Tuesday, February 20, 2018

Get Out / **** (2017)

A startling honesty ensnares Jordan Peele for every frame he directs “Get Out,” a thriller where the jolts come not from boogeymen or supernatural forces, but an attitude that coalesces within a closed world of privilege and etiquette. This, he argues, is a threat easily concealed behind the eager banalities of others, who engage their victims with the sort of deference that displaces them from the acknowledgment of an immediate danger. Consider how this affects the main character. He is a street-smart guy on his way to meet the parents of his girlfriend, confident and funny, yet quietly dealing with an anxious quandary: they may not be entirely happy with the notion that he is black. When he arrives, however, he discovers not only a welcoming environment, but an awfully convenient sense of acceptance; the parents seem so auspicious that it hardly seems genuine. And then there’s the matter of their servants – all black, each smiling sharply and with vacant expressions, as if stand-ins for the Stepfords. Is his worry unfounded, fueled by the unfamiliar territory he has descended in? Or are the courteous gestures of others a symbol for something far more devious? Peele discovers a disconcerting reality underneath that is as complex as it is timely; he has made not only a tremendously fascinating film, but the first act of cultural relevance in an era where hate has been brought back into political fashion.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Phantom Thread / **** (2017)

Although “Phantom Thread” is said to be written under entirely original circumstances, the actual source of P.T. Anderson’s film comes from a personal experience, during which he was stricken ill and tended to by his wife who looked upon him with a “tenderness” he had rarely experienced. This, he notes, is the central point driving the circumstances surrounding the characters of his story, who otherwise seem to float through a dreamlike trance of emotional distance and faux courtesies. At the tip of the pattern is a man who would suggest dissonance from that prospect – a gifted dressmaker named Reynolds Woodcock, who charges himself with amplifying the presence of bored and insecure women into the upper ranks of social grace. But he takes his task so seriously that, in some cases, the result must thoroughly transcend the model, even if she barely warrants his stellar reputation. A vital scene is worth considering: after designing a dress for an otherwise insufferable middle-aged woman and apprehensively attending her reception, she proceeds to behave in such a sloppy manner that the dress suddenly becomes a device of judgment – she is now unworthy, and the camera spies him furiously removing the bodice while she is passed out drunk in an upstairs bedroom.

Monday, February 12, 2018

Call Me By Your Name / ***1/2 (2017)

To sense the free-spirited candor of the characters in “Call Me by Your Name” is to recognize a measured development of male romance in the eyes of the Hollywood mainstream, where stories about gay characters have conventionally existed under the weight of a pervasive sociological subtext. In those circumstances, the love between the leads is rarely about the lust or the connection; they are guarded from more liberated behaviors as a means to emphasize an era, a not-too-distant time where homosexual impulses were either frowned upon, cause for mental concern or discouraged through violence. Those are, perhaps, the themes of filmmakers with an outsider’s view of the lifestyle (although no less important). But now comes a moment in time where the lessons of “Brokeback Mountain,” “Weekend” and “Moonlight” have relaxed the aesthetic chokehold and paved the route for a sweet and loving film where the characters are less mindful of an outside response and more consumed by the amorous temptations they possess. If that, in this political climate, leads any in the audience down a rabbit hole they still find discomfort in, their experience is best underscored by the pointed words of a noted observer: “nature has cunning ways of finding our weakest spot.”

Tuesday, February 6, 2018

Darkest Hour / ** (2017)

My first encounter with the versatile Gary Oldman originates from the age of 12, during a home viewing of “Bram Stoker’s Dracula,” where I first gazed at the eyes of a man with an unmistakable magnetism. His was the first figure to emerge on the screen, and somehow it had a disarming quality; a handsome and approachable face, full of plausible romantic longings, felt decidedly against the type we expected of a conventional villain. After he disappeared following the prologue, my mind raced with some sense of wonder – who was he? Could we come to see him as a negative force, as the story would ultimately require? And how could any woman, however fearful of his curse, find the strength to overcome his desirable advances, however dangerous? Only much later was it pointed out to me that the old man standing in his place during the film’s first act was the same Oldman, caked in heavy makeup to appear as a 300-year-old count in the shadows of Transylvanian architecture (different actors were cast all the time to play older versions of others, I figured). It was a testament to his ability that he was able to create a great enough illusion to fool even me, and over the years I have consciously followed him with the enthusiasm of a fanatic, curious as to what may come next in his life of relentless skin-shedding.

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Florida Project / **** (2017)

A young girl, full of mischief and fire, moves through a low-rent  neighborhood with an impenetrable enthusiasm. Her friends accompany with almost nonexistent parental supervision, and often find themselves caught in situations that test their safety. A motel manager, a gruff sort insistent on rules, nonetheless observes their antics from a safe distance, perhaps because he senses the inability of others to respond to the dangers that inhabit their periphery. A scene involving his intervention with an old man emphasizes that prospect; as the stranger engages with the children as they are grouped around park benches, no parent is around to detect, quite obviously, that he is a predator. Do they in some way depend on his observations, however quietly? Or are they completely ambivalent? Or worse yet, just don’t care? There lies one of the many pointed questions in Sean Baker’s remarkable “The Florida Project,” where the whimsy and enthusiasm of the young stars is cast in a shadow created by adults who are too restrained by their poverty to sense the difference between a good and bad decision (assuming they make one at all).

Wednesday, January 24, 2018

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri / **** (2017)

There are three crucial exchanges in “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” between Mildred, a mother dealing with the murder of her daughter, and Chief Willoughby, the man overseeing the difficult pursuit of her killer. Each mounts not just the tone of their journey, but also the deep and painful element of their individual convictions – two occur after she has audaciously called him out in a rather public way for not making any arrests in the case, and another comes in the form of a letter, following a decision he has made in the wake of his terminal medical diagnosis. What each exchange suggests, beneath the impassioned disagreements and heated put-downs, is a respect sourced from the same desire to do what’s right, even in the face of relative personal limits. That would be more than sufficient in a movie that sees pathos as the only possible emotion in a story thick with tragedies, but director Martin McDonagh uses them in a dramatic curve that is equal parts gruff, shocking, devastating and humorous. By all definitions he has made a film that ought to be handled with unwavering candor. But it is within those three scenes where a more intricate foundation is discovered, in characters who know little about conventional mourning but everything about lashing out with sardonic resolve.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

I, Tonya / ***1/2 (2017)

Tonya Harding wants people to know something they have refused to see – it’s never been her fault. No, not when she first took to the ice and treated her competitors with the same brash cruelty that her mother passed down to her on a constant basis. Not when she threw a vulgar tantrum in front of judges because they scored her low in one of her earliest skating competitions – essentially because she didn’t dress “appropriately.” And certainly not when her former friend and colleague Nancy Kerrigan was assaulted while training just a couple of months prior to the ’94 Winter Olympics, in an incident now famously known for the involvement of those closest to her circle. In whatever capacity you choose to accept the details – certain or otherwise – it’s never been a fair game to the poor misunderstood Ms. Harding. This despite her impeccable skill, her drive, her refusal to give up in the face of constant verbal and emotional abuse, and her history-making moves on ice that first captured her in the fickle public eye. No four words are uttered more frequently in “I, Tonya” than the dismissal of personal responsibility. But are they always mistaken, or is there some truth to the denial? Does she know any better? When the same phrase is repeated by nearly every important witness to her perplexing public history, it serves to emphasize the nature at which she was created. Here is a woman who was once loved, then vehemently hated, and now forever exists in that distant cesspit of pop culture pariahs where few hope to understand the reasons why people behave the way they do.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

La La Land / ***1/2 (2016)

The ambitious “La La Land” opens with a marvelous scene on a congested freeway overpass, where nameless extras vacate their cars to share in the moment of a colorful musical interlude. Their choreographed zeal is carried by near-perfect technical aptitude that sees the act lifted into the reveries of aesthetical greatness; the camera persists across four minutes of song and dance in one seemingly unbroken shot, and the routine is mirrored by dancers on top of cars that seem to stretch beyond eyesight. What nerve does any modern film have evoking that sense of skill in a moment already overflowing with the heedless optimism of old Hollywood nostalgia? For Damien Chazelle, the director who helmed the brilliant “Whiplash,” that obsessive pitch for perfection is never far from the hearts of even the most good-natured (or spontaneous) entertainers. What they must go through to make their dance moves seem as if they defy gravity, the discipline they endure to find the right key for any number of songs that emerge from their eager lips, is anyone’s guess. Here is a movie with a fascinating duality of values, driven by the same lighthearted spirit that yielded the musicals of the golden age, with an underlying reverence for a craft where the maddening mechanics might have seemed more troublesome than the effort was worth.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Beauty and the Beast / ** (2017)

Once upon a time, in a faraway board room of a money-hungry movie studio, someone voiced an idea that signaled the beginning of the end of original concepts: “let’s take all of our animated pictures and remake them into live action ones!” Although the undertaking might have inspired intriguing subtexts, the standard remained depressingly derivative, inevitably leading to a cluster of endeavors that rarely expanded the imaginations of their viewers. And thus Disney gave voice to executives whose primary motivation was dollar signs, an impulse that paved the way for routine retellings of “Alice in Wonderland,” “Cinderella” and “Pete’s Dragon.” In rare instances, granted, were endeavors that added interesting spins to their premise (“Maleficent”) or even surpassed rather flawed sources (“The Jungle Book”). But when the decision to retool “Beauty and the Beast,” one of the finest of all animated achievements, came down the pike, the core of this capitalist motivation seemed no longer able to masquerade behind plausible convictions. What could today’s artists, really, do to a story that had seemingly been perfected in hand drawings? Was something undiscovered waiting among all those talking pieces of furniture? If anything at all can be said of the live-action rendition beyond a few isolated touches of skill, it’s that the director, Bill Condon, has effectively produced the first movie musical for the “Glee” generation. And that is not something to be proud of.

Monday, January 1, 2018

The Shape of Water / *** (2017)

Eventually all moviegoers – even the most open-minded – will arrive at a moment that challenges their ability to tolerate arduous realities. One of mine came during the second act of “The Shape of Water,” when the lead character played by Sally Hawkins shares a detail with Octavia Spencer about the anatomy of the sea creature she has rescued. The preceding scene already leaves little to the imagination; as the camera rests at the entrance of her bathroom, she walks seductively towards the animal, disrobes and closes the shower curtain as they come to a very suggestive embrace. For most there is no possibility of mixed interpretation, and yet I was fully content to overlook what transpired for the sake of riding the film’s momentum. But Guillermo del Toro, the movie’s director, refuses to dismiss the discomfort with glossed over platitudes. That’s never been his style. No, he allows the event to become a topic of lighthearted exchange between she and her friend, who is marveled not only by the idea that this beast even has a penis hidden behind that thick mound of his pubic region, but apparently a very satisfying one. Their exchange leads to a strange chuckle, which the audience nervously joins in on. And there I am sitting in the dark, fidgeting uncomfortably, feeling as if I had been submerged in water that was brought to a very slow boil.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

A Most Volatile Year

If you were a movie enthusiast at all during the last twelve months, the persisting narrative was less about finding good entertainment and more about searching for necessary distractions. A substantial ration of that search came down to two ongoing controversies: the ethical implosion of the Trump administration, and the alarming news of sexual assaults coming out of Hollywood, both of which dominated the headlines like dark clouds lingering over our mental periphery. On any normal year either scenario would have warranted responses of shock and disbelief (if not vocal action), but in a climate where sexism and race relations have dangled dangerously off the edge of social balance, potential alarm was replaced instead with an almost paralyzing despair. In the recent past it would have been almost absurd to assume those problems running so rampant in the age of information. But now, after hate culture has risen back into fashion, each new revelation simply played like another reason to withdraw from reality.

Thursday, December 28, 2017

Star Wars: The Last Jedi / **1/2 (2017)

Is it true, Luke? Are things really as dire as the scowl on your face suggests? From the first moment you turn around on screen, we no longer see the eager and zealous eyes that gave us everything we know about the Skywalker legend; in their place are spheres of broken hopes, a smile that is no more, hazy features concealed by time and age, and hands that grasp your old lightsaber only long enough to toss it over your shoulder in protest. Now comes the time to ask, in earnest: does the sacred order of the Jedi die with you, as the title of the latest movie may suggest? Or are you hiding something deeper from us, something that might inspire a hope as the darkness persists in enveloping a fragmented resistance across the galaxy? Without straight answers, without the slightest shred of optimism, how long do you expect our eyes to hold out patience? There is only so much your aspiring understudy, Rey, can compensate for. In times like these, of relentless peril and doubt, we barely have enough fight to find the silver linings. Give us something to work with here, or spare us the pain of a lingering uncertainty.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Mother! / **** (2017)

The withered, aching heart of “Mother!” pulsates with the awe of an entrenched complexity. What seems to function as a mild excursion into the lives of isolated personalities becomes an endurance test for their sanity, disturbed by details that seem inconsistent, twists that are abstruse and an overreaching awareness that taunts, baffles, intrigues and ensnares the audience in the thick of great moral doubt. To gaze at any minute of Darren Aronofsky’s challenging opus is to sense its very nature to polarize all within its grasp; no two sets of eyes will find the same solution, and many will stagger away from the experience without a concise verdict. But no other film in the recent snapshot of time comes close to sharing its austerity – not even his own “The Fountain,” widely recognized (until now, at least) as his most mystifying. One’s understanding comes down to recognizing the effort as a concentrated descent into the membrane of narrative and artistic metaphors. While most are eager to exploit the suffering of the flesh and the cynicism of their sources for a shallow measure, here is a man who plunges right into the nervous system and encounters the very meaning of the living cinema.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

The Breadwinner / ***1/2 (2017)

Everything we know about animated films has been a lie. Years of hands-on education has perpetuated the illusion of simple childhood fantasies, where plucky characters become caught up in whimsical adventures full of color, laughs and catchy music. Their greatest architect, Walt Disney, powered that device so relentlessly that it has fueled nearly all his successors – including the Pixar brand, whose recent “Coco” brilliantly mimics that tradition. But now comes “The Breadwinner,” the closest a cartoon has ever come to removing the barrier separating childhood wonder from the deafening tragedies of the real world, and what its creators find is a power in conviction that challenges all we know about the medium’s elasticity. More akin to “Pan’s Labyrinth” than a mere yarn about goals or quests, the movie throbs with a confidence that is as alarming as it is heart-wrenching. Rarely are such stories aimed at the politically aware, and even more tenuous is the candid insinuation that storytelling can be the key to facing down the nightmares of a world designed to destroy our agile hearts.

Monday, December 11, 2017

The Disaster Artist / ***1/2 (2017)

The first scene implicates the arc of the story: the underdogs versus the professionals. One of the former is seen in an environment he is clearly a novice in, acting out dramatic scenes in a classroom where stiff delivery suggests blatant disinterest. Greg (Dave Franco) says he wants to become a big movie star but is too caught up in the doubt of his material, and others look on with curious boredom as he mutters dialogue with robotic accuracy. Then emerges from the shadows of the back row a mysterious figure named Tommy (James Franco), who shows others that it is possible to be just as bad on the opposite end of enthusiasm – he reenacts a key emotional moment from “A Streetcar Named Desire” that is so painfully shrill that others cannot wait for the ordeal to end. Yet Greg, sensing his fearless nature, gravitates towards him with curious allure. He admires the audacity, the ability to be so caught up in a performance that everything else – including the judging gaze of the audience – is superfluous. Does it matter that he is untalented, tone-deaf or oblivious? Not in the least. Behind those eyes is a focus that most aspiring thespians would be envious of, regardless of what any of it might amount to.