REVIEW: Donald Cried

22 03 2017

SXSW Film Festival, 2016

There’s something to be said for working within familiar genre tropes and hallmarks … and still managing to turn out something interesting. Kris Avedisian’s understated yet subversive take on the coming home indie dramedy, “Donald Cried,” provides just that – but not just that. The story of these two estranged former friends, reunited when one returns to their working class Rhode Island neighborhood, sneaks into some unpleasant crevasses of a fraught relationship.

Repeated interactions between visiting Wall Street hotshot Peter (Jesse Wakeman) and attic-dwelling Donald (Avedisian, in front of the camera) do not rekindle nostalgic memories. Rather, illusions shatter with each successive encounter, and past events that both recall rather innocuously are recast to show the hot-headed Peter outright disparaging the odd Donald. To their credit, neither Wakeman or Avedisian play the roles as traditional “types” that play into an established power dynamic of bully and victim. Watching them flip advantage based on humiliation or ignorance makes “Donald Cried” a live wire watch from minute to minute, with the settling position of their relationship never obviously discernible.

Avedisian, a first-time director, achieves all of this without reaching for emotion in close-ups or relying heavily on reaction shots. He trust his instincts and his actors to do the work right and create a tense atmosphere on their own. The harmoniously executed discord that ensues leaves a bittersweet taste – just as he wants it. “Donald Cried” lingers by frustrating our expectations just enough to wonder why we’re still a little upset by the end. B+

REVIEW: Frantz

21 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Cinema still runs low on great films about the Great War this side of “All Quiet on the Western Front.” Though more people ought to give another look to Derek Cianfrance’s “The Light Between Oceans,” roundly dismissed after being dumped in theaters over Labor Day weekend, they should also look at François Ozon’s “Frantz,” a film which debuted just a few days later at the 2016 Venice Film Festival. Rather than steeping his post-war milieu in melodrama like the former director, Ozon stages a dimly austere meditation on forgiveness in continental Europe.

The pared back simplicity of the black and white visual scheme, recalling the crispness of Haneke’s similarly two-toned “The White Ribbon,” might come as shocking to any Francophile cinema fans who know Ozon for his fizzy, vivacious filmmaking. The occasional stylistic flourishes do make their way into “Frantz,” punctuating the tense silences by reminding us of a joy seemingly absent in the wake of World War I’s devastation. But the overwhelming majority of the film is a masterclass in controlling ambiance and delicate unravelling of repressed emotion.

Of course, little of this occurs while letting the film wash over. “Frantz” begins as a simple mystery as Anna (Paula Beer), the widow of a German solider, observes a Frenchman repeatedly visiting her departed husband’s grave. He eventually introduces himself as Adrien (Pierre Niney), and he claims to have come in order to pay respects to the soldier he too knew. Showing up to a small, provincial town little over a year after the Armistice is a bold move for Adrien given that, as someone declares, “every Frenchman is my son’s murderer.”

The ensuing engagement and estrangement between he and Anna illustrates the difficult process of healing and remarrying while the wounds of armed conflict are still fresh. 1920 was still a time of hope for a brighter future; maybe the Great War would live up to its title of “The War to End All Wars” after all. But Adrien, Anna and Europe as a whole know the temptation of a comforting lie to paper over difficult fissures in a relationship. Ozon never shows these chasms in “Frantz,” though they loom ever larger as the post-war tranquility appears increasingly illusory. B+

REVIEW: Beauty and the Beast

20 03 2017

From their first moments, all movies start establishing a contract with their audience to set the framework of guidelines and conventions through which to view the work. This might sound like advanced film theory – it’s not. And for all those who just want to know if Disney’s live-action remake of “Beauty and the Beast” is worth seeing, this is relevant. These implicit contracts are some of the first things you factor into your decisions about a movie’s quality because they relate to whether or not you believe their created worlds.

Fictional films present distortions of observable reality that ask for various suspensions of normal existence. Conveniently, one of the easiest illustrations of this principle resides in the musical genre. We generally accept that people do not burst out into song as a mode of expression. If they do in a film, though, why? Is it a sung-through musical like “Les Misérables,” where music is the only mode of communication? Is it like “La La Land,” where song and dance numbers provide an expressionistic commentary? Is it more akin to “Into the Woods,” where moments of heightened emotion cause the characters to break out in a catchy melody?

The animated musicals of the so-called “Disney Renaissance” from 1989 to 1999 hinged on a fairly interesting set of conventions. The films borrowed heavily from the Broadway musical format but also took wild flights of animated fancy. Their limitation was not the confines of a stage but the edges of imagination. It’s no wonder these films carved out such a special place in the millennial consciousness.

But when it comes to adapting “Beauty and the Beast” into a live-action feature, musical numbers and all, director Bill Condon had a special challenge that Kenneth Branagh did not face in his 2015 version of “Cinderella.” Fans of the 1991 animated classic expect a certain fidelity to the original film. But so much of what made that film so effervescently delightful simply does not translate easily to a world that more closely resembles our own.

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REVIEW: Kong: Skull Island

7 03 2017

“Am I the story of the Negro in America?” asks a German major in Quentin Tarantino’s “Inglourious Basterds” as he tries to guess the name written on a card affixed to his forehead in a bar game. He gets a resounding “no” after running through a series of questions that could just as easily describe the importation of slaves. But he quickly pivots and rattles off, “Well, then, I must be King Kong.”

Traditionally in cinema – and fiction as a whole – our monsters mean something. They reflect the deep fears and anxieties of a society, ones that might not obviously rear their heads but can find vicarious expression through metaphor and transitive representation. In 1933’s version of “King Kong,” Tarantino saw a deeply symbolic tale about race in America. It’s too bad that “Kong: Skull Island,” the latest spin on the giant ape, arrives at a time of no racial tension and the complete absolution of prejudice based on ancestral origin. (Ha.)

But what kind of monster is Kong in Jordan Vogt-Roberts’ film? At first, the behemoth primate seems to be something between a colonialist allegory given the backdrop of the Vietnam War and a cautionary tale for human overreach in a technology-heavy era. The longer the film goes on, the more these aspects reveal themselves as clear offshoots of Vogt-Roberts’ key touchstones, “Apocalypse Now” and “Jurassic Park.” Then the real question of “Kong: Skull Island” arises. Is it worse if the filmmaking team (which includes four credited writers) have an undercooked meaning of the monster … or if there’s just no meaning at all?

We get the answer – it’s the latter of the two options – in a post-credits zinger. No spoilers about the contents of the scene, but Warner Bros. deliberately robs King Kong of any allegorical meaning to strip him down to pure commercialism. He’s now just another branded property, another franchise toy who can be trotted out in any number of series without being weighed down by cultural baggage. The ape who loomed large in the American imagination is now just another large CGI creation in a veritable zoo created by the VFX wizards that be. The whole film amounts to a less neon-bathed “Avatar,” a creature feature full of empty spectacle (and even less politicization).

Kong’s presence in the film is practically nonexistent, too. That includes implied appearances, a method to which Spielberg acolyte Vogt-Roberts fondly makes homage. The majority of “Kong: Skull Island” consists of a ragtag band of people who have been in too many action movies (Samuel L. Jackson, Tom Hiddleston, John Goodman) and those whose careers could use an action movie (Brie Larson, Thomas Mann, Corey Hawkins, Jason Mitchell) trying to make it to the top of a mountain for rescue after a military mission goes south. Their journey has its enjoyable moments, but who really buys a ticket to a King Kong movie for pithy banter between photojournalists and cagey war veterans? B-

REVIEW: Table 19

6 03 2017

Even as it resorts to some familiar tropes about the forced cohesion created within a band of misfits, Jeffrey Blitz’s “Table 19” still manages to do enough within a familiar framework to create a memorable moviegoing experience. There are some good running gags, like the ubiquity of the wedding photographer’s flash and how one character’s outfit looks suspiciously like the waitstaff’s getup. The script, which shares a story credit with the Duplass Brothers, also throws a major wrench in the expected turn of events at the midway point which proves truly surprising.

It’s a shame that Blitz bites off a little more than he can chew in an 87 minute film. Setting up and resolving six different narrative arcs for a wedding rejects table proves a lot to handle in such a short amount of time, and the sheer volume of events and conversations often overwhelms and clouds out quality. The quantity also overshadows some of the more intriguing storytelling that Blitz attempts in “Table 19.” For example, the pattern of conflict resolution takes on a much less straightforward direction, and the general story propulsion comes from strung-together tension and awkwardness.

The film is at its best at the outset when the characters are defined by how they relate to the room, not by how they relate to each other. In one of the most enjoyable sequences in “Table 19,” Anna Kendrick’s Eloise narrates a self-aware taxonomy of the wedding reception table layout. It’s genuinely perceptive about the unwritten rules of nuptial rituals, so it’s too bad that the characters largely lack the depth of thought given to the roles they play in the ceremony. B

Reflecting on the 2016 Academy Awards

26 02 2017

This is the first year I haven’t live blogged the Oscars since 2009 (well, except for the year I got to sit along the red carpet). I thought I’d write something profound after a calm show but … THAT ENDING. What. Just. Happened.

Also, my ballot is horrendous, but that’s because I chose deliberately unsentimentally. So pleased to see two wins for “Manchester by the Sea.” That’s all I really needed tonight.


Margarita with a Straw + ReelAbilities Film Festival

24 02 2017

margarita-with-a-strawReelAbilities Film Festival – Houston

In his 2016 book “But What If We’re Wrong?,” cultural critic Chuck Klosterman attempted to predict where our age’s great hidden text lies. What future generations tend to remember about bygone eras are works that did not receive proper due in their own time – in part because cultural archaeologists have an esoteric’s activist mentality when canonizing art. His guess was a Native American writing on a message board on the Dark Web, citing the relative paucity of attention given to each.

Far be it from me to make such a sweeping prophecy, but I do think there’s a decent chance that disabilities could factor into that conversation about overlooked, undervalued culture. There are countless courageous Americans fighting daily for the disability community, though their efforts never seem to pierce the public consciousness in the way that movements surrounding civil rights or marriage equality have. To be clear, it’s the people on the ground working for substantive policy gains who make the real change – yet popular culture can also play a large role in changing hearts and minds.

Margarita with a Straw,” which I saw as part of Houston’s ReelAbilties Film Festival, could help reverse the trend. I so often associate narratives surrounding disability with clichéd struggles and hokey uplift. We’re regularly encouraged to see these individuals as victims, afflicted with some condition they cannot control and acted upon rather than serving as active agents in their own stories. Shonali Bose’s film, which also played such prestigious festivals as Toronto and London, does none of these things. (Although I should add that it does contain some elements of wish fulfillment to the detriment of the overall film.)

The protagonist Laila is a person above all, a young adult with a passion for music and a little bit of wanderlust that directly conflicts with her provincial Indian family’s desires. While pursuing a degree abroad at NYU, Laila’s openness to life and unbridled enthusiasm brings her into the romantic orbit of peers from both genders. The film never downplays her disability and the way it affects her story, but “Margarita with a Straw” is not about that part of her. It’s about her journey of self-discovery in her bisexuality. Not to take away from what Bose accomplishes here, but I spent much of the film thinking about the range of stories still left to tell in this community. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for ReelAbilties in the years to come.