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.

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REVIEW: The Discovery

3 04 2017

Sundance Film Festival

I was a bit peeved to learn that Netflix owned the rights to Charlie McDowell’s The Discovery after I had blown a portion of my precious ticket allotment to see the film at the festival. Most people will experience this film from the comforts of their own living room. That’s their loss.

McDowell’s follow-up to his audacious debut, 2014’s “The One I Love,” works from a similarly complex setup. Robert Redford’s Thomas Harber discovers proof of an afterlife, leading masses of people worldwide to commit suicide to get there. A few years later, his son Will (Jason Segel) navigates a “Children of Men“­­-like world so substantially depleted of human energy that a hashtag campaign using #nomoresuicides and #discoverlife exists. Against his better judgment, he ends up in a position to probe the boundaries of his father’s finding and expose some potentially unsavory truths about what really lies there.

Will also encounters the suicidal Isla, played by Rooney Mara in what might be the closest thing she ever plays to Clementine Kruczynski, which substantially deepens his knowledge of rapidly changing attitudes. We get out of this world what we put into it, and neglecting our imperfect existence in favor of some distant fantasy can only lead to ruin. Locating meaning in death rather than in life leads people in strange directions, such as the cult-like estate that the elder Harber establishes.

It was nice to know, too, that audiences still respond to the shock of suicide. Too bad that Netflix can’t include the audible gasps of a stunned Sundance crowd at many moments in “The Discovery” as some kind of supplemental audio track. McDowell makes perfectly clear that human life matters in the film. Sharing and reaffirming that feeling with others just serves to emphasize it all the more. B+

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





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: Kubo and the Two Strings

13 01 2017

It brings me no joy to make categorical distinctions like this … but I just don’t think the storytelling of Laika Entertainment is just not for me. First “Coraline,” then “ParaNorman, ” and now “Kubo and the Two Strings” have all left me grasping at straws and wanting for more. Dazzling and creative as their animation might look, the narratives and the emotions never have much of a hook.

Travis Knight’s film boasts a fairly common hero’s journey-style narrative, as the scrappy titular character goes on a search for magic armor that will fend off the evil spirits that hunt him down. Turns out, Kubo belongs to a fraught family tree where his main pursuers are actually his grandfather the Moon King (voice of Ralph Fiennes) and his aunts, the Sariatu Sisters (voice of Rooney Mara). Along the way, he must band together with allies who have been reincarnated as animals – his mother as a monkey (voice of Charlize Theron) and a beetle with a connection to Kubo’s deceased father (voice of Matthew McConaughey).

I’d rather not go too much into plot summary, which is admittedly all I have in the absence of any strong feelings one way or the other. To blather on and on about how impressive the stop-motion animation was can serve no good. These are admittedly among the hardest reviews to write: the ones where I just felt entirely neutral. Especially when everyone else seems to love it, but that’s reacting to reactions rather than the movie. Guess I’ll just continue in my position on the outside looking in at Laika love. C+2stars





REVIEW: Lion

14 11 2016

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

I left Garth Davis’ “Lion” feeling as if I had watched two acts from a good movie – the first and the third. If you recognize common parlance surrounding story structure, you might detect that I neglected to mention the second act. Yes, that is what I meant.

The sprawling cross-continental tale of “Lion” is essentially split in two. In the first half, a young Indian child Saroo (Sunny Pawar) winds up stuck on a train that takes him thousands of kilometers from his native town. With little knowledge about his family or surroundings, Saroo falls into foster care and winds up adopted by a philanthropic Australian couple John and Sue Brierly (Nicole Kidman and David Wenham). In these early scenes, Davis comes quite close to achieving a kind of neorealism; shots that place a confused, lost Saroo in the vastness of the Calcutta metropolis are haunting.

Then, at the midpoint, the film flashes forward twenty years to a grown, well-adjusted Saroo (now played by Dev Patel) headed off to study hotel management. He seems fine until, of course, a question about his birthplace opens a Pandora’s Box in his brain. With a little help from Google Earth, Saroo attempts to pinpoint his home within a vast radius of possible points of departure. If you doubt his commitment, just look at the scraggly hair and scruffy beard he grows!

Perhaps the back half of “Lion” would feel less like a television movie of the week had screenwriter Luke Davies included a little bit more information about what led Saroo to become the man who would doggedly pursue the truth about his heritage above all else. As an audience, our attachment to the character comes primarily through the adorable, disoriented child version of Saroo. We know little about Patel, and without a “Philomena“-style attitude or a “Spotlight“-esque focus on tedious processes, “Lion” does little to close the pathos gap between the two iterations of its protagonist. Leaving the audience to supply the difference without providing any context on what drives the changes from boy to man is not a winning strategy.

Sure, the inevitable ending of “Lion” is moving, provided you do not have a heart of stone. But imagine how much richer the feeling could be had we known more about what kind of life Saroo lived in the twenty years elided by the film. For example, what if we saw more of the pain that stems from living away from your biological mother. Or what if we observed him becoming enticed by the life offered by the Brierlys and how it incentivized him to wipe away the past? The film is missing some connective fiber that could move it from being a mere story to embodying the story of a lifetime. C+2stars





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: Tanner Hall

17 02 2016

Tanner HallWithin the walls of any boarding school, there are many stories that can be told. Tatiana von Fürstenberg and Francesca Gregorini’s “Tanner Hall” chooses to tell far too many of them.

There’s the bookish Fernanda, played by Rooney Mara, who sees her fragilely constructed milieu disrupted by the arrival of an old friend, the spontaneous rabble-rouser Victoria (Georgia King). She’s also flirting with an older, married Gio (Tom Everett Scott).

Then, there’s Brie Larson’s Kate, a charismatic troublemaker who loves to tease their dorm room advisor, Mr. Middlewood (Chris Kattan). That eventually turns into all-out advances on him, exploiting his sexually frustrated marriage with his aggressive wife (Amy Sedaris).

Perhaps if a single story thread had gotten the full-length feature consideration, “Tanner Hall” might have more pop to it. But with all crammed into 90 minutes, each character gets short shrift. Every part of the film feels unsatisfying and underdeveloped.

The chief fascination of “Tanner Hall” now is how the film presages the rise of Mara and Larson, with each giving performances that so neatly represent the actresses they have matured to become. Mara is every bit as pensive and withdrawn as she is in a film like “Carol,” while Larson remains a ball of energy and charm. C-1halfstars