REVIEW: A Ghost Story

9 07 2017

Sundance Film Festival

I knew little about “A Ghost Story” prior to the moment when A24’s bumper was projected onto the screen, apart from a cryptic tease on director David Lowery’s Instagram and his opening statement at the theater’s podium claiming that he couldn’t wait to talk with us about it afterwards. I intend to convey as little as possible in order not to spoil “A Ghost Story” for others, although words could scarcely convey what must simply be experienced cerebrally and emotionally.

This pensive, plaintive drama floats freely through time with the ghost of a man credited as C (Casey Affleck), but otherwise never named in the film. After a car crash takes his life, C emerges from the autopsy table and returns to his old dwelling underneath a white sheet with dark eyeholes. He stays and watches what remains of the time his partner M (Rooney Mara) spends there and then some – imagine spending an entire film in Kubrick’s Renaissance Room from “2001: A Space Odyssey.” On a moment-to-moment basis, “A Ghost Story” captivates simply (though not entirely) for lack of knowledge over where it might go next.

The ghost mills about, and we are never entirely sure what motivates his actions. The sheet serves as a blank slate onto which we can project our own ideas and assign our desired motivations. It is abundantly clear that he does share a special bond with both M and the plot of land they bought together, one with a history that transcends the impermanence of life that Lowery so carefully depicts. He does with image and montage what a film like “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button,” to pick an easy example, does with narrative.

Lowery introduces a narrative conceit to remove us from our traditional comprehension of time and leaves us to ponder what forces still operate in these conditions. His film achieves the rare balance of technical precision and emotional honesty. “A Ghost Story” gives audiences plenty to unpack in every camera angle, edit and sonic accompaniment, but Lowery also slips in a certain weightiness that instills a desire – if not compulsion – to want to undertake such an effort. B+

NOTE: A portion of this review ran as a part of my coverage of the 2017 Sundance Film Festival for Movie Mezzanine.





REVIEW: Manchester by the Sea

12 12 2016

manchester-by-the-seaEarlier this year, Richard Linklater’s “Everybody Wants Some!!” concluded an earnest moment of connection (slight spoilers – as much as that movie can be spoiled) with the protagonist, Blake Jenner’s Jake Bradford, describing his college essay’s reinterpretation of the Greek myth of Sisyphus. In his mind, the Sisyphean task of rolling a boulder up a hill only to have it roll back down, was not merely cosmic punishment. His eternal recurrence was instead an unintended cosmic gift that gives him a chance to find meaning and purpose.

No such solace or comfort can be found in the more straightforward Sisyphean tale told by Kenneth Lonergan in “Manchester by the Sea.” We meet his central character, Casey Affleck’s Lee Chandler, going through a series of repetitive toils in his work as an apartment complex’s janitor. Going from unit to unit, he fixes problems that residents could either fix themselves or avoid entirely. When not waiting hand and foot on tenants, Lee shovels the snow off the walkway to his basement dwelling, and the snow never seems to stay clear.

Lee Chandler is a modern Sisyphus of Massachusetts, a fate made even more distressing because he appears to have resigned himself to it. His percolating wit and acerbic banter with the people he must serve indicates an intellect far superior than the average sanitation engineer. If there is any upside to this situation, Lee willingly blinds himself to it.

As time passes and tragedy strikes the Chandler family tree with the young death of Lee’s brother Joe (Kyle Chandler), we come to possess a deeper understanding of Lee’s self-imposed exile. He is the ultimate embodiment of Catholic guilt, responding to a perceived lack of divine justice against a life-changing mistake by taking the role of punisher away from a seemingly absent authority. He enters into an existence of almost complete asceticism, not because he hopes to earn redemption but because wishes never to escape the burden of his misdeeds.

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F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 11, 2016)

11 08 2016

Ain't Them Bodies SaintsWhen I first watched David Lowery’s “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints,” my initial impression was that it amounted to one of the better spate of Malick-lite films spawned in the wake of “The Tree of Life.” Look for that and you’ll see all the hallmarks: floating camera, internal dialogue drifting through scenes, bucolic settings, deep contemplation.

But seeing that and only that misses all the film has to offer elsewhere. (To be fair, this probably was not a great movie to watch while jet-lagged after just arriving for a semester abroad in Europe.) “Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” is more than just an explosion of technical virtuosity from Lowery and director of photography Bradford Young, who has since gone on to lens such notable works as “Selma” and “A Most Violent Year.” It is my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” because its outer beauty helps expose the inner beauty of its epistolary love story.

At the core of the film is Rooney Mara’s steely Ruth Guthrie, a Texas woman caught between the man who stole her heart (Casey Affleck’s Bob Muldoon) and the officer who helped put Bob behind bars (Ben Foster’s Patrick Wheeler). Don’t call it a love triangle, though. Mara remains stone-faced as if she has erected the ultimate shield to mask her internal bewilderment over all that transpires. The choice ahead is one of great magnitude, and her strategy for coming to grips relies on downplaying her decision.

“Ain’t Them Bodies Saints” does contain a storyline running parallel to its main plot involving Bob’s escape from prison and surreptitious journey back to reclaim Ruth. Affleck brings his usual grizzled intensity to the role, but make no mistake, the film is all Mara.





REVIEW: The Finest Hours

18 07 2016

There’s something odd about Disney’s “The Finest Hours.”

This ’50s-set high-seas rescue does everything it can to recreate that era in the filmmaking. Director Craig Gillespie operates at a more methodical, easygoing pace in land-bound scenes. Period detail is all there, even down to the sound of the time as composer Carter Burwell provides a similarly moody post-war ambiance that he endowed to last year’s “Carol.” Heck, they even filled the role of Coast Guard crewman Bernie Webber with Chris Pine, the rare working actor today who can comfortably assume the style and mannerisms of a golden age Hollywood studio star.

And yet, “The Finest Hours” is the kind of disaster caper only possible to achieve at this level in the 21st century with computer graphics. The films of the 1950s – even the epics – were limited by the technology available at the time and bolstered by a grounded grandiosity. Seeing is believing here when technicians can show, in great detail, the destructive storm and waves that strand a vessel off the coast of Massachusetts. When the filmmakers try some of the more magical elements of a bygone period, such as suggesting a quasi-spiritual connection of Bernie’s sea navigation to his romantic interest’s journey on the open road, it falls completely flat.

“The Finest Hours” is a film caught between two styles of moviemaking and two schools of thinking. Gillespie and company can never quite figure out how to resolve this tension from the beginning, and as a result, the film sinks before it even has the chance to doggy-paddle.  C2stars





REVIEW: Triple 9

7 03 2016

John Hillcoat’s “Triple 9” makes for quintessential tough cinema – and in more ways than one. It’s hard-edged in content as a brutal crime plot breaks out in the Atlanta underworld but also somewhat tough in form; Matt Cook’s screenplay proves challenging to follow as more than broad strokes on many occasions. The sprawling tale of interwoven cops, criminals and robbers weaves a complicated web of characters.

Yet while the lack of numerous balls juggled during “Triple 9” are somewhat of a liability, they also become a strength when events take a brutally ironic turn in the second half. The film becomes almost like a classic piece of Russian literature with its cruel reversals of fate, though Cook somewhat overloads the dramatic irony by having characters mull over the impossible “coincidence” time and again. With lightly sketched characters, they become less like people and more akin to pieces to form an allegory about humanity as a whole.

Even without much in the way of characterization, the actors still shine through, namely Casey Affleck as the film’s de facto moral center, officer Chris Allen. (Others, like Aaron Paul and Kate Winslet, play up glorified caricatures.) Meanwhile, editor Dylan Tichenor, the man who cut masterpieces as varied as “Boogie Nights” and “Zero Dark Thirty,” provides excellent tension as Allen falls into the crosshairs of cops who serve the local Russian mafia bosses. The two of them almost manage to turn the film into a Coen-esque spin on a tale like “The Departed.” But even a watered-down version of that idyllic fantasy film would be worth watching – as “Triple 9” is, too. B2halfstars





REVIEW: Out of the Furnace

11 09 2015

Out of the FurnaceThe small town, blue-collar workers in Scott Cooper’s “Out of the Furnace” are disappearing both from America and from the silver screen.  They deserve better than what they get here, a gritty realism riddled with clichéd storytelling conventions.

Cooper covers a lot of that up with a great cast that turns in predictably solid, if not dazzling, performances.  The explosiveness of Christian Bale, Woody Harrelson, and Casey Affleck in one movie alone is a sight to see no matter what. But it should be a powder keg, not a few sparks flying.

The film should receive some credit for being one of few to tackle the home-front experiences of Iraq War veterans like Affleck’s Rodney Baze.  He’s completely volatile, a pugnacious time bomb who will detonate if he cannot pulverize someone with his fists.  But everyone else in the Pennsylvania Rust Belt town in “Out of the Furnace” who tries to either defuse him or encourage him just fails to light up the screen in any way, shape, or form.

For a film whose title refers to an object capable of generating high temperatures, “Out of the Furnace” packs remarkably little heat.  C / 2stars





REVIEW: Interstellar

9 11 2014

“We were meant to be explorers, pioneers – not caretakers,” utters Matthew McConaughey’s Cooper towards the start of “Interstellar.”  This declaration is true not only for the world of the film but also of its filmmaker, the inimitable Christopher Nolan.  As if exploring the deepest corners of the mind with “Inception” or redefining an entire cinematic genre with “The Dark Knight” was not enough, he has now flung his vision and ambition into the farthest reaches of space and time.

His “Interstellar” is not limited by dimensions nor encumbered by gravity.  It defies time and space entirely.  It is at once poetic and narrative.  It is a calculated work of science that also operates from a profound emotional level, wedding Kubrickian formalism to Spielbergian sentimentalism.  And most importantly, it inspires wonder and awe.

This is why, at least in Christopher Nolan’s lifetime, the movie theater experience will not perish.  His cinema is bold, immersive, and ultimately transcendent.  He goes beyond capturing an image or a feeling for what it is, showing the majesty it can embody and convey.  When at his calibrated best, Nolan can invoke not only a visceral reaction but also a spiritual one.

He is the undeniable myth maker of our time.  If that does not prompt loyal adherence, it should, at the bare minimum, command admiration and respect.  No one else working with this massive a budget is coming anywhere close to approximating Nolan’s scope or verve.  “Interstellar” is the latest shining star in his cinematic universe, and it shines brightly as a paradigm of balancing artistry and authorship along with accessibility and avant-gardism.

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