REVIEW: Their Finest

14 04 2017

“Authenticity informed by optimism” – that was the motto of Britain’s wartime Ministry of Information when it comes to creating films, according to Lone Scherfig’s “Their Finest.” Around the time that “keep calm and carry on” came into common parlance through Tube posters, the government was also hard at work shaping the national consciousness through the medium of cinema. In 1940, filmmakers came together to convey the seriousness of the war effort while also inspiring confidence and patriotism.

“Their Finest” specifically follows the course of one picture shoot about the sacrifices made at Dunkirk (luckily Scherfig got this out before Christopher Nolan’s epic). Welsh screenwriter Catrin Cole (Gemma Arterton) approaches the evacuation with a creative, novel approach to a story whose validity and heroism do not immediately signal the traditional Hollywood ending. Her job gets even harder when the government hijacks the film to subtly goad the United States into helping the war effort – primarily through the addition of American actor Carl Lundbeck, a  blonde bombshell of machismo played with spunk by Jake Lacy. Before WikiLeaks, this was how covert influence worked. (I like this way a lot more.)

Gabby Chiape’s screenplay balances more than just a straightforward tale of film production in wartime. “Their Finest” also includes a significant feminist slant concerning women’s contribution to the war effort and their mounting preemptive fears about men relegating them back to the home as soon as combat ceases. That tension plays out in the dimly lit government buildings where Catrin toils over a typewriter with the charming curmudgeon Tom Buckley (Sam Claflin) as well as at home with her husband Ellis (Jack Huston), a disabled veteran whose “brutal and dispiriting” paintings don’t exactly jive with the national mood. This central tenet of the film bobs back and forth between serving as subject and subtext, and after nearly two hours, Chiape and Scherfig never quite figure out where it belongs. Between that and an enjoyable B-plot featuring Billy Nighy’s washed-up character actor Ambrose Hilliard, “Their Finest” simply fights on one too many fronts to come out on top. B-

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REVIEW: How to Be Single

10 02 2016

Far too often, Hollywood rom-coms problematize singleness. This genre portrays the lack of a romantic partner as a condition to be fixed – or even a disease to be cured. In many ways, coupling is somewhat of a biological imperative. But with lifespans getting longer and the nature of connectivity changing our expectations for others, singleness is becoming a more permanent fixture of the life course.

How to Be Single,” adapted from a novel by Liz Tuccillo (and seemingly loosely), provides many different avenues to explore just what this special period might mean. There’s the romantic monogamist type in Dakota Johnson’s Alice, the free-wheeling and fun-loving hedonist with Rebel Wilson’s Robin, and the maternally instinctual but careerist in Leslie Mann’s Meg. Each finds a path that is right for them as the film goes on, a refreshing change of pace from the “one size fits all” solution offered by far too many films.

The ride towards these conclusions gets a little turbulent, though, as the film plays into a few of the double standards or traps it wants to decry. It mostly just sticks to archetypes, which works just fine once each character finds themselves within one. Ironically, “How To Be Single” finds its biggest successes in the moments when someone’s archetype leads them to a moment of self-actualization.

The one character who does not fit this mold is Alison Brie’s Lucy, an algorithmically-obsessed serial online dater. Her connection to the core trio in the film is only tangential; the link comes from a neighborhood bar that Alice and Robin also happen to frequent. Lucy’s presence just clutters up “How To Be Single.” She feels like a shameless ploy for topical relevancy rather than a well-imagined addition to the story. Brie’s fire-tongued portrayal makes Lucy’s scenes fun, but they detract from the real core of the film. Her constant need to find herself in someone else clashes with the message offered by the rest of the film, which posits that extended time for solitary self-reflection can produce worthwhile discoveries. B-2stars





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: Obvious Child

27 06 2014

Obvious ChildRiverRun Film Festival

If Woody Allen and Joan Rivers ever had a love child, it would probably sound a whole lot like Jenny Slate’s Donna Stern in “Obvious Child.”  This stand-up comedian proves to be a magnet for unfortunate events – losing her job and her boyfriend in rapid succession – and handles it with indefatigable humor, both macabre and self-deprecating.  Slate refashions a best friend archetype into a leading lady, and it works marvelously.

Donna might not work quite as well as a character had she not appeared in a film with the refreshing candor of writer/director Gillian Robespierre.  Pleasant interactions at a bar lead Donna into the bedroom with the charming Max (Jake Lacy, recognizable to fans of the last season of “The Office”) … but what grows inside her isn’t love or desire for a relationship.

It’s a baby, one thing Donna knows she can’t handle in her crazy life.  So she does what plenty of women across the country do: signs up to get an abortion.  In the spirit of stand-up, Donna and the film tackle the issue head-on.  She even incorporates it into her routine on stage, not to poke fun at it but to use humor as a vehicle to really explore the way we feel about abortion.  The real injustice, Robespierre seems to argue, is the way we traipse around the issue when we talk about it.

“Obvious Child” plays out like a feminist take on “Knocked Up,” another film that explores the consequences of unplanned pregnancy with poignant honesty.  All the characters speak with such refreshing candor, particularly about what it means to be a woman both physically and emotionally.  As Donna’s confidante and roommate Nellie, Gaby Hoffman brings down the house with her free spirit and untamed tongue.

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