Shoplifters(12/22/2018)

With the world being as big as it is movie opinions are legion.  Anyone can have opinions about any movie, but generally speaking consensuses exist for a reason.  That is especially true for opinions about which works in a given filmmaker’s filmography is considered their major works.  For example, if your favorite Alfred Hitchcock movie is Vertigo, Psycho, Rear Window absolutely no one would be surprised. If you’re favorite is more of a deep cut like Notorious, Strangers on a Train, or Shadow of a Doubt it might seem like a unique pick but it would more or less be understood.  Meanwhile if you said your favorite was something like Spellbound or Marnie people might think you’re being a bit of a contrarian to get attention and if you say your favorite is Topaz or Under Capricorn people will rightly say you’re just trolling.  I bring all this up because my opinions about the Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Kore-eda have been a bit… unconventional.  His most famous film up to this point was almost certainly his 2013 film Like Father, Like Son, which won the Jury Prize at Cannes and was almost remade by Steven Spielberg.  I thought that movie was… alright.  It was fairly well done but I never really bought into the premise and it never really took off for me.  I genuinely preferred last year’s After the Storm, a movie that was respected but which did nothing at Cannes before it came and went from theaters.  But the Kore-eda movie that really spoke to me was his 2015 (2016 Stateside) film Our Little Sister, which was another movie that no one was talking about coming out of Cannes but which I found to be this really engrossing look at the lives of it’s fairly ordinary characters.  I say all this because Kore-eda’s newest film is already plainly his most acclaimed, the Palme d’Or winning effort Shoplifters, and that might just be a chance for me to finally match with public opinion on a Kore-eda film.

Shoplifters is set in Tokyo and focuses in on a strange little makeshift family being run by a patriarch named Osamu Shibata (Lily Franky) who makes a career of training the younger members of the “family” like a little boy named Shota Shibata (Kairi Jō) to shoplift items from grocery stores.  Other people living in the house include his wife (girlfriend?) Nobuyo (Sakura Ando), a younger woman named Aki (Mayu Matsuoka) who works as a stripper, and an elderly woman named Hatsue (Kirin Kiki) who is collecting a pension from her dead husband.  These hustlers seem to be making their unconventional lifestyles work until one day they come across a little girl named Yuri (Miyu Sasaki), who has been left out in the cold while her abusive parents fight with each other inside.  They decide to bring Yuri back to their place for the night rather than leave her there, and after some consideration they decide not to return her at all and incorporate her into the “gang” rather return her to her awful parents.

I’m sure this is mostly a quirk of what media I tend to consume but generally speaking I don’t see a lot of depictions of social strife in the modern Japanese nation.  It just seems like a country that is not very interested in airing its dirty laundry, so seeing movies like this about the people who do not hold a very high place that society is always kind of interesting.  This film in particular manages to assemble a pretty interesting cast of characters each with fairly distinct personalities and connections.  Osamu Shibata is a bit of a standout and feels like a bit of an extension of the protagonist of After the Storm, who was also a guy of about the same age and with a similarly questionable outlook on life and his relationship with Shota had shades of the questions of familial bonds explored in Like Father, Like Son.  The morality of what is essentially a kidnapping is also explored, about whether these people have a right to just put together a family based on what everyone wants and if such an arrangement deserves to continue.  The movie doesn’t endorse this lifestyle, in fact it pretty much dismantles a lot of the ideas underpinning it, but it never loses track of the feelings of the people involved and views them as legitimate.

That said, the movie never quite connected with me the way it seemed to connect to the Cannes jury, and that’s partly because a couple other pieces of 2018 kind of beat the movie to the punch for me.  The first of these was Debra Granik’s Leave No Trace, which also looked at a family that’s living at the fringes of society and the morality of a parent forcing a child into an unconventional and technically criminal lifestyle and how a government can respond to that.  The other thing it reminded me of was, of all things, the video game “Red Dead Redemption II.”  Might seem like a crazy comparison and obviously that game is a much more violent and grandiose take on this sort of thing, but both have stories that focus on a gang of sorts that are trying to get by through various hustles and are bonded by a sort of blind loyalty to a charismatic leader even though their way of life is inevitably going to fall apart because of the mistakes they’ve made.  The stories parallel each other in ways that are kind of crazy considering how much they diverge in setting and format… or maybe they don’t and I’m making too much of this because I have a damn videogame on the brain.  Either way I think it maybe does say something that I allowed myself to be distracted by these comparisons rather than becoming immersed in Kore-eda’s world like I have for some of his other films.

Of course which movies you like the best is, more often than we like to admit, something of a reflection of the mood you happen to be in when you watch them and I feel like that’s especially true of movies by people like Kore-eda that really require you to make a connection with the characters.  I saw Our Little Sister in a September after a long summer movie season and with no real expectations while I saw Shoplifters in the middle of the prestige movie season and with much higher expectations given its critical acclaim and Cannes triumph.  Alternatively, it might just be that I have an easier time relating in some odd way to a movie like Our Little Sister which is ultimately about a bunch of young adults trying to find their place in life than a movie like Shoplifters which is ultimately about the bond between a parent and child.  Either way I’d say my choice of favorite Kore-eda film has not been usurped, but just the same I do get why this is the one that has gotten the extra attention and festival clout.  It’s the movie that has more of a story hook to it and a bit more of statement to make about society at large.  I certainly liked the movie, there’s nothing about it to dislike really but I went into it chasing that high that the previous movie provided and I didn’t quite get it.

***1/2 out of Five

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Burning(12/16/2018)

Let’s talk about platform distribution.  In theory movies on this track are supposed to open in New York and L.A. for about a week, and then expand outwards into the other large markets until hopefully you’ve opened wide.  It usually works out pretty well for me because I’m in a large enough market that I pretty reliably get most independent/foreign movies a couple weeks after they debut or at least know when they are coming out.  However some sort of monkey wrench got thrown in the gears when it came to acclaimed new South Korea drama Burning, which got picked up by some strange company called Well-Go-USA which usually focuses on Asian cinema of the martial arts variety and seems to have some bad ideas about how to release art house movies because from where I sit they’ve really botched this one.  When the film first expanded they skipped over the Twin Cities entirely and opened in places like Dallas, then the next week in places like Albuquerque.  My city wasn’t entirely alone in this suspense.  The damn thing opened Columbus Ohio before it opened in Seattle, it opened in Omaha before it opened in Denver, and in Salt Lake City before it opened in Detroit.   And to this date it still hasn’t opened in Minneapolis and there’s no indication as to when or if it will.  Color me pissed.  Fortunately I was still able to catch a screening of the movie while on a trip to Chicago, or else I may have missed out on one of the year’s most acclaimed movies, and if that had happened I may well boycotted the damn company for life.

Burning is set in modern South Korea and focuses on Lee Jong-su (Yoo Ah-in), an aspiring writer who lives on his father’s run-down old farm in the town of Paju, which is located a little bit outside of Seoul.  One day while visiting Seoul he runs into a woman named Shin Hae-mi (Jeon Jong-seo) who was a neighbor of his back in Paju while they were kids.  The two form something of a friendship, one that Jong-su is never quite sure is venturing towards the romantic, and Hae-mi recruits him to feed her cat for her while she takes a sort of “spirit journey” to Africa.  When she returns from this trip she’s accompanied by a guy named Ben (Steven Yeun) who was the only other Korean where she was, causing the two to form a bond that Jong-su is never quite sure was or is romantic.  From there Jong-su has to navigate whether or not he’s been put into the “friend-zone” by Hae-mi and whether or not he should be jealous of whatever bond she has with Ben and how that makes him feel, at least before things start to take a different and altogether more sinister turn in the film’s second half.

Burning is the work of Lee Chang-dong, an important but not overly prolific Korean auteur who has largely eschewed the more extreme genre tendencies of some of his most famous countryman to instead make realist dramas, usually about ordinary people at crossroads in life trying to cope with where they find themselves in life. His signature film, Secret Sunshine, remains one of the finest examinations of the concept of forgiveness in all its complexity and his follow-up Poetry is an excellent meditation on justice and legacy but it’s been a long eight year wait for his latest film.  Burning is a little more playful than his previous films in that it doesn’t burden the audience with super heavy themes right away and generally operates on a more cinematic logic than strict realism.  That said, “playful” is a bit of a relative term given that this is a film that still very clearly addressing its themes seriously and the film does end up going to some pretty dark places in its second half.

There’s a scene in the film where the protagonist casually watching a news report of Donald Trump giving a speech.  Jong-su doesn’t seem terribly enamored by what he’s watching and the scene feels superfluous but it isn’t.  Lee Chang-dong isn’t trying to suggest that Jong-su would have any particular affinity for Trump himself or his xenophobic nonsense but he is trying to sort of establish him as something of the Korean equivalent of the prototypical “Trump voter” that outlets like the New York Times can’t help but profile.  He’s a rural guy who’s been given the short end of the wealth inequality stick and has kind of been left behind by the modern world and that this outlook does not lead him to make the healthiest choices in life.  He also seems to be in way over his head in dealing with Hae-mi, who may have come from his village but who has become quite the free spirit in Seoul and Jong-su spends a lot of the film’s second act trying to determine whether or not their single hook-up was something that was more casual to her than it was to him and trying to play cool around her.  His jealousy toward Ben is readily apparent and it certainly has at least a little bit to do with class resentment.  This is all helped quite a bit by the fact that Jeon Jong-seo manages to create a character who is in fact quite captivating and seems to be worthy of all the investment that Jong-su makes in her.

Of course there’s also the sinking suspicion in the back of both his mind and the audiences’ mind that he’s being played from the very beginning either by Ben or by Hae-mi or both of them.  That third act is very much about obsession and paranoia and it keeps the audience guessing throughout.  As a whole this is a film that doesn’t really follow the usual formulas you expect movies to follow, but it also isn’t trying to be radically strange or avant-garde either.  That is in part what sets it apart from Lee Chang-dong’s earlier movies, which certainly weren’t formulaic but they were less noticeably meta and were generally heavier exercises.  Does this then mark a new chapter in his auteur style?  We’ll have to see, though I must hope his next movie comes a bit faster than this one, because Chang-dong is too fascinating a filmmaker to keep operating on a “two movie per decade” pace.

****1/2 out of Five

Skeptic Vs. Gen X Nostalgia: Round 12 – Hook (1991)


Much as “the 60s” didn’t really start until something like 1967 “the 80s” also didn’t truly end at the stroke of midnight on December 31st, 1989.  I might go so far as to argue that culturally the 90s didn’t truly start until Bill Clinton entered office in 1992.  Or maybe it just feels like that to me.  I was around four or five in 1992 so those first couple years of the decade are just as much ancient history to me as the 80s were.  Is all that a stretch?  Maybe, but it’s enough for me to justify finishing off my retrospective of 80s movies with a movie that came out in 1991: Steven Spielberg’s Hook.  The thing is, Hook is one of the main movies that made me want to embark on this little project in the first place.  It’s a movie with what you might call a “mixed legacy.”  On one hand the critics pretty much hated it; it wasn’t panned to the point where it got multiple razzie nominations or anything but it was pretty widely viewed as a one of Steven Spielberg’s biggest stumble after a pretty long win streak.  Spielberg himself also seems to have agreed with the critics, saying in an interview decades later that he “so [doesn’t] like that movie, and [that he’s] hoping someday [he’ll] see it again and perhaps like some of it.”  But it made a lot of money and a lot of the kids who grew up with it still have pretty fond memories of it, or at least they have fond memories of the character of Ruffio, who I seem to hear about all the time.  Between the film’s bad reputation and the fact that it’s a Peter Pan adaptation it has managed to be the one and only Steven Spielberg movie I hadn’t seen, until now anyway.

In interviews about what went wrong with Hook Spielberg has said “I didn’t have confidence in the script. I had confidence in the first act and I had confidence in the epilogue. I didn’t have confidence in the body of it… and I tried to paint over my insecurity with production value.”  Indeed, that production value is clearly the most prominent and strongest aspect of the film.  The film is like a swan song to practical set design before Spielberg formally embraced CGI with Jurassic Park and slowly let it take over blockbuster cinema until we reached the point where he was making movies like Ready Player One which are almost entirely computerized.  However, the part of that quote that really jumps out at me is that he had the most confidence in the opening act and epilogue, which makes no sense to me because the scenes outside of Neverland are irredeemably awful.  I don’t know what it is about family movies in the 90s but for whatever reason they were absolutely obsessed with guilt-tripping fathers for having jobs and not spending every waking moment with their children and boy oh boy does this movie fall into that trend.  You’d think that the adults who are almost certainly “neglecting” their children to make these movies would have some perspective about how providing children with an upper-middle-class lifestyle is its own kind of support, but instead we get movie after movie about how awful it is that people are too busy to show up to school plays and little league games.

The Neverland sections are at least visually interesting but Robin Williams’ Pan character remains really annoying through most of it.  This is a guy who gets transported to another realm by a literal fairy and finds himself surrounded by straight-up pirates and lost boys and yet still seems to act clueless and non-believing for the longest time.  From there he goes through something of a reverse training montage in which he becomes less mature the more he “learns” because for whatever reason being childish in Neverland makes you a better sword fighter.  Not that this ends up helping Ruffio much as he gets killed off with minimal fanfare by Captain Hook right before the shenanigans start right back up again.  Also, why the hell is this thing named after Captain Hook?  Dustin Hoffman brings him to life well enough but the film isn’t emphasizing the Captain Hook character here anymore than usual, he’s just a villain.  That was just one more in a series of strange decisions that went into this movie, and between all of that it’s pretty easy to see why this thing has become a pretty big black mark on Steven Spielberg’s resume… however, it should be noted that even a bad Spielberg movie is going to be better than a lot of directors’ misfires.  The sets do still look pretty cool and the movie is fairly well paced for a two and a half hour movie with no real substance.  It wasn’t a movie that I actively hated watching, but by the standards it was shooting for it is a failure.

To the Scorecard:
Yeah, this is a loss for Gen X, and that means that the skeptic is going to win this one by a clear decision.  The final score has been pretty clear for a while not and Gen X was never really able to regroup and get some kind of knockout.

In Conclusion:

In retrospect, I think I waited a little too long to do this.  I envisioned some version of this years ago and at the time a lot of these Gen X types were sort of in control of a lot of movie sites and podcasts and I was pretty annoyed by the fact that they’d be citing movies like The Goonies as cinematic classics and really letting their nostalgia get in the way of certain conversations.  At the time this disgusted me, and I do still think that’s kind of a stupid way to look at cinema.  However, in the time since then there’s been a bit of a generational changing of the guards.  The Gen Xers who used to run these things have either gone on to other things than talking about movies professionally or they’ve grown up and are looking at movies a little more objectively.  Now it’s my fellow millennials who have taken over a lot of these online outlets and their 90s nostalgia is a lot more prevalent.  I’m sure over time I’m still going to run into people who think Short Circuit is some kind of masterpiece, and I’m still going to roll my eyes at that, but I’ve come to realize I have a couple of my own nostalgic blind spots and I better understand how people can come to think like that.

Roma(12/8/2018)

I’ve had a hard and fast rule when it comes to Netflix movies on this site: they don’t get full reviews unless they get released theatrically in my city before they start streaming.  This is largely because I believe in theatrical exhibition as being central to film culture and that theatrical windows should be preserved because of that.  Premiering movies on the small screen is contrary to my vision of what “real” movies are and frankly it annoys me that movies like the latest Coen brothers movie and the latest Paul Greengrass movie have been denied all but the most token of releases just because Netflix wants to disrupt the theatrical distribution model.  Amazon has long found ways to provide a win-win for everyone by giving their movies real theatrical releases before debuting them on their streaming platform and I see no reason that Netflix can’t do the same.  Obviously I’m not deluded enough to think that my amateurish little blog with minimal readership is going to sway industry trends at all, but there are principles at play and I’m not going to play ball with this company if I don’t have to.  Enter Alfonso Cuarón’s Roma, the most high profile Netflix acquisition to date and the movie that led to a widely publicized standoff between the streaming giant and the Cannes Film Festival.  I debated whether or not I’d break my rule if I had to for this movie but fortunately it came in under the wire and opened at a local theater all of seven days before its Netflix debut.  That’s far from a real release window but it’s better than the day and date nonsense they’ve been doing so I’ll play along for the time being.

The title “Roma” refers to the Colonia Roma neighborhood of Mexico City, which is one of the more upscale sections of the city.  Set in 1970 and 1971, the film focuses in on a single house in this neighborhood and specifically on a woman named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) who works in this house as a live in maid/nanny.  The lady of the house is named Sofia (Marina de Tavira), a biochemist and mother of four, who is becoming increasingly estranged from her husband Antonio (Fernando Grediaga).  One summer day Cleo and the house’s other maid named Adela (Nancy García) go on a double date with Adela’s boyfriend Ramón (José Manuel Guerrero Mendoza) and his cousin Fermin (Jorge Antonio Guerrero).  One thing leads to another and next thing you know Cleo finds herself pregnant with Fermin’s baby.  Fermin is not terribly enthusiastic about this and it becomes clear almost immediately that he’ll be a deadbeat.  As such the film follows Cleo as she starts to navigate her role in this family in crisis and her own impending motherhood.

Roma is plainly autobiographical insomuch as Alfonso Cuarón was a child would have been a child of about ten when this is set and lived in a similar domestic situation, but film is not told from the perspective of the kids at all and really isn’t terribly interested in them.  Instead he seems to be looking back and re-considering through fiction the lives of the people who raised him, particularly his nanny, who I’m assuming is the “Libo” that the film is dedicated to at the end. The film is certainly interested in class differences but not necessarily “class warfare.”  The family at the film’s center have their blindspots and moments of insensitivity around Cleo but they almost never completely let her down and often surprise both her and the audience in being understanding about certain developments and helping her in certain ways.  The movie also isn’t terribly interested in highlighting the various societal ills that have led to the wealth inequality on display and while it does show some of the challenges that Cleo faces it isn’t a “poverty porn” movie that’s going out of its way to show street life or overt lower class misery.  Cleo’s problems are perhaps a bit more existential; she has limited options in life and is in certain ways giving up a life of her own in order to live with more or less raise someone else’s kids.

Roma was filmed on a budget of about fifteen million dollars.  Not a large amount really in the grand scheme of things but certainly a large amount for a movie about Mexican class divisions starring a bunch of non-actors and utilizing a somewhat episodic structure and without an abundance of traditional expository dialog.  As such Cuarón has opted to film this film with a certain glossy richness rather than the gritty documentary look that is often used to depict the lives of people like Cleo.  The film is shot in black and white and in widescreen and Cuarón has taken great pains to really impress with almost every composition in the movie and pulls off some really impressive shots.  He’s also taken full advantage of modern surround sound technology to capture a lot of small details that most other movies wouldn’t bother with, combined with the fact that the movie has no score really makes you feel like you’re in the same world as these characters.

So Roma is clearly a very well-crafted movie, and there is something unique about that given that these movies with non-actors are generally made in a looser fashion and the visual grammar that Cuarón has built is impressive.  I also think there are some interesting ideas behind the film and that watching Cuarón use the tools at his disposal to bring his memories to life is interesting to watch.  And yet, I still feel like there’s something missing here because I kind of ended up respecting the movie more than I really liked it.  Part of this might simply be that while the movie certainly gave me an idea of its main character’s life and aspects of her personality I never quite felt like I truly knew her on any deeper level, which is a problem given that this is essentially a character study.  I’m not exactly sure how this would have been accomplished without resorting to expository dialogue that would have clashed with the style, maybe just adding in another aspect to her life.  The other thing that might have hurt this for me a little might simply have been expectations.  Ever since it screened in Venice this thing has been so heavily praised that anything short of the second coming of Citizen Kane would have probably disappointed me a little, and indeed this small-in-spirit little movie about life in 1970s Mexico maybe doesn’t have quite the oomph of something that would really scream greatness to me.  That, I suspect, is probably going to be a problem it’s going to have more generally and there may well be a lot of people who wouldn’t normally inclined to give a black and white Spanish movie a chance who will try to watch it on Netflix and turn it off after 30 minutes when “nothing happens.”  That’s unfortunate because this is a movie that generally does reward your patience, but be ready to take it on its own terms.

**** out of Five   

Beautiful Boy(11/29/2018)/Boy Erased(12/1/2018)

At the 2018 Toronto and Telluride Film Festivals two movies premiered that will likely be forever linked: Beautiful Boy and Boy Erased or the “white boys in trouble” movies, as they were dubbed by certain personalities on Twitter.  Are these movies really comparable?  Well, in essence one is about drug abuse and the other is about gay conversion therepy, those are fairly unrelated topics.  One wonders if they’re both simply being linked because they came out around the same time and have the word “boy” in the title.  Maybe, but then again there are some other similarities.  Both films are set in the early 2000s, both are based on memoirs written by journalists, both end with title cards giving statistics about their respective issues, and both ultimately end up being more about the relationships between their respective white boys and their families.  Whether or not the connection is ultimately forced and whether or not it’s fair to either film I think I’m going to run with it anyway, partly because I’d rather not write full reviews of both films, and partly because this link has been pretty well forged in my head whether it’s fair or not.

Beautiful Boy is based on the memoir of the same name by David Sheff (Steve Carell) and another memoir written by his son Nic Sheff (Timothée Chalamet) and focuses in on the elder Sheff as well as his ex-wife Vicki (Amy Ryan) and current wife Karen (Maura Tierney) as they try to help the younger Sheff through a debilitating addiction to crystal meth that he has fallen into.  Boy Erased on the other hand is told more from the perspective of its titular boy, an eighteen year old named Jared Eamons (Lucas Hedges) who lives in a particularly conservative area of Arkansas and is the son of a Baptist preacher named Marshall Eamons (Russell Crowe) and his wife Nancy (Nicole Kidman).  Shortly after Eamons goes to some sort of Christian college events transpire which result in him admitting to his parents that he might be gay, which they do not respond to well and enroll him with an organization called Love in Action run by a guy named Victor Sykes (Joel Edgerton) which seems to want to pray away the gay.

Let’s start with Beautiful Boy, which is probably the film of the two I was anticipating more in part because it was directed by Felix Van Groeningen, who made the 2012 Belgian film The Broken Circle Breakdown which managed to really bring a lot of pathos to the lives of a pair of really interesting people.  I certainly wouldn’t call his latest film poorly directed but I’m not really sure he was able to bring the same magic to this movie.  What he does do well here is give a pretty good sense of what these characters lives have been like over the years.  Little touches like the way he decorates Nic’s room and the way he picks locations do paint a bit of a picture and the occasional flashback scenes are done pretty effectively.  He also does a pretty good job of directing his ensemble.  Timothée Chalamet gives a fairly strong follow-up performance to his work in last year’s Call Me By Your Name and his general cherubic demeanor makes for an interesting contrast to the rather gritty situation he finds himself in.  Maura Tierney and Amy Ryan are also quite good as his maternal figures.  I’d say the weak link is actually probably the star, Steve Carell, who is an actor who I’m frankly starting to wonder might not have range to be a dramatic actor.  His casting makes perfect sense on paper but something about the guy’s voice just makes it very hard for him to blend into a roll and I just really didn’t care for his presence here.

The bigger problem with this movie is just that it tells a very very familiar story.  There isn’t really much of a novel hook to Nic Sheff’s addiction narrative, its patterns of recovery and relapse and recovery and relapse is more or less the same one you hear from most stories like this both in movies and in real life.  The one and only reason why Nic’s story is being brought to the screen and not the several other stories like it is that Nic’s father is a freelance journalist who’s in a position to write a book about his experiences trying to get him help.  That point of view is perhaps something that sets the movie apart just a little given that most movies about his subject matter would be told primarily from the point of view of the addict rather than the parent, but it’s still fundamentally the same story.  Frankly I probably would have liked to see a bit more from Nic’s point of view, particularly early on because the movie never really delves into what drove him to start using meth in the first place.  The film does suggest that David was a little too tolerant when he first found out that Nic was “experimenting” and that treating Kurt Cobain like a hero might not have been in Nic’s best interest, but outside of some vague talk about “filling a void” the movie really sidesteps that aspect of his journey.

Boy Erased is another case where the story being told might not be the ideal test case.  There was a movie earlier this year about gay conversion therapy called The Miseducation of Cameron Post, which certainly had its merits but which I thought was sort of fundamentally flawed because it was being told from the perspective of a girl who was kind of aloof and never really believed in the ideas behind the camp she was sent to and that made her immune from the worst of what this kind of therapy had to offer.  Boy Erased at least seems to be avoiding the same mistake at first, Eamons does seem to be a lot more at risk of being affected by the toxic philosophy at play, but his stay at this camp ends up being surprisingly brief and he ultimately sees through it all and comes out of the experience relatively unharmed.  The focus seems to be less on the camp’s psychological torture and misguided worldview than on their general incompetence, namely their strange fixation on inherited family traits and at one point on the spelling errors in their manuals.  Where The Miseducation of Cameron Post makes gay conversion therapy seem like little more than a rather lame summer camp, this makes it look like a poorly run night school.  I wouldn’t have expected it at the time but somehow Deadpool 2 has managed to be the angriest movie about this subject despite only tackling the topic allegorically.

One of the commonalities between the two films is that both seem to be about as interested in the respective boys’ relationship to their family as much as they are in the boys’ actual problems.  In the case of Boy Erased this sort of makes sense insomuch as being forced into a situation like this would almost certainly strain familial relations, but the movie is also a little unfocused on this front.  The real Jared Eamons (whose real name is Garrard Conley) clearly has fairly mixed feelings about his parents and vice versa but the film might have benefited if it had taken a stronger stance on the subject on his behalf because you’re really not feeling a whole lot by the end.  It doesn’t help that neither Russell Crowe nor Nicole Kidman seem to really understand the characters they’re playing, frankly neither actor has felt more Australian than they do here trying to play Arkansas Baptists.  The focus on familial relationships is even more central to Beautiful Boy and is perhaps more problematic.  The decision to have the whole story minus a handful of scenes be told from the father’s point of view rather than the son’s seems like a bold idea on paper but I don’t think it really leads to any overly unique insights and it also kind of just means the more passive character is given the stage for most of the movie.  Parents love to think they’re more important to their grown children than they really are and there’s a certain narcissism in taking a story about someone else’s pain and making it all about yourself, which is kind of what happened with Beautiful Boy.

So were these movies really all that comparable in the end?  Well when I started this I felt like it was a bit of a stretch, and in some ways it was, but ultimately I don’t think it was to off-base.  The fact that they’re both based on memoirs is probably the bigger link than the fact that they’re both about “white boys with problems.”  So if they are comparable which one is better?  Well, that’s a little trickier.  On a fundamental level I think Beautiful Boy is the better made movie.  It has a cleaner narrative and overall it probably develops its characters better and is generally more competently made.  Boy Erased by contrast is a lot messier and is less effective in bringing you on its central journey, but it’s also less familiar and brings up issues that feel less like total clichés.  That movie is trying to say something even if it’s saying it clumsily while Beautiful Boy just feels like a sort of glorified after-school special without much to really say beyond “drug addiction really sucks for all involved.”  That having been said I find both of these movies to be pretty inessential and I wouldn’t recommend either.  These aren’t offensively bad movies but they also don’t really do anything to really set themselves apart and really work.

Beautiful Boy: ** out of Five
Boy Erased: ** out of Five

 

At Eternity’s Gate(11/25/2018)

It’s pretty widely agreed that 2007 was an amazing year for film.  It was a year that gave us such modern classics as No Country for Old Men and There Will Be Blood, and on a more personal level it was the year I began writing full movie reviews habitually.  One movie that gets lost in discussions of about Zodiac and The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford is a smaller movie called The Diving Bell and the Butterfly.  That film, about the internal life of a man suck unable to move any part of his body aside form one eyelid following a massive stroke was nonetheless one of the year’s best.  Though that movie was in the French language it was actually directed by an American.  Specifically it was directed by a guy named Julian Schnabel, who had directed two films previously but never to this much acclaim and it felt like with this movie a master had finally emerged.   And then nothing.  Schnabel made another movie three years later called Miral which was critically derided and then nothing for the next eight years.  This delay may have had more than a little to do with Schnabel’s other and perhaps primary career as a fine art painter who has by all accounts produced several museum quality paintings and works of physical art.  But now Schnabel has returned and he’s now made a film about the life of a painter from a different time and place with At Eternity’s Gate.

The film looks at the adult life of Vincent Van Gogh (Willem Dafoe) beginning when he had already assembled a fairly decent oeuvre of paintings but hasn’t gotten any real money or success for his trouble.  His mental problems are already apparent but he does have the undying devotion of his brother Theo Van Gogh (Rupert Friend) whose moral and financial support has allowed him to remain a professional artist.  Much of the movie concerns an extended trip he made to Arles, France in order to paint under a different kind of light than what he was seeing in Paris.  There he becomes something of a town pariah because of his occasionally anti-social behavior but does have a few friends like his landlord Madame Ginoux (Emmanuelle Seigner) and he’s also visited by a fellow artist Paul Gauguin (Oscar Isaac).  From there we see him continue to struggle with his mental problems while also continually making iconic paintings right up until the end.

Confession: I do not know that much about art history, at all.  Truthfully I can barely tell a Monet from a Renoir, but Van Gogh is a little bit of an exception, when I see one of his paintings I can tell, in part because of his technique of making the paint sort of stand out from the canvas.  I also knew some of the broad strokes of his life story from here and there, in part because there have actually been a number of movies made about him including Vincente Minnelli’s Lust for Life with Kirk Douglas in the central role and there was Robert Altman’s Vincent and Theo and just last year there was the animated film Loving Vincent which used his signature art style to look at his life story.  It’s probably not too hard to guess why so many filmmakers want to tell this story; presumably they see something of themselves in the struggling misunderstood artist even though all of these filmmakers are more mentally stable and successful in their time than Van Gogh ever was during his lifetime.  It’s also a meaty role for actors who get to both imitate a famous face and explore the depths of undiagnosed mental illness.

This time around Van Gogh is played by Willem Dafoe, which is a casting choice that makes sense given that he’s a red haired guy who looks a lot like Van Gogh’s self-portraits but also kind of doesn’t make sense given that Van Gogh died at 37 and Dafoe is almost twice that age at this point.  That age issue isn’t overly apparent while watching the movie and Dafoe is quite strong in the role.  Some of the best parts are the movie are the scenes where Van Gogh is relatively calm and starts talking about his various philosophies of art and life.  During these scenes Dafoe reminded me a bit of his scenes in The Last Temptation of Christ where he was struggling to explain his spiritual angst.  But maybe the fact that he sounds like Jesus is part of the problem.  Van Gogh was not a kind and cuddly man, in fact he was so off-putting to the people of Arles that they passed a petition to have him barred from the city.  His mental problems were severe and noticeable and the movie in many ways seems to be a little too in love with the guy to really look at the depths of them.

Really though whatever complaints I have about the movie have less to do with its take on Van Gogh and more to do with its pacing and general inconsistency.  In format the movie is basically a traditional biopic: it looks at the events of the artist’s last years more or less in chronological order and without any sort of gimmick or anything, on paper at least.  However the movie does play in some odd ways at times.  Occasionally it just sort of diverges from its plot to sort of watch Van Gogh sort of walk through nature and observe things.  It’s an arty touch, but I’m not sure it really works here and just sort of hurts the pacing. Other parts just kind of feel like boring and kind of stilted biopic fare.  But every time the movie was losing me it would do something to win me back.  It will include an interesting conversation or depict some key moment in Van Gogh’s life in an interesting way and I’ll be back on board.  Something like a third of the movie didn’t really work for me, a third of it worked quite well, and another third was neutral and that probably ultimately speaks to how episodic it is.  When I left the movie after seeing it I was pretty comfortable giving it a pass but it’s been a week since then and a lot of it has already kind of slipped from my mind.  It’s not a terrible or even particularly bad movie but it does seem to be a rather inessential one given how many other Van Gogh movies are out there and how little this really seems to be adding.  If you’re only going to see one recent Van Gogh I might even go so far as to say you’re better off going with that Loving Vincent thing, which at least had a cool visual style.

**1/2 out of Five