REVIEWS: RBG and Won’t You Be My Neighbor?

4 07 2018

For someone who struggled to get friends jazzed for documentaries a few years ago, it’s been nice to see two non-fiction features doing blockbuster numbers. Two biographical docs, Julie Cohen and Betsy West’s “RBG” along with Morgan Neville’s “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” will gross whopping eight-figure sums. Netflix has certainly helped grease the skids by investing heavily in documentary content of many lengths and formats, but there seems to be something bigger at play here beyond just a small-screen effect.

Subjects Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Fred Rogers are, in many senses, miles apart. Ginsburg is a dyed-in-the-wool liberal who’s used her power to secure major victories for women’s rights, while Rogers was a social conservative and fairly prototypical Reagan Republican. Yet in their respective adulations this summer, I don’t see a blue state-red state divide – in fact, quite the opposite. Granted that one figure is significantly more political than the other, but both stand for something larger than party in a time where seemingly everything is partisan.

These members of the so-called Silent Generation were both crucial in giving voice to the concerns of groups ignored and dismissed by society. Because RBG fought for herself to have a seat at the table in a chauvinistic legal world, both in academia and in practice, she was able to use her power as a litigator and later Supreme Court Justice to fight vigorously for all women to receive an equal opportunity. Mr. Rogers, meanwhile, eschewed the priesthood to evangelize through the medium of television, then a pure entertainment delivery service which no one thought could work as a tool for education. By listening to children and telling them their thoughts and feelings mattered, Rogers inspired a generation of children (including me, who will tear up a little bit every time I hear the jingle).

Ginsburg and Rogers are both inspiring humanists who told women and children, respectively, that they were granted certain rights and dignities just by being themselves. Both believed so fervently in their causes and were so unwavering in their convictions that they inspired loyalty and friendship from unlikely corners. RBG was a traveling buddy with her ideological opposite on the court, Antonin Scalia, while Mr. Rogers maintained fond relationships with members of the cast and crew whose lifestyles were anathema to his own beliefs.

It’s interesting to consider, however, that while both were ascendant for most of their careers, their respective apexes never seemed to overlap. “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” was a perfect program for America in the twentieth century, when a surge in post-war optimism and affluence allowed the country to consider the needs and desires of children. While the show never shied away from tragedy, be it the RFK assassination or the Challenger explosion, the strength of America to stick together and overcome the sadness never felt in doubt.

The violent imagery of the attack on 9/11 shattered that patina of invincibility, and it wore on Mr. Rogers. The most heartbreaking moment of “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” comes towards the close when Neville shows behind-the-scenes footage of Rogers shooting PSAs for PBS in the wake of the tragedy. He offers touching, inspiring words, yet the reassurance present in four decades of his show feels totally absent. Had “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood” continued into the new millennium, it seems unlikely that the jolly, comforting host would have felt honest.

Ginsburg, on the other hand, hit her stride in the past decade or so as her scathing dissents from the bench went viral. Her refusal to mince words in an era rife with prevarication and equivocation struck a chord with a younger generation. If society already places little value on the opinions of women, it places even less on the opinions of older women. RBG’s refusal to go quietly when she still has so much to say has made her an icon for the social media era. Funny enough, as Cohen and West point out, her outsized persona is at odds with her relatively quiet personality. (In other words, that Kate McKinnon impersonation – which the documentary shows RBG watching for the first time – is not accurate.)

While both “RBG” and “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?” follow standard biographical documentary formats, they manage to overcome staleness by focusing as much on the ideas and virtues animating their subject. We see not just them but who they inspired – and how they did it. These films are both worthy and inspiring testaments to two great Americans.

RBG – B+ / 3stars
Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – A-

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REVIEW: Custody

3 07 2018

“Custody” is a film I’ve spilled much virtual ink on, first on Vague Visages in a capsule review for its appearance in the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Rendez-Vous with French Cinema:

Xavier Legrand is not wasting a second of his time behind the camera. His first directorial outing, the short film “Just Before Losing Everything,” earned him an Oscar nomination. His second (and first feature), “Custody,” won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival last fall. In an hour and a half, he packs a concentrated gut punch of tension and trauma as he chronicles the fallout of a divorce that has turned from bitter to septic. Though the first 15 minutes details a court proceeding between the dissolved couple, the rest of “Custody” puts the emphasis on how the separation affects their two children. Particularly when it comes to young Julien, Legrand exposes how kids can become just another pawn in the power games that exes play.

I also had the chance to sit down with Legrand himself in an interview for Slant. Our chat revealed a lot of intentionality behind what I recognized as a thoughtful take on domestic violence. “Custody” is more than just a violent man and a helpless woman, the image many works of pop culture conjure up when depicting the subject. The exchange below shows some of that:

The film does such a great job of showing how this divorce and relationship takes a toll on their children, particularly Julien, whose perspective is really explored in the middle of the film. Was that always going to be a focus—and if not, how did you decide to dig into that point of view?

The film is about domestic violence, but I think the real subject is how do children experience and move through this kind of situation. I don’t think it would work to make a film on domestic violence where we only try to understand the violence between partners. Doing that would allow us to forget that kids are also victims. In France, the expression we use is violence conjugal, which means “violence against partners.” In the United States, you use domestic violence, which I think is a more accurate term. It’s an error to differentiate between the partner and the parent. You have to include both.

Legrand also described the film as beginning like a courtroom drama in the mold of “Kramer vs. Kramer” only to end up as a terrifying thriller like “The Shining.” It’s an audacious and bold tonal swing, one that he completely earns and pulls off with no genre whiplash. See it, experience it, and consider it for yourself. B+





REVIEW: First Reformed

2 07 2018

I don’t have much to say about Paul Schrader’s “First Reformed” that I didn’t say in my rave review for Slashfilm out of TIFF last year. It’s currently sitting atop my best of the year list at the midway point of 2018, and it will take a mighty potent film to dethrone it by December. This is a film with an urgent, powerful message that resonates deeply with a world going mad that is also perfectly wedded to an austere visual style and overall aesthetic. It will be a long time before I shake this movie.

For more of my poetic language about the film, I’ll refer you to the aforementioned article. Here’s a sampling of what I wrote:

We’ve quietly entered a renaissance of master American filmmakers tackling religious subjects with the gravity, dignity and seriousness they deserve. Add Paul Schrader’s latest movie “First Reformed” to a growing list of modern masterpieces on faith through hardship that includes Martin Scorsese’s “Silence,” Terrence Malick’s “The Tree of Life,” the Coen Brothers’ “A Serious Man” and James Gray’s “The Immigrant.”

Schrader’s work stands out in this group, however, as the only one to take place in the present day. “First Reformed” is an essential parable for the Trump era about the role of the church in the most pressing moral and political issues facing our world. Through the tortured consciousness of Ethan Hawke’s Reverend Ernst Toller, a former military chaplain turned custodian of a historical Calvinist church, Schrader explores a country’s moral malaise and the seeming inability of mainline Christianity to mobilize against it.

[…]

“First Reformed” charts Toller’s turbulent internal journey, which heads to dark and disturbing corners of his mind, with an emotional reserve as chilly as the film’s wintry weather. None of this is surprising given Schrader’s well-documented affinity for directors such as Bresson and Dreyer, but the steadiness of this aesthetic rigor helps balance a film daring to ask some thorny questions about how actively religion should participate in the public square – as well as how much they should bring those issues into their churches. And Hawke, both deeply expressive and internal as Toller, adds a human spin on the issues to really drive them home.

Their combined efforts form a powerful challenge to Christians, without derision or condescension, to live up to their stated values and honor their sacred text. At the very least, apathy in the face of flagrant immoral and unjust deeds in the world should be taken off the table for any who take the time to thoughtfully engage with “First Reformed.”

A





REVIEW: Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom

1 07 2018

In 2016, a short film called “Sunspring” used AI technology to produce a script based on predictive text. The result is something borderline nonsensical, containing words and phrases but little in the way of logic or cohesion. Give the algorithm time, and it will probably catch up with what made it into the screenplay for “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom.” (And I can imagine the computer is probably cheaper than Derek Connolly and Colin Trevorrow’s salary.)

All the outlines and contours of a studio action movie are present, yet the finer details requiring an artistic touch are not. Dialogue has no punch or flavor, usually just serving to advance plot and fill air before a big action moment. Trevorrow’s direction of the first film in this new series no doubt paid great reverence to maestro Steven Spielberg. J.A. Bayona, taking over the helm for the sequel, does not so much imitate the franchise’s originator as he forcefully repeats all his hallmarks ad nauseam. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” is Spielbergian in the way that a luxury car commercial is a James Bond movie; it’s a distillation of filmmaking panache into a handful of easily recognizable clichés.

Acting feels like sleepwalking, particularly from leads Bryce Dallas Howard and Chris Pratt. The surrogate parenting undertaken by the two characters in 2015’s “Jurassic World” means that their relationship was mostly mediated through those youngsters, neither of which appear in this sequel. When Claire and Owen (whose names I had to look up on IMDb in order to write this review) finally reunite, there’s not a drop of urgency or a whiff of stakes to the encounter. Try as they might, none of the countless new random supporting characters with scant development can ever ignite the spark between them on screen. Their Han-Leia style sexual tension sputters every time it starts.

“Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom” at least has decent spectacle to justify the film’s existence, the credit for which must go to the visual effects artists who continue to set new standards for realism with each new installment. Bayona makes good use of a different setting away from the island, a palatial estate where villainous Eli Mills (Rafe Spall) intends to auction off dinosaurs to the highest black market bidder. He gets one good bit of explanatory dialogue about how his plan actually serves the greater cause of species conservation, although it’s too bad it couldn’t have approximated more of the truly riveting ethical quandaries explored in last year’s poaching documentary “Trophy.”

The real problem, though, is that no one inside the mansion makes the film anything interesting to watch. It’s a $200 million advertisement for the theme park, bait for customers paying $15 for a ticket to eventually pay hundreds for an immersive brand experience. “Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom,” like many blockbusters of its ilk, are getting lazier and more brazen in touting how the movie is little more than a flashy centerpiece for a larger branding campaign. The result is that we are now living a truly confounding time where a film like this can open to a whopping $150 million … and somehow not even leave the smallest footprint on popular culture. C /





An Explanation, and a Return to Normalcy (I Hope!)

1 05 2018

Hey everyone,

If you checked this site recently, you’d probably assume I quit writing or something. Quite the opposite! I’ve actually been busier than ever with my freelance writing, which has included covering the Tribeca Film Festival here in New York. Not to toot my own horn, but I’ve already soared well past my writing income for 2017 in just the first four months of the year.

If you’re curious to read what I’ve been writing, check out my full portfolio site for clips – or click on the image below!

I’m trying to get back into the swing of writing reviews and other commentary here with some sense of regularity. My new normal has more or less asserted itself, so it’s time to try and fit Marshall and the Movies back into my routine. (Plus, I’m a little embarrassed at how rusty I was writing a straight-up review for Tribeca.) This site is invaluable for me to push my writing in more adventurous or strange directions that an editor might not approve. So you have that to look forward to!

That’s it for tonight … see you again soon!





REVIEW: The Shape of Water

4 01 2018

Toronto International Film Festival

Guillermo del Toro may very well be cinema’s reigning master of monster mythology. Like few others, he understands the way that fantasy can speak to cultural hopes and fears — escapism is important if a filmmaker can locate where people want to escape to and why. “The Shape of Water” certainly helps make the case for his status at the top of the heap as he probes Kennedy-era America, a time that produced both the glimmering beacon of the Space Race and the combustible cocktail of civil rights.

Del Toro’s latest film comes straight from the “Pan’s Labyrinth mold, another fairytale with the look and feel of a cinematic storybook. Del Toro can always be counted on to provide masterful craftsmanship, even when his genre fusion and revisionism does not entirely cohere. Mercifully, it does here … for the most part.

“The Shape of Water” flows most smoothly and beautifully when focused on the primary blossoming love story between Sally Hawkins’ mute janitor Eliza and Doug Jones’ amphibious creature listed in the credits only as “The Asset.” Most characters in the film do not provide such a generous epithet for him, though, with Michael Shannon’s stern security guard Strickland simply referring to the classified experiment as an “affront.” There’s no object in his description, just a noun speaking to his abhorrence.

Eliza finds no such disgust in the swimming mystery from the moment The Asset’s tank is wheeled into her damp, dimly lit government laboratory in Baltimore. Like many a great romance, a sense of shared alienation from society at large draws the two lovers closer together. As entities struggling to be heard and understood — her due to lack of voice, him due to lack of others listening — they forge a bond both spiritual and sensual. Yes, you read that last word right.

As someone still recovering from the bizarre man-genetic experiment sex scene in Vincenzo Natali’s 2009 film “Splice,” I approach most interspecies couplings onscreen with a fair amount of trepidation. To del Toro’s credit, the pairing never feels gross in the slightest because he approaches their love with a disarmingly tender earnestness. He’s pulling from screen musicals as much as science-fiction in their relationship, a pairing which at first seems odd until del Toro finds the common ground in their use of dream-like spaces to find the fulfillment that escapes star-crossed lovers in reality.

It’s a remarkable change of pace to see a film embracing the idea that love can fear and confront other obstacles without seeming hopelessly naïve. Between del Toro, James Gray and many other unabashed classicists practicing at high levels, perhaps the pendulum can swing back away from the pervasive irony in which our culture is currently steeped. (Although del Toro does display an instinct for dry humor that gives his vintage style an edgy kick.)

If “The Shape of Water” were purely focused on Eliza and the creature with deity-like properties, it would be a pure shot of cinematic ecstasy. But del Toro makes the waters a little choppy by raising what should be subplots to the level of co-equal narrative threads. Shannon becomes the de facto villain of the film as a watchman who develops a fixation on slaying the monster for… no entirely cogent reason. Sure, he loses two fingers in an early altercation with the creation, rendering him mentally cuckolded, yet even the most furious rage of Shannon’s performance cannot distract from the poor character development. A whole narrative thread with Michael Stuhlbarg’s Hoffstetler serving as a covert spy also serves little purpose in the grand scheme of the film, only really establishing the era’s geopolitical stakes.

None of this negates the delicate power of Eliza’s love story. It does, however, hold the film back from achieving the purity and simplicity of the folkloric ends to which it strives. B

NOTE: This review originally ran on Vague Visages.





REVIEW: Breathe

2 01 2018

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.

“Breathe” is pretty much everything you’d expect of it – little more, little less. If you love stately, mannered British period dramas, you might enjoy it more than I did. In my opinion, the main highlight is Andrew Garfield, perhaps our greatest working humanist actor. He just breathes (pun fully intended) so much life into a character with such intense restrictions on his performance that it’s remarkable to observe, quality of movie aside. As I said in my review…

Unsurprisingly, Garfield nails the immediate micro-level specificity necessitated by portraying someone with such a debilitating condition. He’s robbed of so many key acting tools: the scope to take in an entire scene, the ability to react in full, the emphasis in his extremities. Yet within this tightly proscribed frame, Garfield still manages the full expressive capabilities for which has garnered great acclaim. In Breathe, he captures that same moving range from elation to depression.

For Serkis and screenwriter William Nicholson, the real story of Robin Cavendish is not a tale cut in the mold of a “Great Man” biopic. Robin does not strive to achieve the extraordinary. He merely wishes to reestablish the ordinary, a feat practically unthinkable in the mid-20th century. People in his condition simply did not exist outside of hospitals. Plugged into a respirator that does all the breathing for him, Robin always remains no more than two minutes away from death were the machine to stop operating. Rather than resigning himself to waste away on a stationary cot, he enlists his devoted wife Diana (played by Claire Foy) and many other ingenious friends to invent the tools necessary to enable the life few imagined was possible.

It’s also intriguing to think that while this is technically Andy Serkis’ debut feature, he directed it after his take on “The Jungle Book.” I might have to reassess “Breathe” in light of that film when it comes out. B-

Read my full review on Slashfilm.