Monday, December 28, 2015

Carol


You don't have to look far to find the word 'masterpiece' attached to Carol.  The film has garnered a significant amount of praise since its debut at Cannes last summer, and the critical swoon has continued in a winter flurry of write-ups quick to analyze is intense interest in nuance, the way it seems paced to mimic the seductive qualities of its title character, how it uses a grainy film stock and a muted palette while still allowing us to name-drop Douglas Sirk.  

Indeed, Carol is a beautiful piece of work in many ways, and there's a strong case to be made for the so-perfect-it-feels-near-serendipitous pairing of director Todd Haynes with novelist Patricia Highsmith. Carol is based on her second novel, published at the time under a pseudonym: 1952's The Price of Salt.  Highsmith's prose tends towards the psychological, but often (or, at least, in the case of Tom Ripley) fixates on the importance of appearances.  Haynes is a filmmaker who has long been interested in precisely these themes, stressing style as central to substance and exploring the role of artifice in queer culture. We need only to look to the Oscar Wilde-style quips uttered by Velvet Goldmine's pop idols to understand Haynes' general philosophy.  

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens


That sound you heard was a collective sigh of relief from super nerds and casual fans everywhere. We have been patiently waiting, but doing so with reluctance and a constant, superstitious circle of denial.  "It will probably be disappointing," we would say, "we need to lower our expectations and brace ourselves for it to be bad."  So we couldn't let ourselves get too excited, we'd been burned before - by Jar Jar Binks, too much space bureaucracy, actors who acted in a void - and that sort of heartbreak leaves scars.  The resurrected franchise needed to be good, and - more than that - it needed to be taken back, reclaimed as the magical thing it was.  Star Wars transcends the place of most pop cultural monoliths in that it is so intricately woven into the fabrics of so many of our childhoods.

The original trilogy is not a mere collection of movies, it is an idea, a dream, a feeling, a game, a bond, a series of of memories, a contemporary mythology, a fairy tale.  For many of us, Star Wars is a part of our daily language and a means we have of recognizing figures in our world. Though our re-watches may be few and far between, and those original films have been retooled and tampered with in ways that make us unsure just what was what, we have a feeling of these films as important texts only to be used for good.  To dare to return to this galaxy is to take on a very great responsibility. George Lucas himself did not know how to do it, but, thankfully, J.J. Abrams does.  We voyage back, we see the same eyes in different people, we gaze upon planets that have changed even as they have remained the same, we see the cycles of history repeat.

Youth


Sure, there's some fairly contrived dialogue scattered throughout Youth.  And yeah, I'm not going to pretend that it isn't inaccurate to say it packs an outsized number of themes and threads into a package that can't quite contain them.  Yes, absolutely, you can even make the argument that it gets a bit masturbatory about its own importance or descends - almost grotesquely - into something too sentimental.  You're right, too, that we could use a version of this with women playing a more active role.  But none of that matters. There are some films we are just individually predisposed to enjoying, just as there are songs we may fall victim to because of a twist in the melody or a specific quality in the singer's voice.  Youth is one such film for me, a beautiful, texturally rich descent into a world-weary pool of exhausted, slow moving European culture mongers.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sisters


I love Tina Fey. I love Amy Poehler. I will watch them in most things, especially if there's the promise of them riffing off one another or collaborating on a gag.  So, I've watched a little too many of the press appearances leading up to the release of Sisters, maybe, and I have to say: I think some of those late night interviews and viral marketing strategies may have been a little slicker than the actual movie. While I certainly laughed during the film, Sisters stands as a reminder that for everything these two women do well: television, screenwriting, essay writing, awards show hosting, etc, deciding which movies to actually star in is neither's strong suit.  I say this though it's often easy to see the appeal of their films and Sisters is no exception.  The film is fun, light, and looks like it was a blast to make.  The decision to cast Fey and Poehler as siblings, too, can be counted as one as inspired as it was inevitable.  They have that sort of familial chemistry, a visible bond that surpasses the fact that they look alike only when gazing upon someone with total disinterest.   

Monday, December 21, 2015

Macbeth



Fair is foul and foul is fair in Justin Kurzel's adaptation of Shakespeare's Macbeth.  The Aussie director has offered up a visceral version of the Scottish play, one that amps up that battle bloodshed and drains color from its palette.  There's a special kind of chaos to Kurzel's vision, one he sets up with an opening sequence beyond the confines of the play.  Here, we watch as the family Macbeth (Michael Fassbender and Marion Cotillard) bury a child. They grieve, they place the scales over his eyes, they descend into the dense fog of madness.  In the shift from grief to the gritty expanses of Kurzel's slow-motion battle sequences, we are able to see Fassbender's Macbeth as an absent presence, one curiously still as armies fall.  Though we may find ourselves hypnotized by the dark beauty of so many of the film's moments, a distance is placed between audience and film.  We can almost see the strange dissonance that separates us from Macbeth, and we can watch as the Weird Sisters do, stock still on hilltops above the moors, feeding off the flecks of dirt and blood that rise up from the choreographed violence.  It's striking, lovely in its way even as it chills.  

Saturday, December 19, 2015

Brooklyn


Brooklyn is a coming of age story, the tale of an immigrant, and a period drama -- or, at least, this is what people keep telling me. Saoirse Ronan stars as Eilis, a young woman who escapes a depressed small town in Ireland with the help of the local church.  She leaves her mother and sister to go and live in Brooklyn, where she lives in a boarding house with a group of gossiping girls, works in a department store, and takes night classes to become a bookkeeper. Ostensibly, all of this adds up to a film mostly about one girl balancing a life of tradition with a new world opportunity, and - sure- it is. Brooklyn finds Eilis grappling with her allegiances at nearly every turn, but in a way so sweet and glowingly nostalgic that it hits a false note. By the time we see the story begin to turn its attentions to a gentle love affair between Eilis and Tony (Emory Cohen) a kind, rather dim Italian kid, the film begins to feel a little too much like the vaguely cerebral version of a Nicholas Sparks melodrama.  

Spotlight


Sometimes awards season presents me with unexpected quandaries. What to do, for example, with Spotlight, a "based on a true story" drama that manages to actually become a thought provoking, enraging-yet-positive film going experience?  It's a hell of a lot better than another watered down morality play or record-expunging biopic.  The thing has a pulse and a brain, enough energy to remain entertaining even as it feels like the sort of story meant for a sparsely staged theatrical production or a rarely checked-out nonfiction text.  Yet, it's filmed with such a lack of aplomb that it almost seems like the living version of the newsprint journalism it covers.  

The story follows the Boston Globe's investigative 'Spotlight' team as they work to unearth the truth of widespread molestation allegations and cover-ups in the Catholic Church. The real life story broke in 2001,  and while I have a vague recollection of this coming out as a thing the masses were shocked by (though many seemed to take it as confirmation of a - sadly - foregone conclusion), the movie hits all the right notes to allow it to seem like a potent and necessary reminder of just how little has likely changed.  Spotlight is a political piece of art, and a good one if we measure it by its ability to take what we already know, re-frame it, show us nothing of the actual horror, but enrage us all over again. While we're largely confined to file rooms, courthouses, and office spaces, we are made to understand both the severity of events and the pressure of getting the information exactly right.  So, it's a good movie. It may even be a great movie in some ways.  And yet - as noted - it's also a bit of a quandary.  Why?  Well, for all its merits in acting, writing, and pacing, it's the sort of film venture that doesn't seem to take any advantage of the medium it's using.  There's a muted flatness here, something so bland that at times the film has the visual impact of listening to an especially gripping episode of Serial.  For a movie that could benefit from reaching viewers, it skimps on style and doesn't bother pretending that most are going to watch it on anything larger than their tablet.  

The Night Before


The Night Before plays like a sort of Christmas miracle.  It's a late coming of age story for a batch of delayed adults, a film in which small scale holiday traditions battle and blend with a reluctant acceptance of traditional values. The idea of tradition is the movie's backbone, though what that means for the characters is at times unclear.  Ethan (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) is presented as the friend about to be left behind.  He's emotionally stunted, seems to have a string of menial jobs (we meet him as a cater waiter), dumped his girlfriend (Lizzy Caplan) because she wanted him to meet her parents, and harbors a long-term seasonal obsession with a mysterious, invite-only party called The Nutcracker Ball.  This is his last chance, the final year of an all-out holiday bacchanal with his two lifelong friends, Isaac (Seth Rogen) and Chris (Anthony Mackie).  Chris has become a successful athlete, too big to hang out inconspicuously  Isaac's wife (Jillian Bell) is about to give birth.  Each is in their own makeshift crisis of ego and expectation, prepared to cast aside childish things even as they dread the very idea of what that might mean.  So it is that when Ethan *magically* comes into three party tickets, the friends get together for a drug-fueled, debauched  Christmas odyssey.  Visions of sugar plums are replaced with psychotropic hallucinations, karaoke choreography, a wandering hipster 'Grinch' (Ilana Glazer), and something that's almost a dick-pic meet cute.
From all of this - along with a hearty dose of fairly inspired comedic blaspheming -  the crew manages to maintain a dose of holiday sentimentality that keeps the film palatable even as Isaac records a manic, coke-addled video cursing out his unborn child and the life changes it brings.  Though profane, there's a charm to each of these actors that allows us to understand the spirit of what they mean even as that's not always what they say.  As the guys run through New York on their quest to complete a long-standing checklist, they build a chaotic energy that courses through the film.  While there's something about the editing that doesn't feel quite right, the thing is a surreal kind of bright, tacky, stupid display of bad behavior that comes from a good place.  Just as Superbad reveled in a schmaltzy friendship love, The Night Before has real relationships at its center and a twisted sense of traditional storytelling.  There's a touch of A Christmas Carol here, a hint of It's a Wonderful Life, a general understanding of the way the best holiday tales weave together a seasonal sadness or sense of loss with joy and revelation.  Lessons are learned, wrongs are righted. By the time the credits roll, all is peaceful, even if we have a roving, philosophically-minded pot dealer (Michael Shannon) to thank for it.


Monday, December 14, 2015

Spectre



People keep telling me that they're exhausted by Spectre.  It's the most common criticism I've heard, circulated in a handful of clickbait features and now repeated by many wary about even seeing the film: Daniel Craig looks bored, he's getting too old for this, it's uninspired, it's no Skyfall.   Some of that is par for the course, the rest I completely disagree with.  This is Daniel Craig's fourth outing as James Bond, and while 007 himself may be more jaded than ever, the saga continues.  Craig's Bond has slowly evolved. We've watched him suffer tragedy after tragedy, he has long been marked, doomed, left to exist as a shadowy figure only occasionally reaching out for something that feels like genuine human contact.  In the wake of Skyfall we find him with fewer support systems than ever before, carrying out jobs he knows need to be done in much the way many would go about routine errands.  There's a sense of business as usual that's made more exciting only by MI6's repeated attempts to keep him grounded.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Room



Room is the type of film you go to and you tell yourself that it's about gut-punches, that it's about re-evaluating the small things you don't appreciate in life and giving yourself over to something moving, horrifying, and profound.  A young woman (Brie Larson) and her 5-year-old son Jack (Jacob Tremblay) are held captive in a small, shoddy space.  It it all that Jack has ever known, and he speaks in terms that limit the possibilities of the outside.  Things beyond 'Room' are not real, the names he knows for objects seem to make them the only versions of their kind, and there's a perverse storybook logic to his naive relationship with the objects left only to keep them alive as a shadowy figure, Old Nick (Sean Bridgers) makes his nightly visits.  Because Jack controls the narration, we know the young woman only as Ma but understand her as a girl interrupted, a figure trying desperately to protect the innocence of the child she now has in spite of the circumstances surrounding his conception.  She is a mother though she should not be one, and in 'Room' she oscillates between lamenting the life cut short for her and wanting, desperately, to reclaim that for her son.     

Thursday, December 10, 2015

The Hunger Games: Mockingjay, Part 2



Perhaps I have spent too much time thinking about the fate of Katniss Everdeen this last year, but my feelings on the closing chapter of The Hunger Games saga have me at a strange juncture.  The final minutes (spoilers to come) leave me with a keen sense of betrayal, though til this point I am surprised only by the film's sudden interest in elision.  The franchise had been, to this point, partially remarkable because of the time it spent with its characters and its interest developing a functional logic for its dystopian world. It's a patience I've appreciated, as there's something to be said for a teen-oriented action film that seems to specialize in remaining still.  In Mockingjay, Part 2, that stillness has not gone, but it does feel as though it is now being used to avoid necessary developments of other kinds.  It's not a calm so much as - suddenly - a refusal to continue a psychological investigation or to to succumb to commonly used montage sequences.  So it is that we don't see Katniss prepare for her military stint, or we don't see the carnage she actually has a hand in inflicting, or we don't see the years she suffers an understandable PTSD.
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