Loveless(3/18/2018)


Despite being a major world power Russia really doesn’t have the strongest filmmaking legacy.  That the country was run by a totalitarian government that suppressed free speech for much of the 20th Century almost certainly had something to do with this.  There aren’t too many movements or collectives you hear about in Russian film, rather there tends to be one dominant figure who acts as the standout Russian filmmaker in any given era whether it’s Eisenstein in the 20s and 30s or Andrei Tarkovsky in the 60s and 70s or Nikita Mikhalkov in the 90s.  For the 2000s and 2010s the most acclaimed Russian filmmaker, by a fairly wide margin, is Andrey Zvyagintsev.  Zvyagintsev is not necessarily the most popular figure with Russia’s Ministry of Culture but he consistently proves more popular than his countrymen at film festivals and has a solid following in the West and would likely be even more widely discussed if people knew how to pronounce his name.  His reputation has only expanded with the release of his latest film Loveless, which did quite well at Cannes and which was also one of the 2017 nominees for Best Foreign Language film.

Loveless looks at a rather unpleasant married couple who have already resolved to divorce as the film begins.  The husband, Boris (Aleksey Rozin), has apparently been having an affair with a younger woman named Masha (Marina Vasilyeva) who is already pregnant with his child while the wife, Zhenya (Maryana Spivak), has been having an affair with an older man named Anton (Andris Keišs) who she considers much more gentlemanly than Boris.  Caught in the middle of all this is their twelve year old boy Alexey (Matvey Novikov), who is often ignored and neglected as his parents fight among themselves.  One day the parents realize that their son has disappeared and may have been gone for a couple of days without them having noticed.  Receiving little help from the police the two find themselves hiring some sort of private investigator to help track down the kid but their internal conflicts continue to plague both of them.

Andrey Zvyagintsev started his in the early 2000s with a film called The Return and has continued to make a number of intentionally cold little slices of life that feel meditative while still telling stories and having plots that can be grasped.  His last film, Leviathan, was something of a departure in that it had more of a streak of satire, albeit of the pitch black variety, and had more of an allegorical level.  His new film, Loveless is a bit of a return to the style of something like Elena which simply takes an artful look into the abyss of bourgeois existence.  As usual Zvyagintsev films the movie by making great use of a still frame and giving the whole thing a sort of artful gaze.  It’s kind of like what David Fincher’s films would look like if he worked on less commercial projects and generally slowed things down a little.  Zvyagintsev also makes great use of these Moscow locations which certainly don’t seem to be lacking in money but which are still rather desolate and kind of depressing.

One of the film’s producers has said the movie was about “Russian life, Russian society and Russian anguish” but despite that quote I do think people are being a little reductive when they look at the whole movie in terms of its Russian origins and reductively call it a movie about how unpleasant that country can be.  After all, there are loveless marriages and missing children everywhere and I think the film does tap into a type of malaise which exists far beyond Moscow.  The film also shouldn’t be mistaken for some sort of argument for traditional family values as the movie is careful to also critique the society the way society pressured them into marrying when young and how it continued to keep them together despite obvious incompatibility.  There’s an odd sub-plot in which Boris is told by a colleague that his Christian fundamentalist bosses require that all the employees at their company be married with children and will fire him if its learned he’s divorcing, a policy which is pretty clearly only leading everyone involved to misery, but the problems these two people are facing are bigger than this of course and the film offers little hope at the end that their separation will really solve all their problems.  That general air of miserableness is not going to endear the film to all audiences, and as with most Zvyagintsev I find I probably respect it more than I love it, but it’s hard to deny it’s a strong piece.

**** out of Five

Advertisements

Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi(12/14/2017)

Warning: This review contains spoilers.

It’s been about two years since the release of Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens but the hype-train leading up to it almost feels a bit like a distant memory.  That movie’s very existence almost seemed like a miracle, like something we were never going to see until George Lucas passed away, or that if it did exist under Lucas’ eye it would have been met with incredible suspicion.  But the movie did come out, all signs pointed to it being the movie everyone wanted and somehow some way it basically lived up to the hype.  Critics like it, audiences loved it, and it ended up being the highest grossing film of all time at the domestic box office.  I liked it too, I didn’t love it beyond reason, but it was a very solid blockbuster with some great new characters and a firm grasp of what a Star Wars movie should probably look like in the 21st Century.  Prior to its release I greeted The Force Awakens with cautious optimism but I’ll admit I came pretty close to getting caught up in the hype as well on some level.  Oddly though, with its direct follow-up The Last Jedi my excitement has been a bit muted despite all signs pointing to it being and even bigger deal than its predecessor.  This might have simply been the result of me being a little too diligent in avoiding spoilers for my own good.  At a certain point all I’d really known about the movie was that initial “breathe” trailer, which maybe wasn’t the best put together piece of advertising ever.  Still, it’s Star Wars, and when Star Wars comes around you show up for it.

The film picks up not too long after the events of The Force Awakens and despite having had their super-weapon base destroyed in the last movie it seems that the First Order have largely taken over the galaxy and the resistance against them is on its last legs.  In the opening scenes the resistance are evacuating from their last base and escape to light speed just in time to avoid destruction.  They think they’re in the clear, only to suddenly have the First Order have found a way to track people through hyperspace and suddenly appear right behind them.  Realizing that another jump to light speed would only waste the last of their fuel, the resistance hits their thrusters and diverts shields to the rear, which allows their faster armada to stay just ahead of their pursuers as long as their fuel lasts.  Desperate, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) and Finn (John Boyega) hatch a plan for Finn to leave the flotilla along with his new friend Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) and travel to a separate planet to find a codebreaker who will help them infiltrate the lead imperial ship and turn off their ability to track the rebels when they jump to hyperspace.  Meanwhile, Rey (Daisy Ridley) is reunited with Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) on Ahch-To as per the final moments of The Force Awakens only to discover that Luke has become bitter about the ways of the Jedi and has no interest in training another apprentice.  Persistent, Rey proclaims she will not be leaving the planet without Luke or at least without some lesson, but she’s also become troubled by strange visions she’s been having of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), visions where she starts to wonder if he’s looking back at her.

Let’s start with that inciting incident.  One of the problems I had with The Force Awakens is that it seemed pretty unclear just what this First Order was and how they managed to take over the galaxy in such a short time from this republic that our heroes had fought so hard to establish in the first movies.  This problem sort of persists here with us learning in the opening scroll that despite taking a big L in the first movie the First Order had become dominant in the galaxy and were now more or less in the position the Empire was in in the original trilogy.  This felt a bit odd given that the Resistance did seem to still have a pretty decent foothold in The Force Awakens but here they seem even weaker than the scrappy rebellion of the original movies and are so small and contained that they are confined to what appear to be four spaceships.  The idea of those four spaceships getting into a sort of low speed battle of attrition with star destroyers as they just barely outrun them is a cool one and I can imagine something like that having the makings of a good episode of Battlestar Galactica or something but it’s a little hard to believe in this context.  Why doesn’t the First Order simply call for re-enforcements to cut them off from the other side?  They’re running the galaxy now and they have gigantic armies don’t they?  For that matter what’s stopping them from simply sending more Tie-Fighters try to outflank them like Kylo Ren did early on?

But okay, it’s a cool little tense scenario and I can work with it, but the tenseness of that scenario is something of a double edged sword as it makes the danger feel really immediate and pressing and that really takes the fun out of any sort of delay along the way.  It makes it harder to sympathize with Luke’s hesitance to join in initially, but the bigger problem is that it makes it kind of infuriating to watch Finn and Rose horse around (literally and figuratively) while on their side mission to the decadent planet of Canto Bight.  This whole section of the movie is frankly a disaster.  I might have enjoyed exploring this decadent space resort but everything’s supposed to be on the line at that point in the story and that is not the time for them to be exploring the lighter adventure aspects of the franchise and especially not when they’re this poorly executed.  That space horse escape scene was decidedly not worth the effect it has on the narrative and the fact that they were stupid enough to put their whole operation in danger just because they couldn’t wait to find a parking lot was dumb and so was the coincidence of finding themselves in the same jail cell as a code-breaker who is good enough to help them with their rather specific mission.

Granted, as new characters go I rather liked Rose and thought Kelly Marie Tran brought something interesting to the table in terms of Star Wars characters and didn’t just feel like an echo of or reaction to previous Star Wars personalities like so many of the characters from The Force Awakens did.  It had more mixed feelings about Benecio Del Toro’s character DJ, I did enjoy his interactions with Finn where he debated the morality of the resistance but I did not like the way he just coincidentally entered the movie by showing up in the right jail cell and didn’t believe that Finn would have risked hiring him for such a critical mission.  Poe Dameron, though technically established in The Force Awakens only really starts to get significant screen time here.  I wouldn’t say I disliked Dameron in the previous film, but nothing about the character particularly impressed me, he just seemed like this very generic hero and given what we’ve been given here he almost seems like a parody of the white male heroes that have historically been at the centers of space operas and serials like this.  In many ways this movie seems to have been made to pull the rug out from under him but it doesn’t quite have the nerve to really go in for the killshot.  I did appreciate how effectively the movie tricks the audience into going along with his insubordination and makes you assume the ends will justify the means but it also doesn’t want him to live with the consequences once this blows up in his face.  This guy was essentially gambling with the fate of the galaxy and lost; he got hundreds if not thousands of resistance members killed, and yet just a couple hours later he still has a leadership position in the resistance and is still being treated as a hero.

The material with Rey and Luke on the other hand generally fared a little bit better but isn’t without its own flaws.  Mark Hamill is quite good in the movie and makes a compelling case that he should have been getting more work all these years.  That said, unlike Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher it’s a little hard to reconcile the older Luke Skywalker with the fresh-faced young man from the original films.  That’s explained to some extent in the backstory about his history with Kylo, which is shown in what I believe is the first instance of real flashback in the history of Star Wars.  This backstory does a pretty good job of explaining why Luke is bitter and ready to end the Jedi order, but I don’t necessarily get why he opted to fuck off to a remote planet instead of staying behind to help clean up the mess he made.  Regardless, his unwillingness to train Rey now that she’s sought him out on the planet is understandable given the track-record we’ve seen so far of highly powerful people getting trained late in life that we’ve seen so far.  In fact I feel like the question of what qualifies as Jedi is kind of an inconsistency throughout the Star Wars canon at this point.  The prequels made the Jedi out to be these warrior monk samurai who achieve their status through years of hard work and study, which probably scans best with how these sorts of things work in real life.  The original trilogy doesn’t exactly contradict this as it seems to suggest that force sensitive people can go their entire lives not even knowing they have powers, but it does seem to suggest that in a pinch a few months of running through the jungle with Yoda will probably be good enough.

In this new Abrams trilogy it feels more like being a Jedi is just something you can sort of pick up on even if you’ve never been trained at all.  Here Leia is apparently able to use the force to survive in the vacuum of space despite having presumably rejected Jedi training (a truly odd scene if ever there was one) and in the last movie Rey could apparently fight off a trained sith in a lightsaber fight just on instinct and here she’s similarly able to take on all the knights of ren about as effectively as Kylo could.  In the last movie I gave them some benefit of the doubt about this in hopes that there would be some explanation for that in the sequels but here they seem to actively suggest there is no explanation.  Yet Luke still insists at the end that Rey is going to become a Jedi somehow despite having not received any real training, losing her one possible mentor, and having not even been left with some books to study.  And if training is truly this irrelevant to what being a powerful Jedi is all about why exactly does Luke feel guilty about having trained Kylo or think it might be dangerous to similarly train Rey?  Doesn’t exactly make sense for someone who thinks she’s such a natural that she can just be a Jedi autodidact.

The Rey-related elements of this section of the movie generally work quite well though.  It’s pretty easy to relate to her frustration with Luke and her palpable desire to train while on that island works pretty well.  More importantly her strange force-induced psychological bond with Kylo Ren is quite effective and you can really feel a palpable tension in them.  These also lead to what is rather plainly the strongest section of the movie: the confrontation between Rey, Kylo, and Snoke.  Andy Serkis’ Snoke is great here and throughout the movie and really redeems what had seemed like a rather odd element in The Force Awakens and while I was sad to see him go I will say that I was pretty genuinely surprised that they were willing to split him right in half right here in the second movie and the ensuing fight with the guards was also a really good.  It wasn’t just the Kylo/Rey stuff that was working well here; all the storylines converge quite nicely during this section of the film.  Poe’s mutiny was very exciting and tense, Finn and Rose’s storyline finally picks up as they sneak onto the ship and get captured, and the moment when Holdo does a light speed kamikaze run is obviously incredible.  In fact the movie so clearly peaks at this point that it’s kind of odd that it keeps on going for another twenty minutes or so and while there’s good stuff in the battle on Crait it certainly feels less involved than what came before and almost feels like something that should have happened in a latter movie.

The big complaint about The Force Awakens was of course that it played things too safe to the point that it almost felt like a re-skinned remake of the original Star Wars.  To some extent this sequel also seems to echo its predecessors.  The way it splits up an aspiring Jedi trying to train on a remote planet with her friends being on the run from bad guys is not unlike the structure of The Empire Strikes Back and the way Finn and Rey are betrayed is not unlike what Lando does to Han and Leia in that movie.  And yet “playing it too safe” is certainly not something you can really accuse The Last Jedi of doing given that it pretty deliberately does the opposite of what you’d expect at various moments, sometimes to the point of underwhelming.  Most controversially the film kills off the mysterious Snoke without so much as trying to explain who he was or where he came from and also rather casually giving the most mundane explanation for Rey’s parentage possible.  One could blame Star Wars fans for obsessing over those two mysteries and setting themselves up for disappointment, but to that I call bullshit.  The fans had every reason to ponder over those mysteries given that they were questions that J.J. Abrams quite intentionally left open, more than inviting people to theorize about them for two years.  If he doesn’t have a good answer for something he maybe shouldn’t set it up as a mystery… has he learned nothing from “Lost.”

There is perhaps something of a meta-textual reading to all this.  Leaving the old ways behind seems to be one to the film’s most consistent and on the nose themes.  Luke talks about letting the Jedi die out until sort of changing his mind, Kylo literally kills his mentor and talks about leaving “the old ways” behind, Yoda’s force ghost literally burns the old order to the ground.  The whole thing seems to be some sort of metaphor for the series itself breaking away from its usual traditions and framing it through a sort of Silicon Valley lens of “disruption” as necessary for progress.  It’s kind of a wild message to be delivering given that their last Star Wars movie was nostalgia-tinged to the point where it inspired the phrase “memberberries,” and to go straight from something like that to something like this which is flipping over tables and burning things to the ground causes a certain degree of whiplash.  A lot of people are praising them for being bold and taking risks, but taking risks isn’t an inherently praiseworthy thing; you also need to make the right risks, the ones that actually pay off, and all too often I don’t think the direction that Abrams and Johnson chose go pays off.

Beyond meta readings of the movie the more overt messages of The Last Jedi are all over the place and at times contradictory.  In his ghostly appearance (which was poorly executed incidentally, I think Frank Oz has lost his gift at doing this voice) tells Luke to let the old order burn and Kylo Ren also destroys the Sith order, and yet by the end Luke defiantly declares that he won’t be the last Jedi.  Finn’s story ends with Rose preventing his kamikaze run and telling him that they’re going to win by saving what they love rather than fighting what they hate, whatever that means, but this more or less contradicts a similar act of self-sacrifice that Holdo had more or less been valorized for committing and if not for the unexpected intervention of Luke’s force projection this act of “saving what they love” would have done nothing more than to doom the galaxy.  Finn’s lesson on the other hand is supposed to be that he needs to stop taking unnecessary risks and quit acting impulsively, but as stated previously the film never really engages in the consequences of this.  The overall theme might be something more general along the lines of “you need to learn from your failures,” but a lot of these failures seem more the kind of failures that kill you than make you stronger.  By the end of the movie the resistance (which seemed oddly small to begin with) has been reduced to the point where they can all fit into the Millennium Falcon.  It’s implied that the true victory is that the galaxy is now “inspired” by their stand, but I don’t see why they would be given how much they screwed up, the events of the last movie seem a hell of a lot more “inspirational” to me.  The only real hope to be found in this ending is that their opponent seems kind of incompetent and is now in the hands of a petulant child who got his ass kicked by a novice in the last movie and got played for a chump in this one.

So is this even a good movie?  When I first left my the theater I would have said “yes” even though I was a bit baffled by what I’d just seen.  While watching the movie disappointment had set in early on and there continued to be moments I just did not like, but there were also moments that sort of made up for that.  The characters remained fairly likable and there were action scenes which gave me that excited Star Wars feel.  However, the film’s general messiness and tonal confusion remained and as time has gone on its flaws have stuck with me more than its moments of excitement.  I could go on and on about why Rian Johnson’s “burn it all down” attitude annoys me and why his refusal to engage in the mysteries of the previous film is a dereliction of duty, but that isn’t really the problem here so much as a series of smaller offenses just sort of drown the movie.  It’s less a death of a thousand cuts than a injury of 250 or so cuts.  I do not, however, want to go too deep into the realms of hyperbole and suggest that I hate the movie or that there aren’t plenty of redeeming qualities to it.  I suspect that a lot of the things I found to be gaping flaws will seem a lot more forgivable to the more casual Star Wars fans who just wants to see a lot of lightsaber fights and space ship battles, but the movie does not hold up to closer analysis and its rather flippant attitude towards a filmmaking legacy that means so much to so many people is pretty hard to take.  I’ll give the movie one thing: my dislike of it has been a keen reminder of how much this franchise meant to me in the first place.

Last Flag Flying(11/19/2017)

The “New Hollywood” era of the late 1960s and 1970s was a marvelous moment in filmmaking, the one by which most serious American films today is judged against, and it’s also a great entry point for budding film buffs to get into movies that are more challenging than the mainstream blockbusters we’re often fed today.  That was certainly true for me and filmmakers like Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola did a lot to shape my interest in cinema and the deeper I went the more I was able to see the importance in some of the names that never really went on to be major institutions like Arthur Penn and Bob Rafelson.  However, if there was one fairly major figure from that era whose films I was never quite able to get into it was probably Hal Ashby.  I can see some of the boundaries he broke and I can see his influence but he sure made a lot of “classic” film which I don’t actually particularly enjoy watching.  His cult classic Harold and Maude always just sort of struck me as a redo of what made Mike Nichols’ The Graduate work, Shampoo sort of bored me, and while some of his later 70s work like Coming Home and Being There are neat movies that both have their charms they still aren’t really movies that sing to my soul.  The same sort of goes for his 1973 film The Last Detail, a movie I know I’ve seen but which I don’t particularly remember outside of the general plot setup and a few scenes. I had meant to give that film a re-watch in preparation for my viewing of its new unofficial sequel to that movie from director Richard Linklater, Last Flag Flying, but I didn’t manage to fit that into my schedule but now I wish I had because Linklater’s film has certainly renewed my interest in these characters.

Last Flag Flying is not a direct sequel to Ashby’s The Last Detail, but it is based on a novel by Darryl Ponicsan which was published in 2005 to be a follow-up to his previous novel which was the basis for Ashby’s film.  The character names are different here, possibly for legal reasons (hence “unofficial sequel”) and they’re being played by different actors but it’s very clear that the people here are meant to be echoes of the characters from The Last Detail plus thirty years of aging.  It begins with Larry “Doc” Shepard (Steve Carell) walking into a bar owned by Sal Nealon (Bryan Cranston) and re-introducing himself.  He tells Nealon that he spent two years in the brig after having been escorted by him and his fellow soldier, but that since then he’s settled into civilian life and actually has a military-adjacent job in New Hampshire.  Deciding to catch up Shepard drives Nealon out over to a nearby Baptist church, where Nealon comes to realize that the reverend speaking is none other than Richard Mueller (Laurence Fishburn), the other soldier who escorted him to the brig thirty years prior.  After catching up with Mueller Shepard explains his reasons for re-uniting the three men: his wife had recently died of breast cancer and his son had apparently enlisted in the marines the prior year and was killed in action two days prior in Bagdad.  The three then decide to go with him to Arlington cemetery to oversee the funeral and provide support.

Though the names and actors have changed it isn’t hard to tell what each character’s counterpart from The Last Detail is supposed to be.  Steve Carrell’s Larry “Doc” Shepard despite having matured into a rather plain suburbanite is plainly based on Randy Quaid’s Laurence “Larry” Meadows, the young and possibly disturbed young man being escorted to the brig for stealing $40 from a collection plate.  Bryan Cranston’s Sal Nealon is plainly meant to be Jack Nicholson’s Billy “Badass” Buddusky, and he remains an aimless hedonist who has spent the last thirty years running a dive bar and chasing women.  And Laurence Fishburn’s Richard Mueller is meant to be a vision of what became of Otis Young’s Richard Mulhall, who unlike Nealon has left his hard drinking ways behind and found a new life as a respected reverend and family man.

These characters have changed in a number of ways since their time in Vietnam but also stayed the same in certain notable ways which is probably the main tension of the film.  Linklater has said that he was inspired to make the film after he caught up with some of his old college baseball friends while researching his last movie Everybody Wants Some!! and making certain observations about what these reunions of old friends are like.  At a certain point it becomes, in typical Linklater fashion, a bit of a hangout movie in which these men just talk to each other, catch up and think back on the Vietnam experience and its similarities and differences from the war in Iraq.  Here Mueller and Nealon take on a perhaps more obvious role as the sort of angel and devil over Shepard’s shoulder with Mueller suggesting he follow the usual process of military decorum and mourning while Nealon encourages him to rebel against the marine corps who killed his son and conduct a funeral devoid of the pomp and circumstance of a state funeral.  Added to the mix is the character of Charlie Washington (J. Quinton Johnson), one of the deceased son’s fellow soldiers who accompanies the men on part of their journey and adds the perspective of a younger generation of marines in some interesting discussions.

It is perhaps unfortunate that Amazon and Lionsgate have opted to release Last Flag Flying in late November when it is likely to get lost in the shuffle of flashier prestige films with hookier premises because it’s certainly another very solid entry in the Richard Linklater filmography.  The connection to The Last Detail is ultimately something that shouldn’t distract the viewer too much as the movie stands alone and is ultimately a film more in line with Linklater’s usual style than that of Hal Ashby.  Like Linklater’s other movies Last Flag Flying does a great job of placing its audience into the shoes of a certain kind of people and allowing them to observe their interactions like a fly on a wall.  The characters here are a bit more blue-collar than some of his usual characters and there’s no obvious Linklater analogue here like there are in some of his other movies but that doesn’t seem to hold him back from presenting interesting and three dimensional characters and he proves to have unexpected insights (possibly Darryl Ponicsan’s contribution) into the meaning of military service.  It doesn’t have the entertainment value of something like Dazed and Confused (though parts of it are funny), or the audacity of something like Boyhood, or the universality of the Before trilogy, but it does still work in much the way some of his other movies do and continues this little win streak he’s suddenly amassed.

Lady Bird(11/18/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Spoilers

The thing about coming of age movies is that they’re written by people who have already come of age looking back at their youths.  This means that they’re generally set in the past, often about ten or twenty years ago, which just so happens to be the peak period for an entire generation’s nostalgia interest.  That’s why George Lucas set American Graffiti in the early 60s, why Richard Linklater set Dazed and Confused in the late 70s, why Noah Baumbach set The Squid and the Whale in the 80s, and why… I actually can’t think of too many set in the 90s (The Wackness, I guess) but you get the point.  Well, after years and years of watching other people’s memories of bygone eras things have finally come around: I’m finally old enough that they’re making nostalgic coming of age movies about the era when I was actually in high school.  The new film Lady Bird, directed by 34 year old Greta Gerwig, is about the high school experience of someone from the class of 2003 and while that is still technically about three years older than me (class of 2006) it’s still basically the era I knew compete with watching news about the Iraq War, seeing people talk on non-ubiquitous flip phones, and hearing Justin Timberlake songs get played at parties.  It’s kind of freaking me out, but I won’t hold that against the movie, which is one of the year’s most critically acclaimed.

The film is set in 2002 and 2003 and takes place over the course of the senior year of Christine McPherson (Saoirse Ronan), who insists on going by the self-applied nickname “Lady Bird” for some teenagery reason.  Lady Bird lives in Sacramento, a city she does not have much appreciation for, and goes to a catholic school despite her parents only barely being able to afford it.  Lady Bird is a character who could be called “quirky” but she’s not quirky in an unbelievable indie-movie sort of way, she’s more quirky in the way that brainy high school students actually behave when trying to find their own identity.  She wears red hair dye and occasionally rebels (though not too wildly) against the rigidity of the nuns and priests who run her school.  Her mother Marion (Laurie Metcalf ) can be a bit much to handle and her father Larry (Tracy Letts) often struggles financially and otherwise while acting as something of a “good guy” when dealing with Lady Bird.

Lady Bird is kind of a hard movie to talk about.  Many of its qualities are readily apparent but sound kind of mundane if not cliché when their described on the page.  Much of its appeal comes down to little details that make it feel very true to life and just generally make its central character a bit more… I don’t know that lovable is the word (at the end of the day she is still a dumb teenager) but certainly more fully realized and human.  Saoirse Ronan’s performance is one of the movie’s biggest assets.  I had assumed that Ronan was done playing teenagers after having played someone in their early twenties or thereabouts in Brooklyn but she seems able to slide right back into playing an 18 year old despite being 23.  Lady Bird, the character, is in some ways less a real person than the self-image that people construct of a sort of ideal of what they would have been in high school if they could live it all over again.  Fun and arty, cool but not necessarily part of the unpleasant “in-crowd” for the most part, extremely self-confident and rebellious but not is a way that’s really dangerous.  Much of the film focuses on Lady Bird going through typical teenage stuff over the course of her senior year like making new friends and going through boyfriends, but what the movie ultimately comes down to is her relationship with her parents and especially her mother.

This is actually where the film both gets interesting and also kind of falls short for me.  It’s not unusual for these coming of age films to feature conflicts between teenagers and their parents but usually the films implicitly side with the parents and view the teenager’s rage against them to be the result of a youthful failure to appreciate legitimate parental concerns, and if they don’t it’s because the parents are straight up abusive or something.  Here Lady Bird’s mother doesn’t exactly seem like a terrible person but she does kind of suck.  She’s someone who constantly nagging her daughter over goofy little things like how quickly she washes her school uniforms while being seemingly uninterested in helping her with the bigger problems in her life.  The mother’s key flaw seems to be the gigantic chip she has on her shoulder about money and class.  She’s constantly going on about how the family is “poor” even though they really only appear to be, at worst, lower middle class and this also leads her to have an incredibly snobby attitude about public schools and anyone who’s actually poor.  This manifests itself in its worst way when she actively discourages her daughter in her ambitions and begins acting like a petulant child herself when Lady Bird ends up surpassing expectations.

The fact that I was actually on the side of the rebellious teenager by the end of the film is a big part of why the film’s ending didn’t quite work for me.  In some ways I feel like the movie should have just ended with Lady Bird getting on the airplane and left the conflict between her and her mother as this messy thing that simply isn’t going to be resolved anytime soon and will probably linger with the characters for years.  On some levels I do think Gerwig wanted that but for whatever reason she added on this little post false-ending coda about her first few days in college leading up to an attempt at reconciliation that frankly felt unearned.  If anything it was the mother who owed the daughter an apology and the notion of a college student who frankly has nothing to apologize for having some epiphany to be the bigger person and end the conflict just because she had a wild night or two.  Whether or not the movie sticks the landing though, this is plainly the best look at adolescence since Linklater’s Boyhood and is in many ways a joy to watch.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer(11/4/2017)

Warning: Review Contains Plot Spoilers

There are weird filmmakers and then there’s Yorgos Lanthimos, who’s proven to be one of the more outlandish voices in modern cinema and who has managed to bring his curious visions to the screen on a larger scale than I would have expected without making any compromises.  Lathimos first emerged when his controversial 2009 Greek film Dogtooth showed up in Cannes and surprisingly won the Prix Un Certain Regard despite being a crazy disturbing movie.  It fascinated fans of international cinema so much that it even garnered a nomination the next year for Best Foreign Language Film at the Academy Awards, a choice that was almost certainly made by the special selecting committee.  His follow-up, Alps, was something of a sophomore slump.  People didn’t dislike it, but it just didn’t really cause the stir of his nominal debut.  He did, however, rebound with his English Language debut The Lobster.  That movie didn’t fully work for me but it was certainly interesting and provocative and made me interested to see more.  Fortunately that “more” has arrived in the form of The Killing of a Sacred Deer, another English language film starring Colin Farrell and quite possibly his darkest film yet and that’s saying something.

The film looks at the life of a successful heart surgeon named Steven Murphy (Colin Farrell) who lives in Cincinnati with his wife Anna (Nicole Kidman), teenage daughter Kim (Raffey Cassidy), and adolescent son Bob (Sunny Suljic).  The family is mostly happy despite a couple of strange quirks like Steven’s curious role-playing fetishes.  As the film begins Steven has recently reconnected with a strange sixteen year old boy named Martin (Barry Keoghan) whose relation to Steven is not immediately clear.  He tells his anesthesiologist Matthew (Bill Camp) that Martin is a classmate of his daughter with an interest in medicine who he’s been sort of mentoring, but he stills his wife that Martin is the son of a former patient of his who ended up dying in a car accident.   Wherever it was that Steven first encountered Martin it becomes clear that Martin is more and more finding his way into Steven’s life whether Steven wants him to or not and when his son mysteriously stops being able to walk it becomes all the more urgent to understand who or what Martin is and find out just what it takes to get rid of him.

This movie is basically impossible to talk about meaningfully without getting into spoilers so I’m going to get right to it.  The title “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” is a reference to the Greek myth of Agamemnon, who found himself invoking the wrath of the goddess Artemis after he unknowingly kills a deer that was under her protection and was eventually forced to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia in order to satisfy her, thus allowing his troops to move on to the Trojan War.  A similar dilemma comes into place here when it’s revealed that Martin has cursed Steven’s wife, son, and daughter through some form of unexplained magic in retaliation for Steven having killed his father through malpractice and will let them all three of them die unless Steven chooses one of the three and kills them himself.  There are of course noticeable differences between the myth and the film, most importantly the fact that Steven is given less of an out than Agamemnon (who could have chosen to forgo going to Troy despite the incredible blow it would have dealt to his honor and reputation) was and unlike Agamemnon’s wife the wife here is ultimately on board with the sacrifice even if self-preservation is part of her reason.

The myth, at least in Aeschylus’ rather influential telling of it, is something of an exercise in an eye for an eye leaving the whole world blind.  Agamemnon’s wife never forgives him sacrificing their daughter and upon her husband’s return from the war she conspires to kill him and in turn her surviving children, Orestes and Electra conspire to kill her and are then only themselves saved from the furies through divine intervention.  Needless to say much of that isn’t paralleled in the movie so this probably shouldn’t be viewed as a complete one to one parallel of the myth but the film does have a similar interest in the morality of revenge and of what an eye for an eye truly means.  There’s a point in the film where Martin bites Steven on the arm and then suddenly bites his own arm similarly out of some kind of warped sense of needing to restore the balance of power.  I don’t, however, know that the film necessarily delves too deeply into the morality of this kind of revenge outside of the general ghastliness of Steven’s situation and perhaps the ending in which the family essentially turns the other cheek rather than perpetuating the cycle of violence that the myth descended into.

I found the overall plot of The Killing of a Sacred Deer fascinating and I also liked the way a lot of it was constructed.  The sticking point for me is probably the same thing that tripped me up about The Lobster: the way that Lathimos has his characters interact it weird and off-putting.  Where most writers and directors strive for conversational naturalism Lathimos is a filmmaker that tends to have his characters who speak in somewhat blunt and stilted dialogue and just do strange things when talking to each other.  This wasn’t as clear in Dogtooth, firstly because it was in a foreign language and secondly because it was assumed that the family at its center was a sort of aberrant cult in the middle of a world of otherwise normal people.  It also kind of made sense in The Lobster given that that movie was set in an otherworldly dystopia but was still a bit of a distraction that I pegged on Lathimos’ adjustment to making movies in English.  With his latest film I’m pretty sure it’s intentional and it’s increasingly hard to explain given that the movie seems to take place in the real world despite the supernatural element strange psychodrama that the principal characters are involved in.  It’s also distracting here because it becomes increasingly hard to tell whether it’s an important part of the puzzle that these characters are willing, for example, to discuss body hair and menstruation without any kind of filter.  Does that make some grand statement about the kind of people these are or is it just a quirky red herring?

This is not an insignificant problem, it makes it kind of hard to get a real grasp of the characters when their personalities are prone to swing a lot and that becomes an issue when much of a film’s appeal is in seeing how its characters are going to respond to a fantastical situation.  The benefit of the approach, I suppose, is that it primes you for the strangely casual way that the film introduces the supernatural at about the halfway point and also just that it adds flavor to the movie.  Was that worth it?  I don’t know but I wouldn’t say it was a deal breaker.  In many ways this is a film I maybe want to give another look before making a final judgment, but it seems like another bold film from a filmmaker who is doing things that few other people are doing right now in cinema.  It is however a movie that’s hard to pinpoint an audience for.  It’s certainly not a movie that I’m going to recommend to random movie-goers and even among cinephilles it’s going to be a film that’s hard to describe without spoiling, especially if I want to get across just how weird and dark the film can get.

The Lost City of Z(4/23/2017)

4-23-2017LostCityofZ

It’s always interesting to watch a good filmmaker as they pivot.  That’s what seems to be happening at the moment with James Gray, who’s not really a director I’m an expert on but whose work I know well enough that I can tell he’s in a transitional place in his work.  Gray began his career with a trilogy of crime films set on the gritty streets of New York and dealing with the Russian mafia.  He then seemed like he was going to transition into the realm of intimate contemporary character study when he made the movie Two Lovers but then he seemed to realize that that the indie film world already had more than enough intimate romance films so he switched things up again with his next film The Immigrant.  That film was another New York story but one set in 1921 and focusing on a female protagonist.  I was really fond of that movie when I saw it a couple of years ago but I’d be lying if I said that it had stuck with me as much as I had thought it would.  That movie did seem to indicate a new direction Gray would be going however as his next movie also seems to be taking a classical, if slightly modernized, approach to a familiar kind of period piece, in this case the “jungle adventure.”

That film, The Lost City of Z, is Gray’s first film to not in any way be set in New York.  The film is about a British military officer in the late 1800s/early 1900s named Percy Fawcett (Charlie Hunnam) whose career has been stunted both because he served in peacetime and because he comes from a family line that’s been previously tainted in scandal.  When an opportunity comes along to finally that would allow him to gain military rank and help overcome his family’s legacy he jumps at it and that opportunity comes in the form of working together with the Royal Geographic Society in order to survey the Amazon along the Brazilian/Bolivian border in order to settle those countries land disputes and maintain the peace.  While there he finds himself fascinated by the native populations and begins searching for evidence that would suggest that there was once a vast civilization he calls “Z” (which is pronounced “Zed” in the British fashion) in the Amazon which would prove to the other whites that that there was more to these people than it seemed.

The film is based on a recent non-fiction book called “The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon” by David Grann and seems to largely be a pretty close re-telling of the real history of Percy Fawcett… and this is kind of a problem.  It’s easy to picture Gray reading that book with rapt attention, falling in love with the story it told, and feeling compelled to make audiences the world over as interested in Fawcett as he is.  And indeed, this is a guy who did live a fascinating life and I’m glad to have learned about him but his life does not exactly fit into a three act structure, which is not an insurmountable obstacle but it would have forced Gray to either adapt the story a little more to fit into one or found some new creative way to get around it.  Instead Gray has opted to do a very straightforward adaptation that would let the facts speak for themselves, which wasn’t necessarily the worst idea ever but it does give the film a pretty awkward through line.  It’s very much a film told in simple factual prose instead of poetry more often than not.

That should not suggest that the film doesn’t have its share of redeeming qualities.  The film is at its best when it focuses in on that “obsession” that featured in the title of the film’s source material.  This manifests itself in some kind of hokey ways at times (looking at you fortune teller) but at its heart it’s pretty interesting.  Characters in the film frequently mentions that similar lost cities had also become the fixation of the conquistadors and driving them to ruin, which conjures up images of Aguirre drifting down river surrounded by chimps, and contrasts it with Fawcett’s own obsession for a lost city.  His reasons for looking for said lost city are certainly more “woke” than those of the conquistadors but is his obsession any less self-destructive?  His motives are also a bit curious.  He’s trying to prove that South American natives were capable of building large civilizations with big structures and pottery but it’s not exactly clear in the movie why that would have been such a revelation.  Europeans were already well aware of the Aztec, Incan, and Mayan empires at this point so what would a third civilization have really proved?  I’m sure there are answers to that question but if any of those answers are in the actual movie I think I missed them.  Still, there was something to watching Fawcett’s evolution as a humanitarian and anthropologist of sorts and I was interested to see him doing this to some extent.

Of course one of the things preventing the obsession theme from really reaching its full potential is that Charlie Hunnam’s performance is a bit weak.  I’ve never really been much of a fan of Hunnam’s work and while he’s not terrible here or anything but I don’t think he really gives this role the presence that would really make him pop from the screen and become something memorable.  Some of the adventure/travelogue elements of the film do work and manage to find a way to be interesting and entertaining without having the kind of Indiana Jones style serial action that often characterizes other jungle adventure films.  Still, even if the film is an interesting journey through the Amazon with some respect for the indigenous people, there is another movie that looms large over all this: Ciro Guerra’s Embrace of the Serpent, which was one of the best movies of last year.  For whatever The Lost City of Z does to try to be different from the colonialist narratives of this region it sure as hell isn’t that different and it also isn’t in much of a position to engage in anywhere near that movie’s level formal and narrative experimentation.  I’m not trying to just say “this movie with Robert Pattinson in it isn’t as daring as a black and white foreign film, therefore it’s bad” but it does put into perspective that there were more interesting ways to adapt this kind of material and Gray just wasn’t able to find them.

2-5_zpsn9coif22