REVIEW: Lady Macbeth

29 07 2017

Spoiler alert: don’t expect any portion of the Scottish play in William Oldroyd’s “Lady Macbeth.” The title of this Victorian-era chamber drama assigns the characteristics of the Bard’s villainous character to Florence Pugh’s Katherine. She’s a young woman who exerts more agency than Lady Macbeth, although she exhibits significantly less guilt for her transgressions.

As the new wife of a landed gent, Katherine serves the same purpose for her husband as Internet porn does for today’s men. She’s an object of his sexual desires but never an active participant, left merely as a spectator to his getting off. With no place to go in this suffocating matrimony, Katherine begins to seek strange release valves – chiefly, in the passionate embrace of a farmworker Sebastian who she witnesses beating her maid.

“Lady Macbeth” bears witness to the alternating power and powerlessness of the white woman in polite society. She can willfully exert force over domestics, and she often twists that to satisfy urges both sexual and violent. Yet she’s still hemmed in by cultural expectations and that damned patriarchy, which is quick to quash her initiative.

Most of these observations made themselves clear to me within the first 20 minutes or so of “Lady Macbeth.” It is, to borrow a phrase John Oliver once used to describe Donald Trump, “an open book that doesn’t have many interesting words in it.” Oldroyd fits his film with the cinematic equivalent of a corset. It’s rigid and composed with strictly limited capacity for movement. He establishes the film’s mood and thematic underpinnings quickly, but he never develops them in any meaningful way over the course of 90 minutes. The ending has a nice kick, although it’s hardly enough to overcome the taxing monotony that precedes it. B-

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REVIEW: Nuts!

7 12 2016

nutsFor anyone shocked by the results of November 8 who is looking for something both escapist and enlightening, “Nuts!” is your go-to movie. Penny Lane’s documentary tale of a forgotten American sensation, Dr. John Romulus Brinkley, feels too absurd to possibly be true. And yet, when you step back and consider it in light of a country that elected Donald Trump, perhaps nothing in it is all too surprising.

Think about the story this way: “Nuts!” is a Lincoln-esque rags to riches crossed with a story of a huckster rising in perfect step with a new medium of distraction and mass communication: radio. He exploited male weakness by proposing an absurd cure for impotence through the surgical transplanting of goat testes. When it appears to work, the professional class threatened by Brinkley’s ascendancy seek regulation of his media coverage.

Not to worry, though – Brinkley uses controversy to launch a media empire and brief political career. His supporters, many of whom come to him in a state of threatened and fragile masculinity, rally against elitism and federal government control when confronted with the facts about Brinkley. In his failed campaigns, Brinkley spoke to the dispossessed masses by promising a realignment of political fortunes and restacking the deck to favor his devotees. They clamor for states rights in the face of perceived cultural assault.

Sound a little familiar? The parallels are scarily uncanny, although at least the stakes are low in “Nuts!” Allow yourself to enjoy the JibJab aesthetic that Lane brings to the film, a pretty appropriately bonkers way to bring such a story to life. But don’t allow yourself to forget that history repeats itself because no one listens the first time. Listen now. B+3stars





REVIEW: Rules Don’t Apply

15 11 2016

rules-dont-applyPoor Warren Beatty. The man has been trying to make a passion project about Howard Hughes for the better part of four decades. The film faced significant challenges, including 2004’s biopic collaboration between Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio that nabbed double-digit Oscar nominations.

12 years later, Beatty’s “Rules Don’t Apply” finally makes it to the big screen only to have the misfortune of opening in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidential victory. The timing doesn’t exactly feel right for a mostly breezy, old-fashioned tale about an eccentric and potentially deranged billionaire who wants to control women’s bodies and limit their personal freedoms. (A remark where a young actress declares, “I think Howard Hughes should be president, there’s no one else like him” is sure to inspire some nervous laughter.) To be clear, none of this is Beatty’s fault. He has no control over the circumstances under which his movie gets released.

But he did have control over what kind of movie he made. Beyond the unfortunate parallels to the man dominating global news headlines, “Rules Don’t Apply” is not a film built for the long haul – it is certainly not the kind of project that clearly evinces forty years of thought and development. After all that time, it feels like Beatty should have figured out the story’s protagonist – Hughes, his latest starlet prospect Marla Mabrey (Lily Collins), or the married company driver Frank Forbes (Alden Ehrenreich) who falls for her against his better judgement. The film plays out as a series of loosely connected, scarcely progressing scenes involving these characters – nothing more.

Of the key trio, only Ehrenreich’s Forbes is a character deserving of his own film. Beatty plays Hughes as a slave to his obsessive-compulsive disorder, turning his neuroses into a joking psychosis. Collins, meanwhile, dashes through her lines with such speed that she delivers them without seeming to understand what any of them mean. Or, at the very least, she doesn’t feel them with any strong sense of purpose.

Ehrenreich, meanwhile, recalls the unflappability and easygoing cool of a ’90s Leonardo DiCaprio. As a corporate pawn torn between his show business attraction and his familial commitments, Forbes is the only person in “Rules Don’t Apply” whose path does not seem predestined. Too bad that Beatty did not line up the heft of the movie fully behind him. C-1halfstars





INTERVIEW: Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America”

21 08 2016

In case you haven’t noticed from talented actors committing major blunders or fouls in an interview, the press process is long and grueling. I’ve sat at many a roundtable where journalists ask the most basic questions that were probably answered in the press kit (that the same interviewer probably chose not to read). In many ways, I almost cannot even blame talented filmmakers for getting frustrated right off the bat when beginning an interview.

That’s not what happened when I sat down with Chad Hartigan, writer/director of “Morris from America” – in case you thought that’s where my lede was heading. Quite the contrary, actually. He had a level of respect for my questions due in large part to the fact that he himself spent many years doing writing about film himself on the site In Contention. Hartigan was also just three hours removed from the rapturous premiere of his latest film in front of the largest auditorium at the Sundance Film Festival, which didn’t hurt either.

But search “In Contention” here on my site, and you’ll see just how formative that site was for my opinions and writing style in the early days of Marshall and the Movies. Hartigan served as their box office writer, a hat he wore on the side while pursuing filmmaking. We got to talking about both sides of his persona and how they didn’t really collide in “Morris from America,” a sincere and hilarious coming-of-age comedy about a black teenager (Markees Christmas’ Morris) and his widowed father (Craig Robinson’s Curtis) trying to acculturate in a small German town.

Chad Hartigan Sundance Award

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 7, 2016)

7 04 2016

IdiocracyA new subgenre of criticism seems to have spouted up in the past few months eager to find things in culture and society to blame for the rise of Donald Trump. To be fair, I too have given him consideration on my site, but it has taken on the tenor of looking at things that might explain his popularity rather than directly cause it. A look back at the cinema of the ’00s shows various prescient takes on the underlying issues in America that have recently bubbled to the surface: xenophobia, nationalism, authoritarianism, and anti-intellectualism.

Few distill these into a frightening, humorous essence as well as Mike Judge’s “Idiocracy,” however. This comedy played as ridiculous when it was released in 2006; its studio, 20th Century Fox, regarded it as such and unceremoniously dumped it in theaters with no fanfare. But in the decade since, it becomes less and less like an imagined portrait of America and more like a plausible future. Such eerily insight, roughly as it might be presented, makes it a fitting selection for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

To say too much about how “Idiocracy” hits the nail on the head would only ruin its considerable pleasures for those yet to experience the film. Judge remarkably shied away from the easy targets of the time, choosing to satirize some less obvious culprits in the dumbing down of the country. He digs into demographic trends in population and education level to find the fault lines in society. He examines the cumulative effect of the “infotainment” dominating the news media. He takes corporate influence over the government to its logical extreme.

For Luke Wilson’s Corporal “Average Joe” Bauers, a man chosen for cryogenic freezing then unceremoniously forgotten for 500 years, this strange world of 2505 seems completely foreign. Yet even from a vantage point just 10 years ahead of when Joe gets frozen, this dysfunctional America hardly seems implausible. There are almost too many ideas packed into the running time of “Idiocracy,” so many that each issue gets a slightly cursory examination. If only Judge had the budget or the time of, say, a miniseries to really unpack his social critique. Sequel, anyone?





REVIEW: The Boss

6 04 2016

Picture this: a highly successful businessperson, who augments the public’s perception of their wealth by doubling as a skilled entertainer, needs to bounce back after suffering some public humiliation.

This person enters a field knowing little about the profession but finds a way to prosper by exploiting complacency, deriding rivals with unwarranted personal attacks and even inciting violence.

The captain of industry boasts about cruel implementation of shrewd business tactics and remains unfazed when compared to totalitarian rulers.

(Oh, and this individual’s distinctively styled hair never gets dented.)

Did I just describe Donald Trump or Michelle Darnell, the lead character of the new film “The Boss” played by Melissa McCarthy?

The two larger-than-life figures share quite a few similarities, though McCarthy (along with co-writers Ben Falcone and Steve Mallory) could not possibly have known that her burlesqued portrayal of a corporate mogul would hit the marketplace at the same time as an equal ludicrous figure marched towards the nomination of a major political party. Literally, production ended on “The Boss” two weeks before Trump made the infamous escalator announcement. The ill-fated timing of its release makes it play like an inverse of “Zootopia,” this year’s most fortuitous arrival.

The odd parallel here and there between the fictional and the absurd business tycoon is not necessarily bothersome. And, in the interest of fairness, Donald Trump did not spend five months in jail for insider trading like Michelle Darnell. But a line feels crossed when she declares, “We’re participating in the American Dream!”

Out of context, this might seem harmless. However, Darnell utters it right before an all-out brawl takes place between her group of entrepreneurial thugs and the Girl Scout-like troop from which they disaffiliated. How can one find humor in the perversion of the American Dream on screen when a demagogue is ushering in a national nightmare in reality? Charlie Chaplin’s “The Great Dicator” showed that comedy had a definite place in a time of bullying leaders, though it ought to contain some confrontational element if it is to be anything more than a diversion. “The Boss” comes across as oblivious in regards to the implications of its dull satire.

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REVIEW: Our Brand Is Crisis

21 02 2016

Admittedly, the circumstances under which I saw David Gordon Green’s “Our Brand Is Crisis” might have exerted a particularly strong influence on my reaction. Had I gone to see it in theaters back in October, I could have done so with the luxury of writing off the candidacy of Donald Trump as a political sideshow. But now, watching at home in mid-February, that farce has become a force in American democracy with undeniable ramifications for our country.

“Our Brand Is Crisis” was conceptualized, shot and likely finished before the Trump phenomenon came about, so I do not wish to imply in any way that the film paved the way for such a demagogue. But given how few people saw it theatrically, most viewers will encounter the film with the presence or specter of the Donald firmly planted in the public consciousness. Cultural products may not substantially shape our society, but they can reflect its values in intentional or unexpected ways. “Our Brand Is Crisis” feels like a film in the latter camp.

Sandra Bullock stars as as political strategist “Calamity” Jane Bodine, a character who is the polar opposite of Trump in many ways. She is a for-hire, behind-the-scenes operative, obsessively focused on the minutiae of getting her candidates into first place. Mixing intellectual prowess with practical problem-solving, Jane in her zone is truly a force to be reckoned with. For that precise reason, the campaign for a struggling Bolivian presidential contender brings her off the sidelines and out of retirement.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 18, 2016)

18 02 2016

The Overnighters“They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us,” Donald Trump notoriously said about Mexican immigrants. “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.” The rhetoric surrounding migrants and outsiders has reached a fever pitch of incivility and inhumanity (not to mention incorrectness) in America. The current war is being waged on two fronts – against Mexicans and other Hispanics in the south and against Syrian refugees in the east.

Jesse Moss’ gripping documentary “The Overnighters” exposes the hateful animus behind such vitriolic missives that are alarmingly becoming normalized in American culture. His document of the North Dakota oil boom and bust shows what we don’t talk about when we talk about migrants by showing how a small community reacts to an influx of out-of-state visitors. Moss captures the conversations about the urban poor stripped of racial coding and immigrants without religious intolerance.

The result is one of the most important works I have ever selected for “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” I truly cannot urge enough people to watch “The Overnighters.” (Hint: As of publication, it is currently available to stream on Netflix.)

The film is equal parts inspiring and disheartening. In an election season where people of faith will turn a blind eye to religious intolerance if a candidate professes loyalty to the Bible over the Constitution, Lutheran pastor Jay Rienke’s efforts to live out the core Christian message of loving thy neighbor take on an outsized level of importance. A great deal of down-and-out workers drive up to his state in search of paying work, only to find that such jobs have become unattainable. Rather than let them suffer, Reinke opens the doors of his church in Williston, North Dakota, to help house and support these men.

But, of course, many in his community choose not to see his charity as providing any help. Motivated by fear, they impugn his aid as promoting indigence and vagrancy. The people of the town prove extremely hesitant to provide any sort of hand to these defeated jobseekers, hoping that maybe these migrant workers will just leave so that Williston can maintain some semblance of “home” to them. Change that is not wholly positive for them is just not a change they are interested in making.

Reinke calls the migrant workers “a gift” while also acknowledging “a burden that comes along with it.” The back half of the film just becomes devastating to watch as that burden begins to subsume him. Rather than substantively debate what the community’s role should be in helping the helpless, the townspeople deploy small points and broad labels to divert attention away from addressing the real issues. (Sound familiar?) The betrayal of Williston and the fall from grace make for a literary-like American tragedy unfolding in real life. And anyone who watches “The Overnighters” ought to work their hardest to make sure that Moss’ film does not become an allegory for our nation as a whole in 2016.





INTERVIEW: Ramin Bahrani, co-writer and director of “99 Homes”

9 02 2016

Adam McKay’s “The Big Short” has swooped into the public imagination and awards conversation, completely changing the way we think about how movies can portray the Great Recession. Perhaps that film signals a new era of storytelling about this fraught period in American culture. The 2007-2008 financial crisis now makes for period pieces, not current events.

A cinematic history that began with “Up in the Air” gets a bookend in Ramin Bahrani’s “99 Homes,” a film that made an immediate impact on me at the 2014 Telluride Film Festival and landed at #4 on my top films of 2015. I have called it a “gripping look into the dark heart of capitalism” as well as an illumination of “the mechanisms through which average citizens are bamboozled into thinking the interests of corporate bigwigs are always aligned with their own.”

I had the opportunity to talk with Bahrani, the film’s co-writer and director, about just how he used a hardened real estate agent, Michael Shannon’s Rick Carver, and a desperate evictee, Andrew Garfield’s Dennis Nash, to show the systems responsible for American middle-class misery. Our conversation clarified how “99 Homes” fits in with many years of films about the recession – but also how it stands apart and alone.

Ramin Bahrani and Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

I see Up in the Air as the first film to really talk about [the recession on screen].  I do think one thing that really sets 99 Homes apart for me is that Up in the Air uses the recession as the setting and not the subject.

Right.

At the end of the day, it’s really a movie about George Clooney’s character finding human connection.  Whereas 99 Homes made the downturn both the setting and the subject.  Was that something you felt was necessary to align?

For me, it was like why go into the situation and bring a story we’ve seen a hundred times before.  Why I referenced Up in the Air is that it surprised people – they thought it was going to be one thing in terms of tone.  And that’s what true here, people think it’s going to be a foreclosure film with a sad story.  But the tone is so different from what people expected.

You’re correct to isolate a major difference because my movie is actually about the foreclosure crisis and what it meant to people as opposed to just making a romantic comedy in a situation that has to do with that.  The story kind of originated from what was happening on the ground there, the entire plot came out of the corruptions that I saw in the housing industry and the foreclosure industry.

Jason Reitman talked a lot about how when he was surveying the people who lost their jobs, it shifted the tone.  It was originally a corporate satire and eventually became more of a heartfelt drama.  Of course, he even used some of those people who had been laid off and gave them a chance to act out their experiences. 

I know that you did a lot of research and went down to Florida to survey the situation for yourself.  Did that change the film in your head when you got on the ground?

I didn’t go down there with the script; I went down there to find the story. I try to stay open to the location and the people I meet to let that inform the story. I was surprised by what I saw. I had no idea real estate brokers carried guns. I had no idea there was so much violence, so many scams. It never occurred to me that there were scams like that on the ground. So that started to inform the script.

Of course, I’m using non-professional actors in the film, but I have a history of doing that. I make features where every single person is a non-professional actor; I made three films like that. So here, I weaved that into the story – we use a real sheriff who actually does evictions. When Andrew [Garfield, who plays protagonist Dennis Nash] knocks on doors, every other one is a real person. Every other one is an actor, but Andrew never knew who was who. He never knew what the people were going to say or do. I didn’t tell him what was going to happen, he just would knock on a door and then something would happen. He would have to deal with it.

99 HOMES

Are there any other post-recessional films that 99 Homes might have been in conversation with or in response to?  At Telluride, you said, “I wanted to make this film because no one else had made it.”  Anything you thought was particularly good (or, up to you, anything bad)? Was there anything 99 Homes needed to issue a corrective to?

I don’t want to say that because I think every filmmaker should make whatever film they want. I just knew this was a story that had never been told. I like stories that have never been told. I like in a world I’ve never been in – I have a history of that.

We know the Faustian story, that is archetypically true and we can connect to it. But we didn’t know the world of foreclosures. I didn’t know that world, and the audiences like going to worlds that they don’t know about.

In terms of films, I was very much looking at movies like The Hustler, Oliver Stone’s Wall Street, On the Waterfront, The Grapes of Wrath, All the President’s Men.

Is 99 Homes a continuation of At Any Price at all? I wouldn’t say they are siblings – maybe cousins?

Yeah, I think there’s a sense of that. I was conscious of it. I’m probably going to make the same film over and over and over again in a different setting. Somehow, The Age of Innocence, GoodFellas, and Mean Streets are all still Who’s Knocking at My Door? [Martin Scorsese’s first film].

I’ve found that most movies that tackled economic concerns post-recession tended to focus on upper-middle class white professionals losing their security cushion, but 99 Homes actually shows the people losing their homes and moving into motels. This tone-deaf depiction does not seem to be the case in Europe – the same day I saw 99 Homes in Telluride, I saw the Dardennes’ Two Days, One Night, which does a similarly excellent job of distilling the political into the personal.

Why do you think 99 Homes feels like such a rarity in American cinema –  do you think it’s a supply or demand side problem that’s leading to the glut of these movies?  Is it too hard to get movies financed about working class Americans, or is the older, affluent arthouse crowd only interested in seeing movies about people like themselves?

I don’t know, maybe you know more about that. The movie was extremely easy to get financed. I presented the script and the actors to my financiers, and in 24 hours they all said yes because they are desperate for stories that are actually about something AND happen to be really thrilling. The script was a page-turner, and it was about something.

Actors are desperate to be in something that are about real characters and real moral crisis. Exciting stories where they can connect to other actors as human beings. Not as General Zod and Spider-Man. I can tell you, Michael and Andrew don’t want to do this General Zod, Spider-Man thing. They want to be real people in films. I think audiences want to see them.

I can’t tell you why filmmakers don’t make them. I don’t really know. Again, I just think filmmakers should make whatever film they want. I’m sure the thing – this movie is showing a system. The real villain is the system, not Michael. The film industry is also a system, where certain people claim things to be true. Like, “Audiences want such and so thing.” I don’t believe that. But I think some filmmakers feel like they have to write certain things.

But I don’t believe that either. I think artists and filmmakers should make what they want. They want to see stories about real human beings, and actors want to be in stories about real human beings. No one wants to act in front of a green screen. It’s boring as hell; I can tell you that.

Ramin Bahrani & Michael Shannon 99 Homes

A lot of these movies have also used a “bad apples” framework to depict corporate executives, which condemns individuals like Gordon Gekko but not necessarily the system of power that enables them.  But in 99 Homes, it’s not just Rick Carver we should hate – it’s the entire system, which he points out is completely rigged.  How important was it for you to have him shine a light on macro level corruption?

The real heavy in any situation is a system – it’s not just one person. There can only be so many Iagos. Otherwise, you’ve just been begotten by the system you live in.

It’s not like real estate brokers as children told their parents, “I can’t wait to grow up and evict people.” Nobody had that dream. Nobody had the dream to be an executioner in a prison, but we live in a country that has capital punishment. We live in a country that is so rigged that these guys’ jobs became doing these foreclosures.

And if Shannon [who plays real estate agent Rick Carver] didn’t do it, somebody else would. And that would mean he’d be out of a job. Out of a job means no money. No money means no rent. No rent means he and his family move into a motel.

For me, the real villain is the system, and Michael is just a product of it. As they say in the nighttime scene on the dock, my favorite scene, Michael is talking about how he carries a gun even at 5 A.M. He’s looking over his shoulder all the time. Andrew says, “Is it worth it?” And Michael says, “As opposed to what?” And that’s the question of the film. As opposed to what? What else are you supposed to do?

You developed this movie, I presume, in 2012?                  

Yeah, I started working on the research in 2012 and 2013, then we shot in 2014.

You’re pushing it out to the majority of your audience in 2015.  Do you think all that time away from the film’s events has affected the way people respond to the film – I can certainly think of a very prominent real estate mogul who loves separating America into “winners” and “losers” and is keeps Rick Carver all too relevant?

Yeah, I know. In fact, Michael talks about Donald Trump in the film. He calls Andrew “Donald Trump” at one point in the film, and now a bunch of critics and audiences are saying, “My god, he sounds just like Donald Trump!” And it’s true, he talks about winners and losers.

We live in a country where, in elementary school, they plant the flagpole on the playground. At the top of the flag, it says SUCCESS. Winners. And from there on all the way to the bottom, it’s losers. It just doesn’t make much sense.

Characters like Trump, which I hope to God – Donald Trump, if you’re listening, WATCH THIS FILM! That kind of figure starts to get attention from people because they’re hungry. Because things aren’t working, and when things aren’t working, you start to fall into line with language like that. You start to look for people to blame. Extreme wealth inequality is only going to give rise to that kind of vitriolic language.

I hope everyone goes to see this movie, especially Donald Trump.

[chuckles] Put it down, he’ll go see it maybe!

Michael Shannon Andrew Garfield 99 Homes

“99 Homes” is now available to purchase and rent on home video.





REVIEW: Green Room

18 01 2016

This review originally appeared on Movie Mezzanine, for whom I covered Fantastic Fest in Austin, TX.

Jeremy Saulnier’s breakout film Blue Ruin depicted violence as an elemental force; a practically innate disposition of the human condition. In that spin on a classic revenge tale, Saulnier metes out precious little information on the characters hell-bent on destruction to highlight how shockingly natural these primal acts are.

His follow-up, Green Room, also takes violence as one of its major subjects – but here, the filmmaker shifts gears, depicting the savagery of human conflict as something aberrant to our very nature. As a punk rock band, barred off in a green room, wars against the group of neo-Nazis that hosted their show, acts of brutality take on an almost cartoonish tenor. For instance, someone’s mangled arm looks like a candy cane of flesh and blood, a sight Saulnier milks for all it’s worth to the tune of disgusted groans.

Green Room

This unnatural, unsettling violence provides heightened stakes for what otherwise might play like a simple hodgepodge of tropes from final girl” captivity or siege-style thrillers. Throwing in a group of white supremacists helps to add weight (especially when these groups are currently coming out of the woodwork to endorse Donald Trump’s presidential run). But while their violence may be exaggerated, Saulnier never strips them – or their trained attack dogs – of basic dignity. He even includes a sequence, beautifully shot by director of photography Sean Porter, which manages to find a bit of impressionistic poetry in the writhing bodies of their mosh pit.

To be clear, Green Room never condones the group’s ideology. The skinheads are still clearly the villains, but Saulnier’s choice to withhold immediate and unflinching condemnation allows some insight into what holds the group together. Their leader, Patrick Stewart’s Darcy, hardly matches the model of the charismatic authority figure. Instead, along with his tactical right hand man Gabe (Blue Ruin star Macon Blair), he evinces a magnetism of the calm and collected variety.

Green Room 2

That disposition stands in stark contrast to the manic array of rockers that constitute “The Ain’t Rights,” led by Anton Yelchin’s Pat and Alia Shawkat’s Sam. Even though their music pushes them to the fringes of performance venues, the group still lacks common sense and self-defense mechanisms. Still, Saulnier clearly feels a good deal of kinship with the punks and gives them dynamic personalities that prove oddly compelling. These vibrant characters ensure more colors are at play than just the red that dominates Green RoomB2halfstars





REVIEW: The Danish Girl

23 12 2015

In spite of the crusade by presidential candidate Donald Trump and his so-called “silent majority,” I still care about political correctness to the extent that it preserves the basic dignity of threatened groups. (Overreach is a separate conversation, however.) Words and language are powerful tools because they serves as outward reflections of inner ideas and beliefs. How society talks about a person as a part of the group with which they identify is important.

One such group that rightfully points out inadequacies in our vernacular is the transgender community. Many activists seek nothing less than the implosion of gender-based assumptions in the way we speak, a prospect as liberating for some people as it is uncomfortable for others. Every time it forces me to pause a little longer before speaking, I use that time to remind myself that these are above all people who just want the same respect to live their lives as any other person in society.

I try to stay on top of the latest developments in acceptable language – so this could be out of date – but the last I checked, it was a dubious practice to link anatomy to gender. (If this is no longer true, I welcome someone politely educating me.) Gender is a social construct, which may or may not correspond to a person’s biologically determined sex.

Tom Hooper’s “The Danish Girl” arrives in the heightened era of trans visibility; 2015 alone brought cultural prominence to Caitlyn Jenner, “Tangerine” and “Transparent.” The film tells the story of Eddie Redmayne’s transgender pioneer Lili Elbe, formerly Einar Wagener, as she seeks a then-radical surgery to remove the male organ that ties her to the sex she was given at birth. For someone so ahead of her time, it strikes me as rather ironic that the movie telling her story seems so behind its own time. Its assumptions surrounding gender and sexuality feel only slightly progressed from the 1930s setting.

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REVIEW: Black Mass

15 09 2015

A movie like “Black Mass” is essentially the cinematic calendar whispering, “Winter is coming.”  It’s a gentle reminder that we are inching ever closer to a glut of prestige dramas filling screens across the country but that the best is still yet to come.  (Of course, if you read this in 2016, the last paragraph probably means nothing.)

Director Scott Cooper’s film works fine as a tiding over of sorts.  Most 2015 films so far that have provided this level of drama were low budget indies, and anything with this amount of violent bloodshed must have been a giant franchise flick.  “Black Mass,” made from a well-structured script by Mark Mallouk and Jez Butterworth, boasts a thrilling experience packaged in some remarkable production values.  It all just feels so Scorsese lite.

And for the most part, that made for an entirely satisfactory evening at the movies.  I got a film that was perfectly good.  It just never approached greatness.

The marketing of “Black Mass” makes the film look like The Johnny Depp Show, and to a certain extent, it is.  Anyone who slithers around a film with such amphibian-like eyes and a Donald Trump combover just naturally draws attention, even when not playing a notorious gangster like James “Whitey” Bulger.  But, at heart, Bulger is just a boy from South Boston (“Southie”) trying to rule its biggest business – organized crime – by any means necessary.

That involves cutting a strange deal with a former childhood acquaintance, FBI agent John Connolly (Joel Edgerton).  According to Connolly, Southie is the only place where kids go from playing cops and robbers in the schoolyards to playing it on the streets, and he gets into Bulger’s racket just like some sort of game.  As a part of their deal, Bulger goes on the Bureau’s books as an informant yet essentially gets carte blanche to take out his competition.

Depp might get the more ostensibly interesting character to play, and he certainly plays up just how intimidating and downright creepy a figure Bulger truly was.  But its Edgerton who steals the show, essentially playing a Beantown rendition of Bradley Cooper’s Richie DiMaso from “American Hustle.”  Connolly is the inside man who gets played like a harp by a key asset meant to bring him professional glory.  What motivates him to continue helping Bulger even when the jig seems up proves the heaviest and most complex part of “Black Mass,” and it certainly kept weighing on me after the film ended.  B2halfstars





REVIEW: Best of Enemies

17 08 2015

Best of EnemiesMorgan Neville and Robert Gordon’s “Best of Enemies” invites you to remember a different era, the 1960s.  While one could dub this decade a crisis of authority, as my AP US History textbook did, it certainly had its advantages. At this moment in history, people actually trusted their network news anchors to tell the truth (cough, Brian Williams) and clashing pundits drove ratings by the threat of violence, not its actual exercise (ahem, Bill O’Reilly).

Many of these ills we now associate with television news started in the events Neville and Gordon document: the 1968 debates between conservative pundit William F. Buckley, Jr. and liberal icon Gore Vidal.  These men were not running for president themselves and had only marginal ties to electoral politics.  The flailing network ABC just could not keep up with the juggernauts CBS and NBC, so they resorted to using Buckley and Vidal as a sideshow to get some attention. Their snide side chatter, however, quickly became the center of the conversation.

These two well-spoken gents do more than trade spars and jabs. They stand for more than themselves because they can fully articulate the central tenets of their respective ideological movement’s very essence. And ideology is culture, states one interviewee.  So wonder when the shot heard ’round the world in culture wars took place? Neville and Morgan would have us believe it was on the half-moon stage with Buckley and Vidal.

“Best of Enemies” is at, well, its best when focusing on their butting heads – not the heads doing the butting. Buckley and Vidal are interesting figures in their own right, but they just go better together in the same way that salt and pepper shakers should never be separated. Listening to Buckley and Vidal recalls the kind of academic banter tossed about between professorial colleagues … until, of course, it detours into petty squabbling.

(Their closest modern counterparts are Bill O’Reilly and Jon Stewart, although those two play on such different playing fields that they almost fail to respond adequately to the other.)

And beyond just who is saying these things, “Best of Enemies” also reminds us that what they are saying is worth our attention. The United States still fights the same battles and hashes out versions of the same conversation between Buckley and Vidal. The tensions in the 1960s surrounding the supposed gains of black Americans to the detriment of the white middle class are remarkably similar to the same resentments Donald Trump frequently exploits in his rhetoric around Hispanics.  The more things change, the more they stay the same.  B / 2halfstars





REVIEW: Spider-Man: Homecoming

5 07 2017

The “Spider-Man” series, in both its prior cinematic incarnations this millennium, have dealt with the consequences of giving extraordinary power to ordinary men. The web-slinger’s modern persona is the product of an individualistic Bush-era America where heroes were lone actors grappling with authority and treading near the line of vigilantism. He’s a symbol of the power of the one, overcoming self-made obstacles, vanquishing doubts and conquering evil menace.

But by the time that the lifeless 2014 iteration of the character, “The Amazing Spider-Man 2,” arrived in theaters, actor Andrew Garfield even acknowledged the hollowness of this interpretation. “The danger of these superhero films is that they maybe propagate a lie that what’s going to change the world is one man, or one woman, just being the beacon of light,” he told The Daily Beast. “That’s not the way that it’s ever happened and it’s not going to be the way that it ever happens — I think it’s going to take every single person doing their small, massive bit to create a world, to create a society and a culture, that if we can imagine it we can do it.”

While Tom Holland’s Peter Parker in “Spider-Man: Homecoming” is far from the cooperative hero of “The Avengers,” he’s a step in the correct, more honest direction. Holland actually looks like the high school-aged kid that Spider-Man is; Garfield, by contrast, was 31 when his Peter Parker accepted a high school diploma. And from that starting point, director Jon Watts and a stable of six writers craft a superhero narrative around a lesson that resonates for adolescences both radioactive and regular. (We need not discuss the ending point, yet another reminder of the endemic inability for comic book adaptations to wrap up in anything other than a mind-numbing CGI pyrotechnics demo.)

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REVIEW: Risk

7 05 2017

One must balance principles with pragmatism if the former is to survive intense scrutiny, opines Julian Assange at the start of Laura Poitras’ “Risk,” a documentary with unprecedented access to the WikiLeaks founder at the height of his early ’10s infamy. It’s an ironic, fitting statement from a man who sees much of his work for international transparency eclipsed by charges of sexual assault. Rather than applying the principles of radical openness to his own life, Assange embarks on a scorched earth campaign to shift blame onto his accusers rather than accept any personal responsibility.

Poitras casts a suspicious eye towards Assange’s behavior, a stance likely influenced by allegations of sexual harassment and abuse leveled against fellow “hacktivist” Jacob Appelbaum after their brief affair ended. Appelbaum features prominently in both “Citizenfour” and the opening chapters of “Risk,” and the impassioned, largely unfiltered speeches he gives railing against online censorship demonstrates some form of support for the ideas. But can we excuse abusive behavior in men whose core ideas and values we primarily support? (It’s not exclusively a male problem, though cultural and institutional sexism tend to relegate these unchecked ego issues to a single gender.)

Poitras’ film bears the marks of intense internal deliberation in its very fiber; the version of “Risk” most audiences will experience differs dramatically from the version initially presented at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival. It’s a gripping examination of the double-edged sword forged by the cult of personality. On the one hand, complex dialectic struggles between freedom and control on personal and international scales become much more comprehensible when distilled into a human essence. Assange. Snowden. Appelbaum. They move these theoretical issues into the realm of the real by giving them a face. Yet people are complicated, and they lack consistency. Anything less than perfect representation of an ideology seemingly grants permission to throw the baby out with the bathwater in this day and age.

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