Margarita with a Straw + ReelAbilities Film Festival

24 02 2017

margarita-with-a-strawReelAbilities Film Festival – Houston

In his 2016 book “But What If We’re Wrong?,” cultural critic Chuck Klosterman attempted to predict where our age’s great hidden text lies. What future generations tend to remember about bygone eras are works that did not receive proper due in their own time – in part because cultural archaeologists have an esoteric’s activist mentality when canonizing art. His guess was a Native American writing on a message board on the Dark Web, citing the relative paucity of attention given to each.

Far be it from me to make such a sweeping prophecy, but I do think there’s a decent chance that disabilities could factor into that conversation about overlooked, undervalued culture. There are countless courageous Americans fighting daily for the disability community, though their efforts never seem to pierce the public consciousness in the way that movements surrounding civil rights or marriage equality have. To be clear, it’s the people on the ground working for substantive policy gains who make the real change – yet popular culture can also play a large role in changing hearts and minds.

Margarita with a Straw,” which I saw as part of Houston’s ReelAbilties Film Festival, could help reverse the trend. I so often associate narratives surrounding disability with clichéd struggles and hokey uplift. We’re regularly encouraged to see these individuals as victims, afflicted with some condition they cannot control and acted upon rather than serving as active agents in their own stories. Shonali Bose’s film, which also played such prestigious festivals as Toronto and London, does none of these things. (Although I should add that it does contain some elements of wish fulfillment to the detriment of the overall film.)

The protagonist Laila is a person above all, a young adult with a passion for music and a little bit of wanderlust that directly conflicts with her provincial Indian family’s desires. While pursuing a degree abroad at NYU, Laila’s openness to life and unbridled enthusiasm brings her into the romantic orbit of peers from both genders. The film never downplays her disability and the way it affects her story, but “Margarita with a Straw” is not about that part of her. It’s about her journey of self-discovery in her bisexuality. Not to take away from what Bose accomplishes here, but I spent much of the film thinking about the range of stories still left to tell in this community. I look forward to seeing what lies ahead for ReelAbilties in the years to come.


F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 23, 2017)

23 02 2017

I first saw Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” a few years ago and, admittedly, was not impressed. Perhaps the film fell victim to high expectations. Critics and cinephiles put it on a pedestal for so long, citing Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award-nominated work as evidence that he amounted to more than just a Tumblr heartthrob. Yet I was unmoved.

For whatever reason, I decided to check it out again given Gosling’s recent Oscar nominated turn in “La La Land” – and a general reversal of fortune for his career altogether. Further inspection of “Half Nelson” reveals a remarkable two-sided performance that fully captures the actor’s versatility. From my early ’10s vantage point, I probably saw a reflection of what I consider Gosling’s worst tendencies: an exaggerated machismo where his smolder goes hand in hand with the stoicism. When contextualized within his films of that time – “Drive,” “The Ides of March,” “Gangster Squad,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Only God Forgives” – the turn as a junior high history teacher who resolutely refuses intimacy and embraces drug needles feels like the genesis of a dour period.

But after the exuberance of “The Nice Guys” and “La La Land,” Gosling’s cheerier streak opened up another side of “Half Nelson” that now vaults into “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. His Dan Dunne has a streak of incorrigible impetuousness, particularly when digressing from the assigned curriculum to instruct with a more philosophical slant on the past. He projects such confidence when he dwells in his element, a fitting and necessary contrast to his moments of vulnerability to cocaine. Reconciling the highs with the lows presents a difficult task for any performer, and Gosling nailed it at just 26 years old. He’s also fortunate to create this character under the auspices of a thoughtful script from Fleck and Anna Boden, who avoid all the pratfalls of drug addict or other self-destructive protagonist narratives.

REVIEW: A United Kingdom

22 02 2017

History is rarely tidy enough to have personifications of complicated systems of belief like racism and colonialism, but movies nevertheless tend to present the past in such a way to simplify what seems unfathomable to modern audiences. Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” lies among these crisp-edged period pieces and stands out as one of the better of the bunch.

The film succeeds at depicting high-level concepts of segregation and prejudice that are still relevant today. Yet it also works when pinpointing the ethos of a specific moment in the late 1940s where the sun was setting on the empire in which the sun never sets. British-born Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) falls head over heels for African tribal king Seretse Khama (David Oyelowo), who studied in London to prepare himself to assume the throne in Botswana.

The grumblings from her ardently colonialist father could sufficiently set in motion the drama of an entire film altogether. But don’t worry, “A United Kingdom” charts the vast geopolitical complications arising from their marriage. What begins as mere disruption in a community presents an opportunity for the waning British powers to destabilize an entire region.

Guy Hibbert’s script front-loads the film’s most explosive moments – a refreshing change of pace. A fiery speech from Seretse in defense of his wife feels like the climactic moment of a more conventional story, but Hibbert situates it towards the beginning. The shocking segregation of blacks in their own country also appears primarily at the outset. These micro-level moments are just drops in the bucket of a larger narrative, one whose ever-expanding scope consumes “A United Kingdom.” Seeing how far those ripples extend proves the most fascinating component of Ruth and Seretse’s history, although little moments such as Ruth’s limp imitation of Queen Elizabeth’s wave to appear more regal to Botswanans delight along the way. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Girl with All the Gifts

21 02 2017

the-girl-with-all-the-giftsFantastic Fest

As much as I strive to provide as close to objectivity as possible, some subjective factors do sometimes get in the way and exert an outsized pull on my response to a film. “The Girl with All the Gifts” was the sixth film in a marathon day of binge moviegoing at 2016’s Fantastic Fest. Colm McCarthy’s film had to contend for my attention with the perennial reigning champion of sleep.

This zombie flick mostly managed to hold my attention, though its contention with some high-quality shut eye led me to nitpick away at its flaws and banalities. Glenn Close’s near-constant regurgitation of exposition would be bad enough. But her shaky British accent made nearly every line she spoke like nails on a chalkboard. (Also, Gemma Arterton kind of looks like she could be related to Mads Mikkelsen. Look for it.)

“The Girl with All the Gifts” is not going to move the needle in its genre of horror. Mike Carey’s screenplay, adapted from his own novel, brings one interesting feature to the flesh-eating creatures. A group of young children can live with the fungus that creates zombies but maintain basic functions of a sentient human. They are sequestered away from the rest of the plague-infested earth by military personnel, although new developments involving the particularly gifted “hungry” Melanie forces a coalition out into ravaged areas of Britain to do … something. I’m not entirely sure, and that lack of certainty stems both from my own tiredness watching the film as well as unclear character motivations. Stick around for the ending if you can endure the familiar feeling of the rising action. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Fireworks Wednesday

20 02 2017

fireworks-wednesdayAs I noted when reviewing Asghar Farhadi’s “About Elly,” the release of the director’s prior films after his latest work achieves such success proves disorienting. I usually seek out the past filmography of a major filmmaker before seeing their new releases. After all, if one assumes that directors always sharpen and hone their craft over time, why watch those skills digress?

Fireworks Wednesday” arrived in America about a decade after its initial release, a period in which Farhadi directed four additional films and won an Oscar. For the uninitiated, like myself, the writer/director’s masterful command of human behavior in “A Separation” seemed effortless. This 2006 feature shows that Farhadi did not reach those heights without some hard work and gradual yet significant improvements. (Encouraging for those of us who feel on the cusp of greatness!)

That’s not to say “Fireworks Wednesday” is belabored or undercooked – and certainly not bad by any stretch of the imagination. Farhadi sets up a complex plot involving three Iranian women around the time of the Persian New Year. Soon-to-be-bride Rouhi tries to grab some extra cash for the wedding in Tehran by doing odd jobs, yet one housekeeping job finds her in the middle of a collapsing marriage and burgeoning affair. The jealous wife, the lecherous other woman and their unsuspecting middlewoman find themselves caught in a death spiral of deceit. When the dust settles, the film retains about a layer less of depth than Farhadi’s “The Past,” though that’s still plenty to work with for a compelling human drama. B2halfstars

REVIEW: The Salesman

19 02 2017

the-salesmanEver since his film “A Separation” shook the globe earlier this decade, I’ve believed that we will study the work of Asghar Farhadi like a great dramatist. His multi-layered, internalized character studies recall Shakespeare, Ibsen or Williams more than any cinema director. “The Salesman,” Farhadi’s latest feature, crystallizes this connection by foregrounding the film’s moral dilemmas against a stage production of Arthur Miller’s renowned “Death of a Salesman.”

The film does not draw upon this weighty source to provide gravity for the narrative, nor does it require the audience to possess an 11th-grade English class working knowledge of the play to fully appreciate the film. (Almodóvar’s “All About My Mother,” poignant as it is, closes off meaning to a segment of the audience unfamiliar with “A Streetcar Named Desire.”) In fact, “The Salesman” feels like Farhadi’s least proscenium-ready work to date, particularly in its final act. More than anything, the film shares a kinship with the cinema of Michael Haneke where seemingly random violence strikes and its aftershocks tremble throughout all aspects of the psyche and milieu.

After their apartment building collapses in the film’s opening scene, Rana (Taraneh Alidoosti) and Emad (Shahab Hosseini) take temporary shelter in a space they later find out belonged to a lady of the night. This revelation comes too late after Rana buzzes in a client of the former tenant … and winds up brutally wounded once he leaves. Farhadi does not depict what transpires in the domicile, instead opting to show us something much more frightening: the ramifications. Both deal with shame, Rana for receiving the injury and Emad for being unable to prevent it. Unlike Farhadi’s previous films, which envelop communities and involve multiple characters, “The Salesman” dwells primarily in their private humiliation like a chamber drama.

All the while, Farhadi sneaks up on us with the power of his observations on how anger clouds out our compassion for other people. His films have long existed at the intersection of miscommunication and misdeeds, but “The Salesman” lingers longer at this juncture. In a contained, single-location finale, he methodically unfurls a claustrophobic exploration of how disgrace can drive our darkest, cruelest impulses. Farhadi may narrow his scope, though not for a second does he sacrifice the depth of his understanding about human nature.

The final shot of the film features makeup artists drawing lines of old age on Rana and Emad before going out on stage in “Death of a Salesman.” Damned if that doesn’t feel fittingly redundant by the end of “The Salesman” after all they’ve experienced. B+3stars


18 02 2017

Does “Logan” feel as good as it does because of its own merits – or because the superhero genre is just that bad these days? I’m tempted to argue for the latter if for no other reason than to cover my own ass. Skeptical reviews tend to hold up better than overzealous ones. (See my 2011 review of “I Am Number Four” for an example.)

Director James Mangold as well as co-writers Michael Green and Scott Frank succeed by avoiding so much of what makes comic book adaptations – including the “X-Men” series – flop. The film boasts a remarkably self-contained story free from a glut of new characters or excessive action sequences. Remarkably little happens over the course of “Logan,” even to the point where the opening sequences of Wolverine’s pensive limousine driving recalls the Matthew McConaughey Lincoln commercials.

This ability to ruminate on character and dwell in the submerged pain of the moment no doubt stems from the circumstances surrounding the film. Hugh Jackman has given a remarkable 17 years to playing Logan, a role that launched him into stardom – but also a character that helped stabilize the franchise throughout its different incarnations. Supposedly “Logan” marks Jackman’s last time sporting the claws, and such finality likely gave Fox and Marvel the confidence to begrudgingly let him go out on his own terms. Those terms include invoking the spirit of the old Western genre, specifically the archetype of the aging and world-weary gunslinger.

Heavy-handed “Shane” allusions aside, “Logan” earns the right to make these comparisons simply through Jackman’s decades-long commitment to the character. At least for now, it’s hard to imagine any other actor in the superhero arena with enough cultural cachet to earn this resolution. Jackman’s haggard expressions and general exasperation more than once gave me flashbacks to his gaunt appearance at the beginning of “Les Misérables.” He appears tired and weary – and as the character, not the actor! (An important distinction to make for many franchise headliners.) Logan has a clear antagonist in the corporation Transigen, although he’s mostly grappling with his own legacy and history.

Yet without eight serviceable “X-Men” films prior, the narrative stakes of “Logan” might not have felt as weighty. As the hero attempts to outrun, but ultimately acquiesces to, the definitive final battle, there’s simply no other way to convey the battle wounds of the past than to have watched them accumulate over time. But even so, Mangold still makes a convincing argument that the superhero genre need not only resemble the western in cultural functionality. It can also take on their form, tone and content for satisfying, incisive cinema. B2halfstars