Friday, November 14, 10:45 a.m.-ish: I'm beginning the day with writer/director Gina Prince-Bythewood's Beyond the Lights, a romantic melodrama about a troubled, Rihanna-like pop star, and it opens with its central character, as a little girl, getting reprimanded by her awful stage mother for the heinous crime of being first-runner-up in a talent show. Nearly two hours later, with the now-grown chanteuse overcoming her demons and finally scoring her long-awaited personal and professional triumphs, everything the prelude led me to expect from the movie has come to pass, but with one major exception: I'm grinning like mad and wiping away tears. How the hell did that happen?!
The answer, quite simply, is that Gina Prince-Blythewood happened, and she appears to be the sort of incredibly rare talent whose sincerity and humanism can turn formula, with seemingly no effort, into inspiring specificity. At one point, our British heroine's mom (Minnie Driver) viciously cuts down her daughter by saying, "Congratulations, you're a bloody cliché" - which is kind of superfluous, because everyone in the film is a cliché. Gugu Mbatha-Raw as the micro-managed singer Noni, Nate Parker as the heroic, handsome cop who averts Noni's suicide attempt, Driver as a tight-faced Dina Lohan substitute, Danny Glover as a retired cop (of course) whom his son calls Pops (of course) ... . Everyone in Beyond the Lights is a familiar type, and little about its Perils of Show Business storyline was fresh even back when James Mason slugged Judy Garland during her Oscar acceptance speech in A Star Is Born. (Here, that scene plays out as an on-stage scuffle at the BET Awards, and ends with Parker punching Machine Gun Kelly. Eh, he deserved it.) Yet Prince-Blythewood is careful to let her narrative play out with refreshing naturalism and an almost complete lack of hysteria - even the movie's token pushy reporter from the National Enquirer is treated with dignity - and she throws in lovely fringe touches suggesting that this fairytale is actually taking place in the real world. Prince-Blythewood, bless her, is truly alert to the insidiousness of modern cynicism, and I especially appreciated how no one in the world, as the Twittersphere revealed, wound up believing Noni's press-conference bullshit about her suicide attempt being "accidental." Beyond the Lights is corny, but it feels true, and it's bursting with beautiful moments: Noni extricating herself from her image by painstakingly removing her lavender weave; the weave-less, unrecognized Noni singing a heartfelt rendition of Nina Simone's "Blackbird" at a Mexican karaoke bar; Noni's mom (whom Driver plays exceptionally well) attempting to keep Noni thin by scooping the hash browns off her breakfast plate. (Monster!) And singing well, dancing pretty well, and acting with spectacular honesty and subtle emotionalism, Mbatha-Raw is absolutely wonderful, so fine in both this and the period drama Belle earlier this year that I've almost erased her forced and irritating performance in Larry Crowne completely from memory. Almost.
1 p.m.-ish: The opening credits reveal my day's second feature to be Saving Christmas. This is intensely disappointing, because the film's poster and its listing on Cinemark's Web site led me to believe it was called Kirk Cameron's Saving Christmas, which I consider a much better title - maybe the best movie title of all time. But no, as the Internet Movie Database confirms, it's officially Saving Christmas, though you can rest assured that the former star of Growing Pains and tireless evangelist is most definitely here to do some saving.
After a homey introduction in which Cameron, sitting by the fire and speaking to the camera, rhapsodizes about his love of Christmas, rails against the imagined forces who want it gone, and sips from a mug of hot cocoa that plainly has no liquid in it, the story begins. And by "story," I mean "story," quote marks and all. Basically, it's Cameron, playing himself, sitting in a driveway with his "brother-in-law" who's unsubtly named Christian (Darren Doane, the film's diector), and explaining to the holiday grump why the things Christian has come to hate about the holidays - particularly the relentless materialism and Santa Claus replacing Jesus as Christmas' chief symbol - are actually awesome things. Well, Cameron doesn't say that Jesus' absence is awesome; he actually just ignores that issue in favor of a long-winded, albeit somewhat interesting, history on swaddling clothes. (This movie really is a miracle of deflection.) But you will learn all about why Christmas trees are great, and grossly ostentatious presents are great, and Santa is great - although after the film's endless closeup of the jolly old elf staring into the camera with the most unnerving, malevolent expression imaginable, we all might have second thoughts about that one. (Do not let kids sit on this guy's lap or allow him access to your chimney.) Once Cameron has cheered up every Christian in sight, it's back inside for gaiety and gifts and Kirk instructing us to "get the biggest ham and the richest butter" for our holiday dinners and five solid minutes of white people ineptly hip-hop dancing in slow motion ... . Do I even need to say how much I adored watching this terrible, terrible movie? It's hopelessly feeble and, even at 80 minutes, runs about 40 minutes too long (loads of slo-mo and Doane's nattering improvisations get the film to feature length), and you may puke in your mouth a little when you notice that, near the finale, Doane has actually lit Cameron so that he's beaming at us beatifically with his very own halo. Yet Saving Christmas is happily unpretentious and at least partly aware of how goofy and amateurish its presentation is, and Doane, as an actor, has a few seemingly ad-libbed moments that appear to make even Cameron legitimately crack up. It'll hardly be a holiday tradition in my home (or any home, probably, except the Camerons'), but fine with me if its genial dopey-ness leads to Kirk Cameron's Saving Easter.
3:05-ish: God (or Kirk Cameron) knows I should've prepared for the worst, but I found myself really looking forward to Dumb & Dumber To, mainly because - like most people, I'd imagine - I really miss Jim Carrey. How is it possible that, for a whole generation of young viewers, this ridiculously gifted and versatile comedian might be best known, or only known, as the star of Mr. Popper's Penguins? And there seemed to be initial reason for cheer: a 20-years-later reunion between Carrey and Jeff Daniels, who's only gotten better and better over the past two decades; moderately funny trailers; directors Bobby and Peter Farrelly coming off the unexpected slapstick high of 2012's The Three Stooges. Even if the movie looked as ugly as all of the Farrellys' flicks do, and even if our leads weren't quite as manically inventive together as they were in 1994's Dumb & Dumber, what was the worst that could happen?
Now I know: nothing. The movie just sits there, loping along from one haphazardly plotted event and uninspired set piece to another until, to the apparent relief of those on- and off-screen, the end credits blessedly roll. The stars do have their moments; Carrey enjoys a nice early bit in which he eats a mustard-covered hot dog without using his hands and wipes his mouth with the bun, and Daniels, at age 59, can still pull off an impressive downhill pratfall. (For a man pushing 60, Daniels is also remarkably comfortable showing off his bare ass or ass crack, which he does on more than a half-dozen occasions here.) But watching Harry's and Lloyd's attempts to find the former's daughter - and convince her to give up a kidney - are generally just tiresome. And for every joke that works, such as the return-address gag that I absolutely did not see coming, at least five fizzle, with the potentially classic bits hampered by weak timing and halfhearted execution, and poor Kathleen Turner being humiliated for actually bothering to give a performance. (There was absolutely no pleasure to be had in watching Harry and Lloyd confuse Turner for a man and hearing Lloyd's reference to her "blowfish jowls.") Slapdash even by the low standards of slapdash comedy, I find Dumb & Dumber To just another nail in the continuing coffin that is Carrey's post-Eternal-Sunshine career. Although, admittedly, I did smile when the man-boys made a stop at the restaurant Juan & Wong's, an establishment at which Harry and Lloyd are serenaded by Asian Mariachi performers and enjoy 10-gallon margaritas and nachos they eat with chopsticks. I wonder if they're seeking investors.
7-ish: Hoping to cleanse my palette after the Farrellys' latest, I hop on I-80 and beeline to Iowa City's FilmScene venue, which has just secured director Laura Poitras' Citizenfour, the recently released documentary on NSA whistle-blower Edward Snowden. Best palette-cleanser ever. Considering that Snowden, as is quickly revealed, personally contacted Poitras about having him tell his story on film (going through extraordinarily complex back channels to do so), it's not surprising that the subject is intensely forthcoming about what he knows - or, if you'd rather, claims - about international surveillance techniques and the abuse of power. The shock is that Snowden's confession from June of 2013 and its year-long aftermath makes for such riveting, nerve-racking cinema. This is a documentary that, back when there were video stores, could've sat comfortably in the "Thrillers" section, or if you were feeling especially uneasy about our deteriorating personal privacy, maybe even "Horror."
The first half of Poitras' film is mostly set over several days in a Hong Kong hotel room, where Snowden - who comes off as personable, charismatic, intelligent, and, for understandable reason, nervous as hell - chats with the director, journalist Glenn Greenwald, and Guardian reporter Ewen MacAskill about everything he learned during his professional stint with the NSA. (Intensely long and involved story short: Through our cell communications, e-mails, texts, et cetera, the government is spying on us. All of us. All the time.) The second half takes place after Snowden - whose story is out and who has gone underground in Russia - is hit with charges of espionage, with government officials spinning and Snowden's filmmaking allies feeling the brunt of his confession. (Greenwald's Brazilian partner, we learn, is detained and interrogated for nine straight hours.) Yet all of it is presented with a measured yet powerful sense of increasing paranoia and terror that feels as if it's happening in the very moment you're watching it. Some of Poitras' footage comes with a queasy comedic edge. You can't help but giggle nervously, as those on-screen do, when Snowden's decision to unplug his hotel-room phone leads, almost instantly, to the hallway's fire alarm going off, and then going off again 30 seconds later, and then again, and then again. (The alarm rings six times in all, and when Snowden calls the front desk to ask what the problem is, he's told it's "fire-alarm-testing maintenance." How conve-e-e-enient.) Yet dread continually suffuses this brightly lit hotel much as it did in The Shining; in one protracted, eerily composed shot of Snowden gazing out his window, you find yourself, as would happen in a Hollywood thriller, waiting for the inevitable bullet to blast through. And in the film's second half, with the danger escalating for all, Poitras ups the real-life suspense so that her work boasts the feverish grip and pull of an All the President's Men or The Insider, and I left feeling simultaneously buzzed and wiped out. After all of its discussion of technology, Citizenfour climaxes with a scene of two men sharing information by exchanging folded pieces of paper, and it's as though we've just witnessed a two-hour deconstruction of the rise and fall of modern communication. Don't miss it.
9:10-ish: I'm looking forward to reflecting on the sensational Citizenfour experience during the hour-long ride home. More often than not, I find myself re-living scenes of left-footed one-percenters hip-hop dancing in slow motion. Damn you, Kirk Cameron.