Thursday, October 20, 2016

Certain Women (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Kelly Reichardt


I've worried that I don't possess the kind of patience a viewer may need to sit through a Kelly Reichardt film. It's not that her films are bad or even boring. They always contain a level of humanity uncommon in most films. She seems to really care about the people she creates. Take for instance the women of Certain Women, a film based on stories from the author Maile Meloy. Laura (Laura Dern) is a jaded lawyer with a very disgruntled client (Jared Harris). Gina (Michelle Williams) is a headstrong wife and mother, who's quest to build the perfect authentic home puts her at odds with her supportive husband (James Le Gros) and her angsty teenage daughter (Sara Rodier). Lastly, Jamie (Lily Gladstone) is an isolated ranch hand herding horses who finds some enchantment in her life when she meets a young law student (Kristen Stewart) who commutes weekly from out of town to teach middle aged teachers the legal dynamics of the classroom. These three women make up the definitive thirds of Reichardt's film, their stories all taking place around the barren, snowy towns and countries of Montana. Reichardt loves the kind of mood that comes with silence, and there are few places more silent than Montana. This is her third collaboration with Williams, and I think the best. Wendy and Lucy and Meek's Cutoff felt too much like an experiment, it was too dependent on the abstract. In a way, that's all there was. Certain Women takes more advantage of its cast, realizes the strength of building characters through performance. This is pretty easily my favorite of the Reichardt films I've seen (I'll admit that I actually fell asleep during Meek's Cutoff), and its collection of performances - specifically from its three leading actresses - are such a wondrous combination of beautiful, funny and heartbreaking. They're real portrayals of real women seeking virtue, validation and love.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Aquarius (***)

Written and Directed by Kleber Mendonca Filho


A film like Aquarius - a patient, thoughtful film that takes on a wide variety of themes including gentrification, mortality and gender - is something to be cherished. Is it perhaps too long? Definitely. Kleber Mendonca Filho's second feature meanders on long passages all in the attempt at mood. He wants you to truly feel the effects of age, of time passing, of life escaping. Veteran Brazilian actress Sonia Braga plays Clara, Aquarius' protagonist. Clara is a woman who has consumed a lot: education, culture, life experience. She had the benefit of being well-to-do in a part of Brazil where poverty is rampant, but she used her privilege to live a cosmopolitan life of passion, and the trials she's experienced has done work only toward strengthening her resolve. She's too old, too experienced to be contradicted or patronized. She won't allow it. The wide scope of life that has formed this woman is the center of Mendonca Filho's film. Her late-life crusade against a rising culture that wishes to squelch the tradition that has been such a large part of her life - and her survival - is a journey rich with symbolism and expression. She's not the only person who is correct, but she is the most correct, and that conviction drives her into a tense showdown against those who thought she'd be easy to push aside.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Girl on the Train (*)

Directed by Tate Taylor


Paula Hawkins' novel The Girl on the Train is the kind of not-very-good pulp fiction that is capable of making a very good movie. The book was packaged as a sort of further reading suggestion for fans of Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl, but it's not nearly as sarcastic or cruel. Any irony for the absurdity that is Hawkins' book would have to be inferred; I rolled my eyes quite a bit working through it. Director Tate Taylor treats Girl on the Train like its the work of John le Carré, and he directs the film adaptation as if he's homaging Hitchcock. The Girl on the Train didn't need the David Fincher treatment, it needed the Douglas Sirk treatment. It needed a filmmaker that noticed that a sincere portrayal of this narrative could be nothing less than totally bonkers. It certainly didn't need the Tate Taylor treatment. The Hollywood director can't seem to decide if he's making a bone-chilling thriller or a psychosexual melodrama. It manages to achieve both a removed chilliness and a ridiculous over-the-top-ness, and neither effect is executed properly. Taylor can handle the moral certitude of a film like The Help, but he's coming to pieces here trying to arrange the complicated mess of sex, ethics and gender trouble being thrown around in this film. Girl on the Train is striving desperately for that tricky balance of sensuality and terror, but it doesn't have the guts to be as crazy as, say, Fatal Attraction, and it doesn't even have the decency to be legitimately shocking.

Monday, October 10, 2016

The Birth of a Nation (**1/2)

The Birth of a Nation
Written, Produced and Directed by Nate Parker


Nat Turner is a historical figure that too little has been made of. Actor Nate Parker has decided to give him the biopic treatment. In The Birth of a Nation, Parker is taking a man who's claim to fame is leading a bloody slave revolt and attempting to make his story palatable to the masses. He ties the violence of Turner's movement in with Turner's wide-ranging spirituality. Turner sees white slave masters using the Bible and the word of God as a weapon against dehumanized slaves, and he's able to snatch that weapon and turn it on them, if only for a short while. The revolt he led was only 48 hours long, but Parker's film is much more ambitious in the scope of story. It values context and build-up, and longs to show you that Turner was more than just a bloodthirsty man seeking vengeance, but also a strong, God-fearing, obedient man worn down by the inhumanities of slavery. Parker's film is unafraid to show these atrocities in their most explicit form. He's seeking visceral reactions, and getting them. For his first feature, Parker definitely has guts, and he's smart enough as a storyteller to link the horrid details of the past with troubling details from the present. But for all its striking imagery, The Birth of a Nation still buckles under the weight of being a complete film, like a cause without a strict message.

Monday, October 3, 2016

Denial (**)

Directed by Mick Jackson


Director Mick Jackson has produced a lot of work for television, and that makes a lot of sense when you watch a film like Denial. I don't mean to denigrate television - lord knows we are not in need of further shots fired in the never-ending TV v. cinema debate - but Jackson's direction of a complex story like Denial feels too tidy, too averse to nuance and internalization. The film is based on the book by Deborah Lipstadt, an Emory College professor who specializes in fighting against Holocaust deniers. Following a public confrontation with incendiary historian and known Holocaust denier David Irving, Lipstadt was then sued by Irving and faced with the frighteningly scary prospect of losing a public trial to a man who uses the facts of history as pawns in his own ludicrous retellings. The film's screenplay is written by the famed English playwright David Hare, and he is obviously capable of crafting strong sequences, supplied with ample opportunities for the right actors to succeed. Denial has the right actors, I believe, and the film has good performances from end to end. I'm just not sure this is the right director.

Sunday, September 18, 2016

Other People (***)

Written and Directed by Chris Kelly


Other People is the kind of Sundance-y tragicomedy that has the capacity to really produce a heavy duty eye-roll from me, but Chris Kelly (a comedy writer for Saturday Night Live and Broad City) does deliver some pretty tremendous stuff here in his first feature film. His script is autobiographical, with actor Jesse Plemons playing David, a comedy writer from NYC who moves back to Sacramento to live with his parents while his mother Joanne (a dynamite Molly Shannon) deals with cancer. David's father, Norman (Bradley Whitford), is a well-meaning but straight-laced conservative who has never truly accepted David's homosexuality, and while David spends a year trying to help his sick mother, he must also cope with the erosion of a five year relationship with his boyfriend Paul (Zach Woods) and the tumultuous downward slope of his professional career. Kelly writes for television mostly, and there are times when Other People seems to try too hard to fit its complicated emotions into simple sitcom comedic tropes. The film works best when it entrenches itself deeply into its emotional core, embracing its crippling tale of mortality. The performances from Jesse Plemons and Molly Shannon are outstanding, the two actors perfectly illustrating a mother-son relationship that has only been strengthened by past turmoil. David as a character is struggling with his own issues, and is subsequently bogged down by a guilt that comes with thinking of yourself when others are in pain. Joanne is dealing with her own approaching death, and that piercing balance of worrying about yourself versus worrying about those who care about you. Other People is obviously enriched by personal experience, but it helps to have as strong a performance as you get here from the two lead actors. A Sundance weepy Other People sure is, but it doesn't mean there isn't a terrific film in there, even if its only in spurts.

Monday, September 12, 2016

White Girl (*1/2)

Written and Directed by Elizabeth Wood


One cannot make the claim that Elizabeth Wood's White Girl puts on any airs. Even its direct title puts an image in the audience's mind of a certain kind of person. Leah, the film's protagonist played with shocking fearlessness by Moran Saylor, is a Oklahoma girl going to school in New York City. After her freshman year, she moves to Ridgewood with her friend Katie (India Menuez), where she purposely ingratiates herself with a young Hispanic man named Blue (Brian Marc) who sells drugs across the street. Leah's courtship of Blue enables both her issues with impulse control and her need for drugs. Leah pushes Blue to make more money as a drug dealer, to move beyond the Brooklyn small time and make the real money in Manhattan. This is a quick and dangerous shift for Blue, and before long, he ends up arrested. The lengths that Leah goes to get Blue a proper lawyer and out of prison takes up a majority of the film. Perhaps its Leah's guilt that brings her to be so committed to Blue's freedom, or maybe it's love. It's hard to tell because writer/director Elizabeth Wood has given us no information in this regard. So many pages are left blank and what we're left with mostly are scenes of graphic sex and copious drug use. Is White Girl meant to be the tale of the numerous women chewed up and spit out by New York City? Is Leah a victim? Are we meant to be sympathetic to her predicament? Wood wants us to figure this out for ourselves, but unfortunately that leaves us with little other than tolerating a teenaged hedonist with seemingly little regard or intelligence for those around her.

Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Light Between Oceans (***)

Written for the Screen and Directed by Derek Cianfrance


Derek Cianfrance's The Light Between Oceans is probably too long. It's probably too dependent on overwrought emotion, manipulating its audience with tight close-ups of its beautiful cast crying with forlorn pain. But the film reached me. It reached me deep in the depths of my soul - right where it was aiming for. Its relentlessness in its tragedy, its document of time's toll on life, love and the human spirit, is both beautifully constructed and tirelessly maudlin. Cianfrance likes to take his time with these kinds of things. His 2010 masterpiece, Blue Valentine, was a devastating portrayal of how time and circumstance can wear down even a passionate love. His 2013 follow-up, The Place Beyond the Pines, was an uneven triptych about the lingering, generational effect of an act of violence. His films are about people entrapped by time, and its unstoppable cycle of joy and suffering. The Light Between Oceans is so deliberate about how its tells its story, very specific about how long it will take to make its points. If we live long enough, we are all confronted with tragedy, but if we live long enough still, we can still manage to find grace, or whatever peace may present itself until tragedy arrives again. His latest film is filled with people trying to escape their torment, or escape their guilt, only to find the task much harder than initially imagined.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Don't Breathe (***)

Directed by Fede Alvarez


The emergence of the prestige horror film this decade has allowed very strong filmmakers to work within a genre that's cheap, prolific and comes with a guaranteed audience. Sam Raimi gave Uruguayan director his commercial breakthrough when he pegged him to direct the 2013 reboot of his Evil Dead franchise. Don't Breathe is Alvarez's follow-up, a brutal suspense thriller with a claustrophobic premise that rattles its audience till its final conclusion. After The Witch and Green Room, Don't Breathe is yet another 2016 horror film that has managed to be both a box office hit (#1 in its opening week, with over $26 million) and a critical darling. But Don't Breathe is the only film of the three to have a strict following of the horror film template, and not aspiring to an art house esteem. My agnosticism towards the horror genre aside, Don't Breathe carries itself with a tremendous amount of enthusiasm. The film and its characters engage in such a horrid, violent game composed of the most complex, unforeseen angles of morality and ethics. Alvarez's film works because of its chamber drama-like setup, but a good couple of lead performances helps a lot.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Morris From America (**1/2)

Written and Directed by Chad Hartigan


It never really seems like Morris From America has enough story to fill out its 91 minutes. It's a unique take on the coming-of-age tale, but it never really puts itself into any unique territory. Newcomer Markees Christmas plays the titular Morris, a thirteen-year-old African American who moves to Germany with his father Curtis (Craig Robinson), a soccer coach who's gotten a professional assistant position overseas. Morris' mother has passed and Curtis hopes that the new setting will give Morris - a rap-obsessed loner alienated by his peer group - some perspective of the world as he grows up. Few of the other teenagers take to Morris, who still has trouble picking up the language. He takes lessons with a young student-teacher, Inka (Carla Juri), but otherwise has no acquaintances let alone friends. At a local youth center, Morris meets Katrin (Lina Keller), a beautiful blonde who is the only one who seems to pay any attention to him. Katrin is gorgeous, friendly, and actually takes time to listen to Morris about his interests. Very quickly, Morris falls in love and the young man finds himself sucked into the vortex of infatuation, following Katrin into a totally different, occasionally dangerous social circle.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Hell or High Water (****)

Directed by David Mackenzie


Taylor Sheridan's screenplay for Hell or High Water is amongst the most masterful depictions of a specific, decaying American culture I've seen in a while. It's right up there with No Country for Old Men and The Last Picture Show in terms of resonance and execution. Like those other two films, Hell or High Water takes place in Texas, that hulking sprawl of a state that has come to represent so much of the rest of the country, both commendable and repellent. Sheridan's story has odes to Arthur Penn's Bonnie and Clyde as well as another Coen Brothers film, Fargo, in that its simultaneous obsession and horror at the sight of senseless American crime and violence is showcased as a pendant of this country's society. The speed to which things can turn tragic and deadly in America is matched only by the incessant cycle in which these crimes continue to happen. Hell or High Water is a brilliant document to the very people who stand against it while also helping to perpetuate it. The people who stand for justice and peace, but by their actions enact blood and brimstone. Directed by David Mackenzie, Sheridan's script becomes an epic fable about family, brotherhood, mortality and morality. Backed by a trio of incredible performances, Mackenzie crafts this story with Steinbeck-ian scope, commenting on everything from the cemented racism at the heart of American culture to the crippling power that banks hold over the poor, reinforcing an ever-widening class system enabled by a wealthy few who have no interest in economic balance. Gun violence, predatory loans - the housing crisis, all things so synonymous with the infrastructure of contemporary United States - all manage to make a cameo in this film, and yet Sheridan's script never gets lost in its own ideas, with a tight story about two criminal brothers and the grey dog trooper bent on catching them before they settle the big score.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Kubo and the Two Strings (***)

Directed by Travis Knight


If Pixar has stood out amongst animation studios for its unmatched critical and commercial success, than Laika has also stood out, for its dogged dedication to the labor-intensive art of stop-motion animation. Travis Knight has been the lead animator at Laika since 2005, and has been instrumental in the studios recent boost, producing Coraline, ParaNorman and The Boxtrolls. The studio's latest release, Kubo and the Two Strings is Knight's directorial debut. The film, which borrows heavily from various mythologies interwoven through Japanese culture is able to produce quite a mythical quality. It's also probably their first film to truly attempt the kind of heart-wrenching sentimentality of Pixar. Laika has always stood out to me for its courage to embrace the more grotesque nature of animation. They took the aesthetic of Tim Burton and really expounded on it, didn't allow themselves to get boxed into their own style the way Burton has. The unfortunate fact that Kubo's Japanese characters are almost exclusively voiced by white actors slacks at the film's credibility as a true homage, but Knight fills the film with such wondrously beautiful images. The disconnect between head and heart here is apparent, but Knight knows how to craft a well-made film, and Kubo is amongst the best animated films I've managed to see this year.

Monday, August 15, 2016

Little Men (***1/2)

Directed by Ira Sachs


Ira Sachs' last two films are such a beautiful distillation of everyday life, a peep into the domestic sides of New York City living that is both poignant and direct. 2014's Love is Strange was a wonderful drama about getting old, being in love and overcoming the same prejudices over and over again. His latest film, Little Men, is about two teenagers, growing up in residential Brooklyn, who become unlikely friends. The pair of young actors that Sachs was able to find here is the film's key. Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri show a stunning alacrity for displaying youthful enthusiasm, arrogance, even at times real true sadness. The loneliness of adolescence is oppressive at times, as your world view becomes less solipsistic and more aware of the realities of life and what you'll face. It's a godsend if you're able to find another who can help you understand this challenging period. Little Men is about that moment when you find that one friend who can help you cope with growing up, and how the realities of adult life will always manage to get in the way of the struggles of children. In Love is Strange and now Little Men, Sachs takes a deep dive into the uncomfortable minutia of maturity, responsibility and family, and comes out with a film that has a sense of humor about its own form of tragedy. These lived-in stories have a refreshing tone compared to most films about New York, and with Little Men, Sachs continues to show that he is an exceptional storyteller.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

Jason Bourne (**1/2)

Directed by Paul Greengrass


The Bourne franchise isn't nearly as intelligent as it thinks it is. It's suggestion of commentary on our political climate is shallow at best, but that's okay. The original Bourne trilogy was the perfect action series for George W. Bush America, exploring our frustrations and paranoia about our government's competence. It was tapping into a feeling without saying anything truly interesting about it. At its core, these films are about as escapist as a Transformers film, but even if the films aren't exactly as sophisticated as they pose themselves, they are backed by strong screenplays (the first three had strong contribution from the great Tony Gilroy) and they at least tell the story of a very intelligent, sophisticated protagonist. Jason Bourne, and Matt Damon's portrayal of him, is one of the miracles of studio filmmaking this century. It's hard to think of another movie star who could have played this preposterous character so sincerely and yet make it work. The Bourne Identity was directed by Doug Liman, but since then, all of Damon's Bourne films have been directed by Paul Greengrass (the Jeremy Renner-starring The Bourne Legacy was actually directed by Gilroy, himself; he has not come around for this latest film). Greengrass has a style that suggests cinema-verité, heavy on steadicam and smash cutting. Greengrass likes films with political bent, and he's succeeded with United 93 and Captain Phillips, which both managed to translate documentary-style narrative storytelling into commercial and critical success. And yet, I think his Bourne films are the best thing that he's ever done. Is it possible that his true calling is as a smash em' up action director? Jason Bourne certainly proves that to me, and with Damon returning to star, one of my favorite film franchises gets an entertaining boost.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Don't Think Twice (***)

Written and Directed by Mike Birbiglia


Mike Birbiglia's transformation from cult favorite stand-up comic to filmmaker makes a little bit more sense than Louis CK's. Birbiglia's comedy was always more story-oriented, more of a one-man show than a traditional comedy set. Louis CK's brilliance is in his inertness, and his show, Louie, was always at its best (though certainly not at its funniest) when we really dove into the chaos of his mind. Birbiglia isn't as cerebral a storyteller, but his storytelling interests have a broader appeal. He's not knocking around in his own mind, he's exploring the lives of other people. Unlike CK, he doesn't really have to be brilliant to be entertaining, and his second feature film, Don't Think Twice, is probably one of the better examples of a comedian executing the Woody Allen model. One part autobiography, some parts romance, another part funny. When Woody is at his best, he explores religious and philosophical topics with great alacrity, but when he's simply making a fun film (like Love and Death or Sweet and Lowdown), he comes up with something that looks a lot like Don't Think Twice. The film deals with a comedy improv group called The Commune, a New York City collection of comics all locked into the death stare of their thirties, looking hopelessly for a way toward success while also continuing to put on a seriously funny show. The characters within Don't Think Twice are a very familiar New York City figure, and Birbiglia's film is a melancholy ode to the artists who have the talent but not the luck or the breaks. More than anything, his film is a mature dissection of human relationships, the complications that often come up between friends and loved ones, when the paths of our lives don't always go in the same direction.