‘The Internet’s Own Boy: The Story of Aaron Swartz’
*** (out of four)
First things first: How in the world could anyone make a documentary in which the narrator continually mispronounces the name of the subject?! In “The Internet’s Own Boy,” a well-organized doc about Reddit co-creator and suburban Highland Park-raised Aaron Swartz, the narrator constantly alternates between pronouncing the film’s subject’s last name as “swortz” (correct) and “schwortz” (incorrect). That’s shocking and inexcusable.
In most other ways, writer/director Brian Knappenberger chooses wisely. Through interviews with Swartz’s family, friends and professional supporters, the filmmaker straightforwardly and convincingly captures the innovative developer—who at 12 conceived a version of Wikipedia before there was Wikipedia and at 26 took his own life in early 2013 while facing double-digits worth of felony charges—as a brilliant mind and advocate for change without making him a saint. In fact, as depicted here, Swartz eerily shares many Mark Zuckerberg-ian attributes, particularly in terms of social discomfort and a disinterest in using his wealth to live glamorously.
It’s hard not to be inspired by Swartz’s priorities. He sought to alter what he thought needed to be changed for the greater good, and it was that philosophy that led him to try to make costly academic journal articles free online and become the subsequent target of an FBI investigation. Unfortunately everyone on the other side of this story, from the government officials who advocated for Swartz’s prosecution to Swartz’s former Reddit colleagues to folks at MIT who didn’t have Swartz’s back, declined participation in the film, leaving Knappenberger with too much time filled with Swartz’s family repeating what they’ve already said about him. And the aforementioned pronunciation issue is so staggering it deserves to be mentioned again.
This remains an important, David vs. Goliath story, however, of a remarkable brain years ahead of his age with the courage and will to fight congressmen--and a system built to impede progress and common sense rather than encourage it. “The Internet’s Own Boy” will upset you. As it should. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
‘Listen Up Philip’
*** (out of four)
You don’t have to be a punctuation nerd to tell that the lack of a comma in that title is revealing. “Listen Up Philip” isn’t saying acclaimed novelist and grade-A jackass Philip (Jason Schwartzman) needs to get with the program, although he does. It’s describing a guy who regards his bluntness as a virtue despite being fully aware of how isolated it makes him. His girlfriend Ashley (Elisabeth Moss) says success has made him ugly. In spurts Philip feels liberated by telling off those he feels have wronged him and lets his short fuse toss awkwardness and tension into virtually every conversation he has.
He takes advice and temporary residence in upstate New York with Ike (Jonathan Pryce), a renowned author who believes in Philip’s work. The elder man’s salty competiveness makes him a kindred spirit and a vision of the extended loneliness Philip can probably look forward to in his later years. The script by director Alex Ross Perry (“The Color Wheel”) generates a ton of laughs from these characters’ rough edges: “I hope this will be good for us,” Philip tells Ashley about upcoming time at his new mentor’s country house. “But especially for me.” Philip’s not a likable guy, but his stubbornness to play ball might almost be admirable if he weren’t so aggressive.
Loaded with voiceover and literary satire reminiscent of “The Royal Tenenbaums,” “Listen Up Philip” overdoes it with the voiceover by Eric Bogosian. What’s happening on screen is too amusingly acidic to require a narrator constantly telling us how everyone’s feeling. And Philip and Ashley spend so much time despising each other it’s unclear why it takes them so long to address that their relationship has a gigantic fracture.
Perhaps Perry depicts many relationships that have lasted about two years to say that that’s the length of time it takes for something that’s not really right to fully go wrong. That’s just a guess, though. A dry movie about the pointlessness of pettiness, "Listen Up Philip" focuses on an egotistical, defensive guy whose self-loathing and external loathing puts him on an island he’s created. It also shows that indifference can be just as poisonous as anger. And a lot less productive. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
**1/2 (out of four)
I’m not sure if you know this, but a lot of young people in America want to be famous, and many have become stars for outrageous, viral video-related reasons.
To those who are surprised, thank you for emerging from that rock.
An obvious point like this is unexpected in the directorial debut for David Cross, a comedian who’s both very funny and very unafraid to go after sensitive targets. In “Hits,” though, he’s firing on the easy range. Meredith Hagner (“Men at Work”) plays Katelyn, who’s convinced that once she records a demo she’ll make it onto “The Voice” and be mere minutes away from an interview on “Ellen.” Meanwhile, Dave (Matt Walsh), Katelyn’s dad, fights the city council in Liberty, New York about its unwillingness to fix potholes and give citizens their proper voice. When a group of NYC hipsters (including James Adomian and Wyatt Cenac) turns Dave and his humble activism into a YouTube star, the man earns a supportive following while his daughter looks on in disbelief that pops has achieved the stardom she thinks she deserves. As if that weren’t bad enough, even Cory (Jake Cherry), the obnoxious kid with a crush on Katelyn, becomes a brief, unfortunate Internet talking point thanks to a video of a kid interrupting Cory’s terrible rapping by knocking him in the crotch.
Movies from the lame “American Dreamz” to Bobcat Goldthwaite’s “God Bless America” have satirized our country’s fixation on fame and the painful grandstanding that often passes for entertainment. “Hits” has none of the bite of “Mr. Show,” not so much commenting on pop culture garbage but pointing at common knowledge and saying, “I hate that, too.” The presentation of foolish, angry citizens is smarter on “Parks and Recreation,” and Cross also includes a strange subplot in which Maddy (Erinn Hayes of “Children’s Hospital”) so desperately wants the child that her effeminate significant other (Adomian) can’t give her that she briefly treats their drug dealer (Michael Cera) like he’s their son.
All that said, “Hits” moves quickly enough and has its share of laughs, including Jason Ritter as a shady, amateur record producer and Katelyn’s friend drooling over a pal who got her writing published—by sending a letter to People magazine.
That’s amusing. But even when “Hits” is pretty funny, it’s also pretty stale. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
‘White Bird in a Blizzard’
**1/2 (out of four)
Shailene Woodley (“The Spectacular Now”) is just so good. She’s always present in the scene; you don’t want to take your eyes off of her.
That helps compensate for some of the narrative bumps in “White Bird in a Blizzard,” adapted by writer-director Gregg Araki from Laura Kasische’s novel. The movie opens on 17-year-old Kat (Woodley) discovering her mom (a breathy, effectively odd Eva Green) zonked out in Kat’s bed. She’s dressed up and acting bizarrely, something that can be considered a regular occasion before mom disappears. Dad (nicely subdued Christopher Meloni) hangs missing posters; Kat’s concern can’t diminish her attraction to the detective (Thomas Jane) on the case.
Much of “White Bird in a Blizzard” feels stuck in neutral. Kat talks to a therapist (Angela Bassett). She gabs about sex with her pals (including Gabourey Sidibe) and wonders why her boyfriend Phil (Shiloh Fernandez) doesn’t want to sleep with her anymore. It’s all circling the long-challenging relationship between Kat and her mother, who years earlier told her daughter, “God, you’re getting fatter by the hour.”
But no matter how many times it generates laughs from Phil’s stupidity (he thinks the expression is “cut him some slacks”) or, uh, makes Kat’s breasts a key point of emphasis, “White Bird in a Blizzard” (which contains an absurd, out-of-nowhere ending) seems distant. It’s not as a means to emphasize Kat’s occasional feeling of being an actress playing herself. And there’s only so much Woodley can do when the film only scratches the surface of a young woman who’s equally haunted when asleep and awake. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Christopher Meloni on "White Bird in a Blizzard" director Gregg Araki.
The actress explains her interest in working with the "White Bird in a Blizzard" director at the film's Sundance premiere.
More from Shailene Woodley on the appeal of "White Bird in a Blizzard."
Gabourey Sidibe on a major, secret moment in "White Bird in a Blizzard."
Shailene Woodley on filming out of sequence.
** (out of four)
When “Rudderless” begins with Josh (Miles Heizer of “Parenthood”) unhappily writing music in his dorm room, you think you could be watching an episode of “Parenthood.” Later, when Josh’s dad Sam (Billy Crudup) passes off the songs Josh wrote as his, you think you’re watching the episode of “Nashville” when Gunnar did the same with songs his brother wrote.
The important distinction is what happens in between. Josh dies in a campus shooting, and the way co-writer/first-time director William H. Macy withholds relevant information about the incident is hard to justify. He plays coy with a major plot point, selling out credibility for the sake of a twist when coming clean from the start would have been bolder. (Note: A film from 2011 explored these issues more appropriately, but identifying which one would be a spoiler.)
“Rudderless” does feature a great turn from Crudup and some really fantastic music, performed by a band that includes Anton Yelchin (as nuisance-turned-friend Quentin) and musician Ben Kweller as the bass player Quentin very deliberately runs into--hoping Sam will want to recruit his talents. Their songs stick immediately, and this Oklahoma-based group attracts a following to its regular bar gig like any band should when performing excellent material.
And still. In addition to Sam’s go-nowhere friendship with a music shop owner (Laurence Fishburne), an underdeveloped part for Selena Gomez as Josh’s girlfriend and painful scenes of Sam bickering with an annoying guy at the lake where he lives on his boat, it’s hard to get the taste of manipulation out of your mouth when “Rudderless” obscures truth instead of challenging it. Macy was smart not to assert answers to questions that don’t have any. And he raises but insufficiently considers whether we can separate art from the artist, an ever-intriguing conversation that crops up every time a controversial figure (Chris Brown, for example) releases an album. The problem is that “Rudderless” perpetuates the very denial it indicts. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
**1/2 (out of four)
Movies are so much more than their concepts. “Gravity” is an amazing onscreen achievement, but the script is lousy. It’s not a great movie. Its points come from the fact that Alfonso Cuaron pulled it off.
To a degree, the same goes for “Boyhood,” which writer-director Richard Linklater filmed over the course of 12 years. That’s really ambitious. Unlike Michael Apted’s series (docs checking in with the same people every seven years) or Linklater’s “Before” trilogy (following the same characters every eight or nine years), “Boyhood” filmed a little bit with its cast over the course of a dozen years. So we don’t just meet Mason (Ellar Coltrane) as an elementary schooler. We’ll see his voice change and observe as he goes through rites of passage like sucking at bowling when you lose the bumpers, peer pressure to drink and lie about your sexual experience and incidents when trying to be yourself means you become a bit of an ass to the people who are trying to help you.
Here’s the thing: None of the moments in “Boyhood” are bold in suggesting that the experiences are universal. Linklater isn’t deconstructing our communal stepping stones; he’s merely reminding us of them. It’s easy to watch the film and recall similar moments in your own life. That’s not enough; the film needs to inspire reflection, not just recollection, and it doesn’t.
Linklater pal Ethan Hawke plays Mason’s dad in such an Ethan Hawke-y manner you think he’s still being Jesse from the “Before” movies. Patricia Arquette’s a bit stiff as Mason’s mom, and Linklater’s daughter Lorelei plays Mason’s older sister Samantha, who begins the movie annoying her brother by singing and dancing to Britney Spears’ “Oops! I Did It Again.” Which brings us to another problem with “Boyhood”: The movie constantly marks years with popular songs, opening with Coldplay’s “Yellow,” stopping at, among others, Outkast’s “Hey Ya” and Phoenix’s “1901” and winding up at Daft Punk’s “Get Lucky.” Music is a big part of people’s lives. Popular songs remind us where we were at the time. But to depict the bulk of a lifetime and show the characters constantly listening to the most popular songs turns the movie into a dramatization of life, not an authentic portrait.
Mason experiences minimal joy, sadness or surprise. Perhaps that’s because Linklater wants to show that for many, years are made up of the mundane, not the peaks and valleys. That may be true, but when charting the significant experiences someone has between 6 and 18, it’s ridiculous not to include the most resonating sorrow and elation that shapes who he or she becomes. When Mason’s mom marries a college professor who turns out to be an abusive, alcoholic jerk, “Boyhood” becomes cartoonishly melodramatic.
Again: Everyone has seen someone play a solo acoustic version of Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here,” and Linklater deserves credit for following through on his ambition. But it’s worth wondering how much the way the actors grew influenced the trajectory of the movie—if Coltrane hadn’t grown into a good-looking fellow, would Linklater have been able to make Mason a bit of a ladies’ man?. And, more importantly, why the movie feels like a list of experiences instead of an exploration of them that makes you feel anything. -- Matt Pais, RedEye
Anna Kendrick, ladies and gentlemen.