Sunday, January 21, 2018

"Mudbound"

 ☆☆☆☆ 

It's almost impossible to write about Mudbound without mentioning the way it has been released, because almost everyone who sees it will do so on Netflix -- at home, on the relatively small screen of their normal TV set, which will be calibrated as they always have it (meaning, almost certainly, poorly), using whatever sound system they always use.

That's the way I saw it, having missed its very short theatrical run in L.A., when it played in a handful of theaters for a few days in order to qualify it for the Oscars. It was, as they say, "dumped" in movie theaters, on its way to Netflix, where it is marketed as a "Netflix Original Movie" despite having multiple production credits.

All of this is a real shame because Mudbound deserves to be seen in a movie theater, with a projector that has been professionally calibrated, with speakers that can handle the intricate sound design, with a big screen that helps immerse you in the story and -- most importantly -- without the distractions that inevitably crop up when watching a movie at home.  I've yet to find anyone, even the rarified few with a dedicated home theater, who can resist the temptation to do something other than keep focus on the movie while watching at home.

A movie theater limits your choices to maybe three: watch the movie, fall asleep, or leave.  You give yourself over to a movie, its plot and its creative ambition when you watch a movie in a theater.  Not so at home, no matter how dedicated or sincere a viewer you are.  (Don't believe me?  How many times have you "held it" in a movie theater versus pressing pause to take a bathroom break?  The pause button doesn't just freeze the picture, but interrupts the narrative flow that a movie is designed to have.)

This all matters to Mudbound because it's a marvelous, absorbing, well-told and emotionally wrenching film that you might easily -- based on the marketing -- mistake for a "good-for-you" movie about race relations, when in fact it's a tremendously complex tale that is sprawling and visually magnificent.  All of these things feel diminished in the living room.

Its story begins when the world is embroiled in World War II but the U.S. has remained safely distant.  Around the time the Japanese invade Pearl Harbor, Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) reveals to his wife Laura (Carey Mulligan) that he has bought a farm on the Mississippi Delta, and the family is going to move there.  Laura and Henry have a complicated relationship, with the additional wrinkle of Henry's brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund), who seems to have a soft spot for Laura, and she for him.

The family, including Henry's unrelievedly racist and always demoralizing Pappy (Jonathan Banks) moves. Jamie enlists. And Henry turns out to be a terrible businessman, whose savings have been swindled by a man who said he would rent them the big farmhouse but had no intention of doing so. The McAllans are forced to live in a ramshackle cabin, not far away from the Jackson family.

The Jacksons are sharecroppers who face the same plight as black Americans have for centuries: White people aren't going to do right by them.  They know it.  But still they try, and they all have dreams.  Father Hap (Rob Morgan), mother Florence (Mary J. Blige) and their children, including Ronsel (Jason Mitchell) don't know what to make of the McAllans, who are working the same patch of land they have been tending to for years.

Ronsel goes off to fight in World War II, as well, and while life on the farm continues in its unrelentingly harsh, bleak way for both the McAllans and the Jacksons, the matriarchs of each family show particular strength, and turn to each other begrudgingly for support, while Henry and Pappy seem to find ways to make it more and more difficult.

If Mudbound has a real flaw, it's in the lack of focus its middle section has -- it moves back and forth between stories about the Jacksons, the McAllans, Ronsel and Jamie, but never quite emotionally connects them rather than hoping we'll continue paying attention through to its third act.  It's a dramatic flaw that's heightened by being forced to watch it at home instead of in a movie theater.

When Ronsel and Jamie return, Mudbound becomes supremely confident, leading to a final third that is unnervingly good.  Director Dee Rees, who wrote the film with Virgil Williams, pulls together all of the elements that have seemed so scattered -- character traits, small plot points -- for a shocker of a climax that packs a wallop.

Though that ending is softly hinted at in Mudbound's very first scene, Rees wisely hides the meaning of a couple of key lines until near the very end.  Her dramatic sensibilities are enormously aided by beautiful cinematography by Rachel Morrison, which captures the scope without seeming overly prettified, and the thoughtful and careful editing of Mako Kamitsuna.  The technical side of the film is so good that it strengthens the film even when the energy flags.

The performances are likewise terrific throughout, and it is particularly worth noting how effortlessly Mudbound is driven by its two female leads -- Mulligan and Blige -- even while ultimately telling a story that mostly belongs to Ronsel.  In retrospect, it's easy to imagine Mudbound being even stronger by focusing in more intently on Ronsel, but it would have done so at the expense of its setting, which is so vividly and carefully conveyed.

Mudbound is a film that demands to be seen on a big screen, but won't.  It's both a very worthwhile movie, and a rather worrisome sign of the times: There's no way not to be grateful that a movie like Mudbound gets a bigger audience than it might have had otherwise, but its disconcerting to know how small this big and impressive experience will seem to so many.




Viewed January 20, 2018 -- Netflix


Tuesday, January 16, 2018

"Call Me" and "Call Me" Again


After weeks of cautious flirtation, of testing the emotional boundaries of each other and their own lives, there's a moment about midway through Call Me By Your Name in which Elio Perlman (Timothée Chalamet) and American research student Oliver (Armie Hammer) make a split-second decision to ride with each other into the town square of an unnamed Italian village.

It's the moment their relationship changes -- and the moment that the film moves from being a sweetly languorous comedy of observation to something that has become so frankly profound it's impacting the way people live and the choices they make in their lives.

How does a movie that is so outwardly lovely manage to exist on so many levels, to become almost a cinematic Rorschach test that leaves some audiences polarized?  I've heard from viewers who are stuck trying to process the age difference between the main characters (which is only seven years in the story and nine years in reality) and from those who criticize the film for being too pretty, too nice, too lacking in dramatic tension. On the other hand, it's become obvious that Call Me By Your Name has left many viewers with the live-altering fervor of someone who has just witnessed a religious event.

Call Me By Your Name has mysteries built on top of mysteries, not the least of which is the way it affects people.  In one of the key scenes in the novel, not replicated in the film, Elio and Oliver visit the ruins of a labyrinthine cathedral, and observe how it's built on remnants of its past, and how every time you think you've gone as deep as you can, there's something deeper.  Maybe that scene wasn't needed in the film because the whole film is that way: Examine one of its surface-level elements and you discover others you hadn't considered.

There is, for example, that spontaneous decision to ride into town.  It's not actually spontaneous.  Oliver has been looking for this opportunity for weeks.  Elio has been searching for it, too.  It comes.  Elio dismisses it with a joke.  And at this point, conventional wisdom says they'll be in love before the montage sequence is through.  But something oddly wonderful happens here, and to understand just how complex it is, you need to go back to the scene just before Elio and Oliver decided to get on their bikes:

Elio's mother (Amira Casar) has been reading him a story from The Heptameron, but the only version she can find is in German.  (This family is remarkably lingually fluid, perhaps itself presaging some other fluidity the film explores.)  The story is about a a knight who is madly in love with a princess, and she with him, and the predicament they face, which comes down to one choice: "reden oder sterben?" Or, loosely translated: "Is it better to speak or die?"

Elio and Oliver never answer that question for themselves, but the question itself matters, not because  it's thematically central to the film, but because for anyone who was alive in 1983 (when the movie is set), "speak or die" must at least unconsciously recall a similar phrase, one that captured the despair, anguish and desolation of gay men throughout the late 1980s and into the following decade, when AIDS ravaged bodies, families and communities: "Silence = death."

And indeed, just a moment later Oliver lifts up his shirt to show Elio an unsightly injury on his otherwise perfect body, a big, black mark that wasn't there just days before.  That's the odd and unexpected thing that happens when Oliver and Elio ride into town, and that moment, tossed away almost casually in the film, moves Call Me By Your Name forward in two remarkable, parallel ways.

In one, the love story is presented simply for what it is: Two souls discovering each other and the beauty, pain, obsession and joy of love. The film can be appreciated solely on that level. But there's no way to ignore the proximity of "speak or die" and the lesion on Oliver's torso.  There is a callous, imperfect, hostile world outside the villa in which Oliver and Elio spend their perfect summer, and it is peeking through.

The movie moves forward with those separate but parallel approaches in mind -- the straightforward love story and the more distressing subtext -- and they converge in final moments that are so filled with loss, memory, hope, love and pain that for many viewers (and I'll count myself among them) watching the last scenes of Call Me By Your Name is an experience that borders on traumatizing.

But the idea that there is an unseen, grander force at work that will work against these two men, even if they were able to make their relationship work, still lingers at the edges of Call Me By Your Name.

Not long after their first romantic gestures -- which ends with the suggestion of a trip to a pharmacist -- Elio gets a nosebleed.  Oliver seems unafraid of the blood or the physical malady, just as Elio was unfazed by Oliver's own injury.

Much later, Elio performs some buzzed-about auto-eroticism with a peach, and the movie begins with a scene that in the book was about the lengths to which Oliver would go to prove his attraction to Elio.  The film's exquisite screenplay by James Ivory changes the scene in a breathtaking way: When Oliver discovers what Elio has been doing and offers to eat the peach (which he does in the novel), Elio slaps the fruit away, but Oliver insists.  Finally, Elio breaks down and cries, "I'm sick." And Oliver cradles him and holds him and comforts him regardless.

This deeper, richer subtext to Call Me By Your Name is handled deftly: on the surface, it's barely noticeable.  But it persists, and also works its way into the first moment Elio and Oliver kiss: "We can still be good," Oliver says, physically dissuading Elio. "We haven't done anything wrong."

Any gay man between 40 and 70 knows those words and the feelings they convey, of denying real love, or at least a real chance, for fear of what lingered.  And AIDS, homophobia, the Cold War, Reaganomics, they're all lurking just outside the gates of the Perlman residence, even intruding: the movie is filled with depictions of bodily fluids and discussions of political changes, all the things that will define the years ahead for Elio and Oliver.

Oliver and Elio both see this; they are intensely smart.  They know what is happening in the world. But for now, for these six weeks ... it doesn't matter.

Some (including, it seems, studio executives) have faulted Call Me By Your Name for not having a clear antagonist.  It has an antagonist, indeed: The world itself.  Eventually, it's going to come after Oliver and Elio as it comes after everyone, and what they experienced together may just be a long-forgotten dream after a while.  One or both of them is likely to get sick.  One might become part of the anti-AIDS movement in the '90s.  Who knows?  But the idea that all that is lingering somewhere just beyond the little Italian village is hard to shake.

For now, though, there is no judgment.  There is no strife.  There is only one of the most palpably real depictions of summer in the country I've ever seen.

Truth be told, one of the four times I've seen Call Me By Your Name I watched primarily not to observe the characters but to look at and listen to the backgrounds.  Every image, every piece of sound design in the film puts you right there in the Perlman's home, or on a country road with Elio and Oliver.  The film creates an enveloping sense of being there, which Guadagnino enhances through very long, static shots, allowing the light and sound and feel of the places to work on us.

The physical beauty hides truths, and one of them is right in front of our eyes the whole time: Oliver. The first line spoken about him is, "He seems very confident," and the film is as much a coming-of-age story about young Elio as it is about the handsome American.

Hammer plays Oliver with such easy charm, such massive self-assurance, that there's never a question that a 6-foot-5, blue-eyed beauty will have everything together.  But then there's an unforgettable scene in which Elio tells Oliver what he thinks the American visitor has been doing every night, only to find out how wrong he is.

When, finally, the two lovers must depart, it leads to the most talked-about scene in the movie, between Elio and his father (Michael Stuhlbarg).  It is an extraordinary scene, one that deeply affects people, leading into the very last shot of the movie, which is less merely affecting than shattering, because those unspoken threats and difficult realities that the film has been holding at bay come crashing down, if only for the audience.

Call Me By Your Name lets everyone watching bring his or her own feelings into that last shot, which gives us time to process the metaphors, to reflect on our own knowledge of what is coming for Elio and Oliver (this is, after all, a memory piece of a film), and on our own lives and experience. We remember what it as to be 17 or 24, and to know how young that is.

Director Guadagnino has said he'd like to shoot a sequel, but please, no, don't.  The whole point of Call Me By Your Name is that it exists in an exquisite, perfect, joyous vacuum.  Its last quiet moments give us time to reflect on that possible future, but also to think about what we, individually and collectively, have lost.

And what we gained, because of course we're here now, older, better maybe, smarter sometimes, and we've gained in some way if not all of them.  But we think about what it took to gain.  What we wish we could go back to.

We think that maybe we will be lucky enough one summer to find an Italian villa where an old woman makes us food every night and we have nothing to do but read and dance and ride our bikes and talk to each other.  And to fall in love.

To be young.

And when you strip away all the allusions and metaphors, all the symbols and literary devices that make Call Me By Your Name such a rich and dense and wonderfully multifaceted experience -- when you take those away, that's what you're left with, why Call Me By Your Name is so impossible to forget.

It reminds us how young we were once, and how willing to love and be loved.  And how when we were, the world was good.  And how when the world was good, we were good.

The first time I saw it, Call Me By Your Name struck me with its brash eroticism, but I realize now that that's not the reason it persists in my heart and in the hearts of so many -- it's because we all long, no matter our age, for one more moment of youthful possibility when who or what we loved would love us back and all would be right in our little piece of the world.







Monday, January 15, 2018

"Faces Places"

  

Faces Places is a comedy for intellectual highbrows, which makes it largely inaccessible to a lot of people who might otherwise enjoy it, but also makes it impossible to fully enjoy unless you're familiar with the shorthand way it talks about cinema and art history.

In large part, it's an adorable little Odd Couple story about two wildly different people who connect with each other over a shared love of art.  There is a smaller part, which deals with some grand themes of memory, loss, death and life, and an even smaller -- but in the end crucial -- part about French cinema and the political ideologies of French New Wave director Agnes Varda, who co-directed this film.

That small-but-crucial part is the element of Faces Places that was least effective for me, and there were large swaths of this brief (88-minute) film that made my mind wander as Varda and her collaborator, a French photographer-artist named JR, mused on Varda's colorful history as one of the French filmmakers who revolutionized cinema a half-century ago.

But those bits -- and the film's assumption you will understand every reference in the movie -- are mostly worth sitting through to get to the film's twin beating hearts.

The first is the wonderfully playful relationship that 89-year-old Varda and 34-year-old JR have; they are joyful, cantankerous, funny and profound as they embark on a journey across France to fulfill an artistic vision of taking massive photographs of people and pasting them on buildings.  Why?  Because, Varda explains, it lets them meet people, and what is art if not connecting with others?

That's one of the most intriguing concepts in the film, which Varda and JR made together, and the connection the two (especially her) seem to have with the people they meet feels real and abiding; by their mere presence, they change the villages they visit.

As they traverse the countryside, though, it is clear that Varda -- despite her seemingly unstoppable energy -- is slowing down.  She can't see very well, she can't climb stairs, and she spends more and more time thinking about the past.

So, the two of them, the old woman and the young man, get in their truck and wander, taking a road trip through some of the less desirable, less romantic locations in France, and they kind of riff off of each other, and that's pretty much all Faces Places is.

It's a sweet and tender look at art and aging, at the way we connect (or don't) with other people and why.  It does dig too deep into its questions, and goes off on some long and rather opaque tangents, one about worker solidarity and one about the unchangeable nature of difficult people.

It's hard to know if they amount to much.  Faces Places is a sweet and entertaining diversion, one that will mostly appeal to those who know contemporary art and appreciate French film history, or who want to get a warm-hearted glimpse at what France is like in places tourists never go.



Viewed January 14, 2018 -- Laemmle Monica

1650

Sunday, December 31, 2017

The Best of 2017


A ludicrous claim has been making the rounds lately, one that says 2017 has been a bad year for movies.  Attendance may be down, movie theaters may be closer to extinction than they've ever been, but the quality of movies?  I'd argue 2017 has been one of the most fulfilling years in a long, long time.

In the six years since I started this blog, 2017 is the first year I haven't felt I had to struggle to come up with a list of 10 really great films for my year-end list -- and the first that I couldn't think of 10 truly awful films to come up with a "10 worst" list.

Oh, there were some clunkers, all right.  mother! wins the award for the most pretentiously artistic and wildly ill-conceived big-budget, studio-backed "thrillers" of recent years.  Even when the film's symbolism is explained, it neither makes sense nor proves compelling.

Most overrated films of the year?  Certainly It, a CG-laden "horror" film that lacked suspense and cheated by not telling a complete story, instead blowing its final moments to announce a sequel; and Dunkirk, a formidable technical achievement with almost no narrative pull.  Blade Runner 2049 was the year's most lugubrious sludge, a slow-moving, lackluster sequel to a slow-moving, lackluster original.  Oh, and there were Alien: Covenant and Life, both bad sci-fi by any standards.

Yet countering that handful of bad movies was a bumper-crop of truly fantastic ones. Other 2017 releases that deserve to be sought out for various reasons but didn't quite make the cut:
  • Battle of the Sexes
  • Berlin Syndrome
  • Phantom Thread
  • Lady Bird
  • The Shape of Water
I wasn't quite as on-board the Wonder Woman bandwagon as others -- but if you're still of the super-hero movie mindset, there were far, far worse options this year.  "Franchise fatigue" is settling in, but
look beyond the cookie-cutter mentality of the big studios and you'll find some wonderful stuff.

Contrary to that cynical conventional wisdom, 2017 was a terrific year, and gave us some films I think are going to stand the test of time -- some in surprising ways.  So, here's my list of my 10 favorite films of 2017, starting with No. 10 and leading to my No. 1 choice, a film that will hardly surprise anyone who reads this blog regularly -- and by itself justifies anything else that happened in cinema in 2017.

  #10  
  The Greatest Showman  

In one of its most rousing moments, The Greatest Showman presents sideshow "freaks" singing an anthem of redemption and self-acceptance: "I'm not scared to be seen / I make no apologies / This is me." And that's the way director Michael Gracey's movie presents itself, too: It's going to be criticized as too populist, too silly, too pretty, too colorful, too sugary, too sentimental, too everything -- so it embraces all of those values, and wonderfully.  The Greatest Showman is meant to be entertaining, and that it is, in spades.  You won't remember a single song, you may not even recall why you were moved and inspired in the first place, but unless you're soulless, you will be moved, inspired and entertained, even if you're rolling your eyes all the while. The Greatest Showman shuts out the rest of the world and makes you forget it for a couple of hours -- and that's a singular achievement for any film.


I'd like to pretend I never saw The Killing of a Sacred Deer, but I can't -- it got under my skin, it bothered me and angered me and disoriented me like few movies have.  It's a thoroughly unpleasant film, perverse and upsetting, but told with incredible style and a commitment to its warped ideas that is impressive. A modern updating of the violent themes of classic Greek tragedies, in which the gods or the universe or both conspire against mere mortals, who are driven to insane lengths to protect themselves from such fury, The Killing of a Sacred Deer is a puzzle.  It's not a film I liked, but it's a film so filled with daring originality and passionate commitment from everyone involved that it's impossible to forget.  Look, you might actually be better off not seeing it at all -- but if you do, you'll understand why it deserves mention in a roundup of the year's most noteworthy movies.

  #8  
  Darkest Hour  

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk got cinephiles all hot and bothered with its technically superior but narratively slack retelling of one of the defining events of World War II for Britain.  Darkest Hour is a vastly better movie because it tells more or less the same story in a way that invites compassion, perspective, understanding and human-level drama.  Gary Oldman plays Winston Churchill in this well-crafted and shockingly coherent (q.v. Dunkirk) historical biography that concentrates on the month between Churchill's appointment as prime minister and the evacuation of Dunkirk.  By concentrating on Churchill and his motives, Darkest Hour illuminates British resolve and the importance of democracy and thoughtful leadership. Darkest Hour may not meant have been intended as a direct commentary on the political mess America is in at the moment, but it functions that way nonetheless, and its ability to put both individual battles and the era itself into perspective lend it a weight and meaning that turn it into a wonderful moviegoing experience.

  #7  
  Get Out  

It's easy to classify Get Out as a horror film and to see it as a well-crafted thriller, which it is -- but it's a far richer, more rewarding, more shocking experience to learn more about what writer-director Jordan Peele is burying beneath the surface. Don't be embarrassed if you can't sort it all out on your own, it's a labyrinth of symbolism and double-meaning, diving deep into America's long and storied legacy of racism. Google it. Work it over and over in your head. Talk about it. And be amazed at how deep Peele is digging into territory most films wouldn't dare touch. And then marvel at the fact that it's all put together in the guise of a contemporary horror-thriller.  The easiest way to define it would be that it's a psychologically complex, horror-tinged update of Guess Who's Coming to Dinner, but what that film considered shocking 50 years ago is where this film starts.  Get Out is filled with meaning but hugely enjoyable on its surface-level terms, too.

  #6  
  Baby Driver  

If every movie were as effortlessly enjoyable as Baby Driver, Hollywood wouldn't be worried about its future. Part heist thriller, part romance, part coming-of-age-story, part ... musical?  In fact, Baby Driver is propelled by the beat of the music its protagonist plays in his omnipresent ear buds.  Baby is played by Ansel Elgort as a fast-driving savant, a kid who understands the nuances of the big-time burglaries he help pulls off, and comprehends way more than his crime bosses would ever suspect. Director Edgar Wright is giddy with the possibility of modern cinema, and uses every trick in the book to deliver a film that's a triple-threat a genuinely thrilling thriller, a truly funny comedy, and a tune-filled musical bursting with inventiveness.

  #5  
  Wind River  

An unfair and devastating piece of collateral damage in the (totally justified) war against Harvey Weinstein, Wind River moved from being a serious awards contender to being a film no one wants to talk about because of its producer -- and that's a serious shame.  This is a thriller whose intensity and filmmaking prowess rival the accomplishments of Best Picture winner The Silence of the Lambs, a film with which Wind River can be compared favorably.  Elizabeth Olsen is an FBI agent assigned to investigate the death of a young woman on a vast, frigid Native American reservation.  Teaming up with a local U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service agent (Jeremy Renner), they've got nothing but blank white space to explore, both literally and figuratively.  But against that snowy background, a violent, camouflaged truth slowly comes into view, leading to a brutal, shocking conclusion that writer-director Taylor Sheridan stages with vigor.  Wind River also has a lot to say about the treatment of Native Americans, both on a racial basis and as policy.  It never hits you over the head with its observations, but you're blindsided and clobbered anyway, because the movie is so damned good.

  #4  
  The Post  

Movies like The Terminal and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull may have left his admirers worried, but fear not: Steven Spielberg has lost none of his power as a filmmaker.  The Post is one of his best works, a movie that tells a compelling story with the visual style and flair that are Spielberg trademarks.  How the Pentagon Papers were leaked and published, and what they meant both to global politics and to journalism, may not sound like the basis for a great film -- but The Post is a great film nonetheless, bearing no sign of being a standard by-the-numbers retelling of a pivotal moment in American history, but finding urgency, relevancy and even suspense by focusing on the struggle between Washington Post publisher Katharine Graham (Meryl Streep) and her editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks). As if we needed any more proof of her status as the greatest of our living actors, Streep turns in yet another dazzling performance, playing Graham as hesitant, doubtful and lacking in confidence -- but Spielberg exhibits none of those traits in this unmissable movie.


We live in a world of violence and anger, and it eats at our souls -- though people are kind and wonderful and compassionate, so where does that leave us?  That's the inherent conundrum that Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, explores.  This is a film of magnificent humanity, but it's also got a mean streak, a chip on its shoulder about the way people can be, and in that it's as complex and beautiful as the people whose lives it explores. Frances McDormand stars as the mother of a girl who was raped and murdered in a particularly violent way, and she's bound and determined to get to the bottom of it all.  She's convinced the police chief of her small town -- played with a wonderful droll wit by Woody Harrelson -- isn't doing enough, and she lashes out by buying ad space on the billboards of the title.  Her goal is to soothe her own anguish, but her action has consequences, and as it explores the way anger and sadness lead only to more unhappiness, director Martin McDonaugh careens wildly and effortlessly from deep compassion to absurd hilarity, sometimes in the same scene.  Three Billboards  navigates these tonal shifts spectacularly well, spinning a murder-mystery that's also deeply moving and more than a little troubling.  Three Billboards doesn't shy away at being angry its own characters, even while it offers compassion and absolution for their all-too-human mistakes.


  #2  
  The Florida Project  

Poverty and homelessness are odd subjects for a movie as uplifting and beautiful as The Florida Project, which (like Three Billboards) is simultaneously distressed by and infinitely forgiving of the lives it explores.  The most vital of those lives belongs to Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a 6-year-old girl who lives in a seedy motel within fireworks-viewing distance of Walt Disney World.  Moonee and her best friends Jancey (Valeria Cotto) and Dicky (Aiden Malik) mostly spend their days wandering aimlessly, trying to avoid -- but sometimes terrorizing -- the motel's manager (Willem Dafoe).  Director Sean Baker, who wrote the film with Chris Bergoch, seems to treat all of it as loosely as an open-verse poem to the resilience of childhood, but eventually a story becomes clear as Moonee's mother (Bria Vinaite), barely more than a teenager herself, tries to keep her tiny family afloat by whatever means necessary.  Every shot of The Florida Project is a stunning beauty, but none more than a scene in which Moonee and Jancey sit on a massive tree and make an observation about life that's so simple and profound it's one of the year's real jaw-dropping moments.  The final minutes of this meandering, lovely film have proven divisive, but I thought found them a perfect ending to a near-perfect little movie about dreams, destitution and deliverance.

  #1  
  Call Me By Your Name  

A memory piece, a swooning romance, a love letter to Italy, a meditation on loss -- Call Me By Your Name is much more than just a story of two men who fall in love.  It's an essential and vital piece of gay cinema, yes, but it's also a milestone in romantic cinema, one of the rare films that takes sexuality and sensuality seriously and that understands the complexity of human emotion.  Elio (Timothée Chalamet) is a 17-year-old son of intellectual, international parents who, deep in the summer of 1983, discovers that he's a sexual being -- and an emotional one, too. It happens when he meets American doctoral student Oliver (Armie Hammer), who is spending six weeks assisting Elio's professor father (Michael Stuhlbarg), who's both older and more breathtakingly handsome than Elio. The first half of director Luca Guadagnino's adaptation Call Me By Your Name (written for the screen by 89-year-old James Ivory) is about the half-glances and hidden body language that defined not only gay love in a closeted world, but are the hallmarks of first love.  The second half of the film is about the exquisite beauty and heartache of giving yourself fully to someone and being seen for who you are.  The penultimate scene, in which Elio's father (Michael Schulbarg) shares his understanding of life, love and loss is what moves many viewers deeply and -- apart from the age difference between the leading mean -- that generates the most discussion.  Deservedly so.  It's a spectacularly touching scene (likewise the remarkable final shot). But the most beautiful moment to me is a moonlit conversation between Elio and Oliver in which they marvel at how they found each other. We should likewise marvel that we've found this luminous, eloquent and passionate film.

"Phantom Thread"

 ½ 

Cool and detached, beautiful yet untouchable, Paul Thomas Anderson's Phantom Thread is like the haute couture at its core.  It's exquisite, even mesmerizing, but it's not intended for mass consumption, something that doesn't bother the film or the filmmaker in the slightest.

It's certainly more accessible -- and engaging -- than Anderson's last film, the inscrutable (and, I thought, insufferable) The Master, which is due in part to the galvanizing presence of Daniel Day-Lewis in what the actor claims is his final role.  Yet for all the attention he's getting, it's really a three-person show, with a luminous Luxembourger actress named Vicky Krieps nearly stealing the film away from Day-Lewis, and an icily perfect Lesley Manville in a performance that might unsettle evenRebecca's Mrs. Danvers.

Day-Lewis and Manville play the brother-sister proprietors of the House of Woodcock, London's most fashionable, prestigious, exclusive creators of women's fashion.  The all gowns, bridal dresses, and impossibly high-priced, hand-made designs are created by Reynolds Woodcock (Day-Lewis), while sister Cyril makes the whole place run, overseeing the hand-crafting of a team of dressmakers.

And like the dresses, every individual moment, every single frame of Phantom Thread shows impossible care, with luxurious, almost tactile cinematography (by Anderson himself) and, of course, exquisite costumes and production design.

But it would be impossible to admit that the first half of the film labors against pretentiousness.  Anderson and Day-Lewis focus on the spoiled, embittered mannerisms of Reynolds Woodcock, meandering toward the story rather than heading into it full-bore; Phantom Thread, like The Master, makes it easy to long for the relentlessly hyperactive Anderson of Magnolia or Boogie Nights.

As Woodcock finds and woos a young immigrant waitress named Alma (Krieps, who's ravishing from her first moment on screen), it isn't clear exactly where Phantom Thread is heading.  Just as that becomes problematic, though, the film finds its way and becomes something quite unexpected.

Woodcock falls for Alma, but in a restrained and remote sort of way, and as he does the complicated and unnerving relationship with his sister Cyril looms at the edges of the story -- which veers yet again into a direction that it's almost impossible to foresee.  Gradually, Phantom Thread becomes a sinister sort of thriller, playing games both with its characters and its audience that are wildly intriguing and moderately off-putting.

Alma and Reynolds develop a perverse relationship in which they always seem to be jockeying for power both with each other and with Cyril.  The last hour of Phantom Thread is vastly superior to the first as Anderson finds the sweet spot between fetishistic filmmaking and the fetishistic business at the heart of the story.

How Anderson managed to delve into such a specific and closed-off world and come out with a story that illuminates dark areas of human interaction is in itself a fascinating accomplishment, one that makes the over-indulgences of the film's first half mostly worth slogging through.

Phantom Thread is indeed beautiful, but like the hidden messages that Woodcock stitches into the seams of his creations, it yields something surprising and unexpected.  It won't be to everyone's taste, in some ways I'm not entirely sure it was to mine, but just because I dress in jeans and sneakers doesn't mean I can't appreciate the wonders of high fashion, even if I have no interest in wearing it myself.



Viewed December 30, 2017 -- ArcLight Hollywood

2015

"I, Tonya"

 ½ 

Skating a fine line between comedy and pathos, I, Tonya is a quirky slice of Americana that includes all of the required elements and even picks up points for level of difficulty -- yet, like its main character, never quite manages to elicit our sympathy.

While it contains some fantastic performances, especially Margot Robbie's embodiment of the loud and crass figure skater who found herself at the center of a bizarre, violent scandal a quarter of a century ago as she fought her way, at all costs, onto the U.S. Olympic figure-skating team.  Tonya Harding never seemed to care what anyone thought of her, and perhaps the biggest fault of I, Tonya is how much it wants to be liked.

Sometimes hyperactive, sometimes silly, sometimes brash, sometimes insightful, sometimes offensive, I, Tonya never settles on one particular style, and in its effort to always keep its audience engaged and smiling, it loses focus.

Using an awkwardly integrated framing device of interviews with the fictionalized Harding, her husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan), mother Lavona (Allison Janney) and coach Diane Rawlinson (Julianne Nicholson), the movie impatiently uses these interviews -- which also include a pointless appearance by Bobby Cannavale as a tabloid TV producer -- in an effort to bring some perspective to the story.

Only occasionally does the idea work, mostly it interferes with the flow of its ironic retelling of how Harding rose from obscurity to fame as a figure skater everyone admired but no one really liked.  About halfway through the film, Harding looks straight at the camera and indicts everyone in the audience as co-conspirators in her downfall -- and it's that moment, and that central idea, that works best. Harding was, inarguably, an early victim of celebrity-obsessed trash TV, until she was overshadowed by O.J. Simpson as a national object of fascination and scorn.

It's her brief moment of notoriety that I, Tonya wants to explore in more detail, but except for that one scene the movie can't quite find its way to be clear on what it wants to say: It certainly casts Harding in an unexpectedly sympathetic light, but was her notoriety a side-effect of her own obsession with success or the cause of it?

In spite of a bravura performance by Robbie as Harding, I, Tonya rarely tries for insight; even a strong supporting turn by Janney feels a bit strained, mostly makeup and mannerisms than character, and never quite finding the humanity beneath a slightly mocking attitude -- I, Tonya too often seems to be playing its story for shock value than for insight.

An uncouth, uneducated American mindset can be fertile ground for both satire and sympathy.  The bleak, black comedy of Fargo seems on many levels to be one of I, Tonya's greatest inspirations, but this film lacks a critical element of the earlier: It doesn't seem to like its characters very much, frequently struggling even with Harding herself.  If the movie can't find something to love in Harding's struggle, it's near-impossible to ask the audience to do the same.

Despite its flashes of wit -- both verbal and visual -- and its strong central performance, I, Tonya wobbles at first and ultimately falls, though there's something to be said for the effort it makes.


Viewed December 29, 2017 -- DVD

Sunday, December 24, 2017

"The Greatest Showman"

 ☆☆☆☆ 

You may think The Greatest Showman is a biography of circus-master P.T. Barnum, but as Barnum himself famously never said, "There's a sucker born every minute." This isn't a biography. The Greatest Showman bears no resemblance to real life, there's not a shred of reality in the thing.

The Greatest Showman is rather a piece of modern moviemaking razzle-dazzle, a toe-tapping, smile-inducing musical whose only real fault is that it is all smoke and mirrors, even the songs are deceptively catchy; you won't come out of the theater humming a single note, and you may not even understand why that grin is on your face.

It's a fizzy, sumptuous concoction of a movie designed to go down easy, which it does indeed.  Why can the life of Alexander Hamilton be reduced to a giddy musical and earn such praise while the very same people who applaud that creation with gusto are likely to thumb their noses at this one?  Why, indeed -- cultural snobbery is one of the running themes of the movie, as if its makers are mildly apologetic for what they've made, which is a shame, because it is something else.

Every bit of it seems manufactured to wring the most possible enjoyment out of the moment; it's as if everyone involved in the movie had been told that the show could close at any moment; everybody seems to be having a miraculously wonderful time, almost like they expect they're performing in a flop. But it's not.  That's the biggest, most unexpected thing of The Greatest Showman -- it's so much better than it has any right to be.

It begins with an extended prologue that feels for all the world like a long opening number in a Broadway show.  It covers an enormous amount of ground with lightning speed and so little relation to reality that it sets the stage well for what is to come: None of this movie is to be taken as a serious reading of P.T. Barnum's life and times, it's merely artifice to share some of the same shameless showmanship of the man himself -- and in doing so, to become an uncannily effective, if knowingly schmaltzy, anthem for embracing individuality.

That first number features two back-to-back songs by the team of Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, who also wrote the songs for last year's splendid La La Land and begins with Hugh Jackman as an adult P.T. Barnum before flashing back to his Dickensian childhood in New York before giving us some simple shorthand for the romance that will define his life (and the film), and by the time it's over Barnum is married to the beautiful blonde Charity (Michelle Williams) and they're dancing on rooftops and having children.  A few more minutes and Barnum is out of a job and creating the idea of a uniquely American oddities, while one of his precious daughters suggests that maybe the unsuccessful venture needs some living creatures in it, and -- presto! -- Barnum has the idea for a circus.

And that's just the first 15 minutes of the ultra-lean 1 hour, 45-minute running time.  The Greatest Showman knows it can't let its energy flag for a moment, so it doesn't.  It packs as much into its story as it can.  There's Barnum's partner Philip Carlyle (Zac Efron), and his own romantic affair with a trapeze performer (terrifically played by the multi-talented Zendaya); there's Barnum's own relationships with his performers, particularly a bearded lady played with both sweet emotion and a massive singing voice by Keala Settle; there's a trip to England where Barnum meets Swedish singing sensation Jenny Lind (Rebecca Ferguson) and brings her to America, finally winning over a particularly harsh newspaper critic (Paul Sparks) ...

And that's only half of The Greatest Showman.  There's a fire, there are elephants, there's Queen Victoria, there's the half-built Flatiron Building, there's racism and intolerance and bigotry, there's poverty and wealth ... this film has it all.

And that is not in any way a bad thing.

The Greatest Showman wants first and foremost to entertain you, and first and foremost it does.  While the songs may take on a rather pop-infused sameness, and while there are no nuanced characters or deep insight, there's fun, there's emotion, there's music that is more than sufficient for the task, there's nonstop visual eye-candy, and there's the impassioned commitment of Hugh Jackman.  He may not convey a particularly complex character, he does perform a particularly complex role.  Jackman seems mightily committed to ensuring the whole thing succeeds, and if it all rests on his back, you can be sure he's got some strong muscles there because he lifts it all up higher.

There are other fabulous moments, like the defiant anthem of self-love and self-acceptance This Is Me that comes roaring out of Settle's throat like a sonorous freight train; she delivers one of the movie's indisputable high points, as does Zendaya in a breathtaking love song that looks as if it were snatched directly from a Cirque du Soleil show.

Lightning charged, The Greatest Showman doesn't let up for a second.  It wants only to please, and in that it succeeds.  Find out more about Barnum by reading a book or revisiting the Cy Coleman 1980 musical.  There are plenty of ways to find out if Barnum himself deserves credit for creating an American art form -- or for paving the first step along an American road to over-commercialized artistic ruin.

The Greatest Showman doesn't care about any of that, and rightly.  It just wants you to love it for what it is, a rousing, splendid musical, a story that makes you smile and grin and move your feat to its incessant rhythm, a film that wants you to cheer when the down-on-his-luck hero gets the break he deserves.

In another era, The Greatest Showman would be exactly the sort of tonic we need for our angry, embittered, cynical times.  In the 21st century, we're not going to allow it to be that, I'm afraid; our voices are too scattered for just one voice of optimism to lift them all up.  But The Greatest Showman can at least make you feel better about things for a couple of hours.

If that's not the hallmark of a terrific film, I don't know what is.



Viewed Dec. 24, 2017 -- Reading Grossmont

2000