F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 22, 2017)

22 06 2017

I’d been a little iffy on Edgar Wright as a brand-name director for years … that is, until I saw his latest film, “Baby Driver,” which was so good that it inspired me to go back and revisit his entire filmography. I’d given “Shaun of the Dead” and “The World’s End” second chances before but never returned to “Hot Fuzz,” his 2007 crime caper. Wow, was I missing out.

A second watch revealed “Hot Fuzz” to be an obvious “F.I.L.M. of the Week.” It’s smart, stylish and subversive – all the things that mark Wright’s best cinema. He can successfully play with genre like few other working directors, and this re-teaming of Wright with comedic muses Simon Pegg and Nick Frost exhibits his most seamless blend.

The adventure starts as a fish-out-of-water comedy when the impressively efficient London Metro Police officer Nicholas Angel (Pegg) gets transferred to the sleepy country town Sandford. He’s used to his presence being necessary to enforce the law in the big city. Here, Angel finds that the police have made themselves largely ornamental. There’s a strong amount of social trust in the community, and the existing police officers take a hands-off approach to handling any misbehaviors and misdemeanors they observe. Not Angel, though, who takes thwarting underage pub drinking as seriously as foiling a terrorist plot.

But lurking under the blissful bucolic facade is a cabal that threatens the townspeople by exploiting their trust and naïveté. They’re certainly lucky to have Angel around for this, although he’s hamstrung by the provincial local police chief (Jim Broadbent) and his aloof son Danny Butterman (Frost) … who just so happens to be Angel’s partner. Danny’s chief preparation for the job, aside from his lineage, is watching lots of ’90s action movies. As it turns out, that proves most helpful for combating the menace facing Sandford.

Wright pulls off the tricky task of paying homage to a series of influential films (“Bad Boys,” “Point Break”) while humorously sending them up and one-upping their antics. His comedy goes far beyond the lazy “Scary Movie” spoof; Wright works in how people interact with film and how it tints their view of the world to hilarious ends. Furthermore, he’s not just cribbing an incident or a feel from the genre and calling it a take on them. He’s mimicking their aesthetic with loud, smashing cuts and big pyrotechnics. Just appropriately adjusted for the real world.





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.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (June 1, 2017)

1 06 2017

There’s nothing like the NBA Finals to make you appreciate the incredible talent in takes to make it to the top of your game. LeBron James is back in the championship, as he seemingly always is. Back in 2009, King James’ high school years got the documentary treatment in “More Than a Game,” which is little more than hero worship that treats his pre-NBA time as mere prologue to a Hall of Fame career. (Before there was ESPN’s “30 for 30” series, we had to settle for highlight reels disguised as art like that.)

But James is the exception, not the rule. Many great basketball players thrive in high school and display tremendous potential for advancement with their talent. They don’t all make it. Josh and Benny Safdie’s “Lenny Cooke” tells such a story, the darker underbelly of basketball superstardom. For every LeBron James, there are ten Lenny Cookes he must step over on his way to the top.

The Safdie brothers inherit a good deal of footage from producer Adam Shopkorn, whose camera followed Cooke in his high school years in the early 2000s. This was the boom of high school imports into the NBA thanks to players like Tracy McGrady and Kobe Bryant. In 2001, Kwame Brown was the first player to go #1 in the NBA Draft without having played a minute of college basketball. It seemed like the beginning of a new era, but little did Lenny Cooke know it was the apex of a trend that was about to come crashing down.

The Safdies find the tragedy inherent in the old footage, which is what elevates their documentary to “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. With scarcely any talking heads, they locate the intersection of hubristic decisions made presuming a straight shot to stardom and the unfortunate coincidence of timing. Were Cooke but a year older, he could likely have ridden Kwame Brown’s to a draft selection in 2001. Yet he came after Brown struggled for playing time, and high school phenomenons no longer received the same benefit of the doubt they once did. There’s no way Cooke could have known this, though footage shows countless instances of coaches and other authority figures exercise caution in presuming that millions of dollars inevitably await every upstart player.

What really pushes the film over the top is the final act, an abrupt cut into Cooke’s life in the 2010s after a short montage of his unspectacular career in B-leagues across the world. He’s gotten large in his post-basketball years (some of which is due to his new profession as a cook) and carries around the bitterness and regret of someone twice his age. The camera tracks him to an NBA game where he sees former competitors like Joachim Noah and Carmelo Anthony, and his jealousy only gets amplified by the lack of attention they pay him. Especially when Cooke goes on a profanity-laced tirade, it’s hard not to think of “Raging Bull.”





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 25, 2017)

25 05 2017

No book I’ve read in the past few years has changed the way I think (and thus, the way I write) quite like Chuck Klosterman’s “But What If We’re Wrong?” The text is worth reading for a number of reasons, but what’s really stuck with me are his notes on canonical thinking. This weekly column is, by definition, an attempt to set aside movies and put them on some kind of elevated pedestal above the riff-raff of the multiplex. And in time, very few of these will be remembered.

The Kafka of our time, Klosterman argues, “will need to be a person so profoundly marginalized that almost no one currently views his or her marginalization as a viable talking point.” His chief example? Native Americans. They are out of sight and out of mind for most of the country. Their vantage point on so many issues is so underrepresented that we scarcely even notice it missing. Rhetorically, he asks, “When the Academy Awards committee next announces the nominations for Best Picture, how many complaints will focus on the lack of films reflecting the Native American experience?” To answer, odds are very few.

And yet … this is their country. Americans like myself, descended from Europeans, are mere immigrants.

To be fair, “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is not written or directed by a Native American. The creative force behind the project is Chloé Zhao, who made her feature film debut delving deeply into reservation life and culture. There’s not a moment that feels inauthentic, though. In a remarkably assured first film, Zhao illuminates a portion of the country that many people forget exists. And, ironically, that very fact makes her film far more likely to stand the test of time than many others I have heaped praise upon in the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” column.

In her lyrical interpretation of a South Dakota Native American reservation, Zhao adopts the roving, windswept look we come to associate with Malick. But that’s where the conversation should start, not where it should end. “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” is incredibly grounded and less ethereal. Zhao’s interests are noticeably more tactile. In a sex scene, for example, she hones in on tangible elements in the frame: the hymen blood, the friction of the sheets, the shimmering surfaces of two teenagers discovering the possibilities of their bodies.

The film is far from plotless, though it’s definitely not plot-driven or thematically motivated. Zhao simply gets us into the state of mind of two teenagers, free-wheeling John and his green younger sister Jashuan, as they watch the dust settle following the death of their largely absent father. Most events chronicled in “Songs My Brothers Taught Me” are actions taken by John, which are then observed or secondarily experienced by Jashuan. But the perspective of the film belongs to her.

Technically, this narrative could fall under the “coming of age” category. Zhao, however, seems less concerned with charting progress and more interested in extracting one vivid cross-section. In “Songs My Brothers Taught Me,” we come to understand her naïveté and curiosity inside and out. Through it, we also receive a filtered look at the poverty and neglect that run rampant through Native American reservations. It’s a glance that could replicate Zhao’s own in studying this community – but very likely resembles far too many in the country.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 18, 2017)

18 05 2017

Recently, I waxed existential on Nacho Vigalondo’s “Colossal” in regards to what the monster represented thematically. To avoid reruns, I’ll spare the long introduction to symbolic genre interpretation and simply say my take on Bong Joon Ho’s “The Host” utilizes a similar analytical framework – but from a different angle. Sometimes it’s not just the monster we should be looking at. The victims are also worth further inspection.

When the strange Korean river monster emerges from under the bridge in “The Host,” the creature snarls a certain type of person. The girl distracted on her phone. The family too busy watching TV to notice something out of the ordinary. If you choose to interpret obesity as a product of personal laziness rather than genetic predisposition, maybe you could lump the guy in a jersey two sizes too small for him in with this group. The monster is pretty clearly targeting people who are impeding contemporary society with their habits.

That’s far from the extent of Bong’s commentary on the time, part of the reason “The Host” is my “F.I.L.M. of the Week” (as a reminder, that’s a contrived acronym for First-Class, Independent Little-Known Movie). He crafts a great action movie that’s thrilling to watch from an entertainment perspective. As a rip-roaring adventure for Gang-du to recover his daughter Hyun-seo from the sewer prison of the monster, it’s a blast.

But if you come for the genre fare, stick around for the ribbing political satire. At every step of the way on their rescue of Hyun-seo, some arcane bureaucratic procedure or cruel governmental intervention holds them up. (From a current perspective, it looks like a sharpening of the knives for “Snowpiercer” just a few years later.) There’s comedy, malevolence, malfeasance and terror lurking in just about every scene – often times all at once, a pretty remarkable feat for any director to execute.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 11, 2017)

11 05 2017

I watched Michael Haneke’s “Code Unknown” on the day far-right wing Marine Le Pen was on the final ballot for the French presidency. Yes, I’m fully aware that’s a weird way to phrase it since she lost resoundingly to her more progressive rival. But Le Pen’s ability to make it as far as she did on a nationalist platform that demonized immigrants feels like the fulfillment of Haneke’s bleak conclusion in this film. It’s as if the tectonic plates he discovered ruptured with her candidacy.

Haneke’s film debuted at the 2000 Cannes Film Festival, making it technically a product of the 1990s mentality. But darned if it doesn’t feel like an emblematic film of the 9/11 era – or, at the very least, Haneke senses that the fragile post-Cold War peace is about to come crashing down. Watching “Code Unknown” in 2017 feels akin to viewing cinematic prophecy, a “F.I.L.M. of the Week” if ever there were one.

The general flow of the film feels familiar to anyone who saw ~serious dramas~ in the early 2000s. It’s “hyperlink cinema,” the mystical plot device that finds ways to connect disparate storylines. Most academics trace its origin to the rise of the Internet, the electronic tool that held the promise of bringing the world closer together. Haneke’s “Code Unknown” shows a Paris teeming with immigration following the break-up of the Soviet bloc, which only adds further complications to an already tense and festering race problem. Most of the characters avoid direct conflict. After all, it was the ’90s. There was still reason to be optimistic!

But Haneke sees through the papered-over peace. This new world order might look like the natural resting place of a post-Soviet planet, but the evaporation of national boundaries and radical coexistence will not come without its consequences. The very format of “Code Unknown” bears out this truth. Rather than showing how the many characters who cross paths are connected, Haneke depicts their lives in jagged, dissonant fragments.

He hops from a Parisian actress ironing clothes alone in her apartment to migrants from Mali struggling to gain acceptance in their new country and then to a Romanian beggar on the street. Nothing connects them except for geography. They lead lives of pain in isolation, unknowing of the plight of the people they cross and uncaring of their struggle. As we’ve now seen, this myopia can be powerfully weaponized as a force to divide ethnic groups against each other.





F.I.L.M. of the Week (May 4, 2017)

4 05 2017

It’s gonna be May, which means one thing for this cinephile: the Cannes Film Festival! Unfortunately, I’m not going, but the official selection titles give me plenty to watch from the comfort of my own home. Cannes confers international auteur status on plenty of up-and-coming directors who were previously flying well off my radar.

Such is the case for French director Robin Campillo, whose third film “120 Beats Per Minute” marks his competition debut. (He did have a connection to the festival through 2008’s Palme d’Or winner “The Class” – another film featured in this column – which he co-wrote with director Laurent Cantet.) “Eastern Boys” marks his most recent film, and it too earns its stripes as a “F.I.L.M. of the Week.”

Campillo’s departure point is a familiar place, or so it appears to me from my somewhat limited knowledge of global LGBT cinema. (The plot bears many similarities to Lorenzo Vigas’ 2016 feature “From Afar.”) A lonely older man, sexually repressed, seeks erotic fulfillment from a scruffy, edgy youngster furtively dabbling in the world’s oldest profession. From there, these two unlikely lovers begin a tender relationship that exposes generational differences in sexual freedom and shame.

But Campillo takes his time to arrive there in “Eastern Boys.” The relationship is teased in a masterful opening sequence where Rouslan (Kirill Emelyanov), a Ukranian immigrant living in the shadows of Paris, lurks around a metropolitan train station with a band of fellow hoodlums. The camera yo-yos between extreme wide shots painting him as just another body moving in a space and tighter angles where we get a sense of how he’s scouting his next mark. Eventually, the soft-spoken businessman Daniel (Olivier Rabourdin) tracks him down and requests his services.

Only it’s not just Rouslan who shows up – it’s his entire gang there to strip the apartment down for parts. The holdup isn’t the end of their story, though. Rouslan returns to consummate his original offer and winds up becoming a regular guest. As their bond deepens, Rouslan feels compelled to tell his host more details of his former life in eastern Europe – stories which Daniel dismisses and downplays. This information threatens to usurp his own sexual angst and reminds of him of the privilege he carries.

From there, it’s fascinating to watch how the provider-client relationship morphs into a more paternal-filial one. “Eastern Boys” loses some steam in its final act when some of Rouslan’s companions grow suspicious of some conspicuous symbols of wealth he mysteriously comes to possess, though it’s hardly enough to derail the film. The fascinating ever-shifting connection between Rouslan and Daniel, expertly conveyed by Emelyanov and Rabourdin, more than redeems any missteps.