Irrational Man: Philosophy & Justice

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Watching a Woody Allen movie these days is akin to watching a great athlete in the twilight of his career.

Every now and then you get to see a vintage performance, a reminder of the self-assured mastery and skill that once made this guy the greatest in the world. Every now and then he’ll go long stretches where he’s on top of his game and looking like the champion of old—filling up the stat sheet and wowing you with his ability to stay with the other players—only to falter on a few key shots or run out of gas at the end. And every now and then he throws up a complete brick, nearly missing the mark entirely and leaving you shaking your head and hoping he has what it takes to make on last run at a championship.

Unfortunately, despite a solid effort by his actors and some interesting moments here and there, Allen’s latest annual offering, Irrational Man, is more brick than anything else. It looks good coming off his fingertips, arcs encouragingly toward the basket, but ultimately clanks awkwardly off the rim and way, way out of bounds.

The Irrational Man at the core of the movie is Abe Lucas, a brilliant but troubled philosophy professor just beginning a new job at Braylin College, a fictional school in the northeast where the undergrads all talk like 40-year-old liberal elites and the co-eds have never heard of “Russian Roulette”. We know that Abe is brilliant but troubled because character after character carefully explains to us again and again and again and again and again—ad nauseam—that he is brilliant but troubled. Abe, floundering in the throes of a serious existential crisis, strikes up a friendship with one of his top students, Jill, who quickly falls for him. We know that she has fallen for him because character after character carefully explains to us again and again and again and again and again—ad nauseam—that she has fallen for him.

In case you’re not getting it on your own and need me to explain it to you: the worst flaw in Irrational Man is that Allen’s script constantly assumes that the audience just isn’t getting it and needs everything explained to them, over and over and over again. Jill has the same conversation with her boyfriend about her relationship with Abe at least three times. When the film pivots suddenly in its second half and there is a crime to be solved, one character’s theory is repeated no less than four times by various characters. And on and on. The repetition becomes so striking that it begins to appear almost strategic, but it ultimately just derails the movie’s momentum and leaves the viewer somewhat bored in slogging through the same material over and over again.

During one of their pseudo-dates, Abe and Jill find themselves at a diner, where they overhear a stranger’s heartbreaking story about how she is about to lose her children in a divorce. In that moment, Abe makes a life-altering decision, which propels Irrational Man in an unexpected–though more interesting–direction and gives meaning and purpose to his life.

Suddenly the cloud over Abe lifts. He begins to enjoy life again. He writes, he lusts, and he loves.

“What happened to the philosophy professor?” marvels a fellow faculty member with whom Abe is having an affair. “Christ, you were like a caveman!”

It’s a compliment.

From there, Irrational Man actually starts to pick up some steam. Abe sets his course, plots and plans, and acts—he says—for the first time in his life.

Woody Allen has written some beautiful dialogue in his career, brought to life some lively characters, and laced his screenplays with delicate irony, razor-sharp wit, and even instances of true suspense. Manhattan, Hannah and Her Sisters, and Match Point are just three illustrations of what has evolved into a monumental canon of excellent films that succeed in one or more of those areas.

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But where Irrational Man actually succeeds has little to do with Allen’s direct contribution, but rather comes from the entirely game performances of the three leads: Joaquin Phoenix and Emma Stone in the two top roles, and Parker Posey as Abe’s colleague and lover, Rita. All three transcend the material and develop interesting, compelling characters that live and breathe and manage to keep us interested despite it all. Stone and Posey, in particular, do far more with their roles than one might expect, given what they have to work with. To a large extent, they are drawn as caricatures—as is Abe, for that matter—but their interpretation of their dialogue and ability to fill the empty spaces with empathy and real emotion adds blood and life to the film.

Phoenix keeps pace with the ladies, for the most part, but he suffers from the fact that he plays a character that never lives up to its own billing. Jill and Rita and other minor characters rhapsodize over Abe’s brilliance, but in the end we never really see it. His philosophical declarations are of the Philosophy for Dummies variety, and his fetishizing of joylessness rises to the level of your average college sophomore. As a result, it just becomes too hard to believe Phoenix’s performance because his character rings so hollow.

Despite it all, Irrational Man does offer the occasional nugget of satisfaction here and there, and its climatic moment is surprisingly intense and effective. Rarely has Allen’s presentation of violence been so raw and sudden, and punctuating a film that has seemed so lazy to that point with such a startling moment only amplifies its power.

In Match Point and Cassandra’s Dream, Allen offered competing positions on whether crime must be punished. And though Allen never resolves the philosophical issues he raises in Irrational Man, he does definitively break the tie on the question of whether or not justice must be served.

Black Sabbath

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“I’m…hungry.”

When you or I mutter those words, it might foreshadow an assault on the refrigerator or a quick trip to a favorite gastropub.

But when Boris Karloff utters those words, with his trademark eye twinkle and lip curl, you’d better get yourself and your loved ones inside and lock all the doors and windows.

Such is the lesson of Black Sabbath.

The anthology format has long been a staple of the horror film: bite-size stories strung together either by common source author (1962’s Tales of Terror or 1963’s Twice Told Tales), common creative hook (1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie or 2012’s V/H/S), some sort of common thread that binds the stories together (1988’s Waxworks or 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat), or some other hook.

1963’s Black Sabbath is neither the first nor the best of that tradition, but in uniting Italian master Mario Bava with horror icon Karloff, the film carves out its own delightful niche in horror history.

In addition to starring in one of the three tales of the film, Karloff “hosts” Black Sabbath in a series of cheesy (some might say unfortunate) introductions that offer a few chuckles but function exclusively to get us from one story to the next.

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The first story, called “The Drop of Water”, is set in London and follows the misadventures of an outcall nurse who gets summoned in the middle of the night to prepare the corpse of a witch who died in her mansion home overnight. When the nurse makes the fatal decision to steal the witch’s ring off her hand while she dresses the body, it sets in motion a nightmarish evening of otherworldly revenge. “The Drop of Water” is classic Bava, with gothic atmosphere; sudden, startling images; and a slow march toward inevitable revenge. The first glimpse we see of the dead witch in her bed—crazy eyes wide open, lips curled back in a menacing smile—does send chills up and down the spine, and “The Drop of Water” ends up to be a largely satisfying first chapter of the film.

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“The Telephone”, the second of the three tales, involves a French call-girl who returns home from “work” one evening and begins to receive a series of threatening telephone calls that escalate in their intensity over the course of the night. The sexuality of “The Telephone” is pervasive, not only in the long, lingering shots of lead Michele Mercier’s perfect body and her suggestively sensual interactions with the woman she calls for help, but also in the violently sexual overtones of the threats she suffers. In “The Telephone”, suspense and teasing are two side of the same coin, as are fear and titillation, desire and hatred, and sex and violence. And it is all practically incomprehensible. The original Italian version of the film planted this story firmly in the real world; but in adapting this sequence for American release, changes were made to add supernatural elements to the story. Those changes completely muddle the tale and ultimately undermine the segment, making it by far the weakest of the three.

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The coup de grace, however, is the third segment, “The Wurdalak”, featuring Karloff as Gorca, an elderly Russian vampire-like creature who must feast on the blood of those he loves in order to survive. Bold and atmospheric, “The Wurdalak” feels like the perfect mesh of classic Italian horror and the sensibilities of American International Pictures (AIP), the famous low-budget American studio that distributed Black Sabbath in the United States. A feast of classic horror tropes, “The Wurdalak” offers up vampires stalking the rubble of ruined castles, a baleful child demon, savagery and seduction, and Karloff. Oh Karloff! The horror icon rumbles through “The Wurdalak” like a force of nature, menacing and tragic at the same time, playful but intense, a vintage performance from a master of horror.

Ultimately, Black Sabbath is a bit too uneven to qualify as a total triumph, but the first and last segments offer enough simple pleasures and jolts and scares to satisfy any classic horror lover’s appetite.

Like Karloff’s Gorca, you may start the proceedings with a gnawing hunger that you can’t quite understand, but by the end of Black Sabbath you will have found yourself well-fed and gratified.

Best of Enemies: Buckley vs. Vidal

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In 1968, politics on television changed forever.

During that year’s Republican and Democratic National Conventions, NBC News and CBS News provided comprehensive gavel-to-gavel convention coverage anchored by straight-arrow newsmen like Walter Cronkite, David Brinkley, and Chet Huntley. ABC News could not afford such lavish coverage, languishing as it did a distant third in the nightly ratings. As one observer put it, they would have been in fourth place, but there were only three networks.

So ABC News offered viewers a different kind of convention coverage. After abbreviated summaries of each day’s convention proceedings, ABC capped the day with one-one-one debates between conservative William F. Buckley, Jr., and liberal Gore Vidal.

Those debates are the subject of the fascinating new documentary Best of Enemies.

Buckley and Vidal were two sides of the same coin. Matter and anti-matter. Fire and ice. But both erudite intellectuals. Both passionate ideologues. Both failed politicians. Both savage debaters.

And both hated each other thoroughly and sincerely.

When ABC News first approached Buckley about participating in the nightly discussions, they asked him if there was anyone he would prefer to debate. He told them anyone other than a communist or Gore Vidal.

William F. Buckley, Jr., was the godfather of the modern conservative movement in America. He founded the magazine National Review, the (other) Bible of American conservatism. He palled around with Ronald Reagan. And he hosted the television show Firing Line, in which he personally debated liberals from all walks of life. Buckley saw Vidal as a symbol of the moral decay of society, genuinely considering him and what he represented to be dangerous to the future of America.

To Gore Vidal, Buckley represented the intellectual façade that masked the ugly machinations of the Republican Party and the conservative movement that had seized control of it. By the time they met in 1968, Vidal was a successful author, screenwriter, and liberal cultural warrior. He looked at Buckley and saw bigotry, paternalism, and elitism, and he suspected that for all of Buckley’s intellectual gymnastics, he was driven—like all conservatives, Vidal felt—by greed and avarice and lust for power.

As Best of Enemies documents, once the debates began, it became clear almost immediately that Buckley and Vidal were largely uninterested in debating the events of the day and only slightly more interested in debating the broader policy questions that would shape the coming Presidential election. Instead, their aim night after night became to ridicule the other, to undermine and attack each other’s intellectual and moral foundations, and to completely discredit not only each other, but by proxy the ideological movement that the other represented.

The documentary demonstrates how Vidal came to the debates armed with opposition research, scripted and rehearsed “spontaneous” retorts, and a strategy to grate, irritate, and bait Buckley in order to “expose” him to a mainstream, national audience.

And his strategy worked.

Over the course of the debates, snide asides became pointed barbs, which evolved into personal insults, which exploded into a dramatic, riveting exchange in which Vidal taunted Buckley as a “crypto-Nazi” and Buckley spat back his infamous, defining invective: “Now listen, you queer, stop calling me a crypto-Nazi, or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

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The live-TV exchange was jaw-dropping at the time, and nearly 40 years later, the documentary’s juxtaposition of images of the trembling-with-anger Buckley and the smug, self-satisfied, grinning Vidal completely and utterly enthralls.

At the heart of Best of Enemies, though, is not just the story of two men, ten debates, and a few weeks in 1968.

The Buckley-Vidal debates set in motion a change in televised political coverage that has never been reversed and that now defines the way Americans consume their political news…and really their politics in general.

ABC’s ratings soared during the 1968 Party Conventions, and never again did any network provide full gavel-to-gavel convention coverage. Commentary began to dominate political news, later giving rise not only to the take-no-prisoners formats of broadcast network shows like Meet the Press, cable programs like Crossfire, and even whole networks like Fox News and MSNBC.

The seeds of the Buckley-Vidal debates flowered well beyond politics, in fact. Today, television, radio, and internet pundits shout angrily at each other daily about the latest sports news, the direction of the stock market and the economy, and even about the latest foibles of the least important celebrities.

Even more significantly, though, the glimpse into the Buckley-Vidal debates offered by Best of Enemies is striking in its implications for how people who disagree today feel not only about the issues that they debate but also about the people on the other side of the aisle. It is no longer enough to discredit someone’s argument or to rhetorically triumph through logic or reason. Rather, victory can only be achieved by discrediting the other guy, the other Party, or the other movement. Absent the ability to prove the supremacy of any particular ideological value beyond a reasonable doubt, it is much easier to attack motives, to question morals, and to damn messengers.

None of that, of course, can entirely be traced to the Buckley-Vidal battles, but that brief moment in political history—and the window into it provided by Best of Enemies—certainly offers an absorbing look at what we have all become.

As for Buckley and Vidal themselves, Best of Enemies submits that in two lifetimes of tremendous achievement, their battles in 1968 were defining personal moments.

For decades afterward, Vidal treasured the fleeting victory of that explosive outburst from Buckley, which conversely haunted the conservative warrior until his death in 2008.

A death, incidentally, that Best of Enemies suggests Vidal—who died four years after Buckley—delighted in, if only because it gave Vidal the last word.

Trainwreck Stays Pretty Much on the Tracks

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It takes some guts to call a movie Trainwreck.

Let’s face it, if the movie turns out to stink, the reviews—or at least the headlines—pretty much write themselves. But thankfully the new Amy Schumer comedy mostly stays on the rails throughout, and despite being a surprisingly paint-by-the-numbers post-modern romantic comedy, it provides plenty of laughs and a solid vehicle for Schumer’s first major film role.

I will confess up front to not being a fan of the hit (or is it just hip?) comedy series Inside Amy Schumer…not because I don’t like the show, but because I really haven’t seen it. However, the bits and pieces I have caught of her skits and standup on social media and via various podcasts confirm that she is a true comedic talent. Her subversively incisive feminist takes on modern culture, gender roles, and 21st century womanhood put her into the Stewart-Colbert category of cultural commentator, with the rare ability to unpack an idea or issue completely, lay it bare, and expose it for all its absurdity and hypocrisy. All while making us collapse in fits of laughter.

That’s why, for all its laughs, Trainwreck ends up to be just a bit of a disappointment.

Amy Schumer plays Amy, a young-ish New York career gal frozen somewhere between crazy party girl and successful adulthood. By day she writes for a men’s magazine called S’Nuff, and by night she embraces a bacchanalian lifestyle that generally ends with some sort of disastrous sexual encounter…either with a random stranger or her own muscle-bound, sexually-confused boyfriend. When we first meet Amy, you see, she is just a young girl, and her father is trying to explain to her and her sister why he is leaving the family. Both girls have favorite dolls, he explains, but that doesn’t mean they don’t want to play with other dolls, right? After running down all the possible doll types that they—or he—might want to play with, he sums things up by making the girls repeat the lesson over and over again: “Monogamy isn’t realistic.” And that remains Amy’s mantra until she falls for a successful sports surgeon (a terrific post-Saturday Night Live Bill Hader)…and you can pretty much paint in the numbers from there.

Trainwreck does have plenty of highs.

Schumer is terrific from start to finish. Her writing and portrayal of a young woman who is both comfortable in her own skin and still starting to recognize that maybe it’s time to grow up is legitimately spot-on. And her hilarious sexcapades-gone-wrong are downright hilarious. At the same time, Trainwreck focuses as much on Amy’s family relationships—primarily between her and her sister and father—as on her romantic quest, delivering a handful of truly touching moments and one full-on tear-jerker.

But there are just too many lows.

As Hader’s best friend, LeBron James plays a pretty funny version of himself: fanatical about Cleveland, hopelessly romantic, and outrageously cheap. But he really can’t act. And when the film feels the need to expand its universe of sports-personalities-as-themselves by bringing together James, Chris Evert, Marv Albert, and Matthew Broderick (what?) for a key late scene, the result is, well, a total train wreck.

More than the comedic misses, though, the ultimate trajectory of the movie and its sappy conclusion are a bit of a head-scratcher.

All that said, it’s probably unfair to judge Trainwreck on anything other than what it is.

Trainwreck is a comedy, and it’s funny.

And that’s good enough for a Friday night.