Creed II(12/29/2018)

Making yet another Rocky movie in 2015 certainly seemed like a crazy idea at the time, in no small part because I thought that trying to bring it back in 2006 was also kind of silly, and for that matter the decision to make the very first Rocky sequel back in 1979 was kind of suspect.  And yet, the movie Creed pretty effectively proved me wrong.  That spinoff about the son of Apollo Creed seeking out Rocky to be his trainer was a clear critical and financial hit and I think its success probably says less about how much life was still in the series than it does about what bringing in new talent can do to revitalize a franchise.  That new talent was Ryan Coogler, a director who was plainly a better visual stylist than Sylvester Stallone and John G. Avildsen ever were but who did maintain an understanding of the series and why people loved it.  There were limits to my personal enthusiasm for it, I thought it was a very solid movie that achieved what it set out to do very well, but I wasn’t one of the people claiming it was some kind of outrage when it wasn’t a Best Picture nominee.  Still, the movie was a clear win and given that this franchise pretty much can’t be stopped it seemed inevitable that it would keep on going from there.  Unfortunately for the sequel, Ryan Coogler was too busy making Black Panther and generally taking over Hollywood to direct the sequel, so a relatively untested young filmmaker named Steven Caple Jr. has taken his place.  Can he continue to elevate the franchise with Creed II?

This sequel begins a few years after Creed and in that time Adonis Creed (Michael B. Jordan) has come into his own as a fighter and as the film is opening he’s winning a championship fight bout without too much trouble against a complacent champion who’s past his prime.  After the fight he proposes to Bianca Taylor (Tessa Thompson) and the two begin planning for their future.  However, on the other side of the world in the Ukraine another fighter named Viktor Drago (Florian Munteanu) has been training with his father Ivan Drago (Dolph Lundgren), the same Ivan Drago who killed Apollo Creed in the ring in Rocky IV, and they have been waiting for Adonis to become the champion so they can challenge him and use the likelihood that he would accept such a fight in order to find their way into the boxing spotlight.  Rocky Balboa (Sylvester Stallone), who feels a great deal of guilt over what happened to Apollo in that fight thirty years earlier, believes that accepting this fight would be a major mistake and that stirring up this old emotions is not worth whatever sense of family redemption this fight would offer.  Adonis, however, does not heed this advice and accepts the fight.

When I first heard that they were planning to incorporate Ivan Drago’s son into this sequel I thought it was a terrible idea, in part because Rocky IV is a very stupid movie rooted in empty Cold War era patriotism and going out of its way to acknowledge its existence within the series continuity seemed like trouble.  To the movies credit they do manage to make the Dragos feel relatively grounded and do a pretty good job of just ignoring the part where that movie implied that Rocky singlehandedly brought down the Soviet Union through his inspiring performance in the ring.  That said, its occasional attempts to humanize the Dragos and make them into characters unto themselves do fall flat for the most part.  The film tries to establish that the two of them have a well-earned chip on their shoulder because of the way Ivan was abandoned by the Soviet propaganda machine after his loss to Rocky, but they depict this in rather broad ways and I kind of hated a device they used involving Drago’s ex-wife.  It also doesn’t help that Dolph Lundgren has proven to be a much less interesting and resilient actor than Sylvester Stallone and that the dude they found to play Viktor was an athlete chosen for his physical prowess rather than his acting abilities.

Despite all the invocations of Rocky IV, the film actually more closely follows the formula of Rocky III.  After Creed accepts the fight and tries to train without Rocky the big fight begins before we’re even at the half-way point and you’d pretty much have to be an idiot not to guess that this first fight isn’t going to go very well for Adonis.  So, much like when Rocky went up against Clubber Lang before him Adonis finds himself as the pampered champion underestimating his foe and having to find a way to regain the eye of the tiger after an embarrassing defeat. That is generally the problem with this movie, it’s undeniably formulaic and feels like a retread.  Of course the first Creed also mirrored a lot of stuff from the original Rocky but it felt like it was adding a bit more of its own flavor, in part because Adonis Creed felt like more of a distinct character in that film.  Here Adonis straight up just feels like nothing more than a younger and slightly more articulate Rocky Balboa.  The film does rub up against a slightly original idea of having Rocky question whether Adonis really “needs” to fight this guy and Adonis does seem to be swayed by this and mature out of all this toxic masculinity trap… but this is a Rocky movie so we can’t actually have our hero back down from a final fight so they just sort of throw all that out at a certain point and go along with the formula.

All that having been said the boxing scenes kind of save the movie.  Actually there’s plenty to criticize there as well.  Michael B. Jordan looks way more like a light heavyweight (the weight class he was fighting in in the first movie) than a heavyweight and I have my doubts about any state athletics commissions allowing a fight between him and the plainly much larger Drago.  Also things happen in the ring which are just kind of nuts (the final round in particular has to be the longest three minutes in temporal history) and nothing is as strong as the fights from the first Creed, but despite all that the film’s close up and impactful pugilism is still pretty enjoyable.  That’s the thing about this movie, it kind of works in spite of itself.  I maintain that it feels way more like the old Rocky sequels than Creed (something that probably has a lot to do with that fact that Stallone is once again writing), but… as dumb as those movies got most of them were kind of fun in spite of themselves as well.  Still, I don’t have a very good feeling about this series going forward.  I’m sure there will be a third film but I do hope they don’t get it in their heads to make five Creed movies like they did five (well, six) Rocky movies and that they heed this film’s lessons about avoiding the mistakes of the past more than Adonis does.

*** out of Five

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Can You Ever Forgive Me?(11/11/2018)

So, Melissa McCarthy is still around.  I must say I didn’t think too much of McCarthy when she broke onto the scene in Bridesmaids, or perhaps more specifically I didn’t see what the big deal was but then again I didn’t quite grasp what the big deal was with that whole movie.  Still, a lot of people liked it and the performance somehow managed to get a damn Oscar nomination.  She’s stuck around too even though she’s made all sorts of crap like Identity Thief, The Boss, and The Happytime Murders, but that hasn’t hurt her because the simple fact is that most mainstream comedy film stars mostly make crap these days.  Whether you’re Will Ferrell, Adam Sandler, or Kevin Heart the dirty little secret about being a mainstream comedy film star is that, like being a baseball player, you can strike out in two thirds of you’re at bats and still be a star.  And remain a star she has even though The Heat and Spy are probably the only unambiguous commercial and critical hits of her post-Bridesmaids career.   And now right on time McCarthy has taken the next important step in a screen comedian’s career: taking a more serious role, which she’s done in the new film Can You Ever Forgive Me?

In Can You Ever Forgive Me? McCarthy plays Lee Israel, a writer who achieved some moderate success in the 70s and 80s writing magazine articles and celebrity biographies but who has fallen on hard times by the late 90s when the film begins.  She’s just lost her job at a publication for surly behavior and the public has lost a lot of interest in the literary showbiz figures she used to write about.  She now lives out of a cheap New York apartment she probably can’t afford with only a beloved cat and she clearly has a drinking problem.  After being told by her agent (Jane Curtain) that there’s basically no way she’s going to be given an advance for her proposed biography of an obscure vaudeville comedienne Israel finds herself unsure if she’s going to even be able to pay her bills.  Desperate, she decides to sell a letter she got from one of her celebrity subjects to a local book store, and in doing so she starts to wonder if maybe she could manufacture more such letters.  Soon she and her more streetwise friend Jack Hock (Richard E. Grant) are running something of a two person forgery ring which may or may not catch up with her.

I don’t think my review of this movie is going to be overly long simply because it doesn’t elicit a whole lot to talk about despite having very little wrong with it and it generally being the very definition of a movie that’s “fine.”  The film largely operates as a character stud of Lee Israel and her misanthropic lifestyle.  Israel lives alone and seems to be largely content with this, claiming to like her cat more than most people.  It’s not entirely clear if she truly believes that or if it’s more of a defense mechanism, more than likely it’s a combination of the two.  Her friendship with Jack appears to be a bit of a bright spot, one born of their mutual outsider statuses.  Her criminal activity is by contrast a bit of a secondary element.  Her forging is somewhat interesting but her operation is interesting and impressive but not exactly the stuff of legend.  Ultimately the forging is less interesting in and of itself than it is for how it sort of gives her life purpose.  In this sense she’s sort of a low stakes non-violent Walter White, an ordinary person who enters into a life of crime partly out of financial necessity and partly as a sort of midlife crisis.

Melissa McCarthy is quite good at potraying this character and making her sympathetic.  If look up pictures of the real Lee Israel you find that McCarthy doesn’t really look that much like her but this doesn’t really matter too much because she certainly seems to understand the character type she’s working with and manages to give the character enough levity to keep her lifestyle from seeming rather depressing.  Beyond that this mostly just strikes me as a rather serviceable drama.  The film certainly looks good and evokes early 90s New York fairly well, but it’s not doing anything particularly bold visually, not that it needs to.  I also wouldn’t say that the drama here, I guess there are ultimately limits to how interesting I find this character and this story, but for what it sets out to do the film acquits itself fairly well and I don’t have much to complain about.

*** out of Five

Call Me By Your Name(12/22/2017)

Do you need to relate to a coming of age movie to like it?  That would depend on your definition of the word “need.”  There are obviously ways to enjoy movies about the childhoods of characters who live lives pretty far removed from one’s own.  The ultimate coming of age movie is probably Francois Truffaut’s The 400 Blows which is based on Trufaut’s own experiences growing up in 1940s Paris, a milieu that would seem to be pretty different from where most modern American viewers would have grown up, and yet that hardly seems to matter because Antoine Doinel is such a well-drawn character and his ennui largely seems removed from his surroundings and on some level you can relate to the way that he responds to teachers and parents and the like.  Then there are examples like Federico Fellini’s Amarcord, which is set in a small town in Mussolini’s Italy, but in that case the town is in many ways more the protagonist than the young man at its center and the fact that it’s drawn from such specific memories of its director of this time and place makes it so everything that’s foreign about it simply makes it more interesting.  There are, however times when movies do lose some impact when your personal connection to them is a little more tenuous.  For instance, Terrance Malick’s otherwise immaculately made opus The Tree of Life ultimately never quite impacted me as much as I wanted it to, in part because I never quite connected to the nostalgia of its child protagonist and his rather specific experiences in rural 1950s Texas.  Conversely there’s a very good chance that the experiences I shared with the protagonist of Richard Linklater’s Boyhood really multiplied the enthusiasm I would have had for the film by quite a bit.  I bring this up because the protagonist of the highly acclaimed new film Call Me by Your Name is about as different from me on any level as someone can be and it in many ways puts to the test whether you can connect to audiences in situations like this and how.

The film is set in 1983 in a small town in Northern Italy and focuses on Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet), the seventeen year old son in a Jewish American ex-patriot family that is in Italy because of his father (Michael Stuhlbarg) is an esteemed archeologist.  The film begins with the arrival of Oliver (Armie Hammer), an American graduate student who has come to assist the father for the summer and will be staying with him at the villa.  Elio has spent much of the summer reading, practicing his skills at the piano, and chasing after his girlfriend Marzia (Esther Garrel).  There is, however, something about his relationship with Marzia that leaves Elio unfulfilled and there’s something about this Oliver guy that he finds intruding.

Call Me By Your Name was directed by a guy named Luca Guadagnino, who previously directed a pair of films called I Am Love and A Bigger Splash, which were both movies with fairly different tones but the one thing they had in common was that they were both about rich people living decadent lives in Italy.  A Bigger Splash in particular felt almost like “lifestyle porn” with its British and American expat characters frolicking around on a Mediterranean island while decked in expensive fashions and eating expensive food and seemingly not having a care in the world until someone gets murdered.  Call Me By Your Name does not feel as decadent as that movie did but it’s still very much a movie about rich ex-patriots who live cultured European lives.  Because of this I found the first half of Call Me By Your Name to be a bit slow, in part because it mostly just felt like it was painting a portrait of Elio, who seems like the most privileged 17 year old who ever lived.  This is a dude who is living as a citizen of the world in an idyllic Italian countryside with super chill parents who surround him with culture and who has friends and beautiful girls (who he seems fairly receptive to despite future developments) throwing themselves at him.  His life is one that’s so far removed from my own teenage experiences that simply witness it during its more mundane moments was not really giving me that thrill of recognition I often expect from these kind of movies, which isn’t inherently bad but in the absence of story development I wasn’t terribly interested.

The movie does, however, pick up in a big way once Elio and Oliver stop beating around the bush and commence with their affair.  This development has become controversial in some quarters because of the age difference between the two characters.  On paper Elio is 17 and Oliver is 24, which is kind of questionable to begin with but it’s confounded by the fact that Timothée Chalamet is 22 but quite convincingly looks 17 while Armie Hammer is 31 and looks 31.  The movie does go out of its way to make it clear that the attraction between these two characters is mutual and that Oliver isn’t acting in a particularly predator manner and the movie does still eventually dig a bit into the reasons why a love affair between a high school student and a post-grad might not be an entirely healthy decision for either.  Still, I get why people would be queasy about this relationship but also why people would be open minded about it under these specific circumstances.  Regardless of the morality of the situation I do think Armie Hammer was a bit miscast here in terms of age and also because he never quite fit as this intellectual grad student and he never made it terribly clear to me why his character would be interested in this scrawny pretentious 17 year old.  The movie is primarily from Elio’s point of view so it’s makes sense that his experience of these events would be clearer, but that half of this romance could have been explored a bit more.

I can’t help but compare this movie to the year’s other high profile coming of age movie: Lady Bird.  Unlike this movie, the protagonist of that movie is incredibly relatable for middle class viewers from mid-size American cities.  That movie also feels a lot more clear eyed about how youthful romances tend to play out, which is to say that it views them as misbegotten superficial things that get literally painted over by the end rather than as grand romances to be remembered forever.  On the other hand this movie is hardly oblivious to the fact that the romance at its center is rare and out of the ordinary and the events of the film do feel increasingly meaningful during its last thirty minutes or so.  That’s the other big difference between this and Lady Bird: Gretta Gerwig’s movie feels highly entertaining pretty much from the beginning but never quite seems sure how it wants to end while Call Me By Your Name has a nearly perfect ending but seems to spend an awful lot of time trying to set it up and that made the film’s first half slow and uneventful.  I’m glad I saw the movie in a theater because I suspect I would have lost patience with it and abused the pause button if I was watching it at home.  It’s certainly a well-made film, one that I respect quite a lot, but it’s not necessarily the film for me or at least not the film that’s going to knock my socks off.

Café Society(7/24/2016)

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Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

Through much of his career the narrative around Woody Allen is that he’s a good writer with a strong flair for directing actors but that he’s been kind of indifferent about his films’ visual style.  I don’t know that this narrative was ever true but in the last couple of years this accusation has seemed particularly inaccurate.  Unlike most of the films in his long career Allen’s last three movies have all been shot in widescreen and he’s more often than not been working with A-list cinematographers like Darius Khondji and Vilmos Zsigmond.  For his latest movie he’s working with another major DP, the legendary Vittorio Storaro, who helmed beautiful movies like The Conformist, Apocalypse Now, and The Last Emperor.  This also differs from the average Woody Allen movie in that it’s a period piece.  This is far from unprecedented in Allen’s filmography but it clearly has a larger budget than something like The Curse of the Jade Scorpion or Bullets Over Broadway and it draws a lot more attention to its set decoration and costuming.  All of this is not to say that Woody Allen has suddenly turned into David Fincher, he hasn’t, but he’s clearly continued to challenge himself in certain ways as a director even if he doesn’t always get credit for it.  So the movie looks great when compared to the rest of his films, the question then is if the narrative is worthy of this extra effort.

Set sometime during the 1930s, the film follows a young New Yorker named Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg) who has traveled to Hollywood planning to find work with his uncle Phil Dorfman (Steve Carell).  Upon arrival he quickly learns that Phil doesn’t have a lot of time to deal with him but does ask his secretary Vonnie (Kristen Stewart) to show the young man around town.  He soon forms a friendship with Vonnie and quickly falls for her.  However, she rejects his advances, saying that she is in a relationship with a reporter who “travels a lot.”

On the “serious to farcical” spectrum of Woody Allen movies this probably sits somewhere towards the middle like most of his movies but maybe leaning towards the less comedic.  It has some decent chuckle inducing moments here and there but it’s fairly sincere in its interest in relationship dynamics and actually has a bit of a dark streak when it deals with a  sub-plot about Bobby’s older brother who appears to be a violent gangster by trade.  First and foremost though it’s a movie about a love triangle and, on a more thematic level, it’s about missed opportunities and regrets and the perils of using too much logic when deciding who you choose as a mate.  In fact I kind of suspect that movie is meant as a sort of coded defense of Allen’s much criticized marriage to Soon-Yi Previn.  Whenever he’s asked about that particular tabloid scandal Allen has always said something along the lines of “I know it sounds crazy but the heart wants what it wants.”  With this movie he’s created two characters who do not follow what their hearts want, marry for all the logical reasons, and they end the film regretting what could have been.  It certainly isn’t a one-to-one analogue with Woody Allen’s own situation but I’m pretty sure it was in the back of his mind when he wrote it.  There was a similar theme running through his 2014 film Magic in the Moonlight and I’m kind of surprised that more people didn’t pick up on it there.

Beyond that little reading and beyond the pretty sets and costumes, Café Society is a pretty average Woody Allen movie.  Jesse Eisenberg generally avoids being a Woody Allen stand-in, which is nice, but he does it by just kind of doing his usual “awkward guy shtick,” which kind of makes sense in the role early on but not so well in later scenes.  The film also has a handful of sub-plots and elements that kind of never get a payoff.  For instance there’s an early scene involving a hooker named Candy, which is actually a fairly funny scene, but it doesn’t seem to serve any real purpose in the plot and doesn’t really get brought back up at all.  The whole gangster brother plot line also never really seems to fully integrate.  It takes up a lot of screen time but it actually has very little to do with the course of the main story at the end of the day even though it is kind of interesting in its own right.  I’m something of a Woody Allen completist, I haven’t seen all his movies but I’m well on my way.  As such my standards for what makes a Woody Allen movie “good” or “worth seeing” are maybe a little different than a general audience member’s standards would be.  This one provided me with a couple variations on his usual formula and for me that’s enough to make it kind of interesting.  Others’ mileage will probably vary.

Captain America: Civil War(5/7/2016)

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It’s weird how fortunes can change over the course of a single year.  Take Marvel Studios for example.  These guys were absolutely on top of the world in 2014 after putting out their weightiest movie to date in Captain America: Winter Soldier and their most successfully lighthearted one in Guardians of the Galaxy.  They seemed to be operating at the height of their power… and then 2015 happened.  The year started off with The Avengers: Age of Ultron, which certainly had spirit but was unquestionably an overstuffed mess of a movie that caved in under its own weight.  It has its defenders but it was a bad sign as it suggested that things were going to get really convoluted in this series.  Then there was Ant-Man which was… just kind of forgettable.  It was alright I guess but in a world where they’re making half a dozen comic book movies a year it didn’t stand out and felt more like the kind of super hero movie that would have been made circa 2003 than one from the biggest name in the business.  I would be discouraged by all of that, but crazy as it sounds given how many of these things we already have, the one year delay really just kind of made me hungry for a Marvel film that actually delivered and given that the Russo Brothers more than delivered with Winter Soldier all signs pointed to Captain America: Civil War being the movie that would do that.

Our story this time is set off when the newly formed Avengers headed by Captain America (Chis Evans) and featuring some second tier heroes like Falcon (Anthony Mackie), Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), and Black Widow (Scarlet Johansen) on a mission in Lagos where Crossbones (Frank Grillo) is attempting to steal biological weapons.  This mission goes badly however when Crossbones attempts to set off a suicide vest and Scarlet Witch is forced to use her powers to levitate him away from the crowd but misses her target and sends the explosion into a populated building.  The fallout of this leads world leaders to call for an accord which will regulate the Avengers and place them directly under UN control, a move which Captain America believes will put the world in danger.  Iron Man (Robert Downey Jr.), however, believes that this is a necessary check on the team’s activities and this causes a fracture among the heroes that is accelerated when Bucky “The Winter Soldier” Barnes (Sebastian Stan) reemerges and seemingly kills the king of Wakanda.  When Captain America tries to save Barnes from police sent to shoot on sight he’s declared a fugitive and soon every hero is forced to choose sides.

Captain America: Civil War is in kind of an unusual place in the Marvel Cannon in that it is ostensibly a follow-up to what is clearly their best movie, Captain America: The Winter Soldier, but the sheer number of superheroes in it makes it feel a whole lot like it’s also a third Avengers movie.  Pretty much every Marvel hero is here except for Thor, The Incredible Hulk, and The Guardians of the Galaxy and Iron Man has a huge role in it to the point where he could be considered the protagonist just as much as Captain America.  There are no fewer than twelve costumed heroes involved in this plot including two (Black Panther and Spider-Man) who haven’t been introduced to the Marvel Cinematic Universe before and in light of how much of a mess Age of Ultron and a certain other superhero team-up movie from earlier this year, that was a pretty bad sign.  If anything Captain America: Civil War deserves a lot of credit for being as coherent and well-paced as it is given the immense amount of content it needs to pack into its 147 minute runtime.  The movie certainly moves along at a brisk pace and it wisely opts not to overuse certain characters and to mostly focus on the conflict between Iron Man and Captain America.

The basis for this whole conflict seems a bit odd to me.  The incident in Lagos would seem to be the main catalyst for all this division but more often characters cite the Sokovia incident from Avengers: Age of Ultron and the casualties there as a major influencer for people’s anxieties over superpowered people having free reign.  This is curious, in part because Joss Whedon kind of went out of his way to make sure that there were as few casualties as possible in that final scene out of a seeming desire to give the middle finger to the movie Man of Steel, a fact that was not lost in the cultural reception of that movie.  But even if that scene did result in a huge number of civilians killed in the crossfire it would still seem like an odd thing for the world to complain about.  All through Captain America: Civil War I kept waiting for Captain America to make the most obvious argument against these accusations: “Yes some innocent people died during that battle, but if we hadn’t been there Ultron would have sent his vibraniam machine plummeting to Earth killing every man, woman, and child on the face of the earth (including all the Sokovian civilians).”

What’s more it isn’t exactly clear what the checks and balances of the accords would do to save civilians from superhero activity.  If the UN was controlling The Avengers would they really have disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Ultron from causing apocalyptic extinction?  Would that have also disallowed them from going to Sokovia to prevent Crossbones from stealing biological weapons… that could be used to kill every man woman and child on the plant (including the Lagosians in that office building that got blown up).  Seeing a pattern here.  Even if you view the movie strictly as an allegory for more earthly checks on power this global outrage still doesn’t exactly make sense.  We currently live in a world where the U.S. military routinely kills bystanders in drone strikes and even the most peace-loving among us can only barely muster any outrage over it.  Hell, the army once accidently blew up a Chinese embassy and everyone just shrugged and kept the military industrial complex going and quickly forgot the whole thing.  People are generally fairly willing to accept civilian casualties as long as they think they know who the “good guy” is.

But maybe cogent political allegory is a little too much to expect from a movie that most people are going to based on the promise of seeing a bunch of superheroes battle one another for a couple of hours.  On that level the movie certainly delivers, especially in a scene around two thirds of the way through the film where the two opposing teams of heroes have a battle royale which incorporates all the heroes’ various powers in some relatively inspired ways.  The scene’s impact is slightly diminished by the fact that all of the heroes involved have no intention of killing any of their opponents which kind of sucks the suspense out of the whole thing, but it’s pretty fun nonetheless.  There are of course some concessions to corporate nonsense.  While the Spider-Man that’s introduced here is strong it’s undeniable that he doesn’t really fit very easy into the plot and was almost certainly added as a cross-marketing move, but they somehow mostly get away with it.  It would be impossible not to watch this movie and compare it to this year’s other movie which pitted iconic superheroes against each other, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice, and marvel at how much better this one is.  That other movie’s complete and utter failure perhaps gave me a renewed respect for just how easy Marvel Studios makes the whole superhero team up thing look because this pretty much succeeds everywhere that that movie failed.  It’s not as good as Captain America: The Winter Soldier, which remains Marvel Studio’s best accomplishment but it probably is somewhere in the studio’s top five.

4

Carol(12/27/2015)

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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