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+





F.I.L.M. of the Week (February 23, 2017)

23 02 2017

I first saw Ryan Fleck’s “Half Nelson” a few years ago and, admittedly, was not impressed. Perhaps the film fell victim to high expectations. Critics and cinephiles put it on a pedestal for so long, citing Ryan Gosling’s Academy Award-nominated work as evidence that he amounted to more than just a Tumblr heartthrob. Yet I was unmoved.

For whatever reason, I decided to check it out again given Gosling’s recent Oscar nominated turn in “La La Land” – and a general reversal of fortune for his career altogether. Further inspection of “Half Nelson” reveals a remarkable two-sided performance that fully captures the actor’s versatility. From my early ’10s vantage point, I probably saw a reflection of what I consider Gosling’s worst tendencies: an exaggerated machismo where his smolder goes hand in hand with the stoicism. When contextualized within his films of that time – “Drive,” “The Ides of March,” “Gangster Squad,” “The Place Beyond the Pines,” “Only God Forgives” – the turn as a junior high history teacher who resolutely refuses intimacy and embraces drug needles feels like the genesis of a dour period.

But after the exuberance of “The Nice Guys” and “La La Land,” Gosling’s cheerier streak opened up another side of “Half Nelson” that now vaults into “F.I.L.M. of the Week” territory. His Dan Dunne has a streak of incorrigible impetuousness, particularly when digressing from the assigned curriculum to instruct with a more philosophical slant on the past. He projects such confidence when he dwells in his element, a fitting and necessary contrast to his moments of vulnerability to cocaine. Reconciling the highs with the lows presents a difficult task for any performer, and Gosling nailed it at just 26 years old. He’s also fortunate to create this character under the auspices of a thoughtful script from Fleck and Anna Boden, who avoid all the pratfalls of drug addict or other self-destructive protagonist narratives.





REVIEW: La La Land

24 12 2016

Houston Cinema Arts Festival

Richard Dyer, perhaps the most important modern academic writer on the cinematic musical, divided the genre into three camps. The first two, backstage and the more “escapist” variety, fashion their musical numbers as set apart from the main narrative. These song and dance sequences are very obviously a performative or fantasy space – a separate reality.

But the third, which he dubbed the “utopian” musical, featured a more porous exchange between sequences of the mundane and the melodic. These musical numbers are a heightened version of the reality we see in scenes with regular dialogue and blocking. The choreography and the chants add emphasis to mood and tone rather than simply carry water for plot and character development.

If the extended explanation did not already make it clear, Damien Chazelle’s “La La Land” falls into this utopian musical category. When Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian and Emma Stone’s Mia move together, it’s pure bliss. The camerawork of Linus Sandgren captures them in long, fluid takes demonstrating the beauty of their synchronicity in the same way the staccato editing of Chazelle’s “Whiplash” conveyed the violence of drumming. While both actors can spar like Old Hollywood stars and emote like their contemporaries, their feelings are always better expressed in footwork and tentative croons.

Many classic musicals had to use dancing as a metaphor for sex given the strict censorship codes of the time. No such limitation exists to keep Gosling and Stone apart, but Chazelle’s insistence on adhering to the representational language of these films opens up “La La Land” to speak in a highly formalistic manner. It’s a bold choice to wed the film’s crowd pleasing elements to a borderline avant-garde aesthetic, but the elements harmonize quite nicely.

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REVIEW: The Nice Guys

17 05 2016

“Kids these days know too much,” bemoans Russell Crowe’s private enforcer Jackson Healey at the start of “The Nice Guys.” It’s the classic set-up for a film noir – a world-weary narrator imparts an unsolicited bit of cynical wisdom about the current state of affairs. Granted, Healey has the misfortune of cruising around 1977 Los Angeles, the city where the genre was born, at its smoggiest and smuttiest.

The setting is the perfect playground for writer/director Shane Black to collide many different scenes and styles into one another. There’s the pre-AIDS pornography crowd so memorably profiled in Paul Thomas Anderson’s “Boogie Nights,” the Philip Marlowe detective escapades of “Inherent Vice” or Robert Altman’s “The Long Goodbye,” along with the ominously pervasive civic corruption of Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.” And all the madness of the era gets filtered through the main narrative engine of a buddy cop film, the very genre that put Black’s writing on the map with 1987’s “Lethal Weapon.”

The film might sound like an odd grab-bag of references or – worse – an uninspired remix. “The Nice Guys” is anything but. Black, along with co-writer Anthony Bagarozzi, puts together a wild ride for two private eyes that tours the landscape with fun, laughter and insight to spare.

Though the unspectacularly effective Healey may be the first character introduced, Ryan Gosling absolutely steals the show as bumbling private eye Holland March. He whips out comedic chops that were only faintly glimpsed in previous films like “Crazy Stupid Love” and “The Big Short.” Remarkably, however, Black makes his incompetence and lacking masculinity a font of great humor – but rarely the punchline. Gosling willingly and gleefully sends up the hyper-macho persona he cultivated so carefully in films like “Drive,” adding a nice meta level to the performance as well.

March might blunder far more than his unwitting companion, yet “The Nice Guys” never falls into a simple comic man-straight man routine. Each characters gets their successes and their setbacks; not knowing whose will come at what moment makes the film even more exciting to watch.

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REVIEW: Lost River

1 05 2015

Lost RiverRyan Gosling’s directorial debut, “Lost River,” opens with a crooning Americana theme (“In the Still of the Night”) playing over alternating images of alternating suburban decency and urban decay in Detroit.  It might be the strongest sequence in the entire film – and definitely the most lucidly realized.

Gosling clearly aims for David Lynch and Nicolas Winding Refn (the DNA of disastrous “Only God Forgives” is obvious) but winds up in borderline nonsensical territory.  He has beautiful visuals and haunting soundscapes yet no discernible theme or thesis underlying the film.  “Incoherent” might be a little strong to describe the experience, but the images have the cohesion of a two-day-old bandage and the logical progression of a Tumblr feed.

“Lost River” also falters by introducing an aspect of magical realism into the proceedings.  Given that whatever semblance of a plot the film possesses takes place in a very real city of ruins, the ambience feels contradictory.  This reliance on mood becomes first obvious, then annoying, since it has to essentially replace story in the film.

The narrative is also rather fragmented, seemingly two short films layered over each other.  They have an obvious familial connection, as the protagonists are a mother and her son, but they go in wildly different directions.  Christina Hendrick’s matriarch Billy goes to work at a Club Silencio-esque joint to repay a loan, while young Bones (Ian de Caestecker) faces down a neighborhood criminal overlord Bully (Matt Smith) to protect his love interest, Rat (Saoirse Ronan).  Their struggles are supposedly illuminating the subconscious of the ghost town they inhabit, although I found them mostly illustrating the vacuous expanses of hipsterism.  C2stars





REVIEW: My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn

29 04 2015

My_Life_Directed_POSTER_FINAL_A_AIM.inddFor a while, I debated whether or not Liv Corfixen’s documentary “My Life Directed by Nicolas Winding Refn” merited a review on my blog.  Clocking in at 59 minutes, the film falls in the gray area between short and feature.  But given its interest to fans of “Drive” and haters of “Only God Forgives,” I figured I could spare a few hundred words for the sake of cinephilia.

After being put to sleep in Cannes by Refn’s critically reviled 2013 film, I described “Only God Forgives” as “a fetish meant only to please Refn and a few others who share his bizarre – and borderline irresponsible – penchant” while also claiming it lacked any internal logic.  This behind-the-scenes look at the filmmaking process, anchored by Refn’s wife, alerts us to the fact that Refn himself saw the trainwreck coming on set and found himself helpless to prevent it.

For the moviegoer, the film’s squandered opportunity represents a loss of 90 minutes and maybe a few dollars.  But for Refn, however, the flop of “Only God Forgives” jeopardizes his very livelihood.  I might have felt sorrow or pity for the director after “My Life Directed” had Corfixen allowed the documentary to function almost entirely as an apologia.  Yet she insists on using her footage as partial vindication for the project, a choice that makes her movie better and leaves his in stasis.

With the exception of its resigned and defeated (rather than triumphant) tone, “My Life Directed” more or less resembles a standard making-of special.  Since Refn allegedly would not let Corfixen shoot his blow-ups on set, it falters as a portrait of a director losing control of his film and as an autopsy of a failed filmmaking venture.  The film would make a decent Criterion Collection extra, if “Only God Forgives” were ever to get that treatment … though I do not think anyone expects that day to come.  C+2stars





F.I.L.M. of the Week (August 15, 2014)

15 08 2014

The BelieverIt seems hard to believe now, but there was a time when Ryan Gosling was not a movie star.  Plenty of people acknowledge his Mickey Mouse Club days with Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake, just as others recognize how hilarious he is in “Remember the Titans.”   But most seem to think that he just came out of nowhere, like a gift from God, to steal their hearts in 2004’s “The Notebook.”

In actuality, though, Gosling first got his moment in the spotlight as leading man from 2001’s “The Believer.”  The performance may well be the polar opposite of his stoic characters in “Drive” and “Only God Forgives.”  As Danny Balint, a self-loathing Jew who turns from his upbringing to join a radical neo-Nazi cell in New York, Gosling absolutely electrifies the screen as he futilely struggles to suppress memories of his background in order to commit heinous deeds.

But “The Believer” is not my choice for the “F.I.L.M. of the Week” simply because it is a great performance piece for Gosling.  Though he does steal the show, Gosling is hardly all the film has to offer.  “The Believer” may not quite rival “American History X,” another similar film about neo-Nazis, but it’s still a powerful examination of radicalism on both the personal and the political levels.

Writer/director Henry Bean satisfyingly delves into the psychology of Danny, looking at what might explain his volatile and unpredictable behavior.  There’s never one definitive answer, though, and the only person that seems to frustrate is Danny himself.  He’s a complete wild card, vacillating constantly between his desires to embrace the Jewish community that brought him up and his impulse to eradicate that same group altogether.  Maybe Gosling, now Mr. Strong and Silent, ought to watch “The Believer” now to bring some of the turmoil and conflict back to his work.