Quick Movie Reviews (American Utopia, Save Yourselves! & Time)

American Utopia

American Utopia immortalizes David Byrne’s four-month Broadway residency — spanning from October of last year to February of this one — during which he performed not just songs off the titular 2018 album but also a selection spanning his whole career (including, of course, several Talking Heads staples). Obviously and unavoidably, the format puts this new film in the shadow of an old one: Stop Making Sense, Jonathan Demme’s essential 1984 documentary of a Talking Heads tour. Part of what makes that movie maybe the greatest of all concert films is that Demme understood his capacity to create the best seat in the house, not just by bottling the energy of the band’s live performance but by offering vantages no actual concertgoer could ever have. Shooting from different angles over multiple nights, the director colluded with Byrne to amplify his offbeat presentation. Together, the two made minimalism feel huge; they found the spectacle in the performers simply performing. And those are big shoes (or a big suit) fill as a follow up. But though Byrne in one way structures the performance similarly — startling along on the stage, then adding new musicians with each song — the film has its own celebratory, eccentric identity. It’s more relaxed, more intimate and inviting. His band, a multi-national eleven-piece decked out in identical gray suits, works its way across the space with movements that somehow feel both spontaneous and synchronized. The stage is empty, save for a chain curtain along its edges; no equipment is visible, no instrument is wired. At a certain point, the bareness reveals itself as an expression of Byrne’s philosophy about the relationship between artist and audience: “Us and you, that’s what the show is,” he says.

Helming it all this time around is Spike lee, and like Demme before him, he vibes with the frontman’s conceptual ambitions. He has experience filming stage shows, and Lee knows what to look for in American Utopia (he keys in on winks and gestures), and knows which angles will best clarify the design of the choreography. If nothing else, the film is a model of live-music coverage. Mostly, Lee lets Byrne and company supply the personality, which makes the moments when he supplies a little of his own sing. Late in the film, Byrne’s complicated, multi-song meditation on national identity reaches its most poignant crescendo with a cover of Janelle Monáe’s 2015 protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout.” As the singer calls out the names of Black men and women killed by either law enforcement or in hate crimes, Lee cuts to family members holding up photos of the dead. It’s yet another expression of Byrne’s faith in communion.

Image via HBO

At the age of sixty-eight, Byrne has become a generous and human elder statesman of rock. He addresses the audience often, through anecdotes, crowd work, self-deprecating asides, and calls to civic action. And he invests with sincerity even with the goofier ideas. The film opens, for example, with Byrne crooning a song to a plastic brain. Silly? Eh, maybe. But it’s also an instant visual symbol of his mission to get his audience’s minds moving right along with their feet. By the end, you’re grateful for such a loving record of the show, though the upshot is bittersweet: When Byrne and his band make their way through the crowd during the encore, it’s hard not to process American Utopia as a requiem for live experiences, like going to a concert with a bunch of screaming fans or sharing a cathartic movie with an auditorium full of people. “Thank you for leaving your homes,” Byrne says by way of introduction. The pleasure, then but especially now, would be all ours. A balm of generosity, the electrifying American Utopia is a transporting work that finds empathy and compassion in each of its joyous expressions.

Grade: B+

American Utopia is available to stream on HBO

Save Yourselves!

Bait and switch may be a reprehensible sales technique, but it often works wonderfully in movies. The indie comedy Save Yourselves! kicks of with what seems like a solid sitcom-episode premise: Extremely online couple Su (Sunita Mani) and Jack (John Reynolds) decide to spend an entire week disconnected from the internet, focusing instead upon their in-person interpersonal dynamic. To that end, the two Brooklynites borrow a friend’s isolated cabin upstate, bringing along their smartphones and laptops but vowing not to pick them up unless there’s a genuine emergency. It’s not too hard to guess what sort of jokes would emerge from this scenario, and severe tech withdrawal does briefly play a key role. The film’s true premise, however, involves the emergency that soon arises, since Su Jack have cut the world off at the precise moment that it’s invaded by a hostile alien race.

It’s at this point that Save Yourselves! becomes potentially divisive — not because of the switcheroo (which is inspired, but also heavily telegraphed), but due to the nature of the invading aliens. In a touch that some will find hilariously silly and some way find just plain silly, Earth has been overrun by creatures that, to human eyes, resemble a particularly useless piece of furniture. Su and Jack wind up calling them “pouffes,” because that’s what Su mistakes the first one they encounter for — it’s just sitting on the floor of their cabin, round and fuzzy and seemingly innocuous. The thing keeps turning up in different spots, though, even though both Su and Jack deny having touched it. Once the threat becomes apparent in its many, global ways, much of the comedy hinges on the absurd disjunction between the pouffes’ physical cuteness and homicidal fervor. Maybe there’s metaphor here, since our phones likewise appear harmless and can be destructive. Or, most likely, it’s just a goofy.

Image via Bleeker Street

The broader laughs wouldn’t land, however, had the film not first established an engagingly specific context. Written and directed by first-time filmmakers Alex H. Fischer and Eleanor Wilson, who are themselves a couple, Save Yourselves! benefits enormously from a very precise understanding of how people in a long-term relationship can get on each other’s nerves. Early on, while taking a decidedly non-sexy shower with Jack, Su asks him to pass her the face wash and gets irritated when he asks which of their numerous tiny unlabelled bottles that might be: “It’s the orange one! Jack, acquaint yourself with the soaps!” Indeed, the film is definitely stronger during its first half, when our heroes are still self-obsessively unaware of the danger. While pre-cabin scenes offer up an assortment of Brooklyn types, this movie is fundamentally a two-hander, which means that casting was crucial. Mani and Reynolds have to walk a tricky line, playing characters who are definitely meant to be annoying but no too annoying, injecting some charm so that we can actually cheer for them in some way. Both pull it off, retaining just the right amount of sympathy while demonstrating an easy, relaxed chemistry together. Save Yourselves! struggles with its third act and the film didn’t really have the budget to pull off its ambitiously bizarre and essentially unresolved ending, but it gets the small things right, which, ultimately keeps it alive. Though it struggles with its escalation, Save Yourselves! really shines through its winning central duo, who both help deliver the film’s droll, charming specificity.

Grade: B-

Save Yourselves! is available on VOD

Time

Garrett Bradley’s Time features several scenes of a woman on hold, patiently waiting on the line for what will probably be bad news. That woman is Sibil “Fox” Rich, small business owner and motivational speaker, and for almost two decades, she’s been tirelessly lobbying for the release of her husband, Rob, who’s serving an abnormally long sentence at a Louisiana penitentiary. Fox’s crusade requires a lot of calls to the courthouse, and more than once, we’re plopped down next to her in her office, as she presses a phone against one ear and politely inquires about a decision she’s usually told — after a few minutes of dead air — the judge hasn’t made yet. For each (nearly daily) call, Bradley makes sure to match her subject’s patience and just stay planted, letting the audience feel every pregnant second that elapses during this regular, dispiriting appointment with the cogs of legal bureacucracy. This is what the appeals process often looks like: waiting to learn that you’ll have to wait longer. High-school sweethearts with aspirations to open a business, the Riches were in their early twenties when they made what they consider the biggest mistake of their lives. Fox, who played getaway driver during an ill-fated armed robbery, severed three-and-a-half years. But the judge threw the book at her husband, who caught an unforgiving sixty years, with no option for parole — an unusually harsh verdict (at the time, the crime could’ve been given anywhere from five-to- ninety-nine years). In the years after her release, Fox transformed her life, becoming a successful entrepreneur, raising six children, and devoting herself to prison reform, both through her tireless advocacy on Rob’s behalf and through speaking engagements where she commiserates with the families of the incarcerated and preaches on the problems of the prison industrial complex.

Presenting her and her family’s devotion, Time could have worked fine as a just vérité portrait of Fox’s daily routines, balancing work, parenthood, and advocacy — which is, in fact, how this uncommonly lyrical was originally conceived. Yet Bradley takes a richer approach. During filming, she gained access to a treasure trove of archival footage: the home movies Fox shot for Rob over the previous two decades, a diary of their children growing up. True to its title, Time is very much about how we process the passing days, weeks, and years — which is tackles through a structure that seems to collapse the past into the present. Rather than assemble a linear progression of events, Bradley jumps around the timeline, matching her own black-and-white imagery with Fox’s. Sometimes, these unannounced shifts create striking juxtapositions: The film cuts directly from footage of the couple’s twin boys in kindergarten to shots of them in high school — an expression how kids literally growing up in front of your eyes. Other times, Bradley and her editor, Gabriel Rhodes, identify growths or changes in attitudes.

Image via Amazon

Time is organized with a philosopher’s logic rather than an accountant’s. In opposition, perhaps, to the very system the Riches are battling, the film stubbornly refuses to become a legal drama; it’s less interested in cataloguing every up and down of Rob’s case than in exploring the emotional shifts Fox and her family have experience over the years. The movie presents the uphill fight for an appealed sentence as a competition between idealism and pragmatism — the ability to perpetually lower your expectations without abandoning all hope. Fox, who’s devoted a lifetime of savings to the case, throws herself tirelessly into the legwork, which makes her for a strong centerpiece. And Bradley’s poetic sensibility helps a lot too. Life intervenes in the story Time tells, providing it with the kind of dramatic closure that can turn a documentary into a word-of-mouth sensation. But it’s to the credit of Bradley’s more meditative concerns that even if that big ending didn’t arrive, the film would still look like an essential document of a crucible both personal and legal. While the film had a detached couple of moments for me, it also doesn’t and maybe can’t provide Rob’s perspective — the way he experiences the passing decades in his own, much more restrictive purgatory of stasis. Still without that, you leave the movie with a greater understanding of what the Riches know in their bones: that time has been more than served on both sides of the bars. A document of healing, redemption and mutual care, Time finds lyricism in a battle of devotion against an indifferent system.

Grade: B

Time is available to stream on Amazon Prime Video

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