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.

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Copycat / *** (1995)

There is an ideological disconnect between those who study serial killers and those who are assigned to prosecute them. For the latter sorts it’s all about procedure, about connecting dots in a maze of riddles to identify a source that can be seen, touched and ultimately punished. Anything beyond those mechanics fall to deeper thinkers, who inhabit the underlying psyche as a means to find answers to the more probing questions – namely, what drives a person to the methodical precision of committing murder on a mass scale? “Copycat,” a thriller that borrows much of its structure from “The Silence of the Lambs,” features two such characters at the forefront of this descent. One is a psychologist specializing in serial homicide played by Sigourney Weaver, the other a deadpan police inspector played by Holly Hunter. Both lack the patience to work cooperatively with the other, and yet somehow they must, otherwise a recent surge of murders in the San Francisco area mimicking those of famous serial minds from the recent past could continue without interruption, even though they might be occurring with a critical pattern between them.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Coco / **** (2017)

Any number of recent mainstream cartoons that find their way to theaters are in some way about the importance of family values, but Pixar’s “Coco” is the first in a while that is truly sincere about the concept. Never is there a sense while watching it that artists or filmmakers are weaving an illusion that is at the service of a shallow impulse, nor does it inspire the urge in us cynics to pick apart the formula in secondary exercises (a behavior, I willingly admit, that I used in Disney’s recent “Moana”). Like a drill plunging to the depths of a rich reservoir, here is a wonderful little film that finds a powerful source of inspiration while others barely scratch the surface of their wisdom, allowing many of us to forget we are hardened adults diminished by experience. For a precious few minutes I was not merely a movie enthusiast – I was a kid entranced by a spell, in a place of splendor and sensation, joining characters on a quest that felt created by magic rather than the pens of ambitious scribes. And if the feeling remains true that the studio’s output is as rewarding for adults as it is for children, their latest strikes an even more elusive chord: one that transports the oldest of codgers back to a time when our innocent young eyes were starved for exciting adventures.