’t anything like what Lipsky expected; he is surrounded by big dogs, lives in an unassuming ranch style home with a nice view of the prairie and eats massive amounts of junk food. He wears a bandana as a doo rag in a kind of throwback (even then) look that he takes great pains to say that it isn’t an affectation so much as a security blanket.

The two fly to Minneapolis for the last stop on Wallace’s book tour; they are met at the airport by Patty (Cusack), the publishing house representative who is to shuttle Wallace to a book signing/reading and an NPR interview. Lipsky accompanies him to these things and in meeting friends of his subject afterwards; Sarah (Chlumsky), a big fan who has been corresponding with Wallace for years, and Betsy (Sumner) who once had a relationship with Wallace in college.

In the course of the five days, Wallace and Lipsky talk about their shared likes, the creative process, the nature of fame and the things that motivate them. The two develop a bond that takes an odd turn, leading to an awkward final farewell.

In real life, the article was never published as Rolling Stone, perhaps to their discredit, elected to pass. It was only 12 years later, after Lipsky had heard of Wallace’s suicide, that he discovered the tapes from those five days and wrote a book based on them.

The movie, like the book it’s based on, elects to forego nostalgia and hero-worship and focus on a character study. Do not imagine that you are meeting David Wallace here; five days in the company of anyone, not even constant company, can truly give you an accurate portrayal of who a person is. We get that Wallace is insecure, not just about his talent but how he is perceived. That seems to be a pretty major issue with him. I found it interesting – and maybe a little unsettling – that the original tapes that Lipsky recorded were used mostly to help the actors get into character. Apparently they weren’t used in the writing of the script, so in essence we’re getting all this third hand.

Segel, who has made a career of playing big likable shaggy dog guys in comedies, steps out of his comfort zone and simply put delivers easily the best performance of his career. For all the regular guy affectations that he puts out there, the easy smile hides a great deal of pain. Wallace’s wariness of praise is captured nicely by Segel, who shows Wallace at once embracing his fame and shying away from it. He’s a complicated character and Segel fleshes him out nicely. Although it’s way early, I can see Segel getting some Best Actor buzz later on in the year for this.

Eisenberg I had more problems with. Watching a movie with Jesse Eisenberg in it is the cinematic equivalent of pounding down twenty espressos in a row; you feel nervous and jittery just watching him. Eisenberg’s characters often have a bundle of tics, and an undercurrent of meanness, even when Eisenberg is playing genuinely nice guys. Lipsky doesn’t seem to be; he is interested more in the story than in the person he’s writing about and in that manages to objectify his subject rather than understand him. I admit that is something journalists have a tendency to do and Eisenberg is to be commended for capturing that element of the character and bringing it to life, even though it is sure to make audiences feel antipathy towards Lipsky. Still, I couldn’t help but feel that I was watching Jesse Eisenberg more than David Lipsky; I didn’t get the same impression from Segel.

The movie has a bit of a bittersweet air to it, particularly since we know Wallace’s fate going in. This isn’t about a brilliant author, tormented in life, committing suicide; this is more about the image we project, how we fight to keep it, even if it doesn’t necessarily jibe with who we are. Wallace is portrayed as being obsessed with how others saw him; I can relate to that as I have that tendency myself to really want to be liked, both on a personal level and as a writer. Not that there are many people who want to be disliked; there’d be something sociopathic about that.

At one point, as Wallace he says he likes to be alone; he doesn’t want a lot of people around him. I can understand that; I’m pretty shy with people I don’t know well myself and I have a tendency to prefer spending time on my laptop keyboard writing than in interacting with others most times, but if you’re going to be a writer, if you’re going to be a good writer, you need social interaction. Without it, you’re like a chef in a restaurant  whose menu has only one item on it. You might get really good at that one item, but at the end of the day, you’re limiting yourself. I am admittedly unfamiliar with Wallace’s work and while I definitely intend to sit down with some of his books in the very near future,  I don’t share Lipsky’s assessment that reading him will be like meeting him. He seemed to be far too private a person for that to be true.

REASONS TO GO: Bravura performance by Segel. Real insight to the loneliness of artists. Melancholy and celebratory.
REASONS TO STAY: Eisenberg plays Eisenberg.
FAMILY VALUES: A fair amount of foul language, some sexual references and a good deal of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: In order to get Wallace’s dogs to pay attention to Eisenberg and Segel, meat was sewn into their clothing. In the scene where the dogs come into Lipsky’s room to wake him up, peanut butter was smeared on Eisenberg’s face so that the dogs would come in and lick his face.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/15: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews. Metacritic: 85/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: :Last Days
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT: The Man from U.N.C.L.E.

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Olympus Has Fallen


BFFs.

BFFs.

(2013) Action (FilmDistrict) Gerard Butler, Aaron Eckhart, Morgan Freeman, Angela Bassett, Rick Yune, Dylan McDermott, Finley Jacobsen, Melissa Leo, Radha Mitchell, Cole Hauser, Phil Austin, Robert Forster, Ashley Judd, James Ingersoll, Freddy Bosche, Lance Broadway, Malana Lee. Directed by Antoine Fuqua 

We’re pretty fat and happy here in the U.S., economic hardships notwithstanding. We’ve rarely felt the ravages of war and terrorism on our own soil. But as 9/11 proved, that can change in a heartbeat.

Mike Banning (Butler) is a Secret Service agent with a Special Forces. He’s also a favorite of President Asher (Eckhart) and his family – First Lady Margaret (Judd) and son Colin (Jacobsen).  But a trip on a snowy road leaving Camp David would change that forever

Now Mike toils in the Treasury Department at a desk job he hates. His wife Leah (Mitchell) can’t understand why he seems so distant; she goes to her job as a nurse as he goes to work somewhat like an automaton. Meanwhile the world keeps on spinning; the North Koreans are gathering troops on the edge of the Demilitarized Zone and the Prime Minister of South Korea is coming to the White House to elicit support from the President.

Then all Hell breaks loose. A transport plane outfitted with advanced machine guns and countermeasures to keep it from getting shot down shoots up the Washington Mall, eventually getting hit by a missile from the White House. At length it crashes but not before taking out the top of the Washington Monument. But that was more or less just a diversionary tactic as the President is hustled down into a bunker below the White House itself and the storied residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue comes under attack from crack troops superbly trained and brandishing state of the art weapons. The Secret Service and Marine detachment are decimated and to the horror and astonishment of the World, the White House is taken.

With the President, the Vice-President (Austin) and the Secretary of Defense (Leo) all in the bunker, the Speaker of the House Trumbull (Freeman) assumes de facto control of the Presidency. Not a moment too soon either because the President is betrayed from within, and now he is a hostage along with all those in the bunker with him.

Kang (Yune), leader of the terrorists, is demanding that the U.S. withdraw all its troops from the DMZ and its warships from the Sea of China. But like everything before it, this is a diversionary tactic from his real objective which is far more sinister and horrible than anyone could imagine. But now that the White House is taken by a hostile force, can the President and his family and fellow hostages be rescued before Kang can carry out his nefarious plan?

Well, duh. You see, nobody counted on Banning making his way into the White House during the chaos. And nobody counted on Banning being the badass he was. But is he enough to save the day?

Well, duh. You’d better believe it. But this is one of those action movies that even though you know deep down in your bones how it’s going to come out, you still sit on the edge of your seat throughout because it’s so skillfully set up and directed.

Butler has already earned his action hero spurs in 300. He cements his status here, showing capable fighting skills and doing some pretty impressive badassery in general. Unfortunately, the writers try to turn him into John McClane a little in the second half of the film which really doesn’t work. Butler is no Bruce Willis and frankly we don’t need another one – we’ve got the original after all. That minor complaint aside, Butler carries the movie nicely.

That the movie resembles Die Hard in DC has been commented upon pretty much by every critic who’s commented at all; I won’t go any further with it except to say that if they’re going to choose an action movie to resemble, they couldn’t have done better.

Fuqua is a capable director (see Training Day if you don’t believe me) but the writing doesn’t measure up to his skills. There are a lot of things that had Da Queen and I staring at each other in disbelief – I find it hard to believe that the government of this country would endanger millions of Korean and U.S. citizens to rescue the President, particularly if the Speaker was in charge (and I can only imagine how quickly Jim Boehner would throw President Obama under the bus if he were in the same situation – probably as quickly as Nancy Pelosi would have done so for President Bush). It is my impression that once the transfer of power has been completed, the President becomes an ordinary citizen. It’s the office of the President that is protected, not the person.

The movie is also hellaciously manipulative. I will admit I felt a pang when the White House is taken; it’s not unlike seeing your favorite pet kicked by someone from another neighborhood. You feel outrage not to mention plain old rage. I was surprised how much the scene effected me. Of course, at the end of the movie the Red Staters I live with were cheering loudly. When times are tough, it’s comforting to know that America still kicks ass in the movies, folks.

REASONS TO GO: Solid action film with a nice premise (although this is the first of two movies this year with the same basic plot). Butler is a terrific action hero.

REASONS TO STAY: Predictable in places. Save the kid subplot bogs down the middle third. Extremely manipulative ending.

FAMILY VALUES:  There is a good deal of violence and pretty foul language as well.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Cole Hauser and Radha Mitchell previously worked together in Pitch Black. They share no screen time together here however, although Hauser is once again playing a “federal agent” (he played a Marshall in the earlier film).

CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/26/13: Rotten Tomatoes: 50% positive reviews. Metacritic: 41/100; the critics can’t make up their mind about this one.

COMPARISON SHOPPING: Air Force One

FINAL RATING: 7/10

NEXT: Ceremony