REVIEW: Song to Song

28 03 2017

If life is a song, as narration from Rooney Mara’s Faye in “Song to Song” suggests, then rest assured that writer/director Terrence Malick is following the spasmodic tune in his own head with dogged determination. In what appears to be the final feature film made in his post-“The Tree of Life” productivity period, the cinema’s philosopher laureate continues to push himself further into avant-garde, non-narrative forms of storytelling. This latest work might be the definitive achievement of the bunch as Malick probes and roves more than he presumes and pronounces, making the spirit of the film match his intellectually curious aesthetic.

Not one to slow down in his seventies, Malick expands the scope of his deeply interior characterizations to encompass an entire ensemble. His past films normally only allow audiences entry to a select few characters’ headspace through pensive narration. In “Song to Song,” that applies to aspiring musicians Faye and BV (Ryan Gosling) as well as teacher-turned-waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman) dragged into their orbit.

Each of these three tries to follow their motivating forces – love, art, protection – by trusting their instincts. Yet these often decisions lead them back to a sinister music producer Cook, played with a primate-like ferocity by Michael Fassbender. He’s commercialism incarnate, simultaneously abhorrent and alluring. Cook provides, but he also demands. When the impulse to love crosses into lust, he’s there to cash in.

“Song to Song” hums by on the inclination of Malick’s emotional logic, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera (seemingly unresponsive to the laws of gravity) there to capture his vision in all its grimy intimacy. He’s not big on traditional beauty here; long lens shots flatten out the images, and jump cuts within the same scene provide a jarring jolt to the mundane. But there’s something more honest about the ever-searching indeterminacy of the film. Malick seems less fixated on answers and more interested in simply tracing the development of a musical movement. The end result is far from melodic, though that matters not. For all the seeking and yearning in the story and the form itself, the free-flowing riff makes for a perfect means of expression. B+





REVIEW: Wilson

27 03 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Somehow, despite it being my most anticipated film of Sundance, I wound up at the second screening of Craig Johnson’s “Wilson” while virtually everyone else I knew got tickets to the premiere. More than one person cautioned me that Woody Harrelson’s eponymous character, based on graphic artist Daniel Clowes’ creation, was so intensely dyspeptic that he was basically unlikable.

Now, to be clear, I often love unlikable characters. And when I sat down to watch the film, I did not find Wilson difficult to watch or enjoy. In fact, his particular brand of thorniness was quite a welcome contemporary spin on the garden-variety curmudgeon. In typical Harrelson fashion, the character is a foul-mouthed prankster determined never to take a moment too seriously or treat a person with full respect. But Wilson is something different. As he repels nearly everyone with whom he makes contact, he also tries to cure them of the modern malaise of isolation. Whether in the form of phones, technology or a hermetic bubble of their own choosing, Wilson violates arbitrary decorum to highlight the absurdity of our perpetual estrangement.

I read Clowes’ graphic novel over a year ago anticipating a 2016 Sundance bow for “Wilson” (full disclosure: I am well acquainted with the film’s director), and my faint recollection of the text relies on a simple joke structure where Wilson reacts with predictable atrophy at whatever situation thrown at him. Clowes’ script for the film, which included some input by Johnson, takes the character in a much more interesting direction. It’s similarly episodic, though the narrative quest of reuniting with his estranged wife Pippi (Laura Dern) to track down his previously assumed aborted daughter Claire (Isabella Amara) does provide “Wilson” with some structure.

The differentiating factor is that Wilson himself feels much freer and open as a character, which in turn makes his exploits far more interesting to observe. In Harrelson’s hands, he’s more than just a human incarnation of Oscar the Grouch. Wilson has some inner joy, some of which simply manifests itself in caustic comments that make others uncomfortable. Johnson and Clowes create a world in which everyone else is far too comfortable, perhaps even complacent, that they need Wilson to shake them out of their stillness. Watching the disruption proves quite entertaining. B+





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