Moana(12/3/2016)

12-3-2016Moana

This July I did something kind of out of character: I saw a Pixar movie (Finding Dory) in the theaters.  Don’t have some huge reason for this but it was a slow week, the damn thing was on track to become the highest grossing movie of the year, and I wanted to be “in” on the conversation.  Since then I decided that 2016 was maybe the year to change things up and try to keep up with the major animated movies of the for once, in part because these was starting to look like a banner year for animation and in part because I’m just generally trying to be a little more open minded about what I see in general recently.  I don’t know that I’m going to keep on doing this in 2017, but it’s mostly been fun this year and may well result in this being the first year where I have an actual informed opinion about the Oscar for best Animated Feature for once.  As such I also went to see Kubo and the Two Strings and caught up with Zootopia and the culminations seems to have happened this week when I went to see the latest Disney sensation Moana, which for all intents and purposes seems to be their spiritual follow-up to their 2013 blockbuster Frozen even if it takes place in a decidedly different environment.

The film is set in a mythical Polynesia, specifically a fictional island called Motunui which has been isolated for thousands of years by an ingrained taboo about sailing past the coral reef that surrounds the island.  There we’re introduced to a girl named Moana (Auli’i Cravalho) who is the heir apparent to the island’s chiefdom.  Moana grew up listening to her grandmother (Rachel House) telling stories about how the island was isolated because eons ago a demigod named Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole a magical gem from the Earth goddess and unleashed a lava demon named Te Kā who took over all the other islands.  Moana’s father (Temuera Morrison) thinks these are all just fairy stories but insists that no one leave the island just the same.  Moana however, has long yearned to go out to the sea and after an encounter with some ocean magic as a young child has long felt she had been chosen for some great task away from the island and thinks that her destiny calls after a seemingly magical petulance seems to set in on the island.  Taking a leap of fate she sails out to find Maui and force him to return the magical gem to where it belongs and bring order to the island universe.

Let’s talk about Frozen for a second.  That was a movie that the world seemed to go nuts for back in 2013.  It’s one of the ten highest grossing movies of all time worldwide, but its impact was felt in an even greater way than its box office tally would suggest.  Its songs became major box office presences, it inspired a billion think pieces, and by all accounts kids watched it like crazy.  It did not, however, become a major critical Cause célèbre like some of the better Pixar movies have, and there’s a reason for that: the movie is kind of flawed.  When I finally caught up with the movie I found it intriguing in its first third or so but thought it pretty clearly lost its way in its second half.  It wasted a lot of time with that stupid snowman, it had kind of a predictable love triangle, the rules of the magic in it were not well defined, and it ended with this dumb deus ex machine where sisterhood triumphed over adversity.  That said, I totally get why it was a success.  It did some kind of bold stuff (relatively speaking) in that first third and it was well executed and ambitious in a way that kids movies haven’t been recently.  It was this big bombastic thing that seemed to be triumphantly screaming “Disney is back bitches!” and I couldn’t blame the public for being excited for that.

Moana is clearly trying to pick up on the momentum from that project and build on its strengths.  The film is another post-third-wave-feminism princess movie that’s very interested in molding a traditional Disney fairy tale story in a way that addresses the various criticisms that were leveled at the studio’s previous output.  As such out protagonist, while still technically a princess I suppose, rejects that label and insists she’s simply the daughter of the chief and it’s heavily emphasized that this means she will in fact inherit that office and all the powers and responsibilities involved and it’s never commented upon that she will be a woman in that role.   Unlike Frozen, however, this movie is less interested in messing with the basic story formula.  That movie’s introduction of sister protagonists who are sort of forced onto opposite sides of a conflict was a neat little twist on what you’d expect from a Disney narrative while Moana opts for more of a traditional heroe’s journey adventure kind of thing.  It actually reminded me a lot of this year’s Kubo and the Two Strings in that regard as both basically have their heroes stuck on their own and forced to pick up sidekicks and go on fetch quests.  Moana lacks that film’s neat stop motion animation and general samurai coolness, but it is a little more organic in the way its quest plays out and is better at hiding how episodic it is at times.

The film also followed Frozen’s lead in taking the form of a full musical like the movies of the Disney Renaissance era.  Frozen’s music was written by the musical team behind Broadway’s “Avenue Q” and “The Book of Morman” and Moana’s music was written by (among others) Lin-Manuel Miranda, a man who’s Broadway exploits have become so famous in the last year that even I’ve heard of him.  The soundtrack that he and composer Mark Mancina have come up with is, like a lot of things in Moana, obviously impressive while also feeling a bit calculated and formulaic.  There isn’t really a vocal showstopper here on a par with “Let it Go,” and the closest they come is a song called “How Far I’ll Go,” a show-tune that dutifully follows the “I Wish” formula of songs like “Part of Their World” without deviation and doesn’t really add a lot to the mix.  A lot of the rest of the music kind of sounds like it was recycled from The Lion King except with the African chants replaced with Polynesian chants… again all of this is well done and doesn’t really detract to much form the movie but I feel like it could have been done more creatively.  The numbers that really impressed were some of the film’s poppier and more comedic ones including a really amusing bit of Broadway lyricism called “You’re Welcome” performed by The Rock himself with amazing exuberance.  The other standout is a sweet glam rock song called “Shiny” performed by a giant crab voiced by Flight of the Conchords’ Jemaine Clement which has such a good pop hook that you don’t even notice that the scene it’s in doesn’t advance the story much and is basically filling for time.

So how does the film compare to the other animated films of 2016?  Well, I’ve already pointed out some of its similarities to Kubo and the Two Strings, which is in many ways less well written and structured than Moana but its milieu and ethos still probably appealed more to me.  Of the four movies that one is the most stylish and just generally the coolest and the one that felt the least need to throw in dumb comic relief for the kids.  Zootopia by contrast is probably the most original of the four and also the smartest, or at least the most relevant.  You certainly can’t accuse Disney of having coasted on a formula with that one, but out of the four it’s also probably the most prone to dumb comic relief and silliness.  There’s some cringe inducing stuff in that movie (Shakira, I’m looking at you) which does kind of make it hard for me to completely get behind it.  Of the four my favorite might actually be Finding Dory, which is certainly a movie that isn’t devoid of questionable comedy and structural contrivances, but more than any of the others it just felt like a real movie with some original ideas and resonant characters.

As for Moana, it certainly has a lot going for it.  The environmental animation is beautiful, especially in an early scene where some of the magic allows the water to be sort of parted in an interesting way as fish swim around it like the walls of an aquarium.  The movie also manages to be pretty witty and energetic.  There are a couple of dumb kiddie movie jokes here and there, but they’re not too bad for the most part, there’s nothing as consistently annoying as the snowman from Frozen anyway.  I guess you could say that the movie does almost everything right and have made a very entertaining movie that will certainly impress its target audience, but it’s going to have to start to take a few more chances if it ever wants to reach the heights that Pixar reached in the late 2000s.  I used to think that Pixar had picked up where Disney had left off back in the 90s but I’ve come to realize that what Pixar did and continues to do is actually pretty fundamentally different than what Disney has always been doing.  Disney is a company of entertainers and showmen while Pixar is a company of storytellers and filmmakers.  I tend to prefer the later but there’s certainly something to be said for a movie that taps into that old Hollywood moxie and gives the audience a fun journey to go on.

3-5_zpswmhmrc3s

Manchester by the Sea(11/26/2016)

11-26-2016ManchesterByTheSea

Some auteurs are pretty easy to describe in just a few words.  Alfred Hitchcock: maker of meticulously planned out Hollywood thrillers, usually about blondes in danger.  Quentin Tarantino: maker of witty but often violent genre exercises filled with homages and references to the pop culture of the past.  Spike Lee: maker of colorful and energetic movies about the black experience.  All of these one sentence descriptions are reductive and overlook key elements of all those filmmakers’ styles, but the fact that their work can be so easily generalized does say something about the extent to which they were able to put a distinct stamp on their films.  There are however some directors who are still certainly auteurs but who aren’t as easily pigeonholed.  For instance, Elia Kazan is certainly an auteur and given enough time I’m sure there are film scholars who can come up with any number of linkages between his films to prove it but I don’t know that there’s a way I could describe his body of work in a hundred and forty characters that would make him sound terribly distinct from most other directors and his style wouldn’t necessarily jump out as uniquely his at first glance.  Another director like this is Kenneth Lonergan who, like Kazan, got his start working in theater but became more widely known when he directed the 2002 film You Can Count on Me.  Since then he hasn’t been terribly prolific in part because he’s still been doing some theater work and in part because of the troubled post-production on his 2011 film Margaret, but his new movie Manchester by the Sea may finally cement his place among the top American filmmakers.

The film’s title refers to Manchester-by-the-Sea Massachusetts, a town of about five thousand people (Wikipedia tells me it adopted its unusual name to distinguish it from the nearby Manchester, New Hampshire).  However, the movie begins in Boston, where Lee Chandler (Casey Affleck) has been working as a superintendent at an apartment complex.  Suddenly one day he gets a call telling him to return to the titular city because his brother has had a medical emergency.  When he gets there he learns that the worst has happened: his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), who had a heart condition, has suddenly died of a cardiac arrest.  His ex-wife Elise (Gretchen Mol), who had a history of addiction is out of the picture and this leaves Lee’s 16 year old nephew Patrick (Lucas Hedges) without a parent.  To Lee’s surprise he finds that he’s been named as Patrick’s legal guardian by Joe’s will, a role he supposes he doesn’t really see himself able to fulfil in part because his hometown does nothing but bring back bad memories and living their again could force him to constantly be running into his ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams), with whom he has a lot of baggage.

Manchester by the Sea reminds me a little of the great 2008 film Rachel Getting Married in that both movies are about characters who seem to have a rather stilted relationship with their families and you are quite sure what’s going on until something about their pasts is revealed about at the 1/3 point in their narrative.  This movie is a bit different in that it doesn’t contrast this apparent sadness against a joyful backdrop, although in an odd way it sort of does.  If I were to describe this movie’s plot in more detail it would seem like a very heavy piece of work, but in fact the movie is oddly kind of funny.  I certainly wouldn’t call it a comedy or recommend anyone go see it expecting it to be a laugh riot but the characters all have a sort of gregarious Boston rapport and consequently there are more laugh lines here than you’d expect from a story steeped in tragedy.  That is not an easy tone to balance but there’s something kind of insightful and true to life about it.  A lot of lesser movies about people with bad stuff in their pasts really lean into that and give themselves these really oppressive tones and have their characters being completely glum all the time, but in reality most depressed people are able to put on a functional face most of the time even if their being torn up inside and that’s sort of what’s going on with Lee here.

It’s been said in the media that at one point Matt Damon (who is involved as a producer) was tapped to star in this film, which is tough for me to picture given that he’s a bit too much of a movie star at this point to really be believable in something this raw and down to earth.  Casey Affleck by contrast is perfect; he has the same Bostonian authenticity of his brother Ben Affleck but in much less polished package that’s easier to buy in the role of an everyman.  Lucas Hedges is also quite the discovery as Lee’s teenage nephew, who also has to pull off that tricky balance of inward grief juxtaposed against an outwardly stable exterior.  Michelle Williams also does spectacularly in a small but pivotal role as Affleck’s ex-wife, and while Kyle Chandler isn’t exactly the most novel choice to play a stable small town father, he is convincing as someone who would be Casey Affleck’s brother.  The rest of the cast is also very well filled out, mostly with lesser known actors.  There are maybe a couple of Massachusetts accents here or there that are a little over the top and there was a cameo late in the film that mostly felt like a distraction, but otherwise this is one hell of an acting showcase.

It’s not terribly easy to talk about this movie because it’s hard to explain what it is that makes it so incredibly on point.  It’s just a movie that does everything so right.  It has a great script with quality dialog and which employs flashbacks beautifully, the cast is great, the location is interesting, Lonergan manages to keep things energetic without employing unneeded visual gimmicks, and the emotions are all harnessed perfectly.  There are so many bad and clichéd roads this could have gone down and I really admire how it manages to handle the material just right and never becomes either saccharine or pointlessly nihilistic.  It’s not the kind of movie that’s trying to re-write the language of cinema or make some kind of wildly profound statement, but the way the film digs deep into the lives of its rich characters id both affecting and rewarding.

5

Moonlight(11/5/2016)

11-5-2016Moonlight

As of late there has been a lot of talk in the critical community about the representation of minorities on screen and while this discussion has definitely done a lot of good, there have been some negative side effects.  This is hard to talk about without sounding like some “anti-political correctness” nut but to put it bluntly: I feel like the zeal to champion works that present the lives of minorities and women has led to a few movies maybe getting extra little boosts they may or may not deserve the lavish praise they get.  That’s not to say critics are going to praise every movie that happens to have minority characters (Tyler Perry, for one, has not benefitted much from the era of the woke critic) but all too often it feels like when a movie about a minority comes along that even comes to feeling like something worth championing certain critics just go over-board and start acting like the film is an instant classic when it may merely be good.  One of the more prominent examples of this recently was when Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance amid the #OscarSoWhite controversy to rapturous applause and buzz only to seem a lot more flawed once everybody calmed down and took another look at it.  This is a shame because it’s led to me putting my guard up when critically acclaimed movies about certain subject matters come along.  For instance, last year when the movie Tangerine came out I found myself thinking “hmmm, it this really as good as they say it is, or is a movie about transsexual African Americans just too “relevant” for people not to love,” which unfortunately means I put off watching what was really a boldly made and highly entertaining movie.  Similarly I’ve got to say I was a little skeptical about Moonlight, a film about underprivileged African American homosexuals: was it the real deal or did the zeitgeist get critics to over-reach again.

The film follows a single character named Chiron through three stages of his life where he’s played by Alex Hibbert, Ashton Sanders, and Trevante Rhodes respectively.  In the first segment we watch Chiron as a young child interacting with a guy named Juan (Mahershala Ali), after running into him by chance.  Juan almost accidentally finds himself becoming a father figure to Chiron despite being a rather dubious role model himself.  In the second segment we see Chiron as an awkward teenager whose demeanor makes him an outsider in his school but who forms something of a tenuous friendship with a boy named Kevin (played by Jharrel Jerome in this segment).  That segment ends with something of a turning point in Chiron’s life and for the third segment we move into the characters’ late twenties where we find out the type of person the two previous segments have wrought.

The three segments of the film are about the same characters and do form a greater whole when taken together, but are surprisingly self-contained in some ways and could probably be recut into separate somewhat self-contained short films if the director had wanted to with each of the segments kind of having the structure and resonance you’d expect out of a literary short story.  The first segment (dubbed “little”) takes the interesting approach of beginning not with the film’s main protagonist but with a side character named Juan who will be absent from the other two sections of the triptych.  While not exclusively told from Juan’s perspective, many of the scenes in this section are told from his point of view, in part because he (being as he’s an adult) he’s easier for the audience to relate to and is aware of things that young Chiron is not.  The segment also serves as something of a sign of things to come as Juan, while well intentioned, is not necessarily the ideal father figure he initially seems.  The middle segment is probably the most conventional of the three, but also probably the strongest and shows the character at something of a turning point.  I’m going to refrain from talking about segment three, as it is the one that most goes in a direction you don’t expect but needless to say it is clear that that’s what the movie is leading up to for a reason.

In preparation for seeing Moonlight I watched Barry Jenkins’ first (and before now only) feature film, 2008’s Medicine for Melancholy, and wasn’t really a fan of it.  That film, like this one, was very interested in depicting a facet of the black community that doesn’t get seen very often but didn’t really succeed at doing much of anything else.  It was a Before Sunrise kind of thing where two fairly affluent African Americans have conversations about gentrification and black identity while having a brief affair.  Emphasis on “conversations.”  That was not a movie that was interested in the “show don’t tell rule” and I could have gotten over that if the characters didn’t seem so mopey and passionless.  Moonlight isn’t devoid of moments that are a little on the nose, but it certainly employs more subtlety than that earlier effort and it’s a lot easier to connect with the characters and their tensions.  Also, I don’t know what Jenkins has been doing in the eight years since he made Medicine for Melancholy but he has definitely improved as a visual stylist.  The film has some very nice looking cinematography by James Laxton that really captures the Florida heat and Jenkins frequently makes some interesting choices in shot length and angle selection.

If I have any major complaint about Moonlight it’s one that’s kind of a backhanded compliment: it could be longer.  The film’s triptych format is interesting, but it leaves a lot of gaps.  The jump between the second and third segments in particular seems leave a whole lot of the character’s growth obscured.  Perhaps instead of three long segments I might have preferred four or five, maybe even six or seven segments following this character through multiple different ages.  This would have made the film resemble Richard Linklater’s Boyhood in many ways, and given how self-contained and quiet this character is that extra time would have been particularly useful in helping the audience understand him.  On the other hand this likely wouldn’t have been filmed over twelve years and switching actors that frequently throughout the movie might have been more than a bit jarring and cause a bigger disconnect.  Maybe it really is better that the film simply lets the audience connect the dots between each story segment, but I do still think there’s something missing here that I can’t quite place my finger on.  Either way this is a very strong effort that deserves the attention of anyone interested in this year’s better cinematic works.

4

Midnight Special(4/3/2016)

4-3-2016MidnightSpecial

We as critics have something of a laundry-list of demands we have for our summer blockbusters/genre entertainments.  You know what I’m talking about: “don’t overuse CGI,” “don’t use shaky camera work as a crutch,” “have an original idea rather than basing your movie off of an existing brand,” “cast a seasoned actor/actress instead of a flavor of the week pretty face,” “don’t waste too much time on needless exposition,” “focus on character instead of mindless violence,” etc.  It’s to the point where a lot of critics are sick of making the same points over and over again and especially frustrating since audiences stubbornly refuse to turn the movies that make these mistakes into box office flops, thus perpetuating the trends.  Believe me, I complain about this stuff as much as anyone but the sheer predictability of these complaints is downright comical at times.  It’s to the point where I bet a lot of filmmakers have gotten it into their heads that as long as they avoid all those pitfalls they should be able to make the perfect movie, but all too often it just isn’t that simple.  Case-in-point: look at the new Jeff Nichols movie Midnight Special, which seems to be defiantly avoiding every one of the most despised trends of modern entertainment filmmaking and still doesn’t quite emerge as a solid victory unto itself.

Midnight Special opens in medias res with a man named Roy (Michael Shannon) on the run along with a friend named Lucas (Joel Edgerton) and his son Alton (Jaeden Lieberher).  We see that there’s an amber alert out on the kid and that Roy’s face has been circulating on television as the suspect in the boy’s kidnapping, but we get the distinct impression as an audience that the TV isn’t telling the whole story.  We soon learn that Alton has some sort of psychic powers that frequently make his eyes glow, allows him to pick up on radio signals, and occasionally causes him to make a psychic connection with people, among other undefined abilities.  This has made Alton the subject of great interest among a cult-like church that has mistaken the child for a prophet but he’s also being pursued by Homeland Security for all the usual reason that G-Men hunt down powerful entities in movies like this.  Roy, by contrast, just wants to bring Alton to this unspoken destination that he believed he’s destined to arrive at.

Midnight Special is set in modern America but you wouldn’t necessarily know it at first glance.  Everything about the film’s mise en scène seems to point to the 1970s and 1980s.  Most of the televisions you see on screen are SD tube televisions, the cars in the film look kind of old, most of the hair styles seem a bit out of date, and none of the main characters seem to own cell phones.  It’s almost to the point where it’s jarring when an HD tv shows up about mid-way through the movie.  All this may simply reflect the fact that these characters are driving through Texan backwaters but I think it has more to do with the era of cinema that Jeff Nichols is trying to evoke with the movie.  The film clearly draws from Close Encounters of the Third Kind in its “race to the aliens” plotline and the way the government is trying to investigate common people’s interactions with science fiction entities while not exactly being villainous or heroic.  The film also seems to pull from John Carpenter’s 1984 film Starman in the way it’s about a small group that’s going on a road trip while being pursued, and I suppose that the fact that a kid is in the middle of all this evokes E.T.: The Extra Terrestrial and the somewhat forgotten 1985 film D.A.R.Y.L..

There isn’t really much to complain about from a filmmaking perspective with this movie.  Jeff Nichols proved a long time ago that he has a strong grasp of the fundamentals of filmmaking and his goal here is clearly to move into a more commercial space while maintaining his indie cred.  At this he does a pretty admirable job. The film reminded me a little bit of last year’s Ex Machina in that it doesn’t have a ton of special effects but when it does have them they look really good and the film also isn’t filled with a lot of obligatory action scenes for the purposes of selling it to a wider audience.  It’s clear that Nichols wanted this to be a science fiction movie that was rooted in ideas rather than spectacle… but that’s kind of the movie’s Achilles heel because I can’t say that I found the science fiction ideas on display in the film to be all that deep or original.  The basic setup, father-figure and child with special powers on the run from government MIBs, is hardly an original idea.  I mentioned D.A.R.Y.L. and Starman earlier but one could also liken this setup to the Stephen King novel “Firestarter” and its 1984 film adaptation and perhaps even to the recent video game “Beyond: Two Souls.”  I’m not sure that this movie really did a whole lot to add to the formula and given the movie’s retro style it can’t even necessarily say that its modernizing the concept for a new audience; it’s just derivative.

So this brings me back to the initial question I started with: “how does a movie that does this much right still fall short.”  The movie walks, talks, and acts like a movie I should like but at its core the thing seems empty to me.  Whatever is actually interesting about the science fiction here is pretty obscured by mystery and we aren’t really given enough to chew on and I also can’t say that I found any of the characters to be wildly fascinating or the story to be uniquely compelling.  It’s a movie that desperately wants to look like it’s substance over style but it isn’t, it’s style over substance, albeit with a different and more adult friendly kind of style.  That said, at the end of the day it isn’t a movie I want to come down too hard on.  The throwback style will give some nostalgic enjoyment to certain film buffs and it does at least hold together and flow pretty effectively scene to scene.  I just wish there was an actual memorable story to go along with the dignified style

2-5_zpsn9coif22

Mustang(1/3/2016)

1-3-2016Mustang

When we think about foreign movies we rightly or wrongly tend to immediately think of them in terms of their country of origin.  This is problematic firstly because not all movies are going to fit into regional trends, secondly because it needlessly “others” movies that may well not be all that different from the domestic product, and finally because a good number of movies can’t be easily categorized as being from a single country and that’s increasingly true this year.  Take a movie like Paolo Sorrentino’s Youth, which is made by an Italian director but is set in Switzerland and has a predominantly Anglophone cast, and also had a good deal of French funding.  The same goes for seemingly American movies like Room, which is set in the United States and has an American cast but was actually a co-production of Ireland and Canada and whose writer and director are both Irish. Then of course you have a film like Mustang, which is set in Turkey and has a Turkish cast, but was funded largely through French and German money and was directed by a woman who was born in Turkey but raised in France.  If the film competes for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Language film category it will have to do so under the French flag, which in many cases would be a technicality but in this case is perhaps telling.  Turkey could have submitted the film themselves but opted not to and I’m suspecting that this is partly because this is not a movie that represents Turkey at its best but also because I feel like this is a movie that has been made with distinctly western values and interests in mind rather than the tastes of Turkish audiences.

The film is set in a remote village in present day (I think its present day anyway) Turkey and focuses on five sisters ranging in age from about ten or so to something like sixteen (played by Güneş Şensoy, Doğa Doğuşlu, Elit İşcan, Tuğba Sunguroğlu, and İlayda Akdoğan).  These girls are living with their grandmother (Nihal Koldaş), seemingly because their biological parents have died by means that are never explained and are also seemingly under the care of their uncle Erol (Ayberk Pekcan).  This grandmother and this uncle are both extremely conservative and believe in some very old-world traditions about the place of women in society.  After the girls get involved in what would seem to most eyes like an innocent game with some boys at a beach these parental figures decide that they need to crack down on these girls’ behavior in order to protect their chastity and ensure that they can be married off when the parents see fit.  Soon the parents are refusing to let the girls go outside without close supervision and are essentially making them prisoners in their own home.

The most obvious analogue to this movie is of course Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides, which was also about a group of five sisters living under the domineering eyes of their highly conservative parents and becoming depressed and/or rebellious as they find themselves basically locked inside their homes because their parents want to protect them from the modern world.  The parallels are pretty undeniable and if anything Mustang simplifies things by eliminating the device of telling its story from the perspective of a third party.  If there is a major difference between the two works it’s that the nutty religious family in Coppola’s movie appear to be fairly isolated in their society, the beliefs of this family seem to be pretty widely accepted within the remote town they live in even if the wider Turkey seems to have moved on from them.  Actually, the exact extent of how pervasive conservative beliefs are in these girls life is a little unclear early on.  In many ways it seems as if they’ve been living recognizable modern western lives for most of their lives until that’s suddenly cut off when out of nowhere their guardians decide to “crack the whip” and make sure they start behaving like proper ladies, but that doesn’t exactly make sense.  I would think that if these parents feel this strongly about raising these girls under such rigid rules they would have been doing that from the beginning.

That Virgin Suicides parallel does bug me, it’s really hard to come out and call something “great” when it so closely resembles another well regarded movie, especially when that other movie has a premise that isn’t terribly common.  That having been said, I think I liked Mustang a lot better than Coppola’s movie in a number of ways.  This movie just looks really good.  Director Deniz Gamze Ergüven clearly has a really good eye for film and gives the film a really strong visual style that picks up on the energy and liveliness of its young teenage subjects and she also gets some great naturalistic performances out of these girls who I assume are basically non-actors.  The movie has a great way of picking up these little behavioral moments that don’t really add to the plot but really help paint a picture and she also has a way of doing it that doesn’t feel indulgent or ponderous.  This movie is accessible and it moves along at a brisk pace.  The movie is a win overall, but it’s the kind of promising debut that makes me less excited for the movie that’s in front of me than for what the director will be doing next.

***1/2 out of Four

Macbeth(12/13/2015)

12-13-2015Macbeth

I’m really worried about Michael Fassbender.  The guy emerged late last decade as a major rising star who seemed like he could restore a particular kind of tough intensity to the screen in an era where most of the movies stars seem to be wisecrackers like Chris Pratt and prettyboys like Chris Hemsworth.  These qualities have certainly endeared him to film buffs, who are constantly searching for the next Robert De Niro and he’s won awards for his work in movies like Shame and 12 Years a Slave but I’m worried that for all his star quality the wider public just hasn’t caught on.  Fassbender has had roles in mainstream blockbusters like X-Men: First Class and Prometheus but I don’t know that he’s ever really been able to “sell” a movie to the public and that weakness came to a head earlier this year when the Fassbender starring biopic Steve Jobs failed spectacularly to interest the general public and one can’t help but wonder if this was simply because they didn’t really recognize the man at the center imitating the titular tech mogul.  This lack of popularity may in fact have less to do with his qualities as an actor than it does with his refusal to behave like a movie star.  He doesn’t campaign for awards and shies away from making appearances on talk shows.  I certainly understand why he’d want to avoid all that nonsense, but I fear for all the performances we may lose if Hollywood decides he isn’t “bankable.”  The litmus test for his place in the mainstream may come next year when he stars in a big budget adaptation of the “Assassin’s Creed” videogame series, until then he’s decided to cross another challenge off his thespian “to do” list: tackling Shakespeare.

That Michael Fassbender’s foray into Shakespeare would be in an adaptation of Macbeth probably shouldn’t be too much of a surprise.  Fassbender’s main asset as an actor is his quiet intensity and few Shakespeare characters are as quiet and intense as the title character of his Scottish play.  On top of that, Macbeth is a much bigger badass than most of Shakespeare’s characters.  One would hardly believe Fassbender as a weak and dithering Hamlet or as a more conventionally heroic character like Henry V or Mark Antony and of course his presence in one of the comedies is even harder to picture.  As you would expect, Fassbender is pretty damn good in this role.  This adaptation focuses more on Macbeth’s psychology than usual, positing the character less as a Machiavellian schemer and more as an insane demagogue who lusts for power but isn’t even sure why.  Meanwhile Lady Macbeth, played here by Marion Cotillard, is viewed more as a sort of enabler than as a mastermind and here eventual madness comes less from guilt of her own actions than from the fact that she’s created a monster and unleashed him upon Scotland.  If I have any real complaint about either of these performances it’s that they’re maybe a little too quiet and restrained for their own good.  They spend a lot of the movie whispering lines that were pretty clearly meant to be projected to the back of a theater and I would have liked it if they had maybe unleashed a bit more of that sound a fury here and there.

The film was directed by an Australian filmmaker named Justin Kurzel, who is also slated to direct the aforementioned Assassin’s Creed movie.  Kurzel’s first movie was a fictionalized dramatization of an infamous Australian crime story called The Snowtown Murders.  That movie was appropriately grisly but also knew how to not go so far as to be distasteful and it also had a tone that was extremely somber and understated almost to a fault.  Macbeth is of course another story about a killer and the film also sort of has a quiet and understated, almost kind of dreary, tone.  Here Kurzal has opted to emphasize the fact that the play is meant to be set well before Shakespeare’s time and in a Scottland that is still rather entrenched in a sort of tribalism.  Much of the film has been placed outdoors in military camps rather than in opulent palaces and things are a lot dirtier and rustic than what we usually associate with Shakespeare.  It’s also not entirely clear how much of the film’s tone is meant to be taken literally and how much of it is partly informed by the character’s mental state.  For instance it is perhaps an open question whether the weird sisters, who in this adaptation seem almost spectral, are even real in the movie or whether they’re a figment of Macbeth’s imagination.

So, is this movie good?  Well, yeah.  This is one of the greatest dramas ever written, it’s kind of hard to screw up, especially when you have a cast like this.  The bigger questions are whether the movie lives up to its potential and whether it’s better than the other adaptations of this play (and there have been a lot of them).  Given that Macbeth has such a rich cinematic history this latest adaptation doesn’t have the easiest road to becoming memorable and it certainly isn’t the boldest and most cinematically exciting option out there.  However, I do think there’s value to having a well-made and relatively “straight” adaptation of the play and I suspect that the film may prove to be popular among high school teachers who want a film adaptation of the play that’s closer to the original text than Kurosawa’s Throne of Blood and who doesn’t want to deal with all the nudity and 70s haircuts that go with Roman Polanski’s Macbeth.  If you’re in the mood for a little Shakespeare this will probably give you what you’re looking for, if you’re looking for a particularly striking cinematic experience you could certainly do worse and it definitely has its moments but this isn’t going to blow your mind.

*** out of Four