Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Movie Review: Don't Think Twice

Don’t Think Twice
Directed by: Mike Birbiglia.
Written by: Mike Birbiglia.
Starring: Keegan-Michael Key (Jack), Mike Birbiglia (Miles), Gillian Jacobs (Samantha), Kate Micucci (Allison), Tami Sagher (Lindsay), Chris Gethard (Bill).
Mike Birbiglia’s film Don’t Think Twice knows the world of Improv inside and out in a way that only someone who was inside that world for years could know. Birbiglia is best known now as a stand-up – especially for his work that has made to This American Life (whose host/producer, Ira Glass, helped to produce this film) – but he’s also known Improv for a long time as well – as has almost the entire cast of the film (the exception being Gillian Jacobs). That helps make the film work as well as it does – and seem as closely observed as it is. For a comedy, Don’t Think Twice isn’t all that funny – bit even in the Improv scenes themselves, although they are clever. But Birbiglia seems to be going for a more melancholy tone to his film, and knows too much outward laughs may break the mood.
The film centers on one, Brooklyn-based improv group known as The Commune. We see some of their shows, and you can tell that they are good – they have an easy chemistry together, play off each other well, and never violate the first rule which is to always being saying “Yes, and…” to everything each other throw out there. Two things threaten to pull the group apart. The first is that in the theater where they perform is going to close down – it’s valuable New York real estate – too valuable to be a dimly lit theater for improv performers. They find another venue – but they’re going to have to pay to perform there, although there are promises of splitting money after everything has been earned back – something we in the audience are far more skeptical of than anyone in the troop (probably because they want it to be true). The second thing is that two of their group are invited to audition for a SNL clone, Weekend Live – and one of them actually gets it. It’s awkward afterwards, since that character has become a star, but still occasionally comes back to perform with the group – in part because his girlfriend was another member of the cast.
Each of the six members of The Commune have their own kind of arc throughout the film – and though they play out the way you kind expect them to, it doesn’t feel clichéd that they do. Keegan-Michael Key plays Jack – the member who eventually ends up on Weekend – and it was a smart decision to cast him, since we immediately recognize the talent that got him there. It is a smart, subtle performance from him though – he doesn’t become an ego-maniac or start to ignore his friends though – not really. But the pressure of being on the show is more than he thought it was going to be. It puts strain on his relationship with Samantha (Gillian Jacobs) – his girlfriend. When they were on the same level, they were fine – they just wanted to make each other laugh. But a distance grows as two people who thought they were on the same page realize they aren’t.
The rest of the group have their own issues. Birbiglia himself plays Miles, the de facto leader of the group, slightly older than the rest, an improv teacher, who gets more and more bitter every time another of his former students passes him professionally. He’s kind of like the hero of the Coens Inside Llewyn Davis – he’s talented enough to keep thinking he’ll have a chance one day, but not talented enough to ever quite get there – so he’s now in his late thirties, living like he’s still 22 (and sleeping with his 22 year old students). Kate Micucci is Allison – who is good at improv, but is also an artist – working on her graphic novel for a decade now, without quite finishing it – insecure enough to never be done, because then she would have to submit it, and perhaps get rejected. Tamo Sagher is Lindsay – whose parents have money, so unlike the rest of them, she can just sit around all day getting stoned, instead of working a day job they don’t like. Chris Gethard is Bill, whose father has a health scare that puts everything else in perspective.
Don’t Think Twice is a comedy, sure, but it’s not particularly funny. You watch it almost like the characters watch Weekend Live – they don’t much laugh, but analyze why they think what is onscreen is funny or not. It’s a movie that loves Improv, without romanticizing it – it knows full well that most people who get into it, will never become successful at it- even as successful as the characters in the movie, which barely qualifies as success. It’s a subdued, quietly touching, quietly funny movie.

Monday, November 28, 2016

Movie Review: Moana

Directed by: Ron Clements & John Musker.
Written by: Jared Bush and Ron Clements & John Musker and Chris Williams & Don Hall and Pamela Ribon and Aaron Kandell & Jordan Kandell.
Starring: Auli'i Cravalho (Moana), Dwayne Johnson (Maui), Rachel House (Gramma Tala), Temuera Morrison (Chief Tui), Jemaine Clement (Tamatoa), Nicole Scherzinger (Sina), Alan Tudyk (Heihei / Villager #3).
Disney has taken a lot, frankly deserved, criticism for its obsession with Princesses – which put images and gender roles into our children’s minds before they really know how to process them. Part of that isn’t wholly Disney’s fault – there is a lot of sexism (not to mention racism) in Hollywood in the 1930s-1950s when a lot of those Princess movies were made – and it’s something sophisticated viewers have to parse through when looking at those movies today – it’s just that most of those viewers are not children. I do think that Disney tried – with mixed success – throughout their renaissance in the 1990s to add more complexity to their female heroines – and they’ve tried even harder with more recent films like The Princess and the Frog, Tangled and Frozen (not to mention TV shows like Sofia the First and Elena of Avalor – yes, I have two girls, under the age of five, living in my house). While all of these shows show progress over the old days of Disney – and have helped those two little girls in my house come to the conclusion that girls can do anything boys can do, and vice versa – they all still involve the Princesses getting dressed up in pretty clothes at some point, and they all feature a love interest (except Sofia – but she’s like, 8, so I guess that’s why). Their latest film Moana outdoes them all in that regard. It’s title character is a spunky, intelligent teenage girl (voiced, brilliantly, by newcomer Aoli’I Cravalho) who is destined to become leader of her tribe on island in the Pacific. She ends up forging her own path – doing what she thinks is right no matter what, and does the whole thing without a love interest or ever dressing up in a fancy gown. She even rejects the term princess (leading to one of the films funniest moments when another character calls her “daughter of the chief” instead). I loved sharing this movie with my two daughters – age five and almost three – who loved it themselves. Because while the film has a great message – it still could have been a bad movie. Instead, it’s a brilliantly animated, funny and musically wonderful film. It’s my favorite one of these “Disney Princess” movies in a long time (and I liked the last three very much).
The story begins with Moana being told by her father – Chief Tui – that her role will be as leader to her people – and that her people never venture beyond the reef. Their island provides them with everything they need, within that boundary, so why leave? She is drawn to the ocean however – and eventually, she feels that she has to venture out on it. She is told a legend of their people – that the Demi-God Maui (Dwayne Johnson) stole the heart of Tafiki (a green jewel), and that the ocean chose her to find Maui, and together return the jewel – which the ocean has given her – and break the curse that may otherwise destroy her people. Thus beings a lovely musical adventure.
Dwayne Johnson is, of course, one of the most charming screen presences in movies – and I like him when he’s a little goofy, and not all Fast & Furious serious. Maui may just be his best screen role to date – he’s large, and muscle bound – covered in tattoos, that come to life and mock him, with Troy Polamalu hair. As a Demi-God, he gave the people pretty much everything – as he isn’t shy about telling you – but since he’s lost his magical fish hook, he feels useless. He doesn’t much want to team up with Moana, but doesn’t have much choice. Together, they’ll end fighting through any number of obstacles and villains – including a jewel loving crab and a lava monster.
The music in the film includes several songs by Lin Manuel Miranda of Hamilton fame. Best of them all is How Far I’ll Go – an empowerment anthem to rival Let it Go (with fewer contradictions). Johnson, who isn’t really known for his musical prowess gets in on the action with You’re Welcome – a hilarious little song. The anthem that they’re selling hard in the preview is We Know the Way – which is also quite good. The animation is another triumph for Disney – the water work at least as good as on Finding Dory by Pixar earlier this year. The character design is wonderful – not just of the creatures, by of Moana herself, who is hardly the stick figure we are used to seeing in Disney films (even the last few more “woke” films).
The storytelling in Moana is classic Disney – as we would expect from directors Ron Clements and John Musker, making their seventh film together (all for Disney, including The Little Mermaid, Aladdin and The Princess and the Frog) – and is perhaps the weakest, or at least most safest choice the film makes. Overall though, Moana is pretty much pure Disney fun – and it’s got a good message as well, and delivers it without contradicting itself.

Movie Review: Rules Don't Apply

Rules Don’t Apply
Directed by: Warren Beatty.
Written by: Warren Beatty and Bo Goldman.
Starring: Warren Beatty (Howard Hughes), Lily Collins (Marla Mabrey), Alden Ehrenreich (Frank Forbes), Annette Bening (Lucy Mabrey), Matthew Broderick (Levar Mathis), Alec Baldwin (Bob Maheu), Haley Bennett (Mamie), Candice Bergen (Nadine Henly), Steve Coogan (Colonel Nigel Briggs), Ed Harris (Mr. Bransford), Megan Hilty (Sally), Oliver Platt (Forester), Martin Sheen (Noah Dietrich), Taissa Farmiga (Sarah Bransford), Amy Madigan (Mrs. Bransford), Paul Schneider (Clifford Irving).
Warren Beatty is probably the only person in Hollywood who could go 15 years without making a movie at all – longer since he directed – and then return with a film like Rules Don’t Apply – and get a wide release at Thanksgiving for a film that is so clearly an odd duck. Rules Don’t Apply is an odd film – a kind of nostalgic comedy for old Hollywood, right before the studio system was about to collapse – but that’s an odd choice for Beatty isn’t it? After all, he was part of that studio system as a young heart throb – but became one of the biggest and most powerful movie stars after the whole system collapsed – hastened by films like Beatty’s own Bonnie & Clyde. It’s a film in which Beatty plays Howard Hughes – clearly afflicted with some sort of mental illness – and yet, the movie keeps its light, chipper tone throughout. It’s a film about young romance – and yet takes such odd turns in that story that you don’t know what to make of it. That describes the movie as well – that goes on for more than two hours, is more than a little bit of a mess, and alternates between scenes that seem to end 10 seconds after they started, and scenes that can run on for 10 minutes at a leisurely pace. You cannot help but wonder what the hell Beatty was thinking when he made the film – and yet you also have to admit that the film is never boring, is always interesting and is overall one of the strangest you’ll see this year. If the film doesn’t really work, you sort of wonder if it matters, since it does pretty much everything else.
The two main characters in the film are not really Howard Hughes at all – but Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) and Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins). He’s from Fresno, but moved to L.A. to work for Hughes as one of his fleet of drivers that he employs to drive around the 28 or so young actresses that he has under contract – even though they don’t actually do anything. They are given classes and promised screen tests – but those don’t really happen. You would think this whole thing is a perverted ruse by an old man in order to sleep with a bunch of pretty young women – except the women have never even met Hughes. She is one of those girls – but doesn’t really know what she’s doing there. She isn’t much of an actress or singer – or so she says – but she can write songs. She has been accompanied to LA by her mother (Annette Bening) – who seems to be there more to ensure she sticks to their strict, Baptist strictures than anything else. Frank is a Methodist, and is engaged to married his childhood sweetheart – who thinks them already married in the eyes of God since they “went all the way”. Of course these two ridiculously attractive young people fall in love – even if that is against the rules Hughes has for both of them.
Eventually, of course, Hughes does arrive in the movie – played by Beatty himself, even though he’s a good 20 years older than Hughes was at the time. He isn’t in the first 45 minutes or so of the movie – during which time everyone speaks his name in hushed, reverent tones like they’re in a cult, and he’s their leader. Hughes is already at least slightly mentally ill – and his actions don’t make a whole lot of sense. Eventually both Frank and Marla will meet him in various ways. Marla and Hughes even have a drunken night together – which sounds creepy, and is – since Beatty is 52 years Collins’ senior, but not quite as creepy as it sounds, given the way Beatty plays Hughes – not as a suave, Warren Beatty type, but as an overgrown, immature kid, who never had to figured out how the world worked, since he’s been rich for so long.
Rules Don’t Apply is an odd film to say the least. It meanders, twists and turns, restarts – abandons subplots midstream, and introduced new characters only to jettison them a few scenes later, after having given very talented actors little to do (blink and you’ll miss the likes of Ed Harris for instance). The film both has enough plot to fill a mini-series, and almost no plot at all, considering how inconsequential it all seems. By the end, you have no idea what the purpose of any of it was.
So, why did I end up liking Rules Don’t Apply not in spite of all this, but, I think, because of it? I think it has something to do with Beatty himself – and the audacity he has always shown. This is a man who made a three-plus hour romantic epic about a Communist during the Reagan years – and the won the Best Director Oscar for doing so. He resurrected a nearly forgotten comic book character in Dick Tracy, and made what remains perhaps the most stylistic comic book film ever made. He finished his studio contract out with Bulworth in 1998 – where he plays an old, white “liberal” Senator who becomes a hip-hop philosopher. Warren Beatty does whatever the fuck he wants to do – and Rules Don’t Apply is made in that same spirit. I don’t really know what to make of the film – but its fun, it’s full of its own unique energy, it has some wonderful performances and moments in it and its wholly and completely its own thing. How many movies these days can you say that about?

Movie Review: Allied

Directed by: Robert Zemeckis.
Written by: Steven Knight.
Starring: Brad Pitt (Max Vatan), Marion Cotillard (Marianne Beausejour), Jared Harris (Frank Heslop), Daniel Betts (George Kavanagh), Simon McBurney (S.O.E. Official), Marion Bailey (Mrs. Sinclair), Lizzy Caplan (Bridget Vatan), Anton Lesser (Emmanuel Lombard), Matthew Goode (Guy Sangster), Josh Dylan (Capt Adam Hunter), August Diehl (Hobar), Charlotte Hope (Louise), Sally Messham (Margaret), Thierry Frémont (Paul Delamare).
Robert Zemeckis’ Allied is a wonderful homage to the type of WWII films Hollywood produced during WWII. It is old fashioned entertainment that mixes action with romance with intrigue, and offers enough twists and turns to keep you guessing right up until the end. It stars two ridiculously good looking movie stars, doing the movie star thing to perfection. It is essentially a popcorn movie for adults who are tired of superheroes, and complain that they don’t make’em like they used to. In the case of Allied, they do.
In the film, Brad Pitt stars as Max Vatan – a Canadian officer in the RAF, who parachutes into the desert in the opening scene, before making his way to Casablanca. It’s there where he meets Marianne Beausejour – a French spy, who has gained the trust of the Germans running Casablanca. Max is posing as her husband, and they have 10 days to plan and carry out some sort of mission. Because the two are ridiculously attractive, they end having sex with each other – in the backseat of a car, in a sandstorm no less – and then, of course, falling in love, despite them both protesting that it would be stupid of them to do so. Their mission complete, the story flashes forward a year, where the pair live in wedded bliss, with their infant daughter, in England. He’s still an intelligence officer – but he’s riding a desk now. She’s traded her life of intrigue, for domestic life. They he’s called into the office of V-Section, who informs Max that they think Marianne is really a German spy. Not only that, but they need him to help them prove it – by leaving false information for her to find. If it turns up in the communications they are intercepting, they’ll know she’s guilty – and Max will be expected to execute her himself. In the meantime, he’s to do nothing, and act normal.
Allied doesn’t try to hide its influences – it fully embraces them. Casablanca is the obvious one of course, but there’s a lot else that people will recognize if they watch a lot of old movies – a little Hitchcock, a little Fritz Lang, etc. There’s more violence here than in those films of course, more sex, and more swearing – but for the most part, Allied is the type of film they could have made back in the day. The screenplay by Steven Knight (Dirty Pretty Things, Eastern Promises, Locke) keeps you guessing from the beginning to the end. The direction by Robert Zemeckis is wonderful – brisk and exciting. He’s spent more time this century trying to advance filmmaking from a technological standpoint through animation (The Polar Express, Beowulf, A Christmas Carol) or special effects (The Walk) – but this film, like Flight from a few years ago, is more proof than when he wants to, he can deliver good, old school, mainstream entertainment.
The reason the film works is the performances by the two stars. The movie is perfect example of why Pitt is one of the biggest stars in the world – because he’s excellent in roles like this that requires him to be suave, charming and sexy in the first half, then mounting anger in the second, capped off with tears. It’s a full blown movie star role, and right now, few if any can do that better than Pitt. Cotillard is even better as she’s got a more complex role of course – we in the audience are required to fall for her in the first half, and then go back and forth on her motives in the second. She has to sell both possibilities – that she’s guilty, and hiding, or that she is completely oblivious – and do so without giving the game away. She does it wonderfully.
I’m not going to argue that Allied is a particularly deep piece of entertainment – nor that it’s original in any real way. It isn’t – it a straight up, old school homage to spy thrillers of the 1940s, but done with such style and flair that you hardly care. There is room for the more paranoid, down to earth spy stories of say John Le Carre – and the grand romanticism of Allied in the world. Once in the while, you want the latter.

Movie Review: Bleed for This

Bleed for This
Directed by: Ben Younger   
Written by: Ben Younger and Pippa Bianco and Angelo Pizzo.
Starring: Miles Teller (Vinny Paz), Aaron Eckhart (Kevin Rooney), Ciarán Hinds (Angelo Pazienza), Katey Sagal (Louise Pazienza), Christine Evangelista (Louise), Amanda Clayton (Doreen Pazienza), Ted Levine (Lou Duva), Gene Amoroso (Anthony), Daniel Sauli (Jon), Tina Casciani (Heather).
The true life story that inspired Bleed for This seems so tailor made for an inspirational, Hollywood boxing movie that you almost cannot believe it’s taken them more than 20 years to make it. It tells the story of Vinny Pazienza (Miles Teller), a talented welterweight boxer that doesn’t take his career seriously enough to become the great boxer he can be. He had a title shot, and then stayed out late the night before gambling, and lost, big-time. His manager tells he should retire – but Vinny, and his father Angelo (Ciaran Hinds) aren’t ready for that yet. It’s Angelo who hires Kevin Rooney (Aaron Eckhart) – one of Mike Tyson’s trainers, down on his luck due to his alcoholism, to train Vinny. He decides to move Vinny up not one weight class, but two. No one moves up two weight classes – but Vinny does. And not only does he do it, he wins. He finally has the championship belt he always wanted – than a brutal car accident nearly ends Vinny’s life, and should well have ended his career. But Vinny is determined.
Bleed for This should therefore be a wonderful feel good story. Yes, what happens in the film is entirely predictable – and yet, because it’s based on a true story, you have to except that and move on. Yet, for some reason, Bleed for This never really comes together to be anything more than an average film. Co-writer/director Ben Younger seems to want to go with a more realistic look and feel to the movie than the average inspirational movie – and admittedly, that does produce some of the films better moments. But it also undercuts some of the drama, making what should be big moments feel fairly small. The screenplay doesn’t help very much, because characters and their motivations seem hazy, and one note. Then, rapidly, characters change their mind – but somehow remind one note. Many of the cast members do fine work, but aren’t given the material to do truly great work. The final scene of the film is one of the most bizarre and puzzling missteps I can recall in a movie this year.
Unfortunately for the movie, it’s Teller himself who delivers the films weakest performance. You can tell the commitment he has to the role – putting on muscle, and first slimming down and being wiry for the opening scenes, then bulking up a little for the later ones. He wants to nail the Rhode Island accent that Vinny Paz has, and does a decent job (although, since I’m now listening to the true crime podcast Crimetown, about Rhode Island, you can tell he doesn’t quite nail it – the rest of the cast does). Teller pores everything into Vinny’s determination to recover and fight again – so much so, that there really are not any other notes for him to play. You are left with a question as to why he didn’t seem overly committed before the accident – that guy who stayed up late gambling isn’t the same guy who was so fiercely determined to come back – but there’s some work missing to explain why. Aaron Eckhart is much better as Kevin – fat and balder than Eckhart is normally, he disappears into this character that in many ways is a walking, talking clichéd – the grizzled boxer training with one last shot at glory. But again, there seems to be some character work missing – as he bobs into and out of alcoholism when it’s convenient to the plot. Ciarian Hinds, and Vinny’s father, is good in the background and as the larger than life Italian stereo-type – but his late change of heart (and perhaps, change back, it’s never made clear) doesn’t make much sense. The best performance in the movie may well be Katy Sagal’s as Vinny’s mother – she’s the only person who seems to do the rational thing throughout.
What does work about Bleed for This is mainly in the background – the art direction, which pays attention to the way the houses of these characters look – as well as the boxing gyms and back alleys. This is a movie where all the locations feel lived in and real. The boxing scenes feel less pumped up than normal – less dramatic, and more down-to-earth, which I both appreciated, and thought made the film perhaps too subdued. Younger is the talented director behind Boiler Room (2000) – although with just two films in the 16 years since (2005’s Prime and now this) – neither of which are anywhere near as good as that one, you wonder if he will ever fulfill that early promise.
The film, I think, also drops the ball on something very important – that what Vinny did, no matter what the result, was incredibly dangerous and incredibly stupid. He easily could have died or paralyzed himself doing what he does – and most people who had the condition he had will never get any better, no matter how hard they try. The film could have at least acknowledged this, instead of simply perpetuating this idiotic machismo than movies romanticize – as if something only worth doing if it could kill you – and doing so, makes you a real man. The final scene of the movie underlines this point in such a ham-fisted and startling way I was taken aback. Bleed for This is movie that doesn’t really work, and worse, has a fairly stupid message.

Movie Review: Central Intelligence

Central Intelligence
Directed by: Rawson Marshall Thurber   
Written by: Ike Barinholtz & David Stassen and Rawson Marshall Thurber. 
Starring: Dwayne Johnson (Bob Stone), Kevin Hart (Calvin Joyner), Amy Ryan (Agent Pamela Harris), Danielle Nicolet (Maggie), Jason Bateman (Trevor), Aaron Paul (Phil), Ryan Hansen (Steve), Tim Griffin (Agent Stan Mitchell), Timothy John Smith (Agent Nick Cooper), Sione Kelepi (Young Robbie), Dylan Boyack (Trevor - 17 Years Old), Thomas Kretschmann (The Buyer), Megan Park (Waitress). 
Central Intelligence is pretty much the textbook definition of an enjoyable, mediocre movie. Watching the film, you will almost certainly have fun. The film combines the considerable talents of Dwayne Johnson and Kevin Hart, who have an easy, unforced chemistry together playing off each other wonderfully for 100 minutes, before the film ends. Even now, just a few days after seeing the film, the plot details have started to become hazy – and that’s mainly because they don’t matter – the film is about getting these two stars together. And, you know what, it mainly works. Watching the film you’ll have fun. At the end, you’ll forget pretty much everything you’ve seen.
The opens in high school, where Calvin Joyner (Hart) was pretty much the king of the school – voted most likely to succeed, and a part of pretty much every club and sports team nothing was going to stop Calvin from greatness. Bob (Johnson) was completely different – overweight, goofy and unpopular – the constant target of bullies – the two come together at an assembly, where Calvin is the only one who will do Bob a solid when he’s been publicly humiliated.
Flash forward 20 years, and things haven’t turned out the way Calvin expected. He’s an accountant – and good at his job – but he isn’t setting the world on fire. He fears he peaked in high school – and perhaps he’s right. Then he gets a friend request from a name he doesn’t recognize, and accepts, because, you know its Facebook and that’s what you do. It turns out to be Bob, using a different name, who convinces Calvin to come out for drinks that night. Bob is nothing like Calvin remembered – he looks like, well, The Rock now – and before he knows it, Bob has involved Calvin in a large, action packed conspiracy, where Calvin doesn’t know what to believe. Bob, it turns out, is in the CIA – but now they’re after him, saying he betrayed his partner and his country. But Bob still seems like a big goof – at least until he’s pushed, and then he becomes an action star.
Johnson and Hart make an unlikely team in the most likely way imaginable – Johnson’s huge, Hart’s small. This is another movie where Hart is basically playing a version of his typical screen persona – motor mouthed, scared, charming and funny. You know he has to be a loser in the film since they make him an accountant (my profession doesn’t produce cool movie characters). Hart can do this role easily, but he goes all out with it. As for Johnson, this is the mode I like him in the better – goofy and funny, self-effacing, and pure charm. The two work well together, with Johnson’s goofy nonchalance, and Hart’s scaredy cat antics working well together.
And that’s basically it. The movie isn’t high art, and doesn’t aspire to be. It’s not even a particularly example of its particularly genre – 48 Hours and Midnight Run don’t have to worry about being supplanted by this one – but for a couple of hours, it’s kind of fun – and when it comes on TBS in a year, you’ll be able to watch it again, wondering the whole time why this movie you’ve never seen seems vaguely familiar.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Movie Review: Elle

Directed by: Paul Verhoeven.
Written by: David Birke based on the novel by Philippe Djian.
Starring: Isabelle Huppert (Michèle Leblanc), Laurent Lafitte (Patrick), Anne Consigny (Anna), Charles Berling (Richard Leblanc), Virginie Efira (Rebecca), Judith Magre (Irène Leblanc), Christian Berkel (Robert), Jonas Bloquet (Vincent), Alice Isaaz (Josie), Vimala Pons (Hélène), Raphaël Lenglet (Ralf), Arthur Mazet (Kevin), Lucas Prisor (Kurt), Hugo Conzelmann (Philipp Kwan), Stéphane Bak (Omar).
Leave it to Paul Verhoeven to come along and make the year’s most incendiary and provocative film – a film that likely has something in it to offend most viewers. Yet, as with much of Verhoeven’s work, all that controversy and offensive material on the surface, masks something deeper, darker and perhaps even more disturbing and unsettling – something that when you wrestle with it, will not leave you alone. No matter what you think of Elle, you are not going to forget it – and it’s impossible to deny that Isabelle Huppert delivers one of the best performances of the year in the film, and one of the best performances of her long, brilliant career. Whether, like me, you think the movie is one of the year’s best, or you hate it, there’s no denying that.
From the opening frames of Elle, Verhoeven is trying to shock and provoke. The film opens mid-rape – and yet it opens on a black screen and then flashes to a cat calmly watching the action – in the audience, all we hear are undeniably sexual grunting, yet whether those noises are the result of rape or just sex, we don’t know until Verhoeven finally shows us what’s happening – as a masked man gets off of Michele (Huppert), and runs out the nearby door. Michelle gets up, cleans herself off, takes a shower – washing away the blood, and then calmly orders sushi on the phone. Her dim bulb 20-something son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) is coming over for dinner, and she needs to be prepared. Later, when out to dinner with her ex-husband, Richard (Charles Berling), best friend Anna (Anne Consigny), and her husband, Robert (Christian Berkel) – who Michelle is currently having an affair with – she calmly announces that she was raped in her home – but makes it sounds like no big deal. The other three people at the table don’t quite know what to do or say (Robert, thoughtfully, asks the waiter to delay bringing the campaign over). Michelle says she has been to the doctor – but will not go to the police, that she will never go to the police because of something in her past that they are all aware of – but will won’t be until fairly later in the movie. There’s multiple other subplots and characters – her son’s bossy, bitchy girlfriend, her ex-husband’s much younger new girlfriend, the video game Michelle’s company is working on – but cannot seem to nail the graphics to make the sexual violence more disturbing, the conflicts with some of the younger men at her office, her mother, and her gigolo boyfriend new neighbors, etc. Michelle is simply too busy to deal with being raped right now – so she pushes it off to the side – or thinks she did. No matter what she thinks, she is traumatized by what happened – and ends up dealing with it in surprising way.
The screenplay for Elle was written by David Dirke, for a novel by Philippe Dijan – although the original movie was going to be set in America, and this be a Hollywood production. Verhoeven insisted the action be moved back to France (where the novel took place) – saying that no American actress could do the role as well as Huppert. Whether true or not, his instincts were certainly right – because Huppert’s performance is one of the year’s best. There is something old Hollywood about the way Michelle deals with everything – like Joan Crawford in Mildred Piece, who simply shoves down her feelings, and soldiers on because what else is she going to do. This is a performance in which every movement, every little flicker of a smile means something – sometimes multiple things. Yet, as much as she doesn’t think what happened affects her – she does grow a little coarser, a little blunter, a little more courageous. Eventually, we will learn who raped Michelle – it isn’t overly surprising, because Verhoeven isn’t making a whodunit here – and what happens after that is perhaps even more shocking and surprising – some would say offensive – although I don’t think so, because of the way Verhoeven and Huppert dive into this one woman’s personality. Victims of rape often act out in strange ways – and that’s certainly true to Michelle.
It was smart of Verhoeven to move the action to France in another way as well. All of Verhoeven’s films act as a satire – a commentary on the industry or country that produced them. His over the top Hollywood films – Robocop, Basic Instinct, Showgirls, Starship Troopers and Hollow Man – are all “Hollywood films” (quotation marks needed), where their shiny, flashy surface, mask a deeper commentary on the system that made them. In Elle, Verhoeven is doing something similar to European art films – specifically French films – twisting some scenes just enough to show their ridiculousness. The surface of Elle is nowhere near as flashy as say, Showgirls – but that’s precisely the point.
Elle is Verhoeven’s first film in a decade – following his masterpiece, Black Book – where the Dutch filmmaker returned to his country for the first time in decades for a film, and dug into that countries past with the Nazis, and found something disturbing – well still making a perfect, Hitchcock-ian thriller. Had that been Verhoeven’s final cinematic statement – it would have been fitting. But in Elle, the old man shows he’s not done yet, and has crafted a shocking film that will offend and engross everyone who sees it – and in Huppert, finds the perfect choice to lead the audience down that rabbit hole.

Movie Review: Nocturnal Animals

Nocturnal Animals
Directed by: Tom Ford.
Written by: Tom Ford based on the novel by Austin Wright.
Starring: Amy Adams (Susan Morrow), Jake Gyllenhaal (Tony Hastings / Edward Sheffield), Michael Shannon (Bobby Andes), Aaron Taylor-Johnson (Ray Marcus), Isla Fisher (Laura Hastings), Ellie Bamber (India Hastings), Armie Hammer (Hutton Morrow), Karl Glusman (Lou), Robert Aramayo (Turk), Laura Linney (Anne Sutton), Andrea Riseborough (Alessia), Michael Sheen (Carlos), Jena Malone (Sage Ross).
Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals is likely to anger a lot of its audience members – which is precisely the point, I think. Ford isn’t exactly being subtle about his intentions – opening his films with images of morbidly obese women – completely naked except for a hat or a sash, gyrating for the camera over the opening credits. Eventually, we will learn the reason for this – they are part of an art exhibit, at a trendy L.A. gallery, run by Susan Morrow (Amy Adams). The whole exhibit isn’t just these video pieces, but the women themselves (or some sort of models), splayed out on benches around the gallery. Presumably, they are offering some sort of commentary about American consumption and consumerism – but who the hell can really tell anymore.
We will follow Susan for a while – her life an empty shell where the rot has set in and will not go away. She lives in a trendy house, with the perfect design, the perfect clothes, the perfect husband – Hutton Morrow (Armie Hammer) – all of which looks like it just stepped out of a fashion show. One day, a manuscript arrives for her – from her ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal) – who she hasn’t spoken to in 20 years. He always wanted to be a writer, but never could. Now, it seems like he will be. The book is called Nocturnal Animals – and as Susan reads it, we flash to the action of the novel. On a desolate stretch of Texas highway, a family man, Tony (Gyllenhaal again), his wife, Laura (Isla Fisher) and daughter India (Ellie Bamber) run afoul of a trio of men, led by Ray (Aaron-Taylor Johnson), who run them off the road in the middle of the night. What follows is terrifying – and ends with a terrifying discovery by Edward –and the introduction of Bobby Andes (Michael Shannon) – a detective, with a drawl and a cowboy hat, who will help him get justice. Throughout this all, we will flash to scenes of Susan’s modern life – her husband, who is cheating on her, and barely tries to hide it, the daughter who doesn’t seem to want much to do with her, and the gallery and her friends, full of L.A. caricatures, as well as scenes of Susan and Edward’s marriage – and how it all failed.
The stories are connected, obviously, but how? Remember, the scenes from Edward’s novel aren’t real – but are Susan’s projections of that novel, where she has essentially cast her ex-husband as Tony, a look-a-like for herself as his wife, and her daughter as their daughter. But is her reading of his novel, the reading he intends – does he see himself as Tony? (the name of the brilliant Austin Wright novel the film is based on is Tony and Susan, which implies something else). The scenes of Susan and Edward’s marriage provide more context, as to how we should view the events both of the novel, and of Susan’s life. From the beginning of the movie, a meeting between Susan and Edward is promised – one that will unlock, or at least spell out, all the mysteries that are being laid out.
As a filmmaker, Tom Ford has improved from his already gorgeous to look at debut film, A Single Man (2009) – in which Colin Firth plays a gay man, remembering the tragic loss of his boyfriend, the year before. Ford is a gifted stylist to be sure – and in Nocturnal Animals he plays with different styles, brilliantly. The present day L.A. scenes are brilliantly designed and over-the-top, almost to the point of parody (it doesn’t quite go all-into Neon Demon territory – but it’s not far off either). The Texas backwoods thriller is equally stylish and even better – in a completely different way. There are even a few touches in the more normal flashback scenes of Susan and Edward.
A film like Nocturnal Animals has a danger of being nothing but an exercise in style – and even if it’s a great exercise, those can growing wearying. I don’t think Nocturnal Animals entirely escapes that trap – but it does it enough, thanks to the great performances by its case. Amy Adams does a 180 here from her work in Arrival recently – that was a deeply felt, humane performance – and some of her best work. Here, she’s playing a woman who has entirely shut down – a beautiful, stylish shell, and little else – who we see these glimpses of something deeper in the flashbacks, and as she reads on in the novel. Gyllenhaal is even better as Edward/Tony – a man, in both, trying to hold on to what he loves – and being absolutely crushed. This continues his impressive run of performances. Michael Shannon once again shows why he’s arguably the best actor working today – his Bobby Andes is a riot, right up until he isn’t. With solid supporting work by Fisher and Taylor-Johnson, the film is well acted, and the characters enough to not get completely bulled over by the style.
Ford is, I think, trying to piss people in the audience off – but he’s doing so for a reason. Whether you think that reason is enough to justify everything he does, I’ll leave to you to decide. It was for me – even if the film borders on being too cynical for me – it never quite crosses over all the way. This is a film that sticks with you – no matter what you think of it.  

Movie Review: The Edge of Seventeen

The Edge of Seventeen
Directed by: Kelly Fremon Craig.
Written by: Kelly Fremon Craig.
Starring: Hailee Steinfeld (Nadine), Haley Lu Richardson (Krista), Blake Jenner (Darian), Kyra Sedgwick (Mona), Woody Harrelson (Mr. Bruner), Hayden Szeto (Erwin), Alexander Calvert (Nick Mossman), Eric Keenleyside (Tom).
If I were to tell you the basic plot outline of The Edge of Seventeen, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it sounded like a million other, generic teen movies. Perhaps it would sound like warmed over John Hughes, or Juno without the pregnancy or Easy A without all the plot. You wouldn’t necessarily even be wrong – except I will say this – John Hughes, Juno and Easy A were all great teen movies – and The Edge of Seventeen is one as well. It doesn’t necessarily reinvent the wheel – although it does venture into some darker, more honest territory than Hughes ever did (Hughes tried – and was at times clumsy with it), and never feels the need to make its lead character overly sympathetic. Inarguably, Nadine, played by Hailee Steinfeld, does more things wrong in the movie than the rest of the characters combined, and while she is frequently miserable, its more often than not her own damn fault. And yet, we love her anyway.
The story centers on Nadine, and a tumultuous period in her life. As a kid, she was a loner who eventually made one friend – this is Krista (Haley Lu Richardson) – and the two have become inseparable ever since. But a drunken night ends with Krista in the bed of Darian (Blake Jenner) – Nadine’s hated brother – the seemingly Golden Boy who can do no wrong – and when the two actually start dating, it causes a rift between the two friends that may not reparable. Added to this, Nadine’s widowed mother (Kyra Sedgwick), doesn’t seem to understand Nadine (and makes some pretty bad mistakes herself) – it was her father Nadine was close to, and in the years since he died, she has felt more alone. Then there’s some more, typical teenage stuff – the boy Nadine has a crush on that doesn’t know she exists, the boy who has a crush on her – Erwin (Hayden Szeto) – but she thinks of as a friend. The only person she can really talk to is Mr. Burner (Woody Harrelson) – her history teacher – and that’s because he seems as misanthropic as she is. The two trade insults in a way that would be inappropriate for a teacher and student in real life, but quietly funny in this movie – the chemistry between Steinfeld and Harrelson is wonderful.
None of this is overly original to be sure – and a film with this basic setup could very well end up generic, uninspired and forgettable. But The Edge of Seventeen is none of those things – and it’s mostly because of its heroine, and the lead performance by Steinfeld. Nadine is a mess – awkward, self-involved, and sometimes thoughtless in a way that could come across as cruel at times. She is, in short, a teenager – but the type we rarely see in a movie which normally wants to paint teenagers in more simplistic terms. The mistakes Nadine makes force her into desperate situations – which she tries hilariously to get out of. The film leads to some slightly darker places than normal – her “date” with her crush for example, edges up to danger, before backing away. And the film does not try to wrap everything up in a neat little bow by the end – the relationship between mother and daughter is still strained, and may never be really good. Baby steps are taken towards reconciliation between Nadine, her brother and her former friend – but it’s hardly final (and while I do think Nadine over reacts to a lot in the film, what they did was more than a little shitty, even if understandable). Steinfeld, an Oscar nominee for the Coen’s True Grit (2010), finally finds a follow-up role worthy of her talents. Yes, her character is in the tradition of Juno or Easy A – i.e. too whip smart and articulate for a real teenager to be (or a real person for that matter) – but that hardly matters. It’s a great performance, at the heart of a wonderful movie.
The film is the directing debut of Kelly Fremon Craig – and it’s a gem. As a director, Fremon Craig keeps things mainly simple – her best touches may be in terms of soundtrack selection, which cleverly reference back to her inspirations. Her screenplay is smart and complex – funny and thoughtful. She is a filmmaker to watch for. She understands teenagers better than most – and in The Edge of Seventeen, she paints that period of life in all its messy glory. This one is a charmer.

Movie Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
Directed by: Ang Lee.
Written by: Jean-Christophe Castelli based on the novel by Ben Fountain.
Starring: Joe Alwyn (Billy Lynn), Kristen Stewart (Kathryn Lynn), Chris Tucker (Albert), Garrett Hedlund (Sgt. David Dime), Vin Diesel (Shroom), Steve Martin (Norm Oglesby), Ismael Cruz Cordova (Sgt. Holliday), Arturo Castro ("Mango" Montoya), Ben Platt (Josh), Deirdre Lovejoy (Denise Lynn), Tim Blake Nelson (Wayne Foster), Makenzie Leigh (Faison Zorn), Beau Knapp (Crack), Barney Harris (Sykes), Allen Daniel (Major Mac).
Ang Lee is a filmmaker I cannot help but admire, even when I don’t much like the film he has made. His version of Hulk (2003) may not have been a great film – but had it succeeded, perhaps we would have seen a series of more personal, individual superhero movies instead of the ones that come off the assembly line now (Hulk isn’t a particularly good movie – but it is undeniably an Ang Lee movie). Life of Pi (2012) is one of the few live action film that really does justify the 3-D it uses – it was such a stunning film to look at, and experience on the big screen, you kind of forget that the story never quite connects like it should. With Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, Lee has decided to shoot his movie at 120 frames per second – far more than the normal 24 frames per second of traditional film and even the 48 frames per second that Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit films were shot in. It’s an odd thing for Lee to do for many reasons – for one, no one much like the look of The Hobbit films, saying that it made the film look like an over lit soap opera, and more importantly, the vast majority of people who will ever watch Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, will not see it projected as Lee wants it to be – since theaters are not equipped with the projectors capable of doing it. This is how I saw the film, projected by my local multiplex, and I have to say the whole thing felt like a distraction more than anything else – you can sense that Lee is trying to make the most of this format, in some of the slow pans around the stadium where most of the action takes place, or in the strange close-ups through the film (trying to put us, in the audience, into the eyes of the title character) – but the effect doesn’t really work. All this is really a shame, because Ben Fountain’s novel, which the film is based on, is one of the best written about the Iraq war – and it deserves a real movie made out of it, not just a director, as brilliant as Lee is, playing around with a camera.
The movie takes place over the course of a day – although it does have flashbacks – as Bravo Company are the guests of honor at a Thanksgiving Dallas Cowboys football game. It’s 2004, and they’ve been home for two weeks, on a morale boosting tour (for America, not the Bravos), as Billy’s heroism – as he tried to jump in and save the life of one of his fellow soldiers, Shroom Vin Diesel), was captured on film and became an internet sensation. The Dallas Cowboys game will be the last stop on this tour before they are sent back to Iraq – with the halftime show, when they will be on the field with Destiny’s Child, being the highlight. Throughout, the movie will flashback to Billy’s time in Iraq – his friendship with the fallen Shroom, and a few scenes of his short visit home to his family – where his big sister, Kathryn (Kristen Stewart) tries to talk him out of going back to Iraq.
The football game material is supposed to be surreal and satirical. The men on Bravo company are stuck in Texas, where everyone comes up to shake their hands, wish them well, tell them how they support the troops – when in reality they are not doing much of anything. The trappings of the football game – and in particular the halftime show – put a façade of militaristic patriotism on things, but it’s hollow and false. People keeping saying military type commands to the men, who think it’s a joke – they’re talking about meeting cheerleaders here, not war. They meet the team’s owner – Norm Oglesby (Steve Martin) – a billionaire with a phony Texas drawl, who only cares about them when it doesn’t cost him anything – and allows him to put them on display to show everyone how much he cares. The Bravos have an agent (Chris Tucker), with a cellphone glued to his ear, trying to make them a deal to make them rich by selling their story to Hollywood. Hilary Swank is apparently very interested.
The problem with the film is that Lee doesn’t seem all that interested in what is going on in front of the camera in terms of the story or characters. The cast is full of talented people- but aside from Kristen Stewart, showing once again she’s incapable of hitting a false note right now, the rest of the cast has moments that fall flat, or where they simply look silly. Vin Diesel in particular was the wrong choice to play the philosophy spouting Shroom – but even he could have done better than he does here, where more often than not he simply looks silly. Much of the heavy lifting is given to newcomer Joe Alowyn as the title character – and he’s fine, I guess, but far from great. The film is full of distractions – including the ridiculous way Lee gets around shooting a Destiny’s Child concert when they obviously said no to appearing in the film.
But it is the way the film is shot that really, truly sinks it. The visual style of the movie is distracting and at times dizzying in a bad way. Even if what was happening in front of the camera was better executed on a script or performance level, you cannot concentrate on it because you fear you’re getting motion sickness.
I will say this for Ang Lee – someone was bound to try this eventually, and now that a director of his caliber has, and failed, it may be a while before someone tries again. Lee is trying to do something here – trying to push cinema in another direction, using technology as a tool. I can admire the intent – even if, on this occasion, it results in a failure.

Movie Review: Dog Eat Dog

Dog Eat Dog
Directed by: Paul Schrader.
Written by: Matthew Wilder based on the novel by Edward Bunker.
Starring: Nicolas Cage (Troy), Willem Dafoe (Mad Dog), Christopher Matthew Cook (Diesel), Omar J. Dorsey (Moon Man), Louisa Krause (Zoe), Melissa Bolona (Lina), Reynaldo Gallegos (Chepe), Chelcie Melton (Sheila), Bruce Reizen (Maurie), Ali Wasdovich (Melissa), Louis Perez (Mike Brennan), Magi Avila (Nanny), Paul Schrader (El Greco).
The opening scene of Paul Schrader’s Dog Eat Dog is far and away the best part of the movie – mainly because it’s so weird, so strange and told completely without context, that you cannot help but be drawn in. In it, Willem Dafoe plays Mad Dog – completely high out of his mind on drugs (hence the crazy color scheme Schrader shoots in), embroiled in a domestic squabble with his girlfriend – who doesn’t want him there, but then relents – and then kicks him out again when she discovers he has been looking at internet porn. Mad Dog then lives up to his name, and murders not only his girlfriend but her teenage daughter, for no real reason. It’s all so strange, you cannot look away.
Unfortunately, the rest of the movie is nowhere near that entertaining – and the film is pretty much a grim slog from there on. It turns out that Mad Dog isn’t even the main character of this film – that’s Troy (Nicolas Cage), the leader of a trio of ex-cons including Mad Dog and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), out of jail for the first time in years, and trying to make a living. We see them doing nickel and dime stuff – robbing a drug dealer for example – before they are given a chance to earn some real. A gangster owes another gangster $4 million, and won’t pay. He is willing to give Troy and company $750K to kidnap his 1 year old son and hold him for ransom. Troy knows immediately this is a dumb idea – and so does Diesel. Mad Dog doesn’t know much of anything – he’s basically a puppy dog, as likely to like your face as bite you – but they agree to do it anyway. Why? Because, if they don’t, there isn’t a movie. Or perhaps because this is a Paul Schrader movie – and his characters often engage in missions they know aren’t likely to work out. The difference is in most of his films, there is a reason they do it anyway – here, not so much.
Schrader, of course, is the talented screenwriter – known for some of his work with Martin Scorsese – Taxi Driver, The Last Temptation of Christ and Bringing Out the Dead for example, who has also had a fine directing career stretching back to the 1970s that touch on some of the same ground as his films with Scorsese, even if they are less well known. Schrader has always had more trouble getting his films made, and more fights with studios even when he does. For instance, he was replaced on the Exorcist prequel after he made the whole movie – and Renny Harlin was brought into re-shoot it. His version: Dominion: Prequel to the Exorcist was eventually released – and while it was better than what Harlin made, it wasn’t very good. Recently, he told everyone not see Dying of the Light (2014) – also starring Cage – because the film was taken away from him, re-edited, etc. His highly publicized film, The Canyons, with Lindsay Lohan and porn star James Deen (pre-rape allegations) didn’t do much to revitalize anyone’s career.
Dog Eat Dog won’t do that either. The film kind of feels like all those countless Tarantino clones we all suffered through for about 10 years after Pulp Fiction – as the film is trying to be funny, and perhaps a little bonkers and insane, but never gets there. The film’s treatment of women borders on misogynistic – they are basically seen as little more than sex objects – either uncaring or stupid (there is one exception – a woman Diesel talks into coming back to his room, but then doesn’t know what to do with). The plan, of course, goes completely awry – and the end devolves into violence, as we know it must. But while that is common for a Schrader film, I don’t think he ever really figures out the tone of the movie. From the get go, Willem Dafoe seems to have decided to be the batshit crazy one, which means Nicolas Cage tries to play his character as more normal – which hurts the end of the film, when all of a sudden, he’s going a little nuts again. Schrader excels as a downbeat tone and energy – an air of inevitability, than the films end where they must, and happy endings were never possible. The problem is he’s stuck trying to make a bonkers exploitation film, and doesn’t really know how to do it.
That Paul Schrader loves films is undeniable – and give the guy credit, that he’s still plugging away at 70, trying to do something different. But we’re fairly far removed now from his best work – and even some very good work (I quite liked The Walker from 2007 – and I heard the following year’s Adam Resurrected was good as well, although I have yet to catch up with it). Will I continue to watch Schrader films, in the hopes of something as good as Affliction or Auto Focus again? Sure. But I’m not optimistic.

Movie Review: The Fits

The Fits
Directed by: Anna Rose Holmer.  
Written by:  Anna Rose Holmer and Saela Davis & Lisa Kjerulff.
Starring: Royalty Hightower (Toni), Alexis Neblett (Beezy), Da'Sean Minor (Jermaine), 
Lauren Gibson (Maia), Makyla Burnam (Legs), Inayah Rodgers (Karisma), Antonio A.B. Grant Jr. (Donté). 
The Fits, written and directed by Anna Rose Holmer, is only 71 minutes long – but that is the perfect runtime for this mysterious, thought provoking film. Any shorter, and it’s a short film – and may not have enough time to get on its unique rhythm as it does so effortlessly – yet any longer, and the largely plotless film may become too repetitive and dull. 71 minutes is short for a feature – but perfect for The Fits.
The movie takes place entirely inside a community center in Cincinnati. When it opens, Toni (Royalty Hightower) is a 12 year old girl – but essentially a tomboy – tagging along with her brother to the boxing gym at the center, and looking like a pretty good boxer in her own right. Then one day, through a window, she spots the Lioness’ practicing – this is the center’s female dance troop – and Toni is drawn to them. When they hold auditions for new members, Toni tries out – and makes the team. Then something mysterious starts happening – a number of the older girls have something that can only be described as “the fits” – they drop to the ground and convulse, their jerky movements later to be incorporated into future dances. This only happens to each girl once, they are fine afterwards – and no one can explain why. They start to compare notes as to what it was like – and girls who haven’t had them yet, including Toni, start to wonder if they will.
The Fits is not a movie that will end up answering all the questions it raises – and it’s all the richer for that. Really, I’m not sure an answer would suffice – or rather, a single answer would be reasonable, considering it could be read in any number of ways from puberty, to something more mysterious and otherworldly. An explanation would also hurt the wonderful, surreal tone of the film – and would likely require a lot of explanation, which hurts a film that doesn’t contain a lot of dialogue. It would also hurt the ending of the film, which is perfect as it is.
The Fits is a wonderfully made movie – it takes place entirely in that community center, which the filmmakers make look large and imposing – the entire world of these characters. The sound design heightens the surreal, unreal tone of the film as well. This is director Anna Rose Holmer’s first feature – and it’s a marvelously accomplished one.
The Fits isn’t quite a great film – I think it’s an extremely well made one, and has a fine lead performance by Hightower – that rare child performed who can hold the screen without saying anything. While I don’t think it needs to explain everything, the fact that it explains next to nothing, makes it seem perhaps a little more profound, or deep, than it actually is. But it’s a great debut for Holmer – a director to watch for sure. If she can do this, with almost no money, imagine what she can do with a budget.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Movie Review: Manchester by the Sea

Manchester by the Sea
Directed by: Kenneth Lonergan.   
Written by: Kenneth Lonergan. 
Starring: Casey Affleck (Lee Chandler), Michelle Williams (Randi), Kyle Chandler (Joe Chandler), Lucas Hedges (Patrick), Liam McNeill (Josh), C.J. Wilson (George), Heather Burns (Jill), Tate Donovan (Hockey Coach), Matthew Broderick (Rodney), Gretchen Mol (Elise).
Making a film about grief and mourning can be a nearly impossible task, because no matter how you handle it, you run the risk of making a film that is a non-stop parade of misery – and I don’t think that really helps anyone, and doesn’t really capture what it is like to grieve. What is remarkable about Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea is that he has avoided that trap altogether. There is no doubt that the film is heartbreaking and sad – it had me in tears at several moments throughout the film – but it’s still a film that is filled with life, and even humor, that is keenly attuned to the different ways people grieve – and move on with their lives in the face of that. It is also an intricately structured film – using flashbacks better than almost any other recent film, and contains one of the best performances you will ever see in a movie by Casey Affleck. It is one of the year’s very best films.
The film opens in Boston, with Lee Chandler (Affleck) working as a handyman to a series of apartment buildings – he’s grumpy and angry, but good at his job. At night he goes to a bar gets drunk, and picks a fight for no reason. He seems utterly and completely alone. Then he gets a phone call – one he’s gotten before. His brother, Joe (Kyle Chandler) is in the hospital – again – and he needs to head up to his old hometown of Manchester. Joe has congestive heart failure, and it’s only a matter of time before he dies – they all know it – and this is that time. Joe’s wife, Elise (Gretchen Mol) ran off a few years ago – and now someone has to look after their teenage son, Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Lee is floored when he realizes that Joe has left him with that role – it’s a role he doesn’t want. We know from the earliest flashbacks that something isn’t quite right here – Lee and Joe used to be best friends, and Lee was playful and friendly with Patrick in ways he definitely isn’t now. (Spoiler Warning -  I don’t think what comes next constitutes a huge spoiler – it’s revealed fairly early in the film, but it’s something that personally I did not know heading into the film – and I’m glad I didn’t. You’ve been warned). Those flashbacks also contain scenes of Lee with his ex-wife, Randi (Michelle Williams) – and their three children, who we haven’t seen or heard mentioned in the present day scenes either. We know from the beginning that something has hurt Lee – we start to realize what that is. End Spoiler Warning.
Manchester By the Sea was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan – and even though he’s only directed three films now, he is one of the best working right now. His debut film, You Can Count on Me (2000) – was a closely observed film about the difficult relationship between adult siblings played beautifully by Laura Linney, and in his breakthrough role, Mark Ruffalo. Years of legal wrangling delayed his next film Margaret for years – shot in 2005, it didn’t get released until 2011 – and to the surprise of many, myself included, it turned out to be even better than You Can Count on Me – a sprawling, messy but brilliantly written, directed and acted film – about a teenage girl (Anna Paquin), who witnesses a bus accident, and the aftermath of that incident became something far greater, and more wide reaching that we expect it to. Even as great as those films are, Manchester By the Sea is even better – a blue collar, domestic drama that treats its characters with respect, and allows them all to become three dimensional characters. Although death, grief and mourning are a constant in the film, Lonergan also finds great humor in some moments as well. Patrick is a kid who has had to deal with his mother’s abandonment, and the constant threat of his dad dying – and his way to deal with everything is natural to a teenager – ignore it, and try to resume normal life. Much humor is wrung from his juggling of multiple girlfriends – the way he tries to come up with a long winded explanation of why one girlfriend is allowed to stay over to his Uncle Lee – who couldn’t care less – or his trying to avoid the mother of his other girlfriend – where he foolishly tries to enlist Lee as his wingman. The dynamic between Patrick and Lee is the heart of the movie – neither of them want to be there, they both know it, and they needle each other in difficult ways. They love each other – but at times, Patrick can’t stand his uncle, and his uncle cannot stand to look at him.
That may be the best part of Affleck’s performance as Lee – the way he seems to be constantly looking away – down and to the side, the way he avoids eye contact with anyone. Everyone in Manchester – a small town after all - knows about him, he knows they know, and yet no one ever brings it up. It’s like Lee is sorry to be there – wherever he is, forcing his presence on everyone else. Affleck has always been a gifted actor – his work in The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford (2006) is one of the best performances of the last decade, but he outdoes himself here. It’s a remarkably subtle performance – yes, there are some moments where he gets angry, but they are few and far between. Mostly it’s about body language – the weight pushing down on him. His biggest moment in the film is one of the quietest, when he’s barely able to squeak out the sentence “I can’t beat it” – and is unable to look Patrick in the eye when he says it.
There are other great moments – and performances in the film. Michelle Williams only has a handful of scenes – and for a while, you wonder why Lonergan cast an actress as great as Williams in this role – and then, there comes a scene late in the film and it all becomes clear (I won’t say anything else about that scene, except to note that it is a scene we’ve all been waiting for, and yet, like the rest of the movie is remarkably subtle and underplayed beautifully). A more low-key heartbreaking sequence happens when Patrick’s mother gets back in touch with him – and he goes to see her and her new husband (Matthew Broderick) – and it becomes apparent fairly quickly this isn’t going to be a solution either.
Manchester By the Sea isn’t a movie that wraps everything up in a neat little package either. It is a film that ends on a hopeful note – a note that holds the promise that just maybe, the people in the film are going to be okay after it ends, that they can move towards some sort of way to move to on. But it also understands that they will never truly get over it – they’ll just have to find a way to live with everything that has happened.