F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 17, 2017)

17 08 2017

Sean Baker might be our most essential contemporary humanist filmmaker. He locates the beating heart of his films not in the extraordinary but in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. His works start in one place and end in someplace altogether different and unexpected, leaving us all the better for having walked two hours in his characters’ shoes.

His 2012 feature “Starlet” is no different. While my first impression upon encountering the film back in 2013 was that the film was sweet but a little slight, a second watch recently convinced me otherwise. This is more than just a May-December platonic friendship between two women in Los Angeles. It’s a moving journey of how people can clear away the calcified numbness in their hearts.

The central character of this selection in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column is Dree Hemingway’s 21-year-old Jane, an actress down on luck and short on cash. She gets a welcome snap out of her boredom when she unexpectedly stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman, Besedka Johnson’s Sadie, at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself – but also makes attempts to befriend Sadie to assuage her guilt.

The two initially take to each other like oil and water, but each has a cloistered part of their identity that leaves them with a void in their day-to-day existences. Gradually, and heartwarmingly, they begin to fill that space. We see more of Jane’s alternative world, as she’s the protagonist, and Baker finds a visual schema that represents the two discordant spheres she inhabits. Her home life is filled with hand-held camerawork and fast-paced editing, while her visits with Sadie are comprised of more stable shots and longer takes. I won’t spoil what exactly makes Jane’s personal struggles so turbulent and simply let the film reveal it. Baker drops a detail that would define any other character so casually about halfway through the film; it’s a refreshing change of pace for this type of figure who traditionally never amounts to anything other than the work she does.





REVIEW: The Wound

16 08 2017

At least for now, it’s taken as an assumption that most queer cinema will take place against the background of a heteronormative society. Few visualize it like John Trengove’s “The Wound,” a drama set in among a South African tribe participating in a male circumcision ritual. The first love scene between two men is shot from a dispassionate distance where thrusting is but the motion of a few pixels, and a scene of fellatio shortly after takes place in such dark silhouettes that individuating features are not discernible. These actions is so forbidden and their pleasures so taboo that what we see is little more than bodies in motion.

When we’re closer to two men’s physical intimacy, Trengove shows us the effects of a hypermasculine culture on the lovers. Two people who feel a deep emotional bond do not always feel comfortable enough in their own bodies to express that, so we see a lot of uncomfortable and awkward groping, grasping and grabbing. It’s like watching a surrender to primal urges, stripped from any kind of notions of romance or sensuality.

“The Wound” is less compelling when these characters try to awkwardly integrate in with their more macho companions in the tribe. Trengove does astutely observe the ways that homoeroticism thrives in homophobic spaces; for example, several young men expose their genitalia to each other from behind towels to compare unit length but throw around anti-gay epithets at will. Yet his film operates better with themes than it does with people. The central love triangle is poorly defined, and the other characters are mere caricatures. B-





REVIEW: Imperium

15 08 2017

“We all create a narrative based on what we think is important,” Toni Collette’s FBI official Angela Zamparo suggests at the start of “Imperium.” She’s begging her colleague, Daniel Radcliffe’s sheepish bookworm agent Nate Foster, to broaden his mindset about what constitutes a clear threat to American security. That involves ditching a predilection for radical Islamic terrorism to focus his attention on a burgeoning threat to the country: white supremacist violence.

Based on some evidence suggesting a chemical bomb on the scale of Oklahoma City, Angela sends Nate deep into the hate-filled clutches of these neo-Nazi groups armed with little more than a buzzcut, knowledge gained from a white nationalist reading list and his own intuition. Oh, and she gives him pointers here and there from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to relate to some of the most frightening skinheads circling the gutter of society. How’s that for espionage? The film provides a consistently engaging, if never full engrossing, thrill ride down the drain.

Nate’s main target is a talk radio host of the Alex Jones variety, Tracy Letts’ #WhiteGenocide conspiracy peddling crackpot Dallas Wolf, to get to the center of the underground chemicals network. He’s a shady character who inspires some truly violent, hateful figures. But the scariest person in “Imperium” is the buttoned-up Gerry Conway, a family man who can weave racist talking points into everyday dialogue with shocking casualness. He might not embrace the full scope of fascism, but Gerry’s embrace of white nationalist ideals in spite of his apparent intelligence ought to give us all chills. White supremacy does not always come decked out in a swastika. Sometimes, it looks like your neighbor in his button-down shirt and gentle smile. B





REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

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REVIEW: Step

11 08 2017

As a part of its acquisition deal out of the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight purchase not only Amanda Lipitz’s documentary “Step” but also the remake rights. It was a smart decision for the studio in many ways – and perhaps ultimately the best one for this inspiring story of #BlackGirlMagic involving several stepping Baltimore teens. That’s not because their journey needs fictionalization to reach a larger audience; rather, “Step” could use the freedom of narrative cinema to unlock the full reservoir of emotion contained within.

In many ways, it appears that Lipitz is putting together the pieces of a narrative already, but she’s hampered by a fidelity to reality. She bends time and chronology (mostly under the radar, given away by small details like college application deadlines or the release of Beyoncé’s “Formation”) to give her documentary a more thematic structure as opposed to a chronological one. Lipitz also ham-handedly creates a foreground/background dynamic, with the character-building training of the step team at the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women taking place on a larger canvas of the Black Lives Matter movement and the recent murder of Freddie Gray.

To watch “Step” is to at once be aware of Lipitz’s grand ambitions and unfortunate limitations. She’s envisioning spectacle but lacks the resources or the know-how to execute it. This becomes most apparent in how she shoots the step dancing competition sequences. They’re clunkily edited and shot from strange angles, yet there’s evolution over time, suggesting that Lipitz has put in the work to improve even during the course of shooting.

It’s also possible that she treats her subjects more as characters than people in the documentary. Moments like Coach Gari McIntyre’s field trip with the team to a memorial for Freddie Gray, well-intentioned though it might be, plays like the kind of inspirational perspective-altering moment in a Disney sports drama. That might not be how it happened, but it’s how the scene plays in the way Lipitz positions it. She renders figures like the school’s college counselor Paula Dofat, an indefatigable advocate who will stop at nothing to get every girl into post-secondary education, into little more than her function. There’s no curiosity about her inner life.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 10, 2017)

10 08 2017

Adaptation” it most certainly is not, but Martin McDonagh’s “Seven Psychopaths” makes for a most entertaining meta-movie. This specific genre derives its pleasures by baking the creation of the movie into the very fabric of the story itself; the fact that everything was narrativized is not merely a fact slapped on at the conclusion. Some artists smuggle these meta-movies into existence under the guise of something like a heist flick (Christopher Nolan’s “Inception“) or a con artist caper (Rian Johnson’s “The Brothers Bloom“), though many in their purest form simply revolve around filmmakers struggling to create.

That’s the case for McDonagh’s meta-movie, my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” In many ways, “Seven Psychopaths” feels like a self-interrogation (perhaps after surveying his prior film “In Bruges”). His leading man, Colin Farrell’s Marty, is a screenwriter struggling to pen his latest script conveniently titled – you guessed it – “Seven Psychopaths.” As he drolly puts it, “I’ve got the title, just not the psychopaths.”

Marty wants to write a film about violent people without succumbing the soul-sucking carnage that plagues many films about such subjects. He wants it all to mean something, not just become a violent shoot-’em-up. Ultimately, Marty gets more than he bargained for when a friend draws him into a Los Angeles gang dispute over … a Shih Tzu. The anodyne object of conflict points out the inherent absurdity of the criminal underworld without fully discounting the grotesqueness of their deeds.

I first watched “Seven Psychopaths” on video in 2013 and found myself rather unenthused by it. (The original grade I bestowed upon it was a C.) With McDonagh’s next directorial outing “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” about to make landfall on the film festival circuit, something compelled me to give it a second chance – and judging by its inclusion in this column, you can assume I’m glad I did. McDonagh grants us a dryly humorous window into the writing process, which also means clueing us into his knowledge of audience expectations for what’s to come. This feat is a tricky one to pull off without drowning in self-awareness, and he does it with a good amount of dexterity.





REVIEW: The Boss Baby

8 08 2017

Where DreamWorks lagged behind Pixar in pathos, they often made up ground with sheer creativity (see: the “Shrek” franchise). But even recently, the boy fishing on the crescent moon has ceded that ground to the jumping lamp. Their latest effort, “The Boss Baby,” starts the battle to take it back.

This movie pushes the medium of animation to its fullest, not to create a simulation of reality but to twist it in imaginative ways. What’s the point of being able to bend the rules if you’re just going to obey the ones established in a live-action world, after all? “The Boss Baby” gives the fanciful visuals a reason to exist, too, by assuming the point of view of seven-year-old Tim. He’s a storyteller by nature, and we get to watch him weave some pretty intricate yarns about the arrival of his baby brother.

In (t)his story, that baby’s foreign nature manifests itself as a slick-talking, suit-wearing tot voiced by Alec Baldwin. Tim reacts at first with suspicion to this time-sucking new addition to the family. But after their initial confrontations, the two unite on a common goal – promoting human babies over puppies in the battle to win over the souls of young couples – and begin to bond as brothers.

The storytelling conceit is a clever way to convey a story about fraternal connection. “The Boss Baby” does not merely seek to understand Tim’s perspective on events; instead, director Tom McGrath and writer Michael McCullers assume his subjectivity fully. The concept does start to fall apart a bit as the brothers’ adventure begins to escalate – for example, does a young child really have the advanced knowledge of corporate structure trends to know to make a point about being replaced by someone younger? Still, the film delights by adopting the mantra of Mrs. Frizzle: “get messy, mistakes.” Seeing DreamWorks really gun for something special again is worth the watch. B