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.

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REVIEW: Gook

19 08 2017

Justin Chon’s “Gook” is a film brimming with insight, energy and anger – but ultimately one without the resources or the know-how to make the Molotov cocktail of ideas combust. The story of understanding across generations and races as the 1992 Los Angeles riots come to a head has undeniable sincerity and good intentions. It also bears the marks of a novice filmmaker, veering wildly between the poles of undercooked and overwrought.

In addition to his roles behind the camera, Chon also stars as the protagonist of “Gook,” shoe store owner Eli. Over the course of a sweltering summer day, he must deal with his lazy brother, a bitter cashier across the street and the 11-year-old black girl Kamilla intent on hanging by his side. The film is best when it simply allows his harried day to play out, giving us a look into the overstretched Eli’s attempts to please everyone around him while still making enough money to keep his business open.

But everything else in “Gook” gets a little sloppy, including the incorporation of the riots that give the film its gravitas. These tense conflicts loom in the background and bear on the plot, yet the way they made an entire city combustible doesn’t quite seep into every nook and cranny of the film. It’s little more than a nice backdrop, in other words.

Chon’s film includes highly stylized moments that feel ripped out of a Kendrick Lamar music video, most notably the scenes where time seems to stand still – and Kamilla dances with the abandon of someone who has just learned the true meaning of freedom. His script also works in plenty of on-the-nose dialogue exchanges between Eli and his elders. He’s got talents in both fields, but their juxtaposition in “Gook” simply doesn’t work. The solution? Let Chon make two more movies where he’s allowed to explore each side of his filmmaking persona to its logical end. B-





REVIEW: Marjorie Prime

18 08 2017

Jon Hamm is just sitting on the couch when Michael Almereyda’s “Marjorie Prime” begins. There’s something wooden about him in an intentionally uncanny valley kind of way, like an automaton Don Draper. As it turns out, he’s a hologram of Marjorie’s deceased husband Walter – kept at a much riper age than her current 86 years young.

Walter simultaneously assists in the psychological comforting of a fraying Marjorie (Lois Smith) and assuaging of guilt for her daughter Tess (Geena Davis) and son-in-law Jon (Tim Robbins). They must still tend to her physically, of course, but Walter can perform some heavy emotional lifting to ease their burden. Among the science-fiction genre, this speculative future looks like it could be closer to fact. With a population of Baby Boomers quickly graying, the promise of AI could free their offspring from providing extensive care through the ultimate act of outsourcing.

The twist in “Marjorie Prime,” though, is that Walter is only as good as Marjorie allows him to be. His technology depends on her willing disclosure of memories, which may not even be entirely accurate. At many points in the film, it’s unclear whether Walter is wrong or if Marjorie’s own mind has failed her.

Most of these tricky contradictions come from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play by Jordan Harrison which Almereyda adapts into little more than filmed theater. “Marjorie Prime” plods along patiently with the deliberate pacing of a stage show but sorely lacking the human connection normally provided by live actors moving through a space. On screen, the main value of Almereyda’s film seems to be the democratization of the ideas contained within the play through the mass medium of cinema. The over-literalization brought to the text through the magic of cinema removes some of the abstraction, and thus some of the mystique. C+





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 17, 2017)

17 08 2017

Sean Baker might be our most essential contemporary humanist filmmaker. He locates the beating heart of his films not in the extraordinary but in the ordinary, the everyday, the mundane. His works start in one place and end in someplace altogether different and unexpected, leaving us all the better for having walked two hours in his characters’ shoes.

His 2012 feature “Starlet” is no different. While my first impression upon encountering the film back in 2013 was that the film was sweet but a little slight, a second watch recently convinced me otherwise. This is more than just a May-December platonic friendship between two women in Los Angeles. It’s a moving journey of how people can clear away the calcified numbness in their hearts.

The central character of this selection in my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column is Dree Hemingway’s 21-year-old Jane, an actress down on luck and short on cash. She gets a welcome snap out of her boredom when she unexpectedly stumbles upon a wad of cash hidden inside a thermos purchased from an elderly woman, Besedka Johnson’s Sadie, at a yard sale. Conflicted, Jane takes some money for herself – but also makes attempts to befriend Sadie to assuage her guilt.

The two initially take to each other like oil and water, but each has a cloistered part of their identity that leaves them with a void in their day-to-day existences. Gradually, and heartwarmingly, they begin to fill that space. We see more of Jane’s alternative world, as she’s the protagonist, and Baker finds a visual schema that represents the two discordant spheres she inhabits. Her home life is filled with hand-held camerawork and fast-paced editing, while her visits with Sadie are comprised of more stable shots and longer takes. I won’t spoil what exactly makes Jane’s personal struggles so turbulent and simply let the film reveal it. Baker drops a detail that would define any other character so casually about halfway through the film; it’s a refreshing change of pace for this type of figure who traditionally never amounts to anything other than the work she does.





REVIEW: The Wound

16 08 2017

At least for now, it’s taken as an assumption that most queer cinema will take place against the background of a heteronormative society. Few visualize it like John Trengove’s “The Wound,” a drama set in among a South African tribe participating in a male circumcision ritual. The first love scene between two men is shot from a dispassionate distance where thrusting is but the motion of a few pixels, and a scene of fellatio shortly after takes place in such dark silhouettes that individuating features are not discernible. These actions is so forbidden and their pleasures so taboo that what we see is little more than bodies in motion.

When we’re closer to two men’s physical intimacy, Trengove shows us the effects of a hypermasculine culture on the lovers. Two people who feel a deep emotional bond do not always feel comfortable enough in their own bodies to express that, so we see a lot of uncomfortable and awkward groping, grasping and grabbing. It’s like watching a surrender to primal urges, stripped from any kind of notions of romance or sensuality.

“The Wound” is less compelling when these characters try to awkwardly integrate in with their more macho companions in the tribe. Trengove does astutely observe the ways that homoeroticism thrives in homophobic spaces; for example, several young men expose their genitalia to each other from behind towels to compare unit length but throw around anti-gay epithets at will. Yet his film operates better with themes than it does with people. The central love triangle is poorly defined, and the other characters are mere caricatures. B-





REVIEW: Imperium

15 08 2017

“We all create a narrative based on what we think is important,” Toni Collette’s FBI official Angela Zamparo suggests at the start of “Imperium.” She’s begging her colleague, Daniel Radcliffe’s sheepish bookworm agent Nate Foster, to broaden his mindset about what constitutes a clear threat to American security. That involves ditching a predilection for radical Islamic terrorism to focus his attention on a burgeoning threat to the country: white supremacist violence.

Based on some evidence suggesting a chemical bomb on the scale of Oklahoma City, Angela sends Nate deep into the hate-filled clutches of these neo-Nazi groups armed with little more than a buzzcut, knowledge gained from a white nationalist reading list and his own intuition. Oh, and she gives him pointers here and there from Dale Carnegie’s “How to Win Friends and Influence People” to relate to some of the most frightening skinheads circling the gutter of society. How’s that for espionage? The film provides a consistently engaging, if never full engrossing, thrill ride down the drain.

Nate’s main target is a talk radio host of the Alex Jones variety, Tracy Letts’ #WhiteGenocide conspiracy peddling crackpot Dallas Wolf, to get to the center of the underground chemicals network. He’s a shady character who inspires some truly violent, hateful figures. But the scariest person in “Imperium” is the buttoned-up Gerry Conway, a family man who can weave racist talking points into everyday dialogue with shocking casualness. He might not embrace the full scope of fascism, but Gerry’s embrace of white nationalist ideals in spite of his apparent intelligence ought to give us all chills. White supremacy does not always come decked out in a swastika. Sometimes, it looks like your neighbor in his button-down shirt and gentle smile. B





REVIEW: The Glass Castle

12 08 2017

There’s a strain of thought currently dominating the conversation around class in America, and it finds best expression in J.D. Vance’s memoir “Hillbilly Elegy.” To loosely sum it up, the argument is that rural white Americans possess a kind of misunderstood nobility that’s mistaken for a lack of sophistication by outsiders. When given a ladder to success rather than treated with scorn, these working-class whites can pull themselves up by their bootstraps.

Destin Daniel Cretton’s film adaptation of Jeannette Walls’ searingly personal memoir “The Glass Castle,” thankfully, flies in the face of all that hogwash. Without providing any kind of sociological lecture on structural poverty, he and co-writer Andrew Lanham poke at something profound in their portrayal of some unconventional (and, yes, dangerous) parenting tactics. The ideals of freedom, independence and self-reliance, so baked into the American psyche, are inventions of a wealthy class of men for other landed men. When followed by people without resources and social standing, it can lead to dangerous ends.

One of the first times we see Jeannette’s father Rex, played with usual spitfire intensity by Woody Harrelson, he’s going on a screed against the professional class of doctors for trying to wield their knowledge as a tool to extort hard-working people into paying for expensive treatment. They need to treat young Jeannette for a burn. She received that burn because she had to feed herself while her mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) painted, and her dress caught fire on the stove. It’s a moment of pure negligence and irresponsibility in the Walls family. Yet Rex successfully convinces himself that the real issue is not their lack of oversight; instead, it’s the judgment from a class that deems themselves superior when his parenting style is simply an expression of his American values. Sometimes that comes with collateral damage, and he’s willing to live with that.

An older Rex seen later in the film goes on a similar rant about Reaganite economics, though certainly without naming the source. He picks the booming Wall Street financiers as the target of his rage, seemingly because they reap tremendous profits without producing anything tangible to put out in the world. Rex fails to realize, however, that all his tough talk of hard labor rooted in self-determination is rooted in an empty promise. The big dreams for his family, most obviously manifested in the quixotic fantasy “glass castle” he tells Jeannette he will build, will never come to pass so long as they remain mired in poverty.

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