REVIEW: White Girl

29 11 2016

white-girl2016 has been a year to debate and deflect identity like few in contemporary history. Who has it too good in America? Who still has to fight for their dignity? And who can transgress these boundaries while naively thinking they are transcending them?

The point of reference for that last question, which was not rhetorical, is Morgan Saylor’s Leah, the subject of Elizabeth Wood’s scalding social commentary in “White Girl.” This well-off Oklahoma import begins the film moving into an apartment straddling Brooklyn and Queens. It’s clearly not a problem for her to pay rent as she works as unpaid intern at a magazine, and she does not seem particularly concerned with professional development. No, Leah’s main interest is written on her necklace: “Cocaine.” (No, that is not a joke.)

She continues to flaunt her privilege around the neighborhood by crossing the traditional class barrier between drug dealer and consumer. Leah invites the street corner hustles up to her place, risking the exposure of their thin cover, to get high off their own supply. She befriends them, beguiles them … even seduces the good-hearted Blue (Brian ‘Sene’ Marc). Her pleasure is their economic livelihood; her recreation, their income. Leah can turn around one day and write off her involvement with drugs as an immature phase. If discovered, it would mark the lives of Blue and his associates forever.

Leah ultimately comes face to face with this brutal reality after a bust lands Blue behind bars – a fate that she manages to escape largely because of her own race leading the officers to presume her lack of involvement. Struck by a mixture of guilt and puppy love, she works to remedy the situation by achieving justice through the legal system. The experience sobers her up and forces her to acknowledge the presence of hierarchies of class, race and wealth that she could safely ignore while ensconced in a sheltered enclave.

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REVIEW: Things to Come

28 11 2016

Things to Come

“I’ve found my freedom,” Isabelle Huppert’s Nathalie flatly states about halfway through Mia Hansen-Løve’s “Things to Come.” This declaration comes about in the wake of fundamental alterations in her relationships with husband, mother and children. The phrase has never sounded so depressing.

Since older audiences are among the last reliable demographic blocs to still attend movies in theaters, we’ve seen a veritable cottage industry of AARP-approved films that celebrate the freedom that comes with advanced years. Most, such as “Hello, My Name Is Doris” or “I’ll See You In My Dreams,” carry a fun, uplifting tune about these new realities. Hansen-Løve certainly does not rule out such a fate for her protagonist in “Things to Come,” but one gets the sense that such fancy-free contentment will only come after a great internal tussle.

Nathalie begins the film assuming her biggest battle will be proving her continued commitment to the political causes which define her life and teaching. She began her adulthood as a hardcore leftist and resents accusations from striking students that she has sold out her ideals to contribute to the ruling system. They see compromise; she claims pragmatism.

Turns out, the intricacies of Rousseau, Foucault and Adorno prove the least of Nathalie’s worries after a series of small tragedies accelerates her break from the routines she so nimbly mastered. She comes to long not for harmonizing and synthesizing the philosophy she already knows; rather, Nathalie looks for God or some system of thought that can provide order to her universe once again. To find oneself in a new stage of life, one must be set adrift. Hansen-Løve lingers in the moments of uncertainty, the painful longing that occurs while wayfaring between stations. Patriotism isn’t the only context in which the phrase “freedom doesn’t come free” can apply, turns out.

Huppert settles into the rhythm of the film marvelously, emphasizing neither the journey nor the destination for her character. Natalie is such a thinker that her terrain of action is in the mind. The biggest changes take place there as she internalizes her new set of circumstances and begins to formulate plans to proceed. Huppert’s virtuosity shows in her ability to turn an intellectual proposition into an emotional voyage for the audience. With her mental process so clear, we are able to contemplate not what Nathalie registers in any given moment but rather how such a development might resonate in our own lives. A-3halfstars


27 11 2016

My first film in theaters, officially, was Disney’s “Pocahontas” as an impressionable young 3-year-old. But the first movie I really remember seeing was another animated gem from the Mouse House – “Hercules.” I distinctly remember the energy of the sneak preview crowd, the toe-tapping jams and the inspirational journey of a hero finding his place in a cosmic plan.

Nearly 20 years later, I found much of those same elements at work in the latest Disney animated feature, “Moana.” (It’s probably no coincidence that the two films share the same directing pair, Ron Clements and John Musker.) Both films thrive on theatricality, creativity and sincerity. Their stakes might tip towards the fate of entire civilizations, yet they never lose track of their human factor: a longing for self-actualization that unites us all.

This story of a young Hawaiian chieftess, Auli’i Cravalho’s titular character, seeking both her higher calling and salvation for the villagers that count on her shares a similar mythic dimension as “Hercules.” In a sign of evolution for the studio, though, they take the time to learn and care about the culture in which they place their narrative. From tattoos to topography and language to lore, Disney portrays Hawaii’s traditions respectfully and without exoticizing. There’s more to this Hawaii than one might gather from dinner theater at a resort, in other words.

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REVIEW: Allied

26 11 2016

When asked how she has kept up a ruse among Nazis in Morocco, Marion Cotillard’s Resistance agent Marianne Beauséjour offers one trick of the trade: keep the emotions real. Precision is important – and she has plenty – but the feeling matters most.

In “Allied,” director Robert Zemeckis might not be trying anything nearly as daring as the espionage mission undertaken by Marianne and her Canadian companion, Brad Pitt’s Max Vatan, yet he heeds that core dictum all the same. His Old Hollywood throwback is a classically styled delight that succeeds largely on the dynamism of the two stars. Their transition from partners in crime to partners in life is gradual, then sudden, and it works because Zemeckis creates an environment where a series of sparks can believably ignite a blaze.

The golden-age romance turns on a dime in the film’s second half when British intelligence officers inform Max of their belief that Marianne is, in fact, passing classified information back to the Nazis. At this point, “Allied” shifts registers into an old-fashioned thriller; Zemeckis masterfully deploys his craftsmanship here. Small sonic details become searing motifs that comment on the tension ratcheting up between the couple. Brisk cuts sweep us from one scene into the next, echoing the whiplash Max must feel. In both themes and content, the film feels like it shares a close kinship with Hitchcock’s early American work in the 1940s.
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REVIEW: Aquarius

25 11 2016

aquariusBrazilian writer/director Kleber Mendonça Filho does not stray far from home in his latest film, “Aquarius.” The setting, once again, is the coastal city of Recife – Mendonça’s place of birth as well as the backdrop for his 2012 directorial debut “Neighboring Sounds.”

Rather than providing the same kind of panoramic compendium of his prior film, Mendonça keeps his focus tight on Sonia Braga’s Clara, a retired music critic and widow occupying a piece of prime waterfront real estate. Her memories and livelihood come from the apartment in which she resides, so she naturally resists the incursions of bloodthirsty real estate developers who will do anything to scoop up the property from underneath her. “Over her dead body” is no exaggeration when it comes to Clara’s tooth-and-nail fight to hold on to her home in the building dubbed Aquarius.

Mendonça abandons the breadth of “Neighboring Sounds,” but he does not necessarily replace it with depth in “Aquarius.” Where his ensemble drama had a sociologist’s eye for the way city life and modernity acted upon different classes of people, his character study overloads on allegory and skimps on personality. Though we spend nearly two and a half hours with Clara, she never takes on much of a life beyond her tenacious battle against the rapacious capitalist scourge. Erroneous scenes that attempt to clarify her character apart from this central conflict end up contributing little to our understanding of her. Braga gives a forceful performance, to be sure, but that can only go so far with a script that never fully provides her what she needs to dazzle. B2halfstars

F.I.L.M. of the Week (November 24, 2016)

24 11 2016

meeks-cutoffWith “Certain Women,” Kelly Reichardt took a move back toward the kind of stories that made her career – the quiet routines that define and confine the lives of Pacific Northwesterners. But earlier this decade, Reichardt made some notable forays into the world of genre filmmaking with 2014’s “Night Moves,” an eco-thriller, and 2011’s “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist and feminist take on the Western.

I caught the former at the 2013 London Film Festival, which forced me to abandon all ties to the outside world and dive headfirst into her carefully constructed universe. I was not so lucky to see “Meek’s Cutoff” in a theater, however, which meant years of putting off watching the film since I knew it would command so much of my attention. I stopped and started the film several times, knowing that anything that took my brain out of the experience would make the viewing a wash. When I had the chance to interview Reichardt earlier this year, I knew I could wait no longer.

Once I finally plunged myself into “Meek’s Cutoff,” my latest selection for “F.I.L.M. of the Week,” I was rewarded handsomely for my patience and attentiveness. Reichardt does not subvert genre tropes, as many revisionist filmmakers do in a self-congratulatory exhibition of their own cinematic knowledge. Rather, she inverts them, ascribing the same respect and earnestness normally accorded to heroic white men to their muted female companions and Native American guides.

Reichardt tells “Meek’s Cutoff” from a woman’s point of view, which includes making certain information obscured or downright off-limits. When the men in charge are talking, she makes things intentionally hard to hear or keeps the camera at such a distance that we cannot help but feel entirely removed from the decision making process. When Michelle Williams’ Emily Tetherow is privy to some information from her husband, Will Patton’s Solomon, she receives it in a whisper during the utter blackness of the prairie nights.

Tensions of all kinds flare on this 1840s journey along the Oregon Trail as the wagon caravan’s guide, Bruce Greenwood’s Meek, inspires doubts among the group. Amongst themselves, the settlers begin to wonder if he has intentionally led them astray to their demise. Supply begins to run as low as spirit, leading to rash decisions and some surprising assertions of authority. As survival instincts kick in, the clamor of wisdom from the women grows louder and harder to ignore. While an adjective like “thrilling” or “exciting” may not apply given the pace of Reichardt’s film, “compelling” sure does. Anyone willing to stop everything and simply live in the frame will find a textured, intelligent and unique take on the Old West.

REVIEW: Evolution

23 11 2016


Fantastic Fest, 2015

If empirical proof was needed to verify the adage that opposites attract, one could look at Lucille Hadzihalilovic’s “Evolution” – a stylistic 180° from the work of her partner, Gaspar Noë. While both are provocateurs in their own way, Noe loves to tout his virtuosity and flaunt his taboo breaking. In “Evolution,”Hadzihalilovic works in methods equally as disturbing and unnerving, yet she maintains a much more controlled temperament.

Her on-screen world is a sea of blues and greens along a waterfront town occupied only by young boys and women of maternal age. Young Nicolas begins to explore the mysteries of the island and question some of the oddities – the strange creatures in the sea, the unexplained medical treatment to which the children are subjected. As Nicolas begins the process of discovery, it is, to him, like a normal coming-of-age narrative. To his mother, however, the reaction to his inquiries takes a much stronger form.

“Evolution” keeps an even keel as it delves into the terrain of body horror and pre-adolescent malaise. But rather than foment dread, Hadzihalilovic primarily inspires ambivalence. Too many ambiguities go unexplored, which may stem from the film’s abbreviated runtime of just 81 minutes. The beautiful and oft-haunting imagery far too often are scares in search of a story. B-2halfstars