An Explanation, and a Return to Normalcy (I Hope!)

1 05 2018

Hey everyone,

If you checked this site recently, you’d probably assume I quit writing or something. Quite the opposite! I’ve actually been busier than ever with my freelance writing, which has included covering the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve already soared well past my writing income for 2017 in just the first four months of the year.

If you’re curious to read what I’ve been writing, check out my full portfolio site for clips – or click on the image below!

I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing reviews and other commentary here with some sense of regularity. My new normal has more or less asserted itself, so it’s time to try and fit Marshall and the Movies back into my routine. (Plus, I’m a little embarrassed at how rusty I was writing a straight-up review for Tribeca.) This site is invaluable for me to push my writing in more adventurous or strange directions that an editor might not approve. So you have that to look forward to!

That’s it for tonight … see you again soon!

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REVIEW: The Shape of Water

4 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

Guillermo del Toro may very well be cinema’s reigning master of monster mythology. Like few others, he understands the way that fantasy can speak to cultural hopes and fears — escapism is important if a filmmaker can locate where people want to escape to and why. “The Shape of Water” certainly helps make the case for his status at the top of the heap as he probes Kennedy-era America, a time that produced both the glimmering beacon of the Space Race and the combustible cocktail of civil rights.

Del Toro’s latest film comes straight from the “Pan’s Labyrinth mold, another fairytale with the look and feel of a cinematic storybook. Del Toro can always be counted on to provide masterful craftsmanship, even when his genre fusion and revisionism does not entirely cohere. Mercifully, it does here … for the most part.

“The Shape of Water” flows most smoothly and beautifully when focused on the primary blossoming love story between Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor Eliza and Doug Jones’ amphibious creature listed in the credits only as “The Asset.” Most characters in the film do not provide such a generous epithet for him, though, with Michael Shannon’s stern security guard Strickland simply referring to the classified experiment as an “affront.” There’s no object in his description, just a noun speaking to his abhorrence.

Eliza finds no such disgust in the swimming mystery from the moment The Asset’s tank is wheeled into her damp, dimly lit government laboratory in Baltimore. Like many a great romance, a sense of shared alienation from society at large draws the two lovers closer together. As entities struggling to be heard and understood — her due to lack of voice, him due to lack of others listening — they forge a bond both spiritual and sensual. Yes, you read that last word right.

As someone still recovering from the bizarre man-genetic experiment sex scene in Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film “Splice,” I approach most interspecies couplings onscreen with a fair amount of trepidation. To del Toro’s credit, the pairing never feels gross in the slightest because he approaches their love with a disarmingly tender earnestness. He’s pulling from screen musicals as much as science-fiction in their relationship, a pairing which at first seems odd until del Toro finds the common ground in their use of dream-like spaces to find the fulfillment that escapes star-crossed lovers in reality.

It’s a remarkable change of pace to see a film embracing the idea that love can fear and confront other obstacles without seeming hopelessly naïve. Between del Toro, James Gray and many other unabashed classicists practicing at high levels, perhaps the pendulum can swing back away from the pervasive irony in which our culture is currently steeped. (Although del Toro does display an instinct for dry humor that gives his vintage style an edgy kick.)

If “The Shape of Water” were purely focused on Eliza and the creature with deity-like properties, it would be a pure shot of cinematic ecstasy. But del Toro makes the waters a little choppy by raising what should be subplots to the level of co-equal narrative threads. Shannon becomes the de facto villain of the film as a watchman who develops a fixation on slaying the monster for… no entirely cogent reason. Sure, he loses two fingers in an early altercation with the creation, rendering him mentally cuckolded, yet even the most furious rage of Shannon’s performance cannot distract from the poor character development. A whole narrative thread with Michael Stuhlbarg’s Hoffstetler serving as a covert spy also serves little purpose in the grand scheme of the film, only really establishing the era’s geopolitical stakes.

None of this negates the delicate power of Eliza’s love story. It does, however, hold the film back from achieving the purity and simplicity of the folkloric ends to which it strives. B

NOTE: This review originally ran on Vague Visages.





REVIEW: Breathe

2 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

NOTE: Since I reviewed this film for a bigger outlet, I can’t really reprint the review in its entirety. From now on, when I’ve given a film a proper review elsewhere, I’ll use this space to expand upon certain elements that might not have made their way into the full review.

“Breathe” is pretty much everything you’d expect of it – little more, little less. If you love stately, mannered British period dramas, you might enjoy it more than I did. In my opinion, the main highlight is Andrew Garfield, perhaps our greatest working humanist actor. He just breathes (pun fully intended) so much life into a character with such intense restrictions on his performance that it’s remarkable to observe, quality of movie aside. As I said in my review…

Unsurprisingly, Garfield nails the immediate micro-level specificity necessitated by portraying someone with such a debilitating condition. He’s robbed of so many key acting tools: the scope to take in an entire scene, the ability to react in full, the emphasis in his extremities. Yet within this tightly proscribed frame, Garfield still manages the full expressive capabilities for which has garnered great acclaim. In Breathe, he captures that same moving range from elation to depression.

For Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson, the real story of Robin Cavendish is not a tale cut in the mold of a “Great Man” biopic. Robin does not strive to achieve the extraordinary. He merely wishes to reestablish the ordinary, a feat practically unthinkable in the mid-20th century. People in his condition simply did not exist outside of hospitals. Plugged into a respirator that does all the breathing for him, Robin always remains no more than two minutes away from death were the machine to stop operating. Rather than resigning himself to waste away on a stationary cot, he enlists his devoted wife Diana (played by Claire Foy) and many other ingenious friends to invent the tools necessary to enable the life few imagined was possible.

It’s also intriguing to think that while this is technically Andy Serkis’ debut feature, he directed it after his take on “The Jungle Book.” I might have to reassess “Breathe” in light of that film when it comes out. B-

Read my full review on Slashfilm.

 





LISTFUL THINKING: Most Anticipated Films of 2018

1 01 2018

2017 is over! 2018 is here!

After a year when my top 10 list only featured one of my stalwart favorite filmmakers, I am very excited to see a number of great directors preparing exciting new works. I had to narrow it down to 10 just for my own sake, but here are some honorable mentions just to show you how stacked 2018 is going to be.

  • Ava DuVernay’s “A Wrinkle In Time”
  • Wes Anderson’s “Isle of Dogs”
  • Yorgos Lanthimos’ “The Favorite”
  • Laszlo Nemes’ “Sunset”
  • Asghar Farhadi’s “Everybody Knows”
  • David Lowery’s “The Old Man and the Gun”
  • Damien Chazelle’s “First Man”
  • Bradley Cooper’s “A Star Is Born”
  • Jacques Audiard’s “The Sisters Brothers”
  • Robert Zemeckis’ “The Women of Marwen”
  • Myroslav Slaboshpytskiy’s “Luxembourg”
  • Melanie Laurent’s “Galveston”

But without further ado, here are 10 movies that I will be anticipating the most in the coming year…

#10

“Ocean’s 8”
Directed by Gary Ross
Written by Gary Ross and Olivia Milch
Starring Sandra Bullock, Cate Blanchett and Anne Hathaway

…and Sarah Paulson, Rihanna, Mindy Kaling and Helena Bonham Carter. I, for one, welcome this matriarchy to take over the summer screens.

#9

“Under the Silver Lake”
Written and directed by David Robert Mitchell
Starring Andrew Garfield, Riley Keough and Topher Grace

Mitchell’s last film “It Follows” has lingered in my mind so much to the point that his follow-up is basically guaranteed a spot here. Working with Garfield and Keough, who are making some fascinating career moves, has me especially intrigued.

#8

“Boy Erased”
Written for the screen and directed by Joel Edgerton
Starring Lucas Hedges, Nicole Kidman and Joel Edgerton

Lucas Hedges is on a roll between “Manchester by the Sea,” “Lady Bird” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri” – one heck of a hat trick. The best might be yet to come with his role as a boy forced into conversion therapy for his sexuality.

#7

“High Life”
Directed by Claire Denis
Written by Claire Denis, Jean-Pol Fargeau, Nick Laird and Zadie Smith
Starring Robert Pattinson, Mia Goth and Juliette Binoche

The Robert Pattinson arthouse director trophy case continues to grow as he notches a film with French icon Claire Denis. It’s a sci-fi script that Zadie Smith has a hand in? Um, yes please.

#6

“If Beale Street Could Talk”
Written for the screen and directed by Barry Jenkins
Starring Dave Franco, Pedro Pascal and Ed Skrein

Barry Jenkins tackling James Baldwin should get everyone excited. Full stop. I cannot wait to see him bring Baldwin’s searing treatment of race in America to the big screen.

#5

“Where’d You Go, Bernadette?”
Directed by Richard Linklater
Written by Michael H. Weber and Scott Neustadter
Starring Cate Blanchett, Kristen Wiig and Judy Greer

I am so curious to see how the unique, quirky narration style of Maria Semple’s novel gets translated into cinematic language. The book is in good hands with Linklater and Blanchett.

#4

“Tully”
Directed by Jason Reitman
Written by Diablo Cody
Starring Charlize Theron, Mackenzie Davis and Ron Livingston

The “Young Adult” redemption tour is coming. Get ready.

#3

“Backseat”
Written and directed by Adam McKay
Starring Christian Bale, Amy Adams and Sam Rockwell

After “The Big Short” tore pre-recession Wall Street to shreds, I’m eager to see what Adam McKay has in store for Dick Cheney. It will certainly have fangs.

#2

“Widows”
Directed by Steve McQueen
Written by Steve McQueen and Gillian Flynn
Starring Viola Davis, Liam Neeson and Colin Farrell

A melding of the minds behind “12 Years a Slave” and “Gone Girl” is the combination I didn’t know I needed. And now I just can’t wait for it to arrive.

#1

“The Beach Bum”
Written and directed by Harmony Korine
Starring Matthew McConaughey, Zac Efron and Isla Fisher

SPRING BREAK FOREVER. About time Harmony Korine has a new movie for me to hook into my veins.

 





Top 10 of 2017: Connections, Failed and Imagined

31 12 2017

Per New Year’s Eve tradition, it’s time to unveil my top 10 list for the year. 2017 was … an interesting year, to say the least. I’m writing this paragraph at the tail end of a screener binge trying to catch as many movies as possible before sitting down to bang out this piece. Funny how you can see 148 films and somehow feel like you’ve failed to get a sense of the year. That’s a far cry from the glut I consumed in 2015, a whopping 200 films in the calendar year.

Yet I feel good about that, somehow. This was a banner year for me keeping my New Year’s resolutions, one of which was to rewatch more movies to gain a greater appreciation of what I’ve already seen. Another was to immerse myself more in classic cinema to better understand the influences of my favorite filmmakers. (If, for some reason, you feel compelled to see my media consumption habits in detail, check out my Letterboxd page.) Still, I don’t think many of you are going to shake a finger at me for seeing as much as I did. From 148 films, there’s more than enough to make a top 10 list.

(Also, I moved to New York in November. I had a lot on my plate besides just watching movies.)

An odd thing to note about my favorites this year: the top 5 has stayed unchanged since late May. That’s in part because I went to Sundance (and made the correct film choices), but I think something larger is at play here. Expectations. Filmmakers whose latest works I was eagerly anticipating largely did not deliver on the promise of their prior films. On the list below, the only director who I would have considered myself a devotee of would be Noah Baumbach.

The upside here is that now I have many new projects to eagerly anticipate! Several of these directors were ones that had just never quite clicked for me. Heck, one of them directed a movie which garnered this site’s only F rating.

I always construct this list purely on merit and feeling, never trying to meet any kind of quota or make any particular statement. But 2017’s list naturally came together to paint a picture of the industry I’d like to see. 3 films are directed by women, 3 films are debut features, 2 films are by black directors and 2 films are by queer filmmakers. There are studio films, indies and Netflix releases. Quality work is coming from every area of the business, and we need to seek out and amplify it as well as its creators.

Before I do my rundown, I suppose I should offer a word about the connective fiber between these films and the year at large. I admit to looking at this group and not having anything jump out immediately. A contemplative walk around the block made me realize that these movies are mostly, to some degree, about people trying to connect. It might be with family members, the love of one’s life, someone’s physical surroundings, or with one’s self. It is likely in spite of some greater obstacle, be they systemic ills like racism and sexism or merely personal hurdles like insecurity and timidity.

This is simplistic to the point of mockery, and I scoff at myself for even being the kind of writer who’d hang an entire year on a concept so nebulously defined that it could come to encompass virtually anything. But in a year when it seemed tough to reconcile seemingly disparate realities and communicate deeply-held values, I’m willing to venture out a bit on this flimsy limb. (Also, some of these don’t really have much to do with “connection” at all! So what!)

Read the rest of this entry »





INTERVIEW: David Lowery, director of “A Ghost Story”

3 10 2017

In July, I was able to interview David Lowery for a piece I wrote on Film School Rejects that contextualized his film “A Ghost Story” within a canon of existential films made by Texan directors that includes Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life” and Richard Linklater’s “Boyhood.” I had a full twenty minutes with him, which was more than enough to get the few quotes I needed to round out the piece. So with the permission of my editor, I’m publishing the full transcript of our talk here. There were just too many good tidbits here not to share!

Also, if you haven’t seen the film … you probably shouldn’t read this.

I’ve heard you say that A Ghost Story contains some elements of autobiography – as such, did you have to shoot it in Texas? Was there any other place you could have – or would have wanted to – shoot it anywhere else?

I didn’t have to shoot it in Texas, but it definitely made the entire process easier both in a practical sense and an emotional one.

In a practical sense, it’s easier for me to make movies in Texas – especially at the scale we were making this movie on. I have the ability to call in favors in my hometown in a way I can’t anywhere else, and when you’re making a movie on this budget, that is something you just have to do. So on a very practical level, I was just able to make this movie in Texas. If I tried to make this somewhere else, I wouldn’t have.

But insomuch as it is a personal movie that does contain elements of autobiography, I wanted to feel like I was making a movie in my own backyard. I wanted to feel like I was making a movie in my own backyard. I wanted it to take place in the same landscapes that I live in (I still make my home here). I could have made exactly the same movie on a shot-by-shot basis somewhere else, and it wouldn’t have changed that much. It wouldn’t have been that quantifiably different. But it wouldn’t have been as personal to me. Because I wanted this one to be personal, it was important to let that connection extend to the geography in which the film takes place.

What is Texas to you? How has the experience of growing up and living in this state inform your sensibilities as a filmmaker?

It’s funny because I grew up wanting to get out of Texas. I moved here when I was 7, and I was not a fan. My mother’s from Fort Worth, and she predisposed me to not like Texas as a child. She did not love Texas –  I spent the first couple of years in my life in Wisconsin, and she was very happy there. When we moved to Texas, it was a disappointment in her life that she had to go back to the state that she was born and raised in. So I was naturally predisposed to not like it also.

As I got older, I wanted to stake out, or leave the state and move to New York or LA to find my path on one of the two coasts. That was definitely my plan for a long time, but at some point – I guess, rather than going into the long autobiography of my history with Texas – I stopped disliking it and become nonchalant about it. And then that nonchalance eventually turned into an affection. And then that affection turned into a part of my identity. At a certain point, I realized that I identified as a Texan, and it was important for me to stay here and keep making movies here.

Rooney Mara in A Ghost Story

From my understanding, this started as a personal story about the decision you and your wife were making about moving out of your house. At what point did you expand the story to encompass a more cosmic perspective? 

It was there from the very beginning. I often conflate the domestic and the cosmic on a daily basis, so I make those jumps all the time in my day-to-day life. It wasn’t that big of a leap when it came to writing that for the script. In fact, the very first image that I wrote for the screenplay was of the cosmos at dawn and the camera dropping down to find this little house. That’s not the first shot in the movie anymore, but it’s pretty close to the beginning and it’s the first thing I wrote down. That was always part of the story.

And the ghost was always part of the story, too. There was never a version of this movie that didn’t have the ghost there. But all these ideas entwined in my subconscious in just the right way that when I sat down to write the film, they were all already there. It wasn’t a matter of trying to find a way to represent my own personal history on film, nor did I just simply want to make a haunted house movie. In order to make a movie about life in a cosmic sense, all those things just naturally intertwined themselves as I was writing the script. There was no cart before any particular horse, in this case.

Which came first – your decision to take time as the subject of the film, or your decision to use time as the building blocks of the experience? Like the duration of the pie-eating scene or the monologue at the party.

Both of those, while intrinsically related, came from two different places. My initial idea was to let the temporal aspects of the movie simply exist in the filmmaking. It was going to be a movie comprised of very long takes and very few compositions. And I wanted it to be a movie that indulged in my own affection for slow cinema. I knew this would be the type of film that could utilize that in an effective way, it wouldn’t just be a stylistic trick, and I really wanted to lean into that – the idea of using time as a way to tell a story in a visual sense.

At a certain point, my own obsession with time as something that I process as a human being came into focus as a narrative element, not just a part of the form but a part of the content as well. The monologue is where that came into play most acutely. I can only assume that on a subconscious level, that was the result of me writing something that was already so temporally focused on a formal level. Eventually it just became text in the script in addition to just subtext. But when I look back now, they seem completely related to the other. But in the process of writing the film, the movie wasn’t going to use time the way it wound up using time. That was something that came about naturally while I was writing it.

I’ve heard you talk about how Shane Carruth came in and helped you tinker with time to find the movie’s rhythm in the editing room. Was he helping you achieve your original vision of the film or showing you something you didn’t realize it could do before?

He was working on the assembly while we were shooting, and he completely threw the script away and cut the footage together based on his own intuition. He was looking for hidden connections and narrative jumps, and all the things you would recognize in one of his films. That was wonderfully liberating for me because, at that point, I had the screenplay and felt it was pretty solid. But I felt pretty rigid about it. I felt it needed to follow certain rules, particularly in regards to time. At a certain point in the film, time as a narrative construct gets very flexible. I felt that, on a formal level, time needed to be incredibly rigid and well-defined so it wouldn’t muddy the waters of the narrative later on down the line.

What Shane did was help me rid myself of that rigidity, basically. Although he only worked on the movie for a few weeks, what he put together was vastly illuminating. He wasn’t so much finding the rhythms I later employed so much as he was showing me that I did not need to follow my own rules so thoroughly. That the film could withstand a more flexible approach – and, indeed, benefit from it.

I’ve read some things where you talk about how your experiences with Catholicism and Buddhism might or might not have informed the film. But apart from religion, is there something spiritual about the land in Texas to you? Or something that transcends time?

I definitely feel that. I feel that about the houses I live in. There is a palpable sense of history in the homes that I choose to occupy. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitate towards old homes, I really like that sense of history and that sense that I am one step in a very long process that trails out in both directions around me. Before me and ahead of me.

Texas, in general, for me has such rich history and amazing history that it’s impossible to separate the state from its own legacy. I value that. I really enjoy that. The same is true for any part of the country, or any part of the world. But because I’ve been raised in Texas and steeped in Texas history, that particular tradition and that legacy is readily apparent to me everywhere I look. It is not necessarily the most savory history, in its current form. We’ll look back at what’s happening now in the state and hopefully recognize that this particular chapter in Texas history is not the best one.

Nonetheless, that history is rich and vivid and angry and beautiful and sad – and has a spirit to it that is undeniable. I think that is what appeals to me about Texas above all else. It has this almost unquantifiable spirit that is both political and personal. I think the best metaphor for it, on a visual level, is to point to the flag which is historically the only state flag that can be flown at the same level as the U.S. flag. In that rambunctious, upstart spirit, I find a great deal of personal satisfaction. I like that. I don’t like where it leads all the time, on a political and personal level, but I like what’s behind it. I think that’s one of the reasons I gravitate not just to Texas history but to the state itself and why I want to reside there.

And what about music – that seems to be something that connects C and M across their different plains of existence?

I think music is just one of those things that can cut through whatever – you are catching me on a day when I have run out of all my vocabulary. Gosh, what word am I looking for?

I really find music combines things together in a way that nothing else can. It combines two people together with an expediency that no other form of communication can. It can cut through words and meaning and get directly to the heart of the matter. When I find myself in a narrative bind as a storyteller and screenwriter, I often use music as a way to get out of it. Music just solves problems. It can be a great equalizer and put all sorts of conflicts at rest – at least temporarily. In this film, the characters are having a dispute and reach an impasse. That impasse is ultimately resolved not through words or conversations but just through an exchange of music.

And that, in my life, has been a very meaningful experience which has proven to be true time and again. If there are no words in any given situation that can make a situation better or communicate an idea, music can often step in and provide that common ground for two people. And if you just want to boil it down just how it functions in a relationship, when two people get to know each other, the fastest way to understand the way in which a stranger feels or looks at the world or thinks about the world is to listen to their iTunes library to get a sense of their taste of music. You get to know someone so much more thoroughly when you’re getting to know them on a musical level. Once you build a relationship with someone, whether it’s a friend or a coworker or a collaborator or a spouse, the way in which music intertwines in your mutual lives is usually one of the most defining aspects of that relationship. At least that’s what I’ve found.

So I wanted that to be common ground in which the two characters come together in an important moment in their lives.

I seem to recall you hitting back at some of the lazy characterizations of Ain’t Them Bodies Saints as Malick-inspired, but those light refractions inside the house did remind me some of the flickering flame in The Tree of Life – so I have to ask, was this project influenced by Malick at all?

Definitely. There’s no way for me not to be influenced by Malick just because I have definitely found a great deal of value in what he is contributing to cinema, on a formal level and the cinematic grammar that he employs. And the idealistic one, because I do like what he is after – particularly in The Tree of Life, he is seeking after something that can’t be contained in mere narrative.

So I definitely will cop to being influenced by him, there’s no doubt about it. In this movie, there is that flickering little ghost light on the wall that does exist in The Tree of Life. I can’t say that that wasn’t an influence but that also in my friend John’s [movie title – unintelligible] and that was probably a bigger influence. I saw his movie and was like, “Huh, I might borrow that some day.” And I did. It wasn’t until later where I was like, we probably both got that from The Tree of Life.

I don’t bristle at being compared to Malick because I like the same things he likes and respond to the same things he responds to.  I think – I’ve never met him – but I can tell in what he does that I want to do similar things. But I don’t want to limit myself to that. There’s truth in every single comparison but I also feel there’s a lot more going on under that. Hopefully, in particular with A Ghost Story, it manages to break free of those comparisons. Although I’m totally fine if they’re made.





REVIEW: Battle of the Sexes

1 10 2017

Toronto International Film Festival

NOTE: Since I reviewed this film for a bigger outlet, I can’t really reprint the review in its entirety. From now on, when I’ve given a film a proper review elsewhere, I’ll use this space to expand upon certain elements that might not have made their way into the full review.

Battle of the Sexes

One aspect of “Battle of the Sexes” getting lost amidst the gendered 2016 election comparisons is the film’s queer storyline. It was important that Emma Stone’s Billie Jean King was a woman facing Steve Carell’s misogynist Bobby Riggs, but as the 1973 public did not know, it was important that she was a queer woman. King was living a lie to herself and her husband Larry (Austin Stowell) because the world was simply not ready to accept a prominent lesbian athlete. (It’s used against King by one of her pious teammates as blackmail, another sad reminder that not every woman abides by the tenets of feminism.)

As I wrote in my full review, “It’s important ‘Battle of the Sexes’ included Marilyn [King’s lover, played by Andrea Riseborough] – to reduce her role or eliminate her altogether would have been nothing short of erasure.” But while their love story might not function smoothly as a romantic subplot, it does open a window into the quiet dignity of a still very underground LGBT community. (Most notable among them is Alan Cumming as Cuthbert ‘Ted’ Tinling, the women’s costumer.) In particular, directors Jonathan Dayton and Valerie Faris pick up on the incognito communication they use to keep each other safe and covered. These observations are perceptive, and they seem like just nice moments until a surprisingly walloping emotional coda that I dare not spoil consummates them into something more.

Also, Sarah Silverman should only play sleazy promoters/publicists moving forward. Between this and “Popstar,” she’s found her perfect type. B+

Read my full review on Slashfilm.