REVIEW: Patriots Day

15 04 2017

The narrative elements of “Patriots Day” show Peter Berg at the top of his game. As a film that recreates the terror of the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing and the frenzied search to catch the perpetrators, it’s every bit as taught and harrowing as “Lone Survivor.” Critique ideology all you want – and I had my fair share of issues with the comforting yet alarming deployment of the surveillance state – but objectively speaking, Berg and his technicians know how to edit for maximum tension around an event whose outcome we already know.

Now, you might have noticed that I specified “narrative elements.” That was intentional. “Patriots Day” ends on a lengthy postscript of talking-head style documentary footage with survivors of the bombing. It’s stirring, sure, but it left me wondering – why not just make a non-fiction film? The appetite for documentaries exists now thanks to platforms like Netflix and HBO.

In “Patriots Day,” fictionalization began to feel like trivialization. If the words of real people are powerful enough to end a film, they ought to be powerful enough to sustain a film. Why does Berg think we need Mark Wahlberg sermonizing from the back of a truck bed over sappy, inspiring music to care about the heroism of Boston’s finest? Why does he feel the need to compress the valiant actions of several police officers into one composite, Teddy Saunders, for Mark Wahlberg to play?

Berg tries to have it both ways in the film, leaning on both the authenticity of the survivors’ pain while also shoehorning reality into a convenient narrative device about one police officer who cracks open the case with a hobbled leg. (At times, his lickety-split reactions don’t even make logical sense!) If recent yanked from the headlines stories are going to continue to serve as fodder for cinema, we need to have a larger debate about how filmmakers can and cannot rely on actual participants. B+





REVIEW: Their Finest

14 04 2017

“Authenticity informed by optimism” – that was the motto of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information when it comes to creating films, according to Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest.” Around the time that “keep calm and carry on” came into common parlance through Tube posters, the government was also hard at work shaping the national consciousness through the medium of cinema. In 1940, filmmakers came together to convey the seriousness of the war effort while also inspiring confidence and patriotism.

“Their Finest” specifically follows the course of one picture shoot about the sacrifices made at Dunkirk (luckily Scherfig got this out before Christopher Nolan’s epic). Welsh screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) approaches the evacuation with a creative, novel approach to a story whose validity and heroism do not immediately signal the traditional Hollywood ending. Her job gets even harder when the government hijacks the film to subtly goad the United States into helping the war effort – primarily through the addition of American actor Carl Lundbeck, a  blonde bombshell of machismo played with spunk by Jake Lacy. Before WikiLeaks, this was how covert influence worked. (I like this way a lot more.)

Gabby Chiape’s screenplay balances more than just a straightforward tale of film production in wartime. “Their Finest” also includes a significant feminist slant concerning women’s contribution to the war effort and their mounting preemptive fears about men relegating them back to the home as soon as combat ceases. That tension plays out in the dimly lit government buildings where Catrin toils over a typewriter with the charming curmudgeon Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) as well as at home with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled veteran whose “brutal and dispiriting” paintings don’t exactly jive with the national mood. This central tenet of the film bobs back and forth between serving as subject and subtext, and after nearly two hours, Chiape and Scherfig never quite figure out where it belongs. Between that and an enjoyable B-plot featuring Billy Nighy’s washed-up character actor Ambrose Hilliard, “Their Finest” simply fights on one too many fronts to come out on top. B-





F.I.L.M. of the Week (April 13, 2017)

13 04 2017

At some point while working on a profile of Robert Pattinson, I realized I couldn’t write honestly or insightfully about the actor if I only considered his post-“Twilight” work, which I generally considered to. I’m not sure at what point I decided I needed to watch everything in his filmography, but one film I did not particularly anticipate sitting through was “Bel Ami.” Costume dramas, especially ones set in 19th-century Europe, tend to function as something akin to the bane of my existence.

But to my very pleasant surprise, “Bel Ami” stands out as a delicious experience in a primarily dreary and stuffy genre. To be fair, I’m not sure how much I would have enjoyed the film had I watched it upon release in 2012. Pattinson was still, reluctantly, in the thrall of “Twilight” mania. The specious read of the film is to see his character, Georges Duroy, as an emotionless man who somehow manages to function as an effortless womanizer. (There is admittedly some jealousy in play, I’ll be up front.)

Indeed, there are some similarities to Edward Cullen at the surface level of “Bel Ami.” Yet with some distance, the film looks more like a reaction against his famous role. Georges makes plenty of sexual conquests in the film, but he achieves them not out of confidence or swagger. He’s deeply insecure about his station in the Parisian social strata, nervously approaching formality. In his first high society appearance, Georges musses with his appearance several times in the mirror before entering the room.

He’s at a distinct advantage in the elite ecosystem since he does not come from money and only gets a seat at the table when a former comrade from war lifts him up. To hold this tenuous position, Georges needs an ace in the hole, and he finds it through gaming undersexed and undervalued wives. Wooing them works to his benefit for a while, but eventually he learns that appealing to them goes only so far in a male-dominated world. This narrative acts as something of a meta commentary on Pattinson’s participation in the “Twilight” franchise, and his desperation and frustration is the secret sauce that raises “Bel Ami” out of standard period piece drudgery and into the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory.





REVIEW: Gifted

10 04 2017

Movie dads are a dime a dozen, but we rarely get movies about the specific pressures of paternity. It’s tough to tell, then, whether the pleasures of Marc Webb’s “Gifted” are organic or simply a refreshingly different story in a crowded environment.

There’s plenty to enjoy and identify with in Chris Evans’ Frank Adler, an uncle-cum-surrogate dad who mills about working-class Florida in his dirt-stained undershirt and seemingly permanent bedhead. He’s raising his niece, the film’s titular savant Mary Adler (McKenna Grace), based on his hardscrabble and wisecracking instincts. Segregating the exceptional from the average, he jokes, only produces congressmen. His everyman parenting style gets a shock from the arrival of his ivory tower-minded mother, Lindsay Duncan’s Evelyn.

From there on out, “Gifted” plays out like the Florida Man edition of “Kramer vs. Kramer” with a little dash of “Good Will Hunting” to liven up the familiar settings of family court and therapy sessions. How much that affects each viewer probably depends on their individual tolerance for the well-executed cliché and the obvious emotional moment. When Frank and Mary spend some quality time watching new dads come out of delivery to the hospital waiting room, it’s possible to read the scene as hopelessly cloying or truly touching.

I found “Gifted” somewhere in between, affecting in fits and spurts while never truly melting my heart like a stick of butter in the sun. Evans clearly has a big heart that he pumps into the film, yet Tom Flynn’s script gives him remarkably little agency. Frank is defined primarily in relation to other characters, many of whom float in and out of the plot with whiplash-inducing speed. (And let’s not even brooch the serious ethical debate that Flynn completely sidesteps in the film’s big finale.) But don’t worry everyone, there’s a truly great movie about an uncle struggling to provide adequate guardianship for the orphaned child of his departed sibling – and it’s readily available to watch. B-





REVIEW: Personal Shopper

9 04 2017

Olivier Assayas’ “Personal Shopper” bills itself as a ghost story, and that moniker applies to just about every facet of the film. Yes, there’s the obvious – Kristen Stewart’s Maureen considers herself a medium, and she looks to commune with the spirit of her recently departed twin brother Lewis. The first to leave the land of the living was to leave the other a sign, so she relocates to Paris in order to make contact. But mostly she’s just “waiting,” as Maureen describes it.

The apparitional element extends beyond the supernatural and the spiritualistic, though. Maureen pays her way in the City of Light as a personal shopper, a go-between for the producing and the consuming class. Her employer, the socialite Kyra, sends out Maureen as a phantom presence to select, purchase but never try on clothes for future engagements. The two scarcely ever have physical interactions, leading Maureen to approach her vocation with a deepening sense of estrangement and alienation. Not unlike with Lewis, it’s like she must communicate with and channel the spirit of a ghost.

Practically every aspect of “Personal Shopper” sees Maureen in contact with some kind of reality removed from her own, be it her boyfriend over Skype or a mysteriously probing and knowledgeable unknown number via text in the film’s centerpiece. As Maureen travels round-trip from Paris to London for the sole purpose of picking up a dress for Kyra, she feels an other-worldly gravitational pull to return to this persistent phantasm. As much as her thumbs may quiver in response, she keeps the conversation going for the cross-country train journey, revealing truths about herself to a person whose identity she cannot even verify.

There’s so much to unpack here, so much so that it feels wrong to even take a stab at the deeper meanings of “Personal Shopper” after just one viewing. Further watches will likely further illuminate just how carefully Stewart dances along the line of channeling someone and desiring to become that person altogether. Her ethereal performance does not so much power the film as she haunts it. Like a ghost, she’s diffuse, elusive and difficult to pin down and describe. B+





REVIEW: We Are the Flesh

8 04 2017

Fantastic Fest

Due to some kind of inexplicable error with the DCP file, I had to watch Emiliano Rocha Minter’s “We Are the Flesh” off some kind of pixelated backup copy. Maybe it was for the best that I couldn’t see every inch of the film in all its graphic detail. I saw plenty – or dare I say, too much – from what was there.

Credit Minter for crafting a visually innovative hellscape that invokes the surreal “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” only here as the devil’s cavern. He also assembles a cacophonous symphony of tactile sounds that accentuate the unnatural space. Yet beyond the creation of a unique world, the “last monument of a miserable society,” I can offer few compliments.

“We Are the Flesh” makes “Wetlands” seem like a Disney movie in its innocence. Minter drops two siblings in this unforgiving landscape and introduces them to a deranged stranger who awakens their incestuous desires. It was around the point of the Reygadas-esque sex scene, complete with freeze frames during orgastic spasms, where I just gave up any hope of finding meaning or commentary in the film. Minter is shocking for the sake of being shocking. He’s free to make the movie he wants, but I certainly don’t have to enjoy being subjected to an orgy of flesh eating as the ends of the film, not its means. C+





REVIEW: Raw

7 04 2017

Fantastic Fest

Getting adjusted to college life can bring out the monster in all of us. Julia Ducornau’s “Raw” just makes that a little more vivid and terrifying by adding in an element of cannibalism as a metaphor for the suppressed true self. (Yes, you read that right.)

The film begins with Justine (Garance Marillier) arriving quietly at veterinary school with the kind of milquetoast blandness that indicates a lack of self-confidence. She’s the type to wander the party alone – no judgment; I can definitely relate. Her sister Alexia (Ella Rumpf), an upperclassman, does her best to gently nudge Justine to break out of her shell. When that fails, she takes more drastic steps towards humiliation and mortification.

Alexia means her actions with the kind of tough familial love we all come to expect from siblings, but they begin to have immediate physical consequences for Justine. Like a nagging rash, vomiting hair and more. The family condition involves a taste for their fellow humans awakened by flesh contact, a sadistically difficult thing to avoid when surrounded by the blood and meat of animals … not to mention the normal carnal desires of young people packed into tight living quarters.

Ducornau does a fine job balancing the two faces of “Raw,” both the specifics of its body horror and the generalities of its collegiate angst. She’s not afraid to indulge in a moment of pure discomfort or a little levity. (For more on the latter aspect – shameless plug – check out my piece from Fantastic Fest comparing it to critical cause célèbre “Toni Erdmann.”) And, as always, the scariest element is no one moment but simply the dawning realization of the aberrant desires pent up inside ourselves. B+