F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 15, 2017)

15 06 2017

We all know the stereotype: the quirky indie movie character who’s got some social anxieties and manages to perturb the calm facades of more well-adjusted peers. It’s a stock character by this point. But back at the turn of the millennium, it was probably quite novel – and maybe even a little radical. (I wasn’t watching indie films then, so I do have to guess.)

So I can only imagine what it would be like to watch “Chuck and Buck” when it premiered in 2000. Even for a first viewing in 2017, it still resides in “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. In a pre-“Brokeback Mountain” era, director Miguel Arteta and writer Mike White dove head into an unrequited homoerotic love story of an awkward man (White’s Chuck) and the childhood friend (Chris Weitz’s Buck) who outgrew him.

That might count as a bit of a spoiler because the nature of their relationship comes as a slow reveal. Their nature of their past relationship begins in barely perceptible undertones but gradually begins to come to light. When Chuck is planning for the funeral of his mother, who he cared for well into adulthood, he calls Buck out of the blue to attend. It seems like a reasonable action for someone reeling through tragedy at the time, and Buck (along with his girlfriend) are decent enough to come and comfort him.

But then the film continues. Chuck decides to pack up and head to Hollywood, where Buck lives and works. After awkward hangouts don’t result in the rekindling of their friendship to adolescent levels, Chuck strikes out with a strange act of attention-grabbing desperation. He stages a play at a community theater that’s a very clear allegory of he and Buck’s relationship and the resulting feelings stemming from their estrangement.

Many a moment in the film is utterly cringe-inducing as Chuck runs amok of so many social niceties and norms considered necessary for social interactions. Yet they are also tinged with the sadness, loss and confusion of a gay man stuck in a society and a self that could not accept such a thing. Where other filmmakers might try to dull his edges, Arteta and White do no such ting in “Chuck and Buck.” The film is all the more remarkable for it.





REVIEW: Made in Dagenham

14 06 2017

You don’t have to like every movie you agree with, and you don’t have to dislike every movie you disagree with. In fact, some of the most interesting film watching experiences come from wrestling with feelings that result from this dissonance. (The latter of the two options is far more challenging, though, in my opinion.)

Made in Dagenham” is a classic example of that first type of cinema, a message movie that reaffirms many basic beliefs about social progress. As working-class sewing machine operators in suburban London fight for equal pay, led by Sally Hawkins’ plucky Rita O’Grady, the film invites us to applaud the struggles and advances towards ending sexism. It asks relatively little of us, instead reassuring us with the familiar storyline of white women saving the world – and doing little to motivate us to continue closing the gender pay gap.

The film has great performances to spare and proves amusing, even rousing, entertainment. But it never challenges, nor does it provoke. “Made in Dagenham” plays into the notion that the arc of history bends towards justice because of the efforts of our ancestors. It does little to incite the next generation to continue exerting force to keep the shape of that bend. C+





REVIEW: Le Week-End

13 06 2017

Who says going to the City of Light is always a romantic, picturesque getaway? In Roger Michell’s “Le Week-End,” a British couple celebrating their 30th wedding anniversary finds the city a staging ground for their most practical and petty matters. For Meg and Nick (Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent), this grand city does not necessarily demand grappling with grand problems.

Newell finds the sweet spot between the gentle compassion of Nancy Meyers and the plainspoken working-class mentality of Mike Leigh. Not to mention, his depiction of the city also occupies a halfway ground between the American romanticizing of Paris and the French highlighting of its underbelly. The film provides a window into the dissatisfaction a couple may face when the kids are gone and they have to truly face each other. As you stare down the end, whose hand do you want to hold?

“Le Week-End” might feel a touch more slight were the graying crowd not so underrepresented on screen. Were they as well represented in movies as they are in Washington, then surely I’d be echoing then-Variety critic Justin Chang in his savage takedown of a particularly bad prolonged adolescence indie when he called it “the latest American independent feature to suggest there are few things more intriguing than a young white guy trying to find himself.” But for what it is now, the film works just fine. B-





REVIEW: The New Year

12 06 2017

I’ve quoted this line before elsewhere, but Alexander Payne had a very wise remark about debut features. “They say that often a filmmaker’s first film can be his or her best. Why? Because he or she has been waiting 30, 35 years to tell that story. So a lifetime of whatever it is, frustration or observation, that all comes out.”

In some cases from “Citizen Kane” to “Krisha,” that statement holds some validity. But I tend to also abide by another maxim: never judge a director by their first film. It’s not always the best indicator of their full potential. Often times, they are still learning the tools of cinema and refining their voice. Many a great director has kicked off their career with a less than auspicious debut.

Such is the case with Brett Haley’s “The New Year.” This is a film that, had I seen upon its opening in 2010, would not have led me to believe he was capable of directing something as profound and sincere as his sophomore effort, 2015’s “I’ll See You In My Dreams.” I watched “The New Year” prior to interviewing him when that film made its rounds on the festival circuit since I needed something to talk to him about. I wound up dancing around the fact that I’d even seen it in the first place.

Haley explores mid-20s ennui and boredom through the experiences of Sunny (Trieste Kelly Dunn), a bowling alley employee back in her hometown to care for her ailing father. Her travails have their moments of sincerity, but “The New Year” feels like a largely insular experience. It’s as if Haley filmed his friends having conversations. The intimacy is there, sure, but he leaves the audience on the outside rather than inviting them into it. The good news, courtesy of writing this review in 2017, is that the film is by no means the upper limits of Haley’s abilities. C+





REVIEW: It Comes at Night

11 06 2017

In his stunning debut feature, “Krisha,” writer/director Trey Edward Shults wowed right out of the gate by showcasing an impressive mastery of emotional ranges in the service of depicting the turbulent mental state of the eponymous character. His follow-up, “It Comes at Night,” takes a more restrained approach. Shults sticks mostly to the tense dread of the taut thriller with the occasional hallucinatory jolt of horror.

It’s hard to deny the impressive grasp of film technique Shults wields. Yet it’s also easy to wish he had a greater narrative, world or characters in which to invest the techniques.

“It Comes at Night” operates from a more contemporary update of Jean-Paul Sartre’s famous maxim: the apocalypse is other people. In an abandoned wooden shack, well-armed patriarch Paul (Joel Edgerton) defends his wife Sarah (Carmen Ejogo) and teen son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) from a never identified force that seems to turn humans into zombies. All that separates them from the outside world is a single, padlocked blood red door. That’s not the point, nor does that seem to be the “it” to which the title refers.

More than anything, “it” seems to be the fear of others – specifically, the young couple Will and Kim (Christopher Abbott and Riley Keough) with a small child who stumble upon their house by chance. They seek food and shelter, which Paul reluctantly and provisionally agrees to provide. Suspicion under these circumstances is natural, of course, but the host family – Paul especially – treats their every move with skepticism.

Perhaps these attitudes would make more sense if the characters were better defined –  not necessarily with flashbacks, but at least with hints of the past traumas that formed them – or the world were more fully fleshed out. What, for example, would lead Paul to shoot a man by the side of the road at will without stopping to gather any information from him? Shults opts for omnipresent ambiguity, which leaves us no foothold but the film’s ideology.

That worldview is a brutally nihilistic one, a reduction of all conflict in life to us vs. them. It’s total warfare in “It Comes at Night,” where personal survival means the enemy must face annihilation. I am open to considering viewpoints different from my own, yet the degree to which Shults condones these choices – and, dare I even say, exonerates them in the chilling final shot – left me feeling quite uneasy. Shults’ vague sketches of everything within the film make his cynicism feel unearned. This might be the best Steve Bannon production he didn’t finance. C+





REVIEW: My Cousin Rachel

10 06 2017

Roger Michell’s “My Cousin Rachel” opens with voice-over from Sam Claflin’s Philip spelling out the questions the audience should ask by the end of the film. It only gets less subtle from there.

Michell’s film is not a suspense film or a thriller film, although it looks like a well-studied imitation of one. Plenty of frames taken individually look like they could end up on One Perfect Shot. Once there’s any movement in them, however, we realize Michell’s ham-handed direction more closely resembles a Super Bowl commercial set in Victorian England. It hits the marks but lacks the soul.

The film’s drama plays out over the estate of a dead man as both his surrogate son Philip and his widow Rachel (Rachel Weisz) vie for his riches. The will gives everything to Philip, yet after meeting Rachel for the first time, the heir has some second thoughts about taking it all for himself. His relationship with her begins with fear and suspicion, becomes tinged with some guilt … and then somehow turns into full-on attraction for her?! It’s as if a switch goes off in Philip’s junk that suddenly lights a spark for the woman he might have called “mom” under more fortuitous circumstances.

Beyond the film’s inexcusable refusal to consider the Freudian implications, there’s not the slightest connection between Weisz and Claflin that would make this plot point believable. Beyond the infatuation coming out of nowhere, their performances have little in common besides them sharing the same scenes. Claflin plays Philip as an impetuous 25-year-old with no understanding of his own psychology, while Weisz phones in remoteness.

Equally as implausible is the con thriller playing out within “My Cousin Rachel.” No spoiler tags are necessary to say what’s obvious from looking at this plot from a mile away: Rachel is clearly trying to play mind games to get what she views as hers. Even without a lifetime’s worth of similar stories from the genre, it’s hard to believe Philip lacks any self-awareness that he could be the mark in a robbery scheme. When it finally hits him – too late, of course – he simply states, “I’ve been a fool,” and hangs his head in silence. The auditorium in which I saw the film supplied the dead air with chortles, groans and eye rolls aplenty. C-





REVIEW: 20th Century Women

5 06 2017

20th-century-womenI’m a bit of a sucker for generation theory, which lumps together similarly aged cohorts and attempts to impose a coherent narrative on their lifespan. So it’s only natural that I’d fall head over heels for Mike Mills’ “20th Century Women,” a film that treats centuries, decades and generations like immutable facts. In his recreated 1979 Santa Barbara milieu, the accident of birth is destiny for every character.

This goes doubly so for the young protagonist of the film, Lucas Jade Zumman’s Jamie, born at the tail end of the Baby Boom and the cusp of Generation X. Unlike his mother’s Greatest Generation, which held together through the Depression and triumphed in World War II, Jamie’s coming-of-age sees the radical promise of the ’60s being subverted into the reactionary, turbulent ’70s. We are more than just our generation, writer/director Mills suggests, but the formative years of our lives explain so much more of us than we are willing to admit.

That’s why Jamie’s mother, Annette Bening’s steely Dorothea Fields, seeks out proper influences for him since she’s a single mother. Luckily, her boarding house welcomes an assortment of characters from punk photographer Abbie (Greta Gerwig) to wayfaring carpenter William (Billy Crudup). Dorothea’s permissiveness also grants plenty of leeway to the sexually forthright teen Julie (Elle Fanning) to come spend many a platonic night in Jamie’s bed as well. Together, their makeshift family helps prepare Jamie for a world that’s challenging for beta males – or at least male feminists – like himself.

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