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: Pete’s Dragon

14 08 2016

Disney has been trading on easy callbacks to their animated classics for the past half-decade or so, using new technologies to reiterate their well-established old stories. This style is valid, sure, but largely empty. From “Alice in Wonderland” to “Cinderella” and “The Jungle Book,” the Mouse House shortchanges the creation of childhood memories by pandering to adults (or at least older) viewers who already have such experiences.

With “Pete’s Dragon,” however, the studio takes a step in the right direction. Co-writer and director David Lowery, working with one of Disney’s lesser known archival properties, makes a more poignant homage to the iconic French short “The Red Balloon” than to the original 1977 film. It’s a glimpse of what these remakes can be when unyoked from nostalgia and blatant commercial pandering.

Lowery brings an elegant simplicity to this fairytale-like story involving a hairy green CGI dragon and the wilderness-dwelling orphan named Pete (Oakes Fegley) with a unique ability to corral the giant mythical creature. When a plucky park ranger, Bryce Dallas Howard’s Grace, stumbles upon Pete during a routine walkthrough, the discovery transforms his life by bringing him in contact with people once again.

But the beginnings of Pete’s reintegration into polite society also raises the possibility that others might find the dragon – and they might not possess the same magnanimity of spirit as Grace. When the dragon ultimately does become known to the small Pacific Northwestern town, his mysterious intent instantly divides the community into those who fear the unknown and those who have faith in its goodness.

“Pete’s Dragon” soars towards its powerful close as Lowery and writing partner Toby Halbrooks celebrate our capacity for belief. This ability need not be tethered to some childlike wonder; rather, it is an inherent quality accessible to anyone should they choose to do so. The film’s folksy, plucky spirit only underscores the authenticity of this yarn about listening, learning and loving. B2halfstars





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.