Carol(12/27/2015)

Warning: Review contains something of a spoiler

Todd Haynes is a tricky filmmaker to really assess because every one of his projects is interesting and bold and while I’m really happy he’s a voice in the film world I don’t know that I actually consider any of his movies to be unequivocal successes.  Haynes is an experimentalist who is primarily defined by his willingness to break the conventional rules of cinema.  This is, after all, a guy who’s made three different musical biopics (infamously among the most formulaically predictable of genres) and still managed to present his audience with movies as wildly outside the box as Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story (a stop-motion film with Barbie Dolls in place of actors), Velvet Goldmine (which used a Citizen Kane format to present a figure who is not unlike David Bowie), and I’m Not There (which cast six different actors, one of them Cate Blanchett, as Bob Dylan).  That same experimental daring also holds back a lot of his movies because some elements of them end up working better than others and occasionally they can end up feeling a little too cute by half.  Also, Haynes is not a wildly prolific filmmaker.  He’s been making movies for almost twenty-five years but only has six feature length films to his name, which makes some of his less successful experiments stand out more than it might if it were being made by someone like Steven Soderbergh who has a huge body of work that his quirky misfires can blend into.  By contrast his latest project, the Patricia Highsmith adaptation Carol, has been released to almost universal acclaim and may just be the Todd Haynes film to break through to the masses.

Set in the early 50s in New York, the movie follows a young woman named Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) who is working in the toy section to a large Macy’s-like Manhattan department store while harboring aspirations of becoming a photographer.  Therese is friendly with her co-workers and has an friendly if somewhat distant relationship with a boyfriend named Richard (Jake Lacy), but one can clearly sense that she’s not happy and is missing something in her life.  Things start to look different when one day an older woman, a wealthy housewife named Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), comes into her department store looking to buy her daughter a Christmas present.  This seemingly benign interaction between clerk and customer seems to have a disproportionate effect on both, and when Therese realizes that Carol has left her gloves on the department store counter she goes out of her way to make sure that those gloves are returned and Carol goes out of her way to thank her for this gesture.  It quickly becomes clear that both parties are looking for excuses to meet each other again but neither are coming out and articulating why.  Soon it becomes clear that their interest in one another is not just platonic in nature and soon Therese will find herself in the middle of a battle of wills between Carol and her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler).

Todd Haynes is mostly identified as a member of the New Queer Cinema movement that emerged in the late 80s and early 90s, but if you look at his filmography he’s spent just as much if not more time focusing on the plight of the upper-middle-class housewife in the mid-twentieth century as he has focusing on themes of homosexuality.  His 1995 movie Safe was about a discontented housewife and so was his six hour HBO miniseries adaptation of “Mildred Pierce.”  Then there was his 2002 movie Far From Heaven, which touched on homosexuality in the 50s but focused less on its homosexual character than on his longsuffering wife.  This new film Carol is in many ways about the flip side of that, it’s about a homosexual (this time the wife rather than the husband) who is stuck in a loveless straight marriage that society has pressured her into and can’t leave without potentially losing her daughter.  However, this story is mainly told from the perspective of her lover Therese who comes into this whole situation and gets caught up in the whirlwind.

Those expecting another wild experimental idea from Todd Haynes may leave Carol disappointed as the movie is told in a largely linear and naturalistic fashion.  The period detail is all here and is exquisitely detailed but the movie doesn’t luxuriate in it.  The film is set at around Christmas but there’s nothing jolly about the trappings, rather, there’s a deliberate aura of coldness that’s cast over the film in order to emphasize how lost the characters are in 50s society.  The film was shot on Super 16mm film, less out of any budgetary requirement and more out of a desire to add a layer of grain that would both help to capture the period but also to give the film a subliminal solemnity.  The film in many ways feels less like one of the proudly confrontational movies of the New Queer Cinema movement and more like something like Brokeback Mountain, another somber movie about homosexuals living in an unaccepting time and finding themselves suffering many indignities and heartbreaks because of it.

Of course this inherent sadness is slightly ironic because the Patricia Highsmith novel upon which the film is based was groundbreaking when it was published in 1952 (under the nom de plume Claire Morgan) it was considered groundbreaking because it dared to have a happy ending, or at least a happier ending than most novels involving lesbianism at the time which almost always ended with the lovers killed or unambiguously separated and unhappy.  The ending here appears to be the same one from the novel, but from the perspective of 2015 it sure doesn’t seem all that happy.  I suppose part of the reason for this is that the relationship between Carol and Therese doesn’t seem like much of a romance for the ages so much as it’s a rather doomed affair caused by Carol’s discontent with heterosexual domesticity and Therese’s inexperience; one gets the sense that if Carol hadn’t “awoken” Therese she would have continued to be adrift until she finally encountered another like-minded woman who would be forward enough to come on to her.  You can’t help but wish that Carol had lived in a time and place where she wouldn’t have been stuck in a marriage she didn’t belong in and Therese could have met someone here own age at lesbian bar rather than being dropped into a family drama with a woman who’s some twenty years her elder.

It would of course be a mistake to assume that all of these problems are safely in the past.  There are definitely still closeted gay people out there in marriages that their spouses don’t know are shams and there are probably still young gay people out there whose first partners are a lot older than they are (something that would be pretty unambiguously creepy in a heterosexual context), but one still wonders just how groundbreaking any of this material really is in 2015.  This is after all material that could be fairly widely published in novel form way back in 1952 without any major scandal.  The film in many ways seems less like the radical “New Queer Cinema” that Haynes was making earlier in his career and closer to something like 2004’s Brokeback Mountain, which was another somber melodrama set around the same time about gay people finding each other and having to live in secret because of the conservative society they were living in.  Between the two I’d say Brokeback is probably the better movie, in part because it’s western setting felt both more original and more subversive and also because I felt there was a bit more of a sweep to the central relationship in that film.  Additionally, I feel like Ang Lee (who’s made a career out of movies about repressed emotions and lovers separated by circumstance) was a lot more suited to this kind of material than the wild-child Todd Haynes.

Carol is definitely a very good movie but is it the great movie that it’s been declared by dozens of critics since its debut at Cannes?  I’m not so sure.  I really wanted to love it but something about it just kept it at arm’s length for me.  This has been happening to me a lot this year, I’ll see a movie that hits all its notes and hardly has a thing in it that I would want to change and yet I still come away having not quite been thrilled.  I don’t know this one might have just been a bit of a victim of its own hype for me.  The story never quite jumped out as anything wildly original and as solid as the filmmaking was it never really seemed terribly amazing either.  At the end of the day I’m not sure I got a whole lot out of the movie that I wouldn’t have gotten out of an above average storyline on “Mad Men,” but that was a great show so that shouldn’t be viewed as too much of an insult.  I don’t want to damn this movie too much with faint praise, it’s not the movie’s fault that I went into it with unrealistic expectations and there’s a whole lot to like about it and like a lot of movies this year I suspect that it will seem a lot better to me as soon as I stop scrutinizing whether or not it’s the chosen one and just accept it for what it is.

***1/2 out of Four

The Hateful Eight(12/25/2015)

For someone who would seem to primarily be a cult figure Quentin Tarantino has had incredible success over the course of his career, to the point where he’s only really had one out and out flop, a 2007 project called Gindhouse which he made with his BFF Robert Rodriguez.  Death Proof, the film which was Tarantino’s contribution to that project, is a movie that a lot of people dislike.  Personally, I think it’s an interesting little doodad of a film but it’s almost certainly a minor effort and noticeably lesser than the rest of Tarantino’s filmography but that’s beyond the point.  What’s really apropos is what Tarantino and Rodriguez were trying to do with the project as a whole which was recreate a bygone film-going experience, namely the feeling of seeing a double feature at a grimey urban theater that specialized in exploitation flicks and didn’t have wonderful projection standards.  I got what they were going through, but the general public clearly didn’t in part because it takes a very specific mindset in order to reminisce about a time when you were watching jacked up film prints and sat through trailers for movies with titles like “Werewolf Women of the S.S.”  I bring all this up because Tarantino appears to be once again trying to recreate the viewing habits of a bygone generation of filmgoers with his latest film, but this time around he’s taking the opposite approach.

Rather than harkening back to the lowliest of theaters he’s harkening back to the loftiest of cinema-going experiences: the 50s/60s roadshow experience, an old distribution method where super-movies like Lawrence of Arabia would get limited releases of sorts in major cities and people would go to them as if they were going to the opera.  They’d be given programs, there would be an overture and an intermission, and the film would not be accompanied by shorts or newsreels or even trailers.  This distribution method fell out of favor early in the 70s but has come back every once in a while for extremely limited releases like Steven Soderbergh’s Che but for the first time it’s being given a fairly extensive run for a the limited 70mm run of The Hateful Eight.  This would seem to be rather curious because, unlike Che, The Hateful Eight isn’t extraordinarily long.  It certainly isn’t short but if you subtract the fifteen minute intermission (which is being included in the 187 minute running time that’s being posted in theaters) the movie is only about seven minutes longer than Django Unchained and the wide release version will be even closer to the running time of that earlier film so the intermission less a necessity than it is a statement about modern filmgoing.

It seems that by presenting the film on 70mm film prints and handing out color programs at the door and opening the film with an overture Tarantino is trying to make filmgoing more of an event, although I will say that the retro vibe of the whole thing is kind of diminished by the fact that the only theater around me playing the movie was a sixteen screen AMC multiplex at a shopping mall instead of one of the handful of single screen theaters that are in the area.   Additionally, it should be noted that modern movie theaters were not built to accommodate the ultra-wide 2.76:1 frame of the film’s Ultra Panavision format, so rather than seeing an especially large picture you’re basically going to be watching an image that’s being letterboxed to the top of a standard 2.35:1 screen.  Oh, and a lot of theaters aren’t terribly accustomed to working with film prints anymore so you’re kind of going to be at the mercy of your local projectionist’s skills and I also worry that a lot of younger audiences accustomed to digital projection (and older audiences who have simply forgotten) aren’t going to get why the images they’re seeing will have specks and other print imperfections here and there.  So yeah, there are some drawbacks to the 70mm presentation but you’re not going to have too many chances to have experiences like this so I would encourage anyone to catch the Roadshow version if they can but also wouldn’t guilt anyone if they just went to the digital version either.  Really I think the biggest drawback to the whole Roadshow experiment has less to do with the actual experience and more to with the fact that conversations about the movie have been dominated by discussions of film formats rather than discussions of the actual movie.  And given that I’ve rattled on for 767 words about the presentation rather than the actual movie I guess I’m just as guilty as anyone.

The Hateful Eight is set about ten or twenty years after the end of the Civil War and in the snowy mountains of Wyoming.  As the film opens a stagecoach driven by a worker named O.B. (James Parks) is driving to the town of Red Rock and desperately wants to get to shelter before a massive blizzard arrives.  Inside this stagecoach is an infamous bounty hunter named John “The Hangman” Ruth (Kurt Russell) who is escorting a prisoner named Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh).  Along the way the encounter another bounty hunter named Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson), a former Union soldier who is bringing the bodies of three wanted criminals to town and needs a ride in order to escape the storm.  Ruth has met Warren before and is willing to bring him along and as they continue they find themselves also picking up a man named Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins) who claims to be the new Sheriff of Red Rock and is also trying to escape the storm.  Along the way it’s revealed that Mannix is the son of an infamous Confederate guerrilla fighter, a fact that quickly leads to tensions between him and Warren.  Finally they arrive at the way-station which is being tended by a Mexican named Bob (Demián Bichir) and where a handful of colorful characters are already staying including an English hangman named Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), a former Confederate general named Sanford Smithers (Bruce Dern), and a cowboy (in the literal cattle-driving sense of the word) named Joe Gage (Michael Madsen).  Because of the usual post-civil war politics of the situation things quickly become tense in the cabin, but even more tense once it becomes apparent that at least one of these Eight guys are in league with Daisy Domergue and may well be planning to pull something.

All that usual Tarantino attitude that we all know and love is here in his new movie.  His signature profanity and violence are in full effect, as is his unique dialogue, chronological tinkering, and chapter headings.  In fact it would be pretty easy to cut this whole review short by simply saying “Tarantino has done it again, if you like his work quit reading and go see this.”  Tarantino has never made a flat-out bad movie and outside of Death Proof he’s never even made a movie that wasn’t somewhere on the spectrum of outright greatness.  When you examine a Tarantino movie you go in ready to accept that he’s pretty much only competing with himself at this point and you’re just trying to figure out what makes this specific work different from the rest and where it ranks in his filmography and there are certainly some differences to be found.  For one thing, the whole roadshow presentation thing combined with the fact that this was shot in an expensive film format is a hint that The Hateful Eight is something of a departure from some of the rest of Tarantino’s recent work in that it isn’t really rooted in grimy exploitation cinema per se.  Unlike Django Unchained, which was pretty specifically meant to be rooted in Italian Spaghetti westerns, this is based more in westerns of the regular American variety.  Even more interesting is that the film is something of a chamber piece, which harkens way back to Tarantino’s first completed film Reservoir Dogs.  A solid 75% of the movie is set entirely inside of a single cabin and there’s a whodunit element to the film given that everyone is trying to find out who among them is in league with Domergue.  Between that “who’s the traitor” setup, the fact that everyone’s trapped in one location by a blizzard, and the ominous Ennio Morricone score one can almost see a hint of influence from John Carpenter’s The Thing in the film.

Of course the film’s title is a take on the John Sturge’s The Magnificent Seven and such a title certainly places an emphasis on the ensemble which is split between Tarantino regulars and other actors the fit quite well with his troupe.  If there is a main protagonist here it’s probably Samul L. Jackson, who is admittedly doing a take on his usual persona but given that the role was clearly written for exactly that that works just fine and it was cool to see him given such a large role to stretch into for once.  Another actor being given one of the larger platforms of his career is Walton Goggins, who’s done a lot of strong work on cable television and has a lot of experience playing ignorant but intriguing hick characters that you hate to love and love to hate.  Speaking of which, Jennifer Jason Leigh is here playing a playfully evil presence and she fits well within the Tarantino tradition of reviving the careers of actors you forgot you loved.  A previous winner of the Tarantino career revival award, Kurt Russell, is also here and is doing some of his best work in quite a while.  Bruce Dern would also likely be a beneficiary of the Quentin bump for his work here had Alexander Payne not beaten Tarantino to the re-discovery punch with the movie Nebraska.  Damien Bashir, and Michael Madsen are also decent here, although they have slightly less challenging roles than some of their co-stars.  If anyone is a weak link here it might be Tim Roth, who unfortunately kind of comes off like he was only cast in this role because Christoph Waltz was buy terrorizing James Bond, but I wouldn’t say he detracts from the proceedings too much either.

The Hateful Eight also fits into a trend of Tarantino films becoming increasingly socially relevant, albeit in a prickly way that many people will not find easy to digest.  He started dipping his toes into these waters with Inglourious Basterds and then of course Django Unchained certainly tackled America’s legacy of slavery but did it in a way that could easily be seen as a simplistic revenge story where evil slave owners get shot up real good.  This one is a little more complicated and I’d be lying if I said I had it entirely worked out on first viewing but I am pretty confident that this cabin in the blizzard is supposed to be a metaphor for the volatile powder keg that is the America of both yesterday and today.  At least five of the eight principle characters seem to be divided by post-civil war racial strife: Warren and Ruth were both believers in the Union cause, Mannix and Smithers are both bitter Confederate loyalists, and while Domergue doesn’t seem terribly bothered by the Civil War itself she is clearly hostile towards Warren and is more than willing to throw around racial epithets.  So, we have two good guys, three bad guys and three people who are some degree of neutral, right?  Not so fast.  All eight of these people have been labeled “hateful” for a reason and the metaphor isn’t entirely black and white.

Alright, I need to start going into spoilers in order to complete this analysis.  Let’s start with Warren.  He’s a strong and proud African American but a minority both in the cabin and in America and he occasionally needs to do slightly unsympathic things to survive.  He sometimes chooses the exact wrong time to lash out at his oppressors (as was the case when he shoots Smithers) and he sometimes alienates his allies (as he did during the episode where it’s revealed that his Lincoln letter was a forgery).  The film doesn’t judge him for his accesses and he does ultimately remain the closest thing to a sympathetic character even though his story torturing and raping Smithers son, if true, would seem pretty unforgivable.  John “The Hangman” Ruth, would seem to represent white liberals.  He’s a (sometimes uneasy) ally with Warren but often for his own reasons (it’s unclear how much his antipathy towards Manix and Smithers is rooted in a true disgust for their racisim and how much is rooted in the fact that they’re traitors to the Union) and he’s also a bit too smart and principled for his own good (if he’d just shot Domergue in the back like Warren would have they never would have had all these problems in the first place).

Mannix and Smithers of course represent the “red” side of America but in very different ways.  Smithers would seem to represent the deep seated hatred of an older generation, although this is somewhat complicated by the fact that it’s later revealed that he’s essentially being held at gunpoint and may be acting with more hostility than he otherwise would have simply to shut down conversations which could give him away and get him in trouble.  Still, that hatred is real and to some extent there’s no saving him or changing his mind.  Mannix, by contrast, represents a younger generation of Southerners who have been taught racism but can still be changed.  He parrots the racism he’s been told about but is also willing to put it aside when it benefits him and by the end of the movie he considers himself all but a brother in arms with Warren.  And that brings us to Daisy Domergue and her gang, what do they represent?  Well, Domergue talks like a racist, but does she really believe what she’s saying?  I’m not sure that she does.  I think she represents the “real problems” facing America that we’re too busy fighting culture wars in order to address.  She’s wealth inequality, she’s polluting corporations, she’s the military industrial complex.  She’s anyone who uses racial animosity to pit people against one another.  I’m sure this was written before Donald Trump became a viable Republican candidate but good lord is he the perfect avatar for everything she’s supposed to represent.

Now, I’ll admit that this super-specific metaphorical reading of the movie is a lot to swallow, especially from a filmmaker who began his career making highly apolitical “pure cinema” but Tarantino has become more and more conscious since he famously told Michael Moore that he’d be voting for the first time after watching Fahrenheit 9/11 and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that he’s now become an unlikely ally of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Of course if you follow that metaphor I outlined the film’s finale, in which Warren and Mannix finally combine their forces and hang the treacherous Domergue as an obscure Roy Orbison blares in the background, would seem to be a glorious victory.  However, if you’re viewing the film simply as a straightforward story about eight angry people going through a psycho-drama in a cabin, this ending as well as the rest of the violence meted out against Domergue would seem to be rather harsh if not outright misogynistic.  This is a rather tricky aspect of the film and could be viewed as something of a deal-breaker for some audiences.  In interviews Tarantino has said “Violence is hanging over every one of those characters like a cloak of night… I’m not going to go ‘OK, that’s the case for seven of the characters, but because one is a woman, I have to treat her differently.” Or as the Tim Roth character puts it when asked if he has doubts about executing women for crimes “til’ they invent a trigger a woman can’t pull if you’re going to be a hang man you going to have to hang women” and I doubt that anyone would so much as raise an eyebrow if Domergue was a male character rather than a female character, so if women can be badass avengers in other Tarantino movies like Kill Bill why can’t they also be contemptable villains to be killed here?

There’s a certain logic to that, but I do think Tarantino might have erred a little in not giving the audience more of a reason to make Domergue a villain worth hating to the point where we think seeing her strung up is entirely deserved.  Jennifer Jason Leigh certainly makes this character seem like a snake but what does she actually do in the movie that’s so evil?  We certainly see her gang acting with great brutality in the flashback and we have every reason to think that she would support such behavior, but she doesn’t participate in it and couldn’t have directly ordered it.  She doesn’t even seem to be the ringleader of the whole gang.  Any other murderous behavior she exhibits can be easily dismissed as mere self-preservation, so why is she singled out for such animosity when every one of the other gang members seems just as guilty of everything she’s done?  I feel like Tarantino would have solved this whole problem either by making it more clear that Domergue was the mastermind behind all this violence.  Additionally, there are two other little problems with the movie that don’t quite sit well with me.  Firstly, it seems awfully strange that Warren would choose this of all times to provoke a gunfight with Smithers right in the middle of a rather dangerous standoff with a dangerous criminal who may or may not have agents in her midst.  I outlined a thematic reason for this earlier, but on the surface this altercation didn’t seem to come about entirely organically.  Additionally, it’s kind of a major plot point that the proprietor of this waystation despised Mexicans and would have been irrationally hostile towards Bob the Mexican, and yet this never seems to come up during the flashback when Bob arrives at the waystation as one of the four passengers.  That’s maybe not a deal-breaking plot hole but given that everything else connects beautifully in the movie that kind of stands out.

So, where does The Hateful Eight stand in the Tarantino cannon?  If you had asked me immediately after I’d left the theater I would have told you “somewhere in the middle, maybe towards the back half,” but the movie has already grown on my quite a bit and I can’t wait to see it again.  Trying to directly rank Tarantino’s movies has become increasingly difficult because this back half of his filmography is proving to be a lot different than the first half.  As a technical filmmaker he’s grown significantly and his movies have sneakily become increasingly substantial in his last trilogy of period pieces.  You wouldn’t know it from a surface reading but he’s showing increasing wisdom about American history and society and the fact that he expresses this in a very Tarantino way makes the films exciting and avoids the didactic traps of other more conventional films.  The man is a one of a kind artist, one who’s doing things that no one else is doing, at least not on the big stage of accessible movies that have large audiences like this and its hugely refreshing in a world filled with cookie-cutter product.

**** out of Four

Home Video Round-Up: 12/16/2015

Inside Out (12/3/2015)

Contrary to what some may think, I take no relish in being a Pixar skeptic.  In the case of Inside Out I had nothing but high hopes: the reviews were great, the concept had a lot of promise, everything about it seemed like it would be the best movie the studio ever made, and yet I left it somewhat disappointed.  Let’s start with the positive (and before you get it twisted, I do think there’s a lot of positive here).  I do think the basic high concept of rendering the inner workings of a human brain using these anthropomorphized feelings is cool and the film does a pretty good job of setting this up and making it clear to the audience.  I also think that the “real world” story of the girl and her discontentment with having moved is well executed and was well chosen for the purposes of this movie. What disappointed me about the movie is the way it felt compelled to be this adventure narrative with Joy and Sadness trying to get from one end of the brain to the other for reasons that seemed a little contrived and the details of that journey just didn’t seem worthy of the rest of the movie.  I also wasn’t too crazy about certain aspects of the film’s visual style, which seemed a bit less film-like than some of Pixar’s other movies.  My other problem is a bit more philosophical the movie seems to set up the human mind as being almost entirely a slave to the Id.  Why are feelings and emotions in the driver’s seat of the mind in this movie?  Where’s the avatar of rational thought?  I just like to think that people are more in control of their own minds than this realization allows it and that just didn’t quite sit well with me.

*** out of Four

Amy (12/4/2015)

Asif Kapadia has emerged as the leading master of the biographical documentary as he makes these films that feel highly cinematic even though his movies are made entirely of archival footage and don’t even bother to show their talking head interviews on screen.  If only he could apply this treatment to a figure that I care about.  I hadn’t even heard about Ayrton Senna before he made his 2010 documentary Senna and while I had certainly heard of Amy Winehouse before he made this latest documentary I pretty much only knew her from her song “Rehab” and was otherwise unfamiliar with both the rest of her work or with the details of her fall into substance abuse.  That is a problem because unlike Senna, which more than convinced me that its subject was a hell of an F1 driver, this movie never really converted me into an Amy Winehouse fan and without that extra investment in the subject I never really found a particular reason to care about her downfall.  I don’t want to come off as callous, I’m certainly unhappy to see the way Winehouse suffered, but at the end of the day her downfall was not too different from a number of other “behind the music” stories and I can’t say I found it uniquely interesting.  This perhaps makes me wonder if I would have been as interested in the film Cobain: Montage of Heck if I had a similar indifference towards Nirvana, the answer is probably “no.”  Still, this is a well-researched and dignified documentary  and I can see why it’s gotten a higher profile than your average rock-doc.

*** out of Four

Dope (12/9/2015)

At this year’s Sundance Film Festival two movies came out with the most buzz: Me and Earl and the Dying Girl and Dope.  I didn’t much like the former movie at all and that bad experience actually kind of put me off seeing the later… that and flashbacks to the last Sundance movie to fetishize 90s hip hop: The Wackness.  That proved to be a poor decision because Dope proved to me the much more enjoyable of the two 2015 Sundance champions.  The film is set in modern day Inglewood but focuses on a handful of misfit young people there who generally live outside the urban plight around them and are obsessed with 90s hip hop culture.  The movie comes out the gate with a great deal of energy and begins feeling like one of those “one crazy day” narratives before going off in another direction in its second half.  I feel like I might have liked it if the movie had stuck to the simpler path it was going down in that first part but I get why they took that second approach as well.  It’s not a perfect movie by any means but it has a lot of energy, a good sense of humor, and a cool soundtrack that makes sure it remains a pretty entertaining romp throughout.  I look forward to seeing what writer/director Rick Famuyiwa does next.

***1/2 out of Four

Meru (12/14/2015)

There have been quite a few documentaries about mountain climbing in the last decade or so but I can’t say I’m terribly familiar with the sub-genre.  I can’t say I’ve even seen the famous Touching the Void so I may have been a little uninformed going into this latest mountaineering doc, but I must say that I was pretty impressed with it.  The film focuses on a trio of mountain climbers who have set out to ascend up the challenging side of a peak in the Himalayas that no other team of climbers has ever successfully made it up, at least not on the challenging side.  A big part of why movies about mountain climbers have become popular is that they make for some really good looking scenery and this is no exception.  Now, all the footage of the film’s central climb was show by the climbers themselves (specifically by the film’s co-director Jimmy Chin) so they didn’t exactly have time to stop and ensure that every shot in the movie during this section is picture perfect but they are certainly using expensive cameras and they pretty capably document what goes into a climb like this.  Really though, it wasn’t the climbing footage that hooked me into the film so much as the interviews in it which do a pretty good job of giving sober explanations of the decisions that go into these climbs as well as what was going on in these climbers’ personal and professional lives leading up to this climb.

***1/2 out of Four

Tangerine (12/16/2015)

We often look at movies in terms of their plotlines but that’s frequently a mistake, especially when you’re dealing with a movie like the recent indie hit Tangerine, which thrives because of pretty much everything except plot.  The basic story is really simple: a transsexual hooker hears that her boyfriend/pimp has cheated on her so she decides to track down the “fish bitch” who’s sleeping with him to drag her to a confrontation with said boyfriend/pimp.  Not a lot going on there, but the film thrives on its depiction of this West Hollywood milieu as well as its general energy.  The film was famously shot on an iPhone, which would suggest that it would look like a micro-budget nothing, but that’s not the case.  A professional DP was used and it really does look like a “real” movie except that the camera movement is noticeably more fluid and different from the norm.  I wouldn’t recommend this for every movie but it definitely works here.  On top of that the film is something of a sly meditation on infidelity given that the main character spends most of the movie outraged that her man has been sleeping around and yet she also hypocritically has an occupation in which is kind of predicated on homebreaking.  If I have any complaint about the movie it’s that when the pimp that the prostitues are seeking finally does come into the film he’s kind of lame, really just the in really inauthentic element of the whole thing.  That said, this is the kind of exciting and dangerous material that we so rarely get out of independent film anymore and for that if nothing else I’m pretty appreciative.

***1/2 out of Four

Youth(12/19/2015)

Being an amateur film critic, or any other kind of film critic probably, is having to make snap judgements that you’re not always ready to make.  Usually I’m pretty confident with my calls but every once in a while something comes along which I really don’t know what to do with.  Paolo Sorrentino’s 2013 film The Great Beauty was one of those films.  That film, which was about a larger than life character’s journey through the Roman upper-class and his ultimate crisis of purpose was one of the most critically acclaimed movies of that year but I wasn’t quite feeling it.  That it was a “good” movie was self-evident, it was energetic, well crafted, often fascinating, and certainly worthy of any good cinephille’s time but it was also a movie that boldly invoked the Italian giants of old like Fellini and Antonioni without ever escaping from their shadows.  What’s more I wasn’t sure what ultimate truth the movie was going for.  It seemed like a movie that wanted to be about everything and it consequently ended up being about nothing… or maybe there was something there and I just wasn’t grasping it on first viewing.  Either way I was excited to see Sorrentino’s follow-up film, Youth, an English language production starring a number of Hollywood talents from yesterday and today.

At the center of this film is another larger than life figure in his twilight years, this time a famous British composer named Fred Ballinger (Michael Caine) who is staying at a luxury spa/resort in the Swiss Alps.  Ballinger has retired from composing and conducting, in part because his wife is no longer with him and he considered her singing voice to be a key component of his music, though he still gets many offers to come out of retirement, most recently from an emissary for the Queen of England (Alex Macqueen) who is desperate to talk him out of retirement for a Royal event.  Ballinger is joined at this resort by a long-time friend of his, a well-respected film director from the New Hollywood era named Mick Boyle (Harvey Keitel) who is retreating with a group of screenwriters in order to write his next film.  He’s also joined by his daughter Lena Ballinger (Rachel Weisz) who doubles as his business manager and is going through something of a personal crisis because she’s recently learned that her husband is leaving her for another woman.  He’s also formed something of a friendship with a younger actor named Jimmy Tree (Paul Dano), who’s come to be sort of haunted by the success of a lame Hollywood franchise blockbuster he starred in for a paycheck.

Given that he’s now made two straight movies about legendary creative figures in their twilight years looking back on their lives and contemplating what it all means, you would think that Paolo Sorrentino would himself be a veteran filmmaker contemplating a long legacy but while he does have a handful of well-respected films he’s hardly a legend at this point in his career.  In fact, he’s only 45, which is fairly young in director-years.  He’s younger than Quentin Tarantino, he’s younger than Wes Anderson, he’s younger than Darren Aronofsky, he’s even younger than Spike Jonze… so why does he have this fixation on aging and legacy?  If there’s one overwhelming reservation I have about both this film and The Great Beauty it’s that I feel like they would have a lot more resonance if they were coming at the tail end of the career of an actual veteran like Martin Scorsese, Bernardo Bertolucci, or Francis Ford Coppola.  But perhaps it’s more than a little unfair to demand that a film make perfect sense within the biography of its maker and I feel like Youth, which as the title would imply is much more focused on themes of aging, handles this mode better than its predecessor.

Do not let the fact that this movie is in English and features a marketable celebrity cast fool you into thinking that this is a Hollywood prestige film of the Miramax variety; this is a Euro-arthouse movie through and through.  Stylistically, the movie picks up right where The Great Beauty left off.  Sorrentino doesn’t really do naturalism, at least not in these movies, and sets them in a sort of heightened reality inhabited by wealthy intellectuals.  These characters tend to speak in rather lofty terms and the movie also isn’t afraid to go off topic occasionally to show some of the more unusual aspects of this resort’s decadence like a rotating stage where rock bands occasionally perform or some of its more colorful guests like an obese Latino man with a giant Karl Marx tattoo on his back.  I’d be lying if I said I could explain the meaning behind every one of the films digressions but for the most part I think they add a lot of flavor to the movie and make it distinctive although occasionally it does maybe go a little too far with its weirdness (like the appearance of someone who’s looking a lot like a certain infamous Austrian).

At the center of the film is Michael Caine, an actor who earned his place in the pantheon a long time ago but who’s often relegated to supporting roles in his old age.  Youth is the best showcase of his skills in a while.  Caine has never really been the kind of actor who disappears into a role and he doesn’t do that here either but he definitely brings his A-game just the same to a role that I’m assuming was written specifically for him.  Rachel Weitz also gives a strong, somewhat understated performance and while I don’t necessarily like Paul Dano as an actor he does make a nice quirky presence here, and Jane Fonda also makes a memorable appearance late in the movie playing a larger than life character in a larger than life fashion.  The actor that really stood out to me though was probably Harvey Keitel, a great actor who is all too often treated like little more than “the guy you get when you can’t afford Robert De Niro” by Hollywood, which has resulted in him being in far too many movies where he’s forced to just shout at people and that’s made it easy for kind of overlook him.  His work here is something of a revelation in part because he’s allowed to lighten up and be friends with Caine’s character and act like something of a yin to Caine’s yang even if there is something of a dark undercurrent below the surface of the character.

Of course (and I might start getting a little spoilery here) the big irony here is that the optimistic Harvey Keitel character ends up a lot worse off by the end of the film than the embittered and resigned Michael Caine character and I think that the reason for this is that Caine’s character is the one who finds a better way to cope with the modern world.  Where Keitel’s character was unable to cope with a world where he wasn’t doing exactly what he had been doing his whole life, Caine’s character finds a way to continue engaging with the arts while also stepping aside and letting a new generation step into his old shoes.  Of course the fact that this message is coming from an artist who is himself a relatively young man who is carrying on the tradition of old masters there may be a meta layer to all this… or maybe not… I’m not exactly sure yet.  This is really a movie that might need another look before I can render final judgement but I will say that the movie I saw was very intriguing and definitely worth untangling.

***1/2 out of Four

Star Wars: Episode VII- The Force Awakens(12/17/2015)


Warning: This is a no-holds-barred spoiler-filled review

Just about anyone who wasn’t already an adult in 1977 probably brings a certain amount of baggage to anything related to the international phenomenon that is the Star Wars brand.  When I was a kid I was certainly nuts for Star Wars.  I thought they were pretty much the best movies ever, I read a bunch of the Star Wars books, I played a bunch of Star Wars video games, and I even subscribed to a damn Star Wars fan magazine.  I also really liked the prequels, which started coming out when I was eleven and was right in that target market that Lucas was aiming for.  Over time I certainly started to see the many flaws that bring those movies down but I don’t think they’re worthless and given their place in my childhood I can’t really get too mad at them. Hell, I don’t even get too animated with rage by George Lucas’ Special Edition silliness.  If I’ve gotten disillusioned at all by the franchise it really has nothing to do with anything that Lucas ever did everything to do with the fact that I just sort of grew up and moved on to other better things.  I certainly still like the old Star Wars movies but that’s all they are to me: movies.  They’re well well-oiled entertainments with characters and elements that have rightly become iconic but at the end of the day they’re simplistic action movies for twelve year olds.  There’s nothing wrong with that but that’s an accomplishment that needs to be kept in perspective.  That outlook has pretty much informed who I’ve reacted to the news that Star Wars was coming back sans-Lucas.  I haven’t been expecting greatness from them but maybe they’ll make for some cool action movies.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which does have the “Episode VII” moniker in its opening scroll, appears to be set thirty years after the end of the original trilogy and the state of the galaxy suggests that the hard won victory at the end of the original trilogy didn’t lead to the intergalactic happy ending we all thought it did.  A new evil army calling themselves The First Order have emerged styling themselves after the Empire from the original trilogy and are apparently being led by an elusive Palpatine-like figure calling himself Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) who has taken a sith apprentice named Kylo Ren (Adam Driver).  As the film begins this First Order is searching for Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) who has begun living in Yoda-like seclusion in the wake of some failed attempts to restore the Jedi order.  The First Order wants to find him and kill him but their enemies, The Resistance, are hoping that if they find him he could help them bring an end to The First Order’s reign of terror.  That search leads them to the desert planet Jakku where a pilot named Poe Dameron (Oscar Issac) has found a map to Skywalker and hidden it in a droid called BB-8.  He soon exists and the movie is taken over by Finn (John Boyega), a former stormtrooper who has a crisis of conscience and decides to betray the First Order and deliver the map to the Reistance.  Along the way he encounters a scavenger named Rey (Daisy Ridley) on Jakku who helps him escape.  Soon enough they meet a certain smuggler (Harrison Ford) and his furry companion (Peter Mayhew) and before long they are embroiled in intergalactic strife.

It is a bit disheartening to know that the hard won victory at the end of Return of the Jedi didn’t really last but that is perhaps a fitting state of affairs for the times we live in.  If the Obama years have taught us anything it’s that it takes more than one victory to make hope and change happen, it’s something that requires unending vigilance and dogged defending.  But let’s be honest, the real reason that the galaxy has been thrown back into a civil war between a Rebel like “resistance” taking on an Empire-like “First Order” is because this movie really wants re-capture the original trilogy whether or not the reasons make sense.  Not only are the factions echoes of the old movies but most of the characters are too.  Finn is a wisecracking leather jacket wearing rogue who is plainly supposed to be a Han Solo stand-in despite having a background that would not seem to create such a personality.  Rey is a young person who grew up on a desert planet but finds herself reluctantly embroiled in a civil war because of force powers that were more than likely given to her because she is more than likely the spawn of a famous Jedi: clearly she’s the new trilogy’s Luke Skywalker.  And then the film’s villain is a dark Jedi who walks around in black, has a helmet which gives him a distorted voice, and takes orders from a mysterious cloaked schemer who’s in charge of the faction he’s a pawn for.  It’s a little shameless.  Say what you will about the prequels but there’s no denying that they tried a lot harder to expand this universe and do new things rather than simply polish the old movies up for a new generation of special effects.

Honestly I can’t blame the movie too much for wanting to recreate the superficial aspects of what worked before and for the most part the new characters work quite well despite their unoriginality.  What I can’t forgive so easily is the way that the film heavily echoes the basic story structure and series of events of A New Hope to the point where it almost feels like a remake.  Both movies begin with a droid carrying a secret macguffin landing on a backwater desert planet to escape evil pursuers, being found by a local who happens to be strong in the force who opts to take that droid to the good guys while being escorted by an older guide and after running into complications along the way they end up re-uniting with the good guys just in time to save them from a big planet destroying super weapon after witnessing their older guide being murdered in dramatic fashion.  It’s pretty shameless and frankly it kind of reminded me of J.J. Abrams’ misguided decision to recreate entire scenes from Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan in his Star Trek Into Darkness.  This not only feels odd and lazy but also kind of robs the film of some suspense.  For instance, that tense scene where Han Solo faces off with Kylo Ren is really undercut because you know exactly where its going once you piece together that it’s basically going to be an echo of Obi-Wan’s faceoff against Darth Vader in the original movie.  I suppose we’re supposed to assume that “the force” has been interceding in events and repeating cycles of conflict and I suppose that’s also supposed to be the explanation for the various wild coincidences that set the movie into motion, but there are limits to how much the audience can accept that and this movie get perilously close to going over that line.

There are other gripes I have with the movie like a handful of questionable lines, the way it plays into certain moments of fan-service, and the way certain characters suddenly become lightsaber savants without any training, but I fear that if I spend too much time outlining my various nitpicks I would mistakenly give off the impression that I really dislike this movie, which I very decidedly do not so let’s shift to the positive.  This movie’s biggest asset is actually probably its cast.  Star Wars characters have never really been particularly rich, they’re more like personalities than truly fleshed out characters and the fact that the performances in the prequels were so wooden were a big part of why those movies fell so flat.  Take the new Finn character.  On the page there really isn’t a lot there.  The fact that he’s a former stormtrooper who chose to go against the training that had been ingrained in him from birth is an idea that had a lot of potential but the movie doesn’t do much with it.  It’s never made clear how someone raised in that environment could develop a conscience and the movie quickly forgets that he as this dark backstory and just makes him a generic rogue.  And yet, because John Boyega is so damn charming it just works and you don’t really think about any of that.  Then there’s the Rey character, who’s a complete cipher seemingly without a past and without a ton of personality traits besides toughness and independence, but Daisy Ridley does make it work onscreen through sheer chutzpa.  My favorite new character though is probably the villain Kylo Ren and not just because he looks really cool in that black getup.  The idea of making this villain the estranged son of Han and Leia was both interesting on its face and also a clever way to explain why Han and Leia aren’t living happily in domestic tranquility.  I also thought that Adam Driver was a really inspired casting decision both because his vocal sylings work great in that Vader tone of voice and also because it emphasized that beneath the mask this was a confused young man rather than some kind of intrinsically evil monster.

You’ll notice that for as long as I’ve been talking about this I’ve hardly said anything about the film’s action, visual effects, or spectacle.  That is in part because that isn’t really the focus of the film and in part because they aren’t necessarily as remarkable as you might think. That’s not to say that the special effects here are bad at all, quite the contrary, no expense was spared and this looks as good as any blockbuster should in 2015 but it doesn’t necessarily push the envelope in that regard.  The original Star War was like nothing audiences had seen before, it was a huge leap forward and it shaped the way movies were made.  For all its creative failures people forget that The Phantom Menace was also a huge leap forward in the realm of special effects, possibly too much of one.  It could be argued that part of the problem with that prequel trilogy was that it was trying so hard to blow people’s minds with all the CGI that it lost track of everything else.  In making this new film J.J. Abrams seems to have intentionally gone in the other direction and focused entirely on a human level while keeping the effects par for the course.  Given one or the other I certainly would like plot and story rather than technical prowess of course but maybe it would have been cool if we could get both?

Honestly though, maybe it was inevitable that this was never going to wow audiences in the same way that the older movies did.  In the thirty eight years since Star Wars hit theaters damn near every summer blockbuster has been trying to be “the next Star Wars” with varying degrees of success.  When that becomes the norm it is maybe inevitable that when the real McCoy comes along it’s going to seem less like an earth shattering event and more like an above average example of the kind of effects spectacle that Hollywood has been giving us pretty regularly and that’s kind of where I am on Star Wars: The Force Awakens.  A lot of people are coming out of it saying things like “oh my god it made me feel like I was a kid again” but I’m just not feeling it and I suspect that once a lot of people get over the thrill of seeing all the stuff from their favorite series presented with modern visual effects they’re also going to sort of come back down to Earth on this one.  This is a good movie, it really is and if anything it exceeded the rather reasonable expectations I went into it with but at the end of the day it’s just a popcorn flick and not necessarily an amazing one.

***1/2 out of Four