22 11 2016

elleFantastic Fest

Both the film “Elle” and its protagonist, Isabelle Huppert’s Michèle, resist common tropes related to sexual assault (one of which occurs in the opening scene). Chiefly, neither dwells in victimhood or the battle wounds of a survivor. It does not galvanize the righteous anger of the audience back against the perpetrator through the vicarious thrill of revenge.

But here’s the thing: “Elle” is defined more by what it doesn’t do and not by what it does. Director Paul Verhoeven and screenwriter David Birke dwell in the murky gray areas of Michèle’s twisted psychology as she herself remains unclear as to how to proceed. She knows that she does not want to call the police, as she believes her position as the daughter of a serial killer would not lead to any semblance of justice. She does not want to make a fuss about the incident or let it overpower her thoughts and routines. But what does she do?

Huppert brings steely gumption to her character, a backbone necessary to even establish the most elementary semblance of realism in “Elle.” Her performance, and the film writ large, seem to lack a consistent, coherent internal logic. With her mental state intentionally obfuscated from us, we must interpolate from her actions. And Michèle’s behavior fluctuates vastly from scene to scene. She may seem alarmed by a prank video game scene depicting her rape to the point of conducting a secret witch hunt … only to turn around and engage in a sexual cat-and-mouse game with her own assailant.

No film is forced to answer to the demands of its viewers for answers and resolution. But when lack of clarity feels like an externality of the film rather than an essential narrative feature, the rules change a bit. The instability and unpredictability of “Elle” become its guiding light and driving force. With scant character detail and no real dialogue with issues, the film can only end in emptiness. Refusing a mode of thought is easy. Proposing a new one creates a much greater challenge, one that Verhoeven, Birke and Huppert do not seem up to fully meeting. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Loving

21 11 2016

I’m of the mindset that historical dramas and social issues pieces, often derided as self-important and grandiose, are getting better. Films like “Spotlight,” “Selma” and “12 Years a Slave” have dramatized America’s past with unflinching honesty and aesthetic rigor. Yet there is still a straw man of the prestige picture that looms in the critical imagination, and Jeff Nichols’ “Loving” seems to exist in stark contrast to this imagined bundle of clichés.

Nichols runs counter to so many impulses dominating filmmaking that historicizes the contemporary. Without belittling the importance of belaboring the significance of Richard and Mildred Loving, the couple whose arrest led to a Supreme Court case overturning bans on interracial marriage, he moves the political steadfastly back into the realm of the personal. The simple elegance of “Loving” is evident in every scene of Joel Edgerton’s Richard returning to lay bricks and every disapproving gaze from their provincial Virginian neighbors. Society is slow to change, attitudes are tough to dislodge, but sometimes unsuspecting individuals like the Lovings can help turn the tide in our culture with their radical ordinariness.

Perhaps one of Nichols’ boldest casting choices was selecting Nick Kroll (yes, The Douche from “Parks & Recreation”) as Bernie Cohen, the ACLU lawyer who helps guide the Lovings’ case all the way to the highest court in the land. It’s more than stunt casting or going boldly against type like Seth Rogen did in Danny Boyle’s “Steve Jobs.” Kroll’s instinct to play his scenes with the Lovings as incredulity underscored with comedy helps tremendously to enhance the realism of the moment. Richard and Mildred were not dying to become star defendants in a landmark case. They find themselves, reluctantly, at the center of history after Mildred (Ruth Negga) writes what she assumes is a throwaway letter to Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Their naïveté about the role they can come to play in American racial dynamics is almost ridiculous, both to Cohen and to a present-day audience.

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REVIEW: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

20 11 2016

It’s good to be back in the Potterverse. While I might resist some of the revisionist history and postscripts of my beloved characters, a tangential outing like “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them” hits the sweet spot. It’s clear that J.K. Rowling, who serves here as both screenwriter and producer, has more to explore and say about the magical world she created. Even if the roadmap to the supposedly five-part series she plans has not yet emerged, this first film makes for a fun, thoughtful outing.

The sheer presence of gentle ginger Eddie Redmayne alone, vocal in his bashful disappointment over not being cast as a Weasley, provides two hours of joy. The role of magical zoologist Newt Scamander is finely calibrated to match his unique star power: slightly awkward, modestly fumbling, overwhelmingly good-hearted. He serves as both our guide to a host of creatures never introduced to us by Hagrid and an outsider observing the operations of the American wizarding community.

Scamander arrives at Ellis Island with a suitcase full of living organisms and a mission to return some of them to their natural habitats. However, a series of chance encounters with a No-Maj (American speak for “Muggle”) gets him caught up in the geopolitical realities of the United States. Scamander becomes the unwitting companion to the rogue auror Tina (Katherine Waterston), who dedicates herself to finding a magical disturbance among the No-Maj that threatens to disrupt the Americans’ carefully guarded segregation of the two communities. Quite often, Scamander’s beasts get loose and make a mess out of an already precarious situation, and therein lies the enjoyment. He can always, somehow, wrangle control.

It will be interesting to see how, as the series progresses, Rowling deals with the political undertones introduced here. “Fantastic Beasts” strays away from the obvious allegory of franchises like “X-Men,” perhaps at the expense of glossing over or trivializing the issues. In this introduction, she introduces a group of puritanical recluses called “Second-Salemers” who call for a new purge of the magical community and a dark perversion of wizardry in Europe that Americans deny will wash up on their shores. It appears she will have plenty to pull from, both in ’30s history and contemporary society, in making these themes relevant. B+3stars

REVIEW: Before the Flood

19 11 2016

before-the-floodAdmittedly, I know fairly little about climate change apart from what I learn in documentary films. (You didn’t ask for this, but I’ll provide two recommendations anyways – “Merchants of Doubt” in regards to the science, and “Chasing Ice” to cover the effects.) But I do know quite a bit about Leonardo DiCaprio and his celebrity. The man loves disappearing into roles while almost never letting his private life become public. Maybe that’s because he allegedly vapes and puts on headphones during sex, but that’s neither here nor there…

Anyways, back to climate change! Leonardo DiCaprio shows us more of himself in “Before the Flood” than most people have seen in decades of stargazing. We see his fire for the issue like nothing else before, where he can come across as disengaged or disinterested. If he’s willing to shatter the barriers between us and his classic film actor persona to talk about climate change, then we all ought to listen.

The documentary itself treads standard ground for advocacy. It details the problem, shows the corrosion of the earth already well underway in the glaciers, talks to pundits working to turn back the tide, and gives a faint glimmer of hope. The thread running through most of the film’s scenes is DiCaprio, the fully present activist who listens, absorbs and reacts. From his early days of concern in the ’90s to the troubling shoot of “The Revenant,” where climate change necessitated the shoot switch hemispheres to find icy temperatures, climate change has always motivated him. “Before the Flood” sometimes feels like a concerted PR puff piece for DiCaprio, though his genuine passion really does shine through. Perhaps to the point that it even obscures the real discussion topic. B2halfstars

REVIEW: Miss Sharon Jones

18 11 2016

miss-sharon-jonesI’ve been a fan of Sharon Jones and the Dap-Kings ever since the “Up in the Air” soundtrack introduced me to her soulful sounds, gleefully delighting in her retro feel. It’s to our detriment as a culture that the documentary about her had to come in the wake of her diagnosis of cancer – one that many people will discover now after the singer has passed. But nonetheless, we should be glad that the singer got to participate in a documentary chronicle that focused on her resilience and determination, not memorializing her life or lamenting her frailty.

Documentarian Barbara Kopple’s “Miss Sharon Jones!” is a stirring celebration of her subject’s fight against pancreatic cancer, which sapped her of physical strength but never of mental resolve to keep performing. While Kopple might not stare into the face of illness as unflinchingly as Steve James did with Roger Ebert in “Life Itself,” for example, she does not pull punches in depicting the toll taken. Jones talks about her scheduled regimen of television watching while bedridden, yet the moment of sadness quickly dissipates into one of joy as she narrates with such enthusiasm.

There’s ultimately not a whole lot for me to talk about from a critical perspective on “Miss Sharon Jones!” Kopple’s documentary is better than your garden variety illness, concert or biographical documentary, though it comes nowhere near transcending their traditional trappings. The film also feels a bit stretched at a 90 minute runtime, though I suspect most fans of Sharon Jones will not necessarily mind spending the extra time with her – especially now that we no longer have the opportunity to gain additional time in her presence. B-2halfstars

REVIEW: Desierto

16 11 2016

desiertoWhat do you do when the scope of your filmmaking calls for a big screen experience but your story only has the breadth to sustain a short film? It’s a trade-off that filmmakers must consider when determining how to bring an idea to fruition. In an ideal world, short-form storytelling would have a place on in theaters apart from film festivals, but that world has not yet arrived.

Jonás Cuarón’s “Desierto” faces such a dilemma with an admittedly thin plot set in a foreboding, larger than life landscape. The film boils down to a survival tale along the U.S.-Mexico border where migrants scuffle across in search of their families on the other side, facing their threat personified in the form of a nativist vigilante militiaman. (His truck is adorned with a Confederate flag and a bumper sticker declaring “My Home,” in case anyone missed it.) With retribution on his mind and a rifle in his hand, Jeffrey Dean Morgan’s Sam begins taking the immigrants for target practice.

In some respects, “Desierto” has the makings of a great elemental survival movie, especially when so much responsibility for the fate of the group comes to ride on the shoulders of Gael García Bernal’s Moises. Cuarón does, however, dole out enough specific information about characters and their circumstances that it calls for greater development. The inhumanity of their assassinations cries out for the film to treat these migrants with humanity, which is something that Cuarón does not take the time to do in full. Stretching the material that could barely sustain a 45-minute short seems to command all of his attention. Cuarón provides thrills, chills and international ills, but empathy is the missing ingredient. B2halfstars

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