REVIEW: Manifesto

9 05 2017

Sundance Film Festival

Philosophically inclined critics (myself included) love to bloviate about the specific properties that separate cinema as constructed from other forms of art. It’s usually in regards to distinctions from the stage, but given the amount of visual artists utilizing pixels like paint, comparisons of the movie theater to the gallery space deserve consideration as well.

Julian Rosefeldt’s “Manifesto” cannot be fully understood without its origins as an art installation. The project began as a gallery exhibit where viewers walked through the space and encountered 13 screens, each of which featured Cate Blanchett manifesting the tenets an artistic manifesto. Viewers received guidance on how to proceed based on the order of the screens, but they were largely free to consume the segments at their own leisure. For all intents and purposes, they had the option to control their spatial and durational experience. (For those interested in learning more, allow me to shamelessly plug my interview with the director Julian Rosefeldt.)

I found myself envying those lucky enough to attend the gallery version of “Manifesto,” though Rosefeldt did assure me it would eventually resume touring. The feature length version does have plenty of merits, of course, namely its democratization. Millions more will have access to Rosefeldt’s audacious undertaking given its restriction to a single-screen experience. And in any form, a rigorous and creative attempt to breathe life into academic texts about the very nature of art is a welcome and worthy enterprise.

But “Manifesto” the narrative film is akin to sipping water from a firehose. It’s mainlining an entire semester of art history in 95 minutes. Watching the film becomes mentally taxing in the best kind of way. At countless times when my exhaustion threatened to overwhelm my comprehension, I desired the gallery experience of “Manifesto” where I could take in individual movements at my own pace. Undoubtedly, I could spend hours inside Rosefeldt’s world. I probably will. But I couldn’t at Sundance. B+

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REVIEW: Song to Song

28 03 2017

If life is a song, as narration from Rooney Mara’s Faye in “Song to Song” suggests, then rest assured that writer/director Terrence Malick is following the spasmodic tune in his own head with dogged determination. In what appears to be the final feature film made in his post-“The Tree of Life” productivity period, the cinema’s philosopher laureate continues to push himself further into avant-garde, non-narrative forms of storytelling. This latest work might be the definitive achievement of the bunch as Malick probes and roves more than he presumes and pronounces, making the spirit of the film match his intellectually curious aesthetic.

Not one to slow down in his seventies, Malick expands the scope of his deeply interior characterizations to encompass an entire ensemble. His past films normally only allow audiences entry to a select few characters’ headspace through pensive narration. In “Song to Song,” that applies to aspiring musicians Faye and BV (Ryan Gosling) as well as teacher-turned-waitress Rhonda (Natalie Portman) dragged into their orbit.

Each of these three tries to follow their motivating forces – love, art, protection – by trusting their instincts. Yet these often decisions lead them back to a sinister music producer Cook, played with a primate-like ferocity by Michael Fassbender. He’s commercialism incarnate, simultaneously abhorrent and alluring. Cook provides, but he also demands. When the impulse to love crosses into lust, he’s there to cash in.

“Song to Song” hums by on the inclination of Malick’s emotional logic, with Emmanuel Lubezki’s camera (seemingly unresponsive to the laws of gravity) there to capture his vision in all its grimy intimacy. He’s not big on traditional beauty here; long lens shots flatten out the images, and jump cuts within the same scene provide a jarring jolt to the mundane. But there’s something more honest about the ever-searching indeterminacy of the film. Malick seems less fixated on answers and more interested in simply tracing the development of a musical movement. The end result is far from melodic, though that matters not. For all the seeking and yearning in the story and the form itself, the free-flowing riff makes for a perfect means of expression. B+





REVIEW: Knight of Cups

22 03 2016

Knight of CupsWith “Knight of Cups,” wunderkind Terrence Malick frees himself even further from a plot-based cinema than he had in art-house darling “The Tree of Life” and head-scratcher “To the Wonder.” In many ways, it is refreshing to see him further embrace the kind of elliptical, free-floating style that he seems to dabble in more and more with each film. At last, he has devised something from his footage that feels fully and truly avant-garde, where the motif is the basic building block of understanding rather than events in the story.

If “The Tree of Life” was Malick’s version of the Gospel, then “Knight of Cups” is his most vividly realized visual Psalm. Everyone consistently seems to acknowledge or call upon the divine, a presence they can sense but onto whom they never fully latch. This anguished yearning even changes Malick’s most recognizable visual device – the close-up of the hand running through some sort of greenery. In “Knight of Cups,” characters stretch out their hands yet reach for air as if to make it palpable to no avail. Rather than connect with God through the earth, as plenty an ethereal Malick character has done, these empty Hollywood types grasp at straws.

Beyond some of the blatant religious symbolism, it’s hard to tell where purposeful planning ends and happy accidents captured by the lithe camera of Emmanuel Lubezki begin. A shot of three men arguing on a roof that is interrupted by both a plane and a helicopter flying overhead – which the camera tilts up to capture – cannot be pre-visualized, right? As beautiful as his floating mobile shots can be, they often capture levels of acting on par with a commercial for a local car dealership. (This is especially prevalent in the film’s big house party scene, which improbably features Thomas Lennon, Joe Lo Truglio and Nick Kroll among the more high-minded likes of Antonio Banderas and Jason Clarke.)

There are plenty of mixed Biblical metaphors, too. Malick seems to dance around between Cain & Abel, Sodom & Gomorrah and more along with plenty of other admonishments of licentious behavior. The false angel presiding over the simulacra known as Las Vegas pretty much says it all. But ultimately, the “what” feels less important than the “how,” the form and experience more relevant than the content or comprehension.

Why on earth Christian Bale’s movie mogul lothario needs six different women to reach a point of self-actualization and reckoning with his family tragedy seems beside the point. So long as one can place themselves in the right frame of mind, the abstract delve into his world proves quite immersive, immediate and impactful. B+3stars





REVIEW: Carol

11 01 2016

CarolEarly in Todd Haynes’ “Carol,” a group of young adults sits up in the projection booth a movie theater. As Billy Wilder’s “Sunset Boulevard” flickers on the screen, one astute observer sits taking notes while the others fool around. He remarks that he seeks to find “the correlation between what they [the characters] say and how they feel.”

Most people watching “Carol” will find themselves in a similar position. With the film’s gentle pace gradually yet methodically moving the action along, every moment becomes dissectible. Haynes, however, does not simply stop conveying the souls of his characters with words. (Neither, for that matter, did Wilder.) Each composition is a delicate painting, gracefully staged to emphasize, contradict or contextualize the action taking place within it.

The frames throughout “Carol” tell a rather perverse narrative. On the one hand, Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett) and Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) are given vast amounts of space to move about on screen. The surroundings do not seem to claustrophobically encase this pair of illicit lovers, though the pressures of a disapprovingly baffled society try their best to do just that. Yet, at the same time, both are given so much “headroom” at the top of the frame that they become minimized within it.

So free, but so small. This paradox resonates for both the 1950s setting of the film as well as the 2010s audience viewing it.

“Carol” finds Todd Haynes working once again in his sweet spot of recreating a photorealistic past while addressing entirely contemporary concerns. Though he has yet to make a film set in the present day, he continually finds ways to evoke a sense of immediacy with forms of storytelling otherwise regarded as outmoded and the disregarded. Working within the so-called “woman’s film,” the classical melodrama as well as the romance, Haynes finds rich emotionality in reorganizing various elements to focus on female experience and pleasure.

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REVIEW: Truth

16 11 2015

TruthHere’s something that generally serves as harbinger for an undeveloped movie: if a movie has to say its title multiple times to continually telegraph its themes. Bonus points if said theme is also the film’s title.

Truth” is obsessed with, well, the truth and asking questions as it pertains to journalistic inquiry. James Vanderbilt’s film follows a “60 Minutes” squad led by Cate Blanchett’s Mary Mapes as they dig deeper into then-President George W. Bush’s dubious military record. Their investigation appears to uncover preferential treatment that kept him out of Vietnam.

However, that finding comes under intense scrutiny after a document’s authenticity cannot be proven. The fallout ultimately claims the position of longtime CBS evening news anchor Dan Rather, played unconvincingly by the great Robert Redford. Needless to say, this is pretty much a nightmare for the newsroom, yet somehow writer/director Vanderbilt tries to spin some shades of gray from it.

The argument, so it seems, is that Bush somehow deserved to be caught and that Mapes had every right to question him without airtight facts. I can only assume he wagers that the world would be better had Bush not been re-elected, journalistic ethics be damned. He has an “All the President’s Men”-level faith in the power of reporters to bring down a president with none of the respect for the rigorous procedures that allow them to speak truth to power.

What could have been a cautionary tale about confirmation bias – the interpretation of information to suit the narrative in one’s head – essentially just tries to turn Mapes into some kind of martyr. Blanchett does her best to sell this angle, mixing and matching elements from her performances in “Blue Jasmine” and “Notes on a Scandal” to make it work. But even she cannot transcend the victimization complex that plagues her character on the page, so the net result of “Truth” ends up being negative for the fourth estate. B-2stars





Random Factoid #575

24 06 2015

I have a problem.

Whenever I take Advil to relieve a headache, sometimes I act like I am Cate Blanchett’s Jasmine from “Blue Jasmine” tossing back a Xanax by way of a Stoli martini with a twist of lemon.

Jasmine 1

I don’t think that being an alcoholic or a manic depressive is something worth imitating, to be clear.  But somehow, I think acting as put up and frustrated as Jasmine will drive away my headache.  Or maybe it provides me some comfort to think that my life is playing out like some kind of scripted tragedy, like there is some grander plan to all these headaches.

Jasmine 2

And generally, I imagine this song is playing behind me:





REVIEW: Cinderella

12 03 2015

Kenneth Branagh’s biggest cinematic production to date has been “Thor,” but he established a reputation far before taking on a hot Marvel property.  Many consider him the Laurence Olivier of our time, perhaps the preeminent modern interpreter of Shakespeare.  Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, he stood at the helm of multiple acclaimed film adaptations of the Bard of Stratford-upon-Avon’s plays.

After delivering a dead-on-arrival reboot of the “Jack Ryan” franchise, Branagh turned back toward a source material that he could more faithfully reproduce: Disney’s “Cinderella.”  He approaches the fabled animated classic with the same tender touch he brings to a Shakespeare text, gingerly re-staging the action with careful attention to its original incarnation.  By not shaking anything up, Branagh ensures that his film will not ruffle the feathers of the die-hards.

But the downside of such a rigid reinterpretation is that his “Cinderella” also does not really excite anyone except the die-hards.  If the animated classic, 65 years later, still enchants children everywhere, why bother to remake it with such obliviousness to the many midnights passed?  (“Maleficent,” warts and all, at least took a stab at reimagining the “Sleeping Beauty” mythology.)  The answer seems simple: merchandising opportunities and brand awareness.

Branagh serves less as a director and more as a cookie-cutter, ensuring that all components of his “Cinderella” meet the pre-established mold.  In everything from the opening line of “once upon a time” to the traditional gender roles and ideology, the film adequately measures up.  The only worthwhile addition 2015 makes to the story is some CGI in the Fairy Godmother’s transformation of Cinderella, her escorts, and her carriage – effects that look quite magical.

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