Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Monday, February 19, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Disaster Artist (2017)

I came late to the cult phenomenon known as “The Room.” Even though I had heard the jokes and memes, it still proved to be a baffling, fascinating experience. Every new viewing of “The Room” reveals another bizarre detail that wasn't noticed before. Some call it the worst movie ever but, if a film's greatness is measured by its rewatchability, “The Room” may actually be one of the best. So I had to read the behind-the-scenes book, “The Disaster Artist,” written by Tommy Wiseau's reluctant co-conspirator Greg Sestero. It was, no joke, the best book I read last year. I was uncertain of James Franco adaption, due to Franco's uneven work, but “The Disaster Artist” beat the odds. As the film picked up more nominations and awards, including an Oscar nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay, a crazy idea emerged. Tommy Wiseau made “The Room” with hopes of it winning an Academy Award. And now, in a roundabout way, that dream is shockingly close to coming true.

Greg Sestero, a part-time model and struggling actor, meets Tommy Wiseau, an eccentric older man with an accent of undetermined origin, in an acting class. The shy Greg immediately takes a liking to Tommy, who is as fearless as he is lacking in talent. The two soon move out to L.A. To pursue their dream of becoming stars. Greg gets an agent and a little work but Tommy lands no jobs. Rejected and fed up with this world, Tommy decides he'll make his own movie. The script for “The Room” – a story of passion and betrayal – soon takes shape. Wiseau somehow locates the funds to make the movie independently and convinces Greg to co-star in the film. Greg will soon find his friendship with Tommy tested, as production on “The Room” proves difficult, mostly thanks to Tommy's incompetence.

While “The Room,” at least as Wiseau envisioned it, was a mighty melodrama about love and treachery, “The Disaster Artist” has much more modest goals. This is a story of friendship and dreams. As insane as Tommy appears, he encourages Greg to get out of his shell. There's never a dull moment with Tommy. The two bond over their mutual dreams of stardom and love of James Dean. Both are misfits with far-out dreams that seem impossible. While Greg is satisfied to go through established channels, Tommy – partially because he's a weirdo dismissed by everyone – has to think outside the box. There's few cinematic dreamers more far-out than Tommy Wiseau and he goes out of his way to achieve it. In an odd way, he does succeed in his goal of making something people love and respond too. And that friendship wouldn't have been possible without Greg's support.

Of course, being Tommy's friend is not exactly easy. “The Disaster Artist” does not mince words  when it comes to Wiseau being a total asshole. The fearlessness and eccentricity that makes Tommy weirdly charming also makes him hugely difficult to work with. He constantly forgets his own lines, wastes resources in odd ways, and is totally unable to smoothly run a film set. Moreover, he's willing to abuse his actors. Either by locking them up in a sweltering studio or, in the case of “The Room's” infamous sex scenes, getting a little too close with his actress. The point of Sestero's “The Disaster Artist” was that Greg decided to be Tommy's friend in spite of him being a huge asshole and a massive weirdo. Despite all that, there is something undeniably compelling about Wiseau, power mad maniac though he may be.

The prospect of “The Disaster Artist” being turned into a typical James Franco/Seth Rogen stoner comedy concerned me. Odd as it might be to say this, I didn't want the story's strange and utterly sincere heart to be overlooked. Luckily, the cast is actually one of the best parts of “The Disaster Artist.” Franco does not perfectly nail Wiseau's implacable accent but does an admirable job. Moreover, he plays the infamous auteur as both exaggerated lunatic and a fully formed human being, who is motivated by his pain and his wild hopes. Dave Franco, meanwhile, is surprisingly great as Greg. His fresh-faced enthusiasm soon gives way to a weariness that works perfectly, playing off of Tommy's constant misplaced confidence. The cast is peppered with prominent names. Such as Alison Brie as Greg's long-suffering girlfriend or Rogan as Sandy, the put-upon script supervisor/quasi assistant director on the film. While they're all good, with Rogan being especially funny, the Francos and the brotherly chemistry they have are clearly the beating heart of this film.

As an adaptation, “The Disaster Artist” treats its source material in somewhat broad strokes. Smaller elements of the book, such as Tommy's jealousy over Greg's girlfriend and how that informed “The Room,” become major parts of the movie. Meanwhile, a lot of insane details are clipped. The film definitely could have mined the actual filming of “The Room” for more bizarre laughs. Franco also flat-out invents some encounters. Such as a chance meeting with a pre-”Breaking Bad” Bryan Cranston leading Greg to getting a bit part on “Malcolm in the Middle.” Or Tommy attempting to impress Judd Apatow in a restaurant. Some of these elements threaten to make “The Disaster Artist” into one long in-joke. Such as prominent cameos for Sharon Stone and Melanie Griffith. Or the comparisons between the actual “Room” scenes and Franco's recreations that play over the end credits. Yet Franco's decisions are mostly sure-footed. Such as taking the story slightly past the literary “Disaster Artist's” conclusion, showing Tommy's reaction to ”The Room” become a masterpiece of unintentional comedy.

Honestly, “The Disaster Artist” still feels like an elaborate in-joke. Franco frequently apes “The Room's” look, with awkward green screen shots and sloppy handheld camera pans. I'm surprised the film connected with critics and audiences, even those that were unfamiliar with “The Room,” the way that it did. While I would recommend the book over the movie, Franco's “The Disaster Artist” is still a hilarious and surprisingly touching story. It humanizes Tommy Wiseau while providing some insight into the insane decisions, both personal and incomprehensible, that lead to the movie's creation. While nothing can quite top Wiseau's aesthetically questionable anti-masterpiece, “The Disaster Artist” is an entertaining companion piece in its own right. [7/10]

Sunday, February 18, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Last Men in Aleppo (2017)

History, sadly, has a tendency to repeat itself. Last year at the Academy Awards, Iranian director Asghar Farhadi – whose film, “The Salesman,” ultimately won the Best Foreign Language Film prize – was not able to attend the ceremony due to President Trump's travel ban. A year later, something very similar is playing out in another category. Feras Fayyad and the rest of the team behind “Last Men in Aleppo,” one of the Best Documentary nominees, will not be able to attend the ceremony due to another one of the President's executive orders, restricting and banning travel from a more-or-less random selection of countries. This is neither the time nor the place to get into why this sucks but I'll just say that it's a shame that the filmmakers behind this motion picture will not be able to attend the ceremony celebrating their extraordinary film.

Since 2011, Syria has been torn apart by civil war. The simplest version is: Civilian opposition to tyrannical president Bashar al-Assad has led to in-fighting among the Syrians. Air raids and bombings by the Syrian government and its allies, primarily Russia, frequently occur on cities deemed as centers for the opposition. “Last Men in Aleppo” focuses on the White Helmets, a citizen-run search-and-rescue organization. The film focuses on three men – family man Khaled Omar Harrah and brothers Subhi and Mahmoud Alhussen – as they put their own lives in danger every day to rescue people, pulling them out of the wreckage of their own homes.

Feras Fayyad and his team put their cameras down on the ground, in the war zone. This approach lends “Last Me in Aleppo” an immediate feeling. The cameras capture life as it happens. We see White Helmet workers unwind between rescue missions. They play soccer, eat, and sing songs. A lot of time is focused on Khaled spending time with his kids, playing and talking with them. (One especially effective moment shows him sitting in a pitch black room, listening to a cellphone message from his daughters.) He also loved his pet fish, so the film spends some time showing how he procure and cared for his pets. Scenes like this provide context to Khaled and the other's acts of heroism. These are ordinary men, not larger than life figures.

This direct approach to its subject also lends “Last Men in Aleppo” a startling immediacy. One moment shows the Alhussen brothers approaching a burning car, only for an explosion to occur immediately afterwards. We see the camera men, also putting their lives in danger, try and flee to safety with the others. The directors do not turn their cameras away from the hard realities of this story. There are multiple scenes of people, children especially, being pulled from the pulverized wreckage of their own homes. “Last Men in Aleppo” shows several victories, of people being rescued alive. But this is not as common as the sad truth. The White Helmets often have to clean up body parts and remains. Families are broken, illustrated in a scene where a mourning father weeps and curses Bashar. Homes are destroyed, shown in a moment where a drone-mounted camera hovers around the completely wrecked buildings.

“Last Men in Aleppo” does not focus on the political side of the Syrian conflict. (And it pointedly does not acknowledge the rumors manufactured by Russian propaganda that the White Helmets are associated with terrorist organizations.) However, the people interviewed in the doc do sometimes raise an important question: Why do people choose to live in a war zone? Many of the White Helmets, such as the  do it out a sense of duty to their families and countrymen. Some seem like they just want to help people. Khaled Harrah, like many of the White Helmets, ultimately gave his life to this mission. The film concludes with sudden, stark footage of his funeral, followed by statistics on the on-going violence in Syria.

Movies like “Last Men in Aleppo” are not easy to watch. It puts the audience right in the middle of a bloody, intense conflict. It shows the aftermath of that violence without flinching much. Stark reminders like this are needed. Yet tales of heroes, like Khaled Harrah and his fellow White Helmets, are also sorely needed. It's fitting that some of the most touching moments in “Last Men in Aleppo” show us the man in his everyday life, as a human being that was loved by his friends and family. It's a difficult but deeply affecting motion picture. [8/10]

OSCARS 2018: Strong Island (2017)

For a while, it seemed like the Academy was resistant to the idea of films being distributed via digital streaming. If the Netflix logo being greeted with jeers at film festivals is any indication, certain portions of the film community is still resistant to it. However, digital releases have made some serious in-roads with the Academy this year. “Mudbound” scored some high nominations. The documentary category, meanwhile, is dominated by digital distribution. Three of the nominees in this category were released primarily through digital platforms. “Strong Island,” for example, was also a Netflix release. As time goes on, I suspect we'll see more and more nominees released in this manner.

“Strong Island” is from black transgender documentary filmmaker Yance Ford. In 1992, Yance's brother, William, was murdered. Following a brief confrontation at an auto shop, William was shot and killed by a 19 year old white man, Mark Reily. Reily claimed self-defense and was completely dismissed of all wrongdoing by an all-white jury. In the years since, the Ford family has been torn apart by grief at William's death and the injustice of his murderer escaping punishment. “Strong Island” concerns the family's attempt to find some sort of peace over this.

“Strong Island” is, more than anything else, a portrait of a family. The film spends a lot of time with the family before even discussing the facts of William's murder. We hear from his siblings, mother, and friends about his life. Yance discusses driving around with him, receiving encouragement from him. Lauren Ford talks about reading comic books with her brother or seeing movies with him. His friends recall fond memories of playing football or driving around, trying to find women. “Strong Island” gives you a strong idea of this family, the connections and love they had, before introducing you to the senseless tragedy that happened.

And that tragedy did not occur in a vacuum. One of the earliest scenes in the film has Yance's mother, Barbara, discussing an anecdote from her youth. How her father died of an asthma attack because he was forced to wait in the colored waiting room at the hospital. Ford devotes time to explaining the racial breakdown of her neighbor, how it was essentially a segregated black community inside a predominantly white island. About how her parents both had to work hard, long jobs in order to give their children a future. It's absurd to think the color of the attacker and victim's skin had nothing to do with how things played out. It's an injustice that continues, as many involved with the court case, even two decades later, refused to talk to Ford for the film.

While racial prejudice and the role it played in her brother's murder is clearly a big competent of “Strong Island,” grief seems to be the primary theme of the film. The film's visual presentation confronts the audience head-on with this. Ford frequently talks directly into the camera. The film is full of shots of the family home, devoid of people, seeming stark and empty. Another reoccurring visual of the film are family photos, laid out simply in view of the audience. Upon hearing about the flimsy reasons why Mark Reily's self-defense claim was believed, Yance breaks down, weeping long and hard. We see the emotional toll William's death took on the entire family, how it contributed to his father having a stroke or Barbara's mounting health problems. William's death created trauma that may never heal.

“Strong Island” is a highly personal film, obviously. It's successful in making the audience feel the loss the entire Ford family went through, their pain, anger and frustration at a justice system that failed them. Ford's directional sense is strong, creating a film that communicates its themes visually as well as through its interviews. It's not an easy watch but a necessary one, drawing attention to a problems in this country as well as painting a portrait of a family torn apart by a loss. [7/10]

Saturday, February 17, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Loving Vincent (2017)

Few artist have inspired as much speculation as Vincent van Gogh. His vision and innovation, his mental illness and eccentricity, his violent death, his lack of success in life and postmortem recognition as a genius: It's pretty much the perfect romantic ideal of the struggling, misunderstood artist. Fittingly, van Gogh's life has been dramatized many times over the years, in film and song. The most recent example is “Loving Vincent.” This take happens to be animated. The film has drawn much attention for being animated by painting. Each frame was hand painted, in an attempt to replicate the swirling color of van Gogh's painting. This technique has earned the movie much critical success and now an Oscar nomination for Best Animated Feature of the year.

“Loving Vincent” is set one year after van Gogh's death by self-inflicted gunshot. Armand Roulin, the son of a postmaster, is given the mission of delivering a letter from Vincent to his brother Theo van Gogh, who has also since passed away. Roulin travels to the Parisian countryside. Along the way, he communicates with a number of people who knew van Gogh. Each provide their own impressions and memories of the man, some of them conflicting, some of them showing the details of the legendary artist's last days on Earth.

Simply as a technical achievement, “Loving Vincent” is a triumphant. How does one even paint an animated movie? Apparently, 65,000 frames of animation were hand-painted by a team of 125 painters. On the surface, this is quite impressive. I wish the degree of skill and commitment that went into “Loving Vincent” was more obvious. The viewer figures out pretty early on that the artists working on the film painted over actors portraying the movie's events in front of a green screen. While the color and waving painted lines burst impressively into your eyes, the images they bring to life are too often underwhelming. Instead of following van Gogh's burning imagination to create a visually spellbinding movie, “Loving Vincent's” presentation is essentially the most painstaking, work-intensive, and skillfully produced gimmick I've ever seen in animation.

Narratively, I struggled a bit with “Loving Vincent” as well. The decision to tell van Gogh's story through other people's eyes strikes me as an odd one. The artist himself emerges as a vaguely defined character. We hear about his habits from other people, we see the condition of both his illness and genius, and the facts leading up to his death are repeatedly pulled together. Yet we get very few insights into van Gogh's condition. At one point, the movie even attempts to re-jigger's van Gogh's suicide as some sort of mystery, flirting with the idea that he might have been murdered. Armand Roulin isn't much of a protagonist himself. He's more of a linking device for the various flashbacks that give us the information about van Gogh. Simply put, “Loving Vincent's” story does not engage on an emotional level.

Beyond a visual presentation that makes an impression of sorts, there are some other things to recommend about “Loving Vincent.” Some of the performances bring the story briefly to life. Saoirse Ronan as Marguerite Gachet, the woman who nearly had a romantic relationship with Vincent, manages to enchant and impress the viewer even while animated. There's a brief sequence involving a highly animated doctor laying out the details of van Gogh's fatal injury. There's several truly impressive shots, the painted presentation crossing cities and the countryside.

Ultimately, “Loving Vincent” is a movie that strikes me as more admirable than endearing. Clearly, those who made it had nothing but utmost respect for van Gogh. Yet they also sometimes indulge in some truly corny decisions, like ending the film by recreating the painter's most famous work. I wish the film matched the effort, which really does blow me away, that was put into creating it. It's not a movie that will stick with you because of its characters or story but because of the impressive, if somehow also oddly shallow, technique that brought it to life. [6/10]

OSCARS 2018: I, Tonya (2017)

A while ago, for reasons now I can't exactly recall, I looked up Tonya Harding on Wikipedia. I was six years old in 1994 when the entire scandal went down and only had vague memories of it, filtered through years of late night jokes and Weird Al songs. Upon hearing the ice skater's life story, I was struck by how compellingly unusual it was, thinking it would make a good film. Only a few days later, I read that a movie about Harding's life was in development. It was a rather cosmic bit of timing. From the moment images and trailers came out, it was apparent that “I, Tonya” wasn't going to be quite your typical Oscar-friendly biopic.

The film is framed by interviews with Harding, her mother, her former coach and her ex-husbands. Raised by an abusive mother and a father who taught her to hunt and work on cars, she was a bit of a tomboy. However, Tonya had one love above all: Ice skating. She began classes at four, pushed by her harsh mother. By the time she was a teenager, she could perform a triple axel, one of the most difficult maneuvers in skating. Her skill and raw talents won her medals but judges found her attitude off-putting. A volatile relationship with an asshole boyfriend and technical failures prevent her from grabbing the Gold at the Olympics. Eventually, a plot is cooked to sabotage a rival.

“I, Tonya” gives Harding the fair treatment she's been denied for far too long. She had a very hard life, casually abused by a harsh, emotionally distant mother and then hit and attacked by an emotionally unstable boyfriend/husband. “I, Tonya,” for a while, makes it look like LaVona Harding's shitty behavior and constant mistreatment somehow made Tonya stronger or harder... Before dismissing this, in a hilarious and blunt way. Attention is draw to how cruel and imbecilic the people around Tonya were. This does not excuse her of whatever wrong doing she played in what happened but a great deal of context is provided. More than anything else, “I, Tonya” makes you really like Harding. She's portrayed as scrappy, independent, and insightful in her own way, refusing to back down from those that treated her unfairly.

Craig Gillespie's film is also really funny. Some of the characters and events in the film are so outrageous, fact truly being stranger than fiction, that a natural humor emerges. Such as Jeff Gillooly's idiotic best friend, Shawn, a compulsive liar who still lives with his mom. Or the frequently outrageous behavior of Harding's own mother. The interview framing device allows the movie to frequently break the fourth wall. Harding and other characters will directly address the audiences, either dismissing or confirming the events portrayed on-screen. Gillespie's direction matches this pitch. The camera often races through the ice rink with Harding, matching the speed and grace of her movements, further impacting on the audience the amount of skill involved in her routine.

Unlike many Academy-approved biopics, “I, Tonya” is not just a delivery system for some showy performances. Which isn't to say the performances aren't showy. Despite appearing in quite a few high-profile movies, this is the first time I've really been sold on Margot Robbie. Robbie is hilarious and powerful, biting into Harding's dialogue, spitting wild statements like venom. As LaVona Harding, Allison Janney is essentially playing an evil version of Bonnie, her character on the sitcom “Mom.” She almost never smiles, using every opportunity to undermine her daughter's success. Janney makes LaVona's outrageous behavior funny without underselling what a monster she was, painting a picture of a heartless woman. Sebastian Stan, the buff Winter Solider, is unrecognizable in the scrawny Jeff Gillooly. Stan sacrifices any actorly dignity as the nervous, pathetic shrimp of a toxic man. (Though the film actually underplays how terrible of a person Gillooly was in real life.) It's a fantastic cast.

Honestly, my biggest disappointment about “I, Tonya” is that it focuses primarily on Harding's ice skating career and the following scandal. I was really hoping the movie would make more room for the boxing, the sex tape, the rock band, that time she saved an old lady's life. She's had a truly bizarre, unique life. Some of the needle drops on the soundtrack are a little too on-the-nose too. (And I wish they could've used that lovely Sufjan Stevens song somewhere.) For the most part, “I, Tonya” is a funny, sad, energetic, and beautifully performed motion picture. I don't know which notorious nineties woman will get the biopic treatment next – Lorena Bobbitt? Mary Kay Letourneau? – but I'd welcome that wave of revisionism, that recognizes these women as people, not punchlines. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Call Me by Your Name (2017)

Last year, “Moonlight” pulled off a surprise – in a really very literal sense  - win for Best Picture. It was a major win for progressiveness, for such a graceful film about LGBT romance to claim the year's top film prize. From early on, “Call Me By Your Name” was pegged as this year's “Moonlight,” in that it's also about a romance between two men. Directed by “I Am Love's” Luca Guadagnino, and adapted from a novel by Andre Aciman, the film is unlikely to grab Best Picture the way “Moonlight” did. However, it's an excellent movie that probably rounds out the best slate of Best Picture nominees I've seen since I started caring about the Oscars.

Every summer, Elio's family takes a trip to the Italian countryside. It's 1983 and he just turned 17. The son of an archaeologist, Elio often feels like an outcast. Jewish, intellectual, and naturally prickly, he finds the annual trips to mostly be a bore. (Even though there's a pretty girl in town interested in him.) Things change when Oliver, a graduate student, is invited to stay with the family over the summer. The two are intrigued by each other. Soon, Oliver and Elio enter into a passionate love affair. Both keep their meetings a secret. Elio soon begins to feel strong emotions for Oliver, suspecting this is more than just a casual summer fling.

“Call Me By Your Name” is an aching, passionate film about adolescent desire and secrets. Elio and Oliver's relationship begin with fleeting looks and light touches. When left alone, their passion overflows and the two lock into passionate kissing. The scenes of the two together, alone, are sensual without being exploitative, peaking with a sweaty and bare chested love scene. Elio's libido is in overdrive, as he's sleeping with a girl in town and also a fresh peach. However, what he shares with Oliver is special. Their romance is intuitive, based on things they both feel. Both feel like they have to keep their affection secret, making their moments together even more special. This is an intimate journey meant only for the two of them. This is best represented in the titular line. By calling each other by their own names, Elio and Oliver acknowledge their secret pact.

It's also a passionate that is meant to be short lived. Elio and Oliver have their secret time together, sharing their bodies and feelings when no one else is around. Eventually, both have to go back to the real world. In a meaningful moment, Elio watches Oliver get on a train and ride away. He then breaks down in tears on the phone, asking his mom to come pick him up. “Call Me by Your Name” then makes a spotlight for probably the best movie dad of the year. Elio's father – who has been aware of the affair the whole time – explains to him to feel his heartbreak, not to lock himself off from these emotions. “Call Me By Your Name” could have ended on that note but instead includes an epilogue, set around Hanukkah. This is when “Call Me By your Name” completely opens its wounded heart up to the audience, letting loose a powerful and intensely melancholic side. The dalliances of youth are short-lived but cause ripples that last a lifetime.

Pinning the film together are two impressive lead performances. Timothee Chalamet realizes Elio as the teenage boy he is. He's moody, prickly, somewhat off-putting, and way too horny. Yet there's also a grace and beauty in his adolescent fumbling. Elio is, in some ways, more intelligent and perceptive then the people around him. He also feels more, which Chalamet beautifully captures. Armie Hammer, whose matinee idol good looks have led to him wasting his talents in far too many mediocre would-be blockbusters, reminds us why we like him in the first place. As Oliver, he's sensitive, funny, charming, but sweet too. His romantic passion brings out a boyish side but he's more reserved with his feelings then Elio is.

“Call Me By Your Name” is not just a beautiful movie, emotionally, but also visually. Luca Guardagnino shoots the Italian cities and countryside in a loving manner. The streets of Italy are alive with people. The country areas, the fruit trees and flowing waterfalls, bring a natural beauty to the film that no production budget could buy. Adding to this beauty is an amazing soundtrack. Sufjan Stevens contributes several fantastic original songs. “Mystery of Love” is as gorgeous and full of longing as the film that accompanies it. “Visions of Gideon” rolls over the end credits, making sure their isn't a single dry eye left in the house by the time the film ends. Guardagnino also throws in some period accurate Italio disco and New Wave numbers, with “Love My Way” by the Psychedelic Furs getting an especially significant shout-out. I really like that song.

There's so much wrapped up in “Call Me by Your Name.” It's a multi-layered film about being queer in a time when this was less accepted then it is now. It has something to say about the Jewish experience, especially in places were that is less common. By setting the story in Italy, and making Roman history part of the film's backbone, Guardagnino raises interesting questions about his feelings towards his home country. These questions are wrapped in a story that beautifully captures the joy and heartbreak of being young and in love. After his finishes up that “Suspiria” remake, Guardagnino will supposedly start work on a sequel, revisiting the characters during the AIDS era. This will probably be a worthy film but part of me wishes to leave Elio and Oliver where they are, separated but never far from each others' thoughts. [9/10]

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Director Report Card: Paul Thomas Anderson (2017)

8. Phantom Thread

Just the announcement of a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie is an event. That's the level of anticipation that greets your new projects when you've made at least three era defining masterpieces. His latest, “Phantom Thread,” was an especially mysterious venture. Up until its release, we only had a vague plot summary – that it was about a fashion design in 1950s England – to go on. The film saw Anderson re-teaming with Daniel Day-Lewis, which made “There Will Be Blood” fans go crazy. Then the announcement came that Day-Lewis was retiring following the film's completion. For all these reasons and more, “Phantom Thread” was hotly greeted by cinema fans. The movie, perhaps Anderson's most difficult to unravel, has already spurned debate and discussion.

Reynolds Woodcock is the greatest fashion designer of his day. He has designed gowns for princesses, movie stars, the rich and famous world over. Privately, he's a guarded, conflicted man, living with a controlling older sister and obsessed with his dead mother. While getting lunch at a  country diner, he meets a waitress named Alma. He asks her out on a date and she quickly falls in love with him. Reynolds, however, proves a difficult man to love and live with. Soon, Alma takes drastic measures to earn his affections.

With “Punch Drunk Love,” Paul Thomas Anderson made a movie about the sea-sick, whirlwind feelings that occur when falling in love. “Phantom Thread” is also a love story but couldn't be more different from Anderson's earlier film. This is a movie about how difficult it can be to love someone. Alma and Reynolds' relationship ebbs and flows wildly. They have close, intimate, even sweet moments together. These can then be followed with ugly fights, Reynolds becoming upset over trivial manners. As is often the case in real relationships, one partner takes and the other gives. “Phantom Thread” is all about the tension that can exist even between the most loving partners.

Sometimes that tension even manifests in a more visceral way. Since “Phantom Thread” has been such a mysterious project, I've heard the film described as belonging to several different genres. Some have referred to the movie as a thriller. This isn't incorrect. There's frequently a quiet unease running throughout “Phantom Thread.” Alma and Woodcok's first date turns awkward when the subject of his dead mother comes up. Reynolds sister, Cyril, exerts a sinister, unnerving influence on her brother. As the relationship comes close to collapsing, during a tense dinner or a New Year's Eve party, you often wonder how violently things are going to fall apart. “Phantom Thread” is indeed a thriller, where all the thrills exist in the quiet space between two people. A ghost, of sorts, even appears at one.

Yet I've also seen “Phantom Thread” called a comedy. This is somewhat true as well, as the film slowly reveals itself to be an extremely dry comedy of manners. Reynolds Woodcock is a supremely awkward person. He's prone to impolite outburst. During a fever, he repeatedly tells the doctor to “fuck off.” When well, and running into the same man at a Christmas party, he repeats the insult. The scene where he falls sick also has a sudden, odd comedy to it, the man collapsing suddenly. Depending on how you see the film, a scene where Woodcock becomes agitated because of asparagus is ever deeply unsettling or wryly funny. “Phantom Thread” tows this odd genre line, funny or uncomfortable depending on how you react to it.

As I review “Phantom Thread,” its the same week the final film in the “Fifty Shades of Grey” trilogy comes out. Anderson's latest film presents an interesting contrast. This is also a deeply kinky film, without any actual sex being depicted on-screen. Woodcock and Alma's first date concludes with her coming back to his house. She stripes down to her undergarments, while Woodcock records her measurements. The film's conclusion has Woodcock giving himself up to Alma in a similarly humiliating way. It's hard to imagine someone as anally retentive as Reynolds Woodcock ever having physical sex. It seems these odd games of control, manipulation and exhibition, are the closest he can get to physical intimacy. (The film also luxuriates in rich food, a visceral, bodily pleasure Woodcock can enjoy, that almost takes the place of sex.) This is another way in which “Phantom Thread” is a very atypical love story.

More than anything else, I related to “Phantom Thread” as a story about perfectionism. Reynolds Woodcock demands every facet of his life be planned out and controlled. This is set out early on, when he orders a very specific meal at Alma's dinner. Any disruption to this schedule greatly upsets him. Alma simply entering his workshop while he's stitching a gown is enough to piss him off. Her making a little more noise then usual at breakfast enrages him. Further more, he demands perfection from his product. When a drunken, depressed debutante passes out in one of his dresses, he insists she take it off, as she's sullying his work. This is because his work is his life, as evident in the secret, personal messages he weaves into his outfits, the titular phantom threads. As a perfectionist with some obsessive-compulsive tendencies, Anderson's latest impresses me the most when focusing on how Woodcock's obsessive desire for perfection disrupts any semblance of a normal life.

Most of the press that has greeted the film has surrounded Daniel Day-Lewis' announcing his retirement, supposedly to pursue dress-making, the profession he learned while preparing to make “Phantom Thread.” Day-Lewis' performance here is not the theatrical, spine-rattling style of acting he displayed in “There Will Be Blood.” Woodcock is a far more reserved character than the thundering Daniel Plainview. He's quiet, his obsessions often working at him from the inside out. Day-Lewis, as always, puts an insane amount of detail and obvious thought into his acting. Woodcock's physicality suggests his emotional repression. His greater neurosis – his hang-ups about his dead mother, his odd relationship with his sister – are expressed mostly by what he doesn't say. Yes, it's a fantastic performance, a rich and thoughtful bit of acting.

Starring opposite Day-Lewis is Vicky Krieps, a relatively unknown character actress. Krieps, however, is just as good as the lead actor. Krieps' body language is as controlled, as expressive about the characters' inner thoughts, as Day-Lewis' is. Where Woodcock keeps his feeling bottled, Alma is more intuitive and feeling. Her attempts to interact with him, to pierce his prickly personality, frustrates her. Krieps displays this frustration in the most charming way possible. She plays Alma like a real person, desperate to connect with this person she has feelings for but finding it difficult. It's an impressive performance and I don't know how Krieps didn't earn a Oscar nomination herself.

Lesley Manville did, however, grab a Best Supporting Actress nomination. She plays Cyril, the closest thing “Phantom Thread” has to an antagonist. While Woodcock's obsessive tendencies are often counteracted by an occasional sweetness or vulnerability, Cyril is always hard and judgmental. She's more practical than her brother and seems to openly resent Alma. Instead of trying to keep the two together, she considers the girl a petty distraction for Reynolds. Of the film's primary characters, Cyril is probably the least explored, making Manville's performance more difficult to judge. The character is so unlikable and I found Manville's acting didn't overcome this status.

Being a movie about perfection, every aspect of “Phantom Thread” is sumptuously detailed. The costumes and production designs is incredible. There's so much meaning in every background item. The film is a feast for the eyes, the viewer being wowed by the amount of skill and work on display in every minute of this motion picture. The period details are accurate but, more importantly, reflect the character's world. The costumes, naturally, are brilliant and beautifully designed. Even the sound design is incredible, especially in moments such as that disastrous breakfast. Someone spreading butter on a piece of toast is made to sound like fingers on a chalkboard. As strictly a technical achievement, “Phantom Thread” is incredible.

Anderson just pointing his camera at this extraordinary detail would probably be enough. Instead, his visual approach to the film is just as meaningful as the rest of it. He switches back and forth between moments of overwhelming stillness – such as Alma and Reynolds' dinner, which is primarily shot in two static ways – with scenes that have more motion to them. Such as the camera following behind Reynolds' car as he drives towards Alma's restaurant. Or the dressmaker rushing into a wild New Year's party to retrieve the woman. Johnny Greenwood, by now Anderson's go-to composer, provides a score to match. The music fluctuates between throbbing low chords and sweeping, romantic themes.

When a director has made as many great films as Paul Thomas Anderson has, it's hard to decide where his latest work falls. “Phantom Thread” is a more mysterious film than his more widely recognized masterpieces. I have no doubt people will be trying to unravel its unspoken secrets for years to come. It's also a beautifully constructed and deeply beguiling film, with fantastic performances, that gracefully dances towards one of 2017's most meaningful endings. If it is indeed Daniel Day-Lewis' final film, it's an awfully good note to go out on. [Grade: A-]

Monday, February 12, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Faces Places (2017)

You'll have to excuse me but I'm not very familiar with the work of filmmaker Agnes Varda. The French New Wave is a major blind spot for me in general. The likes of Truffaut, Godard, and Rohmer are largely unknown to me. Varda, who is also receiving a life-time achievement Oscar this year via cardboard cut-out, is 89 years old and considered a pillar of that movement. Her latest, and possibly final movie, is a quasi-documentary called “Faces Places.” (The French title, “Visages Villages,” is also pretty catchy.) The filmmaker puts herself in front of the camera with this one, something she's apparently done before.

The film details the friendship between Varda, an elderly icon of European cinema, and JR, a photographer in his thirties. The two decide to drive across the French countryside, in a van shaped like a giant camera. They stopped in obscure corners, talking to people and making friends. JR takes pictures of the people they meet, blowing the photographs to massive size and placing them on the side of buildings. Along the way, we get insight into Varda and JR's friendship, discovering why these two unlikely friends are so close.

As the title indicates, “Faces Places” has the main duo coming in contact with many different people on their journey, hearing all sorts of stories. These range from the touching to the every day. We hear a daughter talking about her father, who worked in the mines beneath her town many years ago, brought to tears by the photographic display. One of the people they encounter is a farmer, who talks about managing a large field of land mostly by himself, with only an increasingly high-tech tractor to help him. They go inside a factory, which produces large amounts of salt to help in the creation of sulfuric acid. Among the people they meet there is an employee on his last day, before retiring. Many of these stories catch life as its happening, in a sweet and natural way.

With photography being a main aspect of the story, “Faces Places” also touches upon what a photograph means and how that has changed. By taking normal photographs of people and blowing them up to massive size, JR makes the commonplace extraordinary. There’s a definite degree of whimsy to his work. He takes pictures of fish from a marketplace, makes the photos giant, and adds them to the outside of a water silo. He takes several photos of people holding a baguette before cropping them together, making it look like they’re all holding one giant piece of bread. Yet JR’s commitment to physical photography makes him a bit of an outsider in the modern age. On their travels, they meet several young kids, snapping selfies. So his artwork has a physical value, making it even more meaningful.

More than anything else, “Visages Villages” is about the friendship between Varda and JR. They make an odd pair, a younger man always wearing sunglasses and a short, elderly woman with a cap of grey hair. Several scenes show the two talking about the progression of the film you’re watching as you’re watching it, which is neat. We get cute little glimpses into their back-and-forth, such as the two driving through the countryside, Agnes singing along with the radio. Or when the two are walking up a staircase, Agnes stopping to catch her breath, owing to her age. Ultimately, “Faces Places” concludes on a touching moment. An attempt by Varda to meet with Jean-Luc Godard, her contemporary and mentor, goes wrong but leads to an emotional conclusion between the film’s protagonists.

As someone largely unfamiliar with Varda’s output, “Faces Places” doesn’t have as much impact for me as it does some of its other viewers. However, I still found it to be a touching, entertaining little film. It straddles the line between documentary and fiction film, as some scenes – the ending especially – are pretty clearly staged. As a peak at the people living in the French countryside, and as the connection between two very different friends, it’s a compelling motion picture. At the very least, it’s encouraging me to look at some of Varda’s other films. [7/10]

Sunday, February 11, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail (2017)

One of my favorite things about Oscar season is that it gets me to watch movies I otherwise wouldn't see. The Documentary and Foreign Language categories are great for this, in particular. As much as I love film, as closely as I follow new cinematic offerings, this two categories represent blind spots for me. Before the nominations were announced, I hadn't heard of “Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” at all. The film is apparently the latest from Steven James, the critically acclaimed documentarian behind “Hoop Dreams” and “Life Itself.” See, now I feel guilty for not keeping up with things. 

“Abacus” returns us to the subprime mortgage crisis, when banks giving out mortgages to people who could not pay them contributed to the American economy heading into a recession. While most of the banks and people responsible for this were given government buy-outs and golden parachutes, one was taken to court. Abacus Federal Saving Banks, a small family-owned bank operating out of and primarily serving New York's Chinatown community, was the only financial institution in the fallout of the crisis to face criminal charges. James' film chronicles the family behind the bank, the court case, and shows both sides of whether Abacus deserved to be made an example of.

“Abacus: Small Enough to Jail” works best when focusing on the Sung family, the Chinese-American immigrants who operated Abacus. James takes his camera into the homes and personal spaces of Tom Sung, his wife, and their four daughters. We see them sitting in restaurants, eating and talking. While going over court details, Tom and his daughters also complain about their sandwiches not having mayo on it. While waiting for the jury to decide, Tom's wife also frenziedly reminds her husband and daughters to eat something and get some sleep. We learn all about Tom's background, how a desire to serve his community saw him change his profession from lawyer to banker. This stuff is personable and fascinating, each member of the Sung family making an impression on the viewer.

James' film isn't just about a family going through a trying time. It's about how tight-knit immigrant communities can be and how this can lead to persecution. We see someone connected to the case, a legal expert in Chinatown, talk to a woman who was unfairly ticketed for something. The doc's central image – a chain of Abacus workers hand-cuffed together and marched into court – can't help but make the case look like a small racial community being unfairly oppressed. James tries to add some ambiguity to the story, interviewing jurors and lawyers who believed Abacus was rightly prosecuted, but it's clear where his alliances fall. Considering what mega-corporations got away with, it was odd that Abacus was the only bank singled out. As hard as James work to put a human face on the court case, the legalese behind the case is sometimes a little tricky to get your head around.

Much of James' film takes place in the Sung family's offices and homes. He often places his camera around the various tables they sit at. When not doing this, he's usually interviewing his subjects. There are long scenes in “Abacus” devoted to recreated the court case, which is shown through illustrations, voice-over reenactments, and shots of the empty courtroom. James' visual style is pretty relaxed though. We get a few infographics about the other banks involved in the crisis or the layout of the Abacus bank. Over all, what's interesting about the film is the personalities inside and not so much how it looks.

It seems that, among people more familiar with James' overall output, “Abacus” garnered a somewhat mixed reception. Some praised it, others called it inessential. I found the family at the center of the film's story to be charming. Allowing this group of people a chance to express themselves, even while their family was in crisis, is definitely the film's best quality. Otherwise, it does strike me as a fairly routine documentary. I wasn't familiar with the court case beforehand, adding a little suspense to the movie. If you do know how things turned out, you probably won't be super compelled to check this out. But, hey, I still liked it well enough. [7/10]

Friday, February 9, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Get Out (2017)

(Around last summer, buzz starting to build that Jordan Peele's "Get Out" might be an Oscar contender. Despite the film being a runaway critical and commercial success, I still thought the odds of a February-released, honest-to-gawd horror movie getting nominated for Best Picture was unlikely. For that reason, and also because it was one of the year's most talked about genre films, I reviewed the film during last year's Halloween Horror-fest Blog-a-thon. Since I was super-duper wrong, and the film has gotten a bunch of Oscar nominations, I've decided to dig that review out and re-post it. Mostly because I really want all the Best Picture nominees covered this year and also because I'm lazy. So here's a blast from the very recent past, namely last October.)

I'm a strong believer that horror, as a genre, has always existed to exercise cultural fears and anxieties. Too often, audiences and filmmakers alike have forgotten this. I've never seen a whole episode of “Key & Peele,” though the segments I have seen have been really funny. Jordan Peele, who is apparently a big horror fan, certainly hasn't forgotten that horror and social commentary go hand-in-hand. He made a boldly political genre film with “Get Out.” The film would connect with audiences, becoming a huge hit earlier in the year. I probably should've seen the movie before now but it's not uncommon for me to fall behind new releases. As one of the most talked about horror films of the year, October seems to be the right month to finally watch this.

Chris Washington, a black man, has been dating Rose Armitage, a white woman, for four months. The relationship has gotten serious enough that Rose's parents have invited the couple to visit their home for a few days. Rose's parents try to make Chris feel welcomed. However, he begins to suspect something is wrong. The maid and groundskeeper are both black. Moreover, both of them act extremely strangely. At a party the next night, Chris meets another black man who also acts very odd. Soon, he begins to suspect there is a local conspiracy targeting African-Americans. What he discovers is even more horrifying than he could have guessed.

Being a black man in America is already scary. Peele need only exaggerate things a little. “Get Out” builds upon the awkwardness of being black in a white community. (And America is, in many ways, one big white community.) When Chris first meets Rose's parents, they attempt to establish kinship by mentioning black athletes or Obama. Rose's brother asks about Chris' genetic make-up. While at a big party, Chris is at the center of more awkward interactions. People asking about his sex life, feeling him up like he's a commodity, giving their own undercooked opinions. Even before outwardly creepy things happen, Peele lays hints that something is wrong. Rose's father talks about exterminating deer in a weirdly racial way. He makes a reference to wiping out “black” mold. It's not the obvious racism Peele is criticizing but the subtle kind, the type most white people probably aren't even aware of. Fittingly, when the motivation behind the villain's scheme is revealed, they deny race plays any role in it at all. I'm a pasty white guy but it seems to be that Peele is saying that black people live in a culture where they are constantly under attack or on display. “Get Out's” horror content grows out of this real world anxiety.

“Get Out” isn't just a potent political allegory. It's also a really effective horror movie. The score mixes Swahili chanting with discordant, shrieking strings to create an unnerving mood early on. The black workers on the Armitage property act in very strange ways. Their uncanny appearance and behavior is also unsettling. This leads up to more intense moments, such as when Chris stumbles upon one of the workers running around the yard at night. Or another black man momentarily lapsing out of his hypnotized state. All of this is preparation for “Get Out's” descent into full-blown surreal horror. The appearance of the Sunken Place – which became something of an internet meme earlier in the year – is a startling and original visual. Smartly, Peele also contrasts his horrific scenes with comedic ones. The scenes revolving around Chris' friend, Rod, are frequently hilarious.

Another reason “Get Out's” big box office was so surprising was its lack of any marquee names. The film stars Daniel Kaluuya, an obscure character actor best known for British television. Kaluuya as Chris, perfectly playing the character as a normal guy caught up in something bizarre while, simultaneously, giving him plenty of distinct characteristics. As Rose's parents, Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener are especially chilling. Whitford's glad-handing ways effectively mask a darker intention. Keener, meanwhile, impressively projects an unnerving sense of authority. Caleb Landry Jones has no time for subtly as Jeremy, Rose's brother, who is outwardly creepy in a very obvious – but no doubt effective – way. Stephen Root puts in a supporting appearance as Jim Hudson, making the blind character both sympathetic and off-putting. And, once again, I must point out hilarious Lil Rel Howery is in his few scenes, making pretty much everything that comes out of Rod's mouth funny.

If horror is a vehicle for political commentary, it's also a genre built upon catharsis. The actual details of the strange things going on in the Armitage house are not especially novel. It's the kind of story we've seen play out in other horror pictures. Honestly, considering how original “Get Out's” brand of horror had been up to that point, the reveal is a little disappointing. What it sets up, though, makes it worth it. The film almost shifts into an action film at the end. Antlers – in another move that aligns Chris with deer – are put to good use. The repressed get righteous revenge on their tormentors. It plays out gory and incredibly satisfying fashion. Peele originally envisioned “Get Out” with a much darker ending. That ending, perhaps, would've made more sense. However, the more up-beat ending was the right decision. “Get Out” ends on a note of triumph, not defeat. Given the story's obvious sociological element, it's well earned.

Due to the movie's success, Peele has already been offered at least one big blockbuster project. However, it seems the director is more interested in focusing on smaller films. He's promised that “Get Out” is the first of what he hopes is many politically engaged horror picture. I hope they are all as exciting, creepy, and well executed as this one. “Get Out” really is as good as I had read, a horror film with something vital to say without sacrificing its status as an effectively chilling motion picture. [9/10]

Thursday, February 8, 2018

OSCARS 2018: Darkest Hour (2017)

So much of Oscar Season is driven by narratives. The critical body makes up their mind about something early in the season and hold on to it through the weeks leading up to the ceremony. Sometimes these predictions come to pass, sometimes they don't. Last year, the narrative was that “La La Land” was the unstoppable Best Picture winner. Two years ago, it was that Leo DiCaprio was finally going to win an Oscar for “The Revenant.” This year, an award season with few clear consensuses, the prevailing narrative is that Gary Oldman is going to win a statue for “Darkest Hour.” (The definite article was left off presumably to avoid confusion with that sci-fi movie from 2011 absolutely no one saw.) Will this come true, like Leo's win, or will things take an unexpected swerve, as it did with “La La Land?” Well, I guess we'll find out in a few weeks.

“Darkest Hour” is the token historical biopic among this year's Best Picture nominees. The latest from Joe Wright concerns Winston Churchill. It begins in 1940, when British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain is forced to resigned, following Nazi Germany pushing the rest of the continent into war. Churchill is chosen to assume the role of P.M. It's not an easy choice. Churchill faces opposition from all sides. As he refuses to consider peace talks with the encroaching German and Italian forces, he faces the possibility of resignation himself. As the war grows more heated, and England itself becomes a target, Churchill finds himself questioning his own choices.

Like many Oscar bait-y biopics, “Darkest Hour” is essentially a delivery system for an impressive lead performance. Yes, Gary Oldman acts his ass off as Winston Churchill. He very much disappears into the role and is totally unrecognizable. The strong make-up transforms him totally into the historical Churchill. Oldman's acting both humanizes the Prime Minister while playing up his mythic standing. We see Churchill yell at his secretary, bicker with his wife, drinks too much, wears a robe a lot, and stumbles out of the bath. Oldman gives Churchill a nasal, reedy voice, in contrast to the blustery, bulldog accent Churchill is usually depicted with. For these humanizing elements, Oldman also gets moments of huge emotion. Churchill's refusal to concede the possibility of defeat to the Nazis, his emotions boiling over in a meeting with his cabinet, is stirring and emotional. So are the expected scenes where he makes big speeches to British Parliament. I have little doubt Oldman will win his Oscar. This is exactly the kind of performance the Academy loves. It's pretty good, I'll admit.

Surprisingly, “Darkest Hour” is more of a chamber drama than a proper war movie. I suppose the title led me to believe that the film would deal primarily with the Blitz, when the British Isles were bombarded by bombs by the German air force. Instead, “Darkest Hour” primarily takes places before this time. In an interesting coincidence, the film covers much of the same historical period as “Dunkirk” but from the other shore. In both films, the German forces are kept primarily off-screen, a threat that is spoken of more than seen. “Darkest Hour” is really about Churchill's refusal to back down from his opponents. What would normally be a stubborn politician refusing to budge is put in a very different context here. “Darkest Hour” shows Churchill standing up against the evil of Hitler and the Nazis. He's shown as a populist hero, riding a subway train and changing Parliament's opinion by speaking for the common person. Someone better attuned to British history would have a clearer opinion on this but, to me, it plays as pretty idealized.

“Darkest Hour” is the latest from Joe Wright. Aside from outlinears like “Hanna” and “Pan,” historical dramas like this are Wright's bread-and-butter. His visual approach is sweeping and smooth as fuck. Corresponding to the title, he often shoots his cast members in dark rooms. There's a painterly quality to these images, such as when Churchill, as the newly minted Prime Minister, first meets with King George. He employs low, natural-seeming lighting. Wright also throws in some really grand motions. As German planes fly overhead, his camera cranes higher above the British countryside. At one point, we pan from Churchill's inner chambers to an exploding battle field to the face of a dead soldier. The director also flashes large dates on-screen throughout. This kind of approach is catnip for me, flashy but not overdone. This is a really good looking movie.

“Darkest Hour” does not truly rise above the cliches and common tropes of award season, prestige biopics. It's pretty much exactly the kind of movie you expect it to be. However, within those parameters, the movie does fairly well. Oldman's performance is excellent, Wright's direction is strong. Dario Marianelli's score is also very good, full of strong themes and rumbling atmosphere. (Marianelli's work didn't earn a nomination, probably because of how fierce competition was in that category this year.) In an exciting Oscar season, this is the kind of film that fades into the background a bit but I still managed to appreciate it some. [7/10]

Wednesday, February 7, 2018

Director Report Card: Christopher Nolan (2017)

10. Dunkirk

I'll admit, my enthusiasm for Christopher Nolan has waned over the years. Once one of my favorite directors, I now greet a new Nolan film with a somewhat resigned feeling. It's not because he's stopped making good movies. I was one of those folks that really liked “Interstellar,” after all. Maybe it's just because the director receiving constant praise from especially enthusiastic – and at times insufferable – fan boys. My growing disinterest, as difficult to explain as it is, actually kept me from seeing his latest film in the theater. Considering Nolan shot the movie with a widescreen theatrical viewing in mind, it's probably a shame I'm only just now getting to it on Blu-Ray. Then again, from early on, “Dunkirk” was pegged as an Oscar contender, so I knew I'd be watching it around February.

The year is 1940 and World War II rages on in Europe. Germany has recently taken France, trapping a huge number of Allied soldiers behind enemy lines, in the town of Dunkirk. Rescue missions are on their way but the stranded men must survive constant attacks by the enemy. Tommy waits with hundreds of others on the beach, a handful of men being carried off at a time. By sea, many different boats – including a civilian vessel operated by Mr. Dawson and his sons – hope to arrive in time to help. In the air, planes cross the English channel, hoping to protect the endangered men. Among them are two British fighter pilots, Farrier and Collins, who are low on fuel and under attack.

The war movie genre brings with it certain expectations. World War II still carries heavy enough historical significance in America that a large deal of seriousness is expected from films about it. Yet there's enough distance from that conflict that many war movies become macho action fantasies as well. With “Dunkirk,” Christopher Nolan completely avoids either direction. His film  re-frames the war movie totally as a thriller about survival. The soldiers aren't action heroes but men desperate to make it out alive. Nolan never undersells the sacrifice of the men who actually died at Dunkirk. However, he tosses off the weight of stuffy historical drama by turning the story into a quick-paced thriller. It's a successful spin on a difficult to tackle genre.

If he's not directing an adaptation of some sort – and even when he is, some times – Christopher Nolan sure likes to throw in stories with twisting narrative gimmicks. “Dunkirk” isn't non-linear or especially hard to follow. However, the director's love of multi-layered stories appears in the multiple perspective from which he tells the tale. “Dunkirk” quickly introduces the three corners of its narrative early on, giving each a title card – The Mole, the Sea, and the Air – and, as is always the case with Nolan, hopes the audience can keep up. The three stories play out on their own before coming together in the last act, in a way that feels especially satisfying.

Splitting the film's narrative in three directions also serves another purpose. “Dunkirk” is, pointedly, not a character driven film. There's very little dialogue in the movie. Tommy, as played by Fionn Whitehead, is our default protagonist and he barely talks throughout. The Germans are never portrayed on-screen, only appearing as enemy bombers or boats, acting like a partially unseen malevolent force out of a horror movie. Nolan's focus is, instead, on creating the maximum amount of suspense and visceral intensity as possible through sound design and visuals alone.

By dropping the audience directly into the story, Nolan accomplishes something else. The first scene shows a group of soldiers fleeing down a street, each of them being picked off by enemy fire, until only one survives. From there, the Mole portion of “Dunkirk” remains focused on soldiers running through a war, trying to survive. Nolan's camera remains tight on the men through one tense situation after another. Bombs explode down the beach as they hit the ground, ducking. Two soldiers struggle in the water, as a wayward boat floats towards them, threatening to crush them both. Later, the ship taking them away from Dunkirk is torpedoed. From there, the same group of men are left in a hull, slowly filing with water. By remaining so focused on this perspective, Nolan gives the audience a good idea of what life during wartime actually is like. It's a constant, terrifying struggle to survive.

If the Mole portion of “Dunkirk” keeps its characters intentionally vague, the Sea sections are the film's most personable part. This element zeroes in on a small group of men, civilians heading into a war zone. Here, “Dunkirk” grapples with the personal sacrifices made during war time in a more psychological sense. The Dawson family picks up a soldier, who is shell-shocked and terrified of heading back towards Dunkirk. He quickly gets into a conflict with the Dawson family. The father, we learn, has already lost a son. Throughout the course of the story, he will loose another. Here, we see the heart of a film that sometimes comes too close to being chilly. “Dunkirk,” when not focuses on visceral tension, is equally willing to show how the weight of the war hovers over normal people.

With the sections in the sky above the sea, “Dunkirk” zeroes in on another element of the war. Much like the boys on the beach, the Air section shows men right in the middle of the conflict. Their planes are shot at. They are slowly loosing fuel. One of the two men is shot down, landing in the water, his cockpit flooding while he struggles to escape his seats. Yet there's also an odd isolation to these scenes. The men are miles above the sea. They are alone in their cockpits. They are only accompanied by disembodied voices from their radio and the roaring sounds from outside. They have to make hard decisions, counting only on themselves. This is an interesting approach to aerial combat, creating tension by zeroing in on the alienation the men feel in their flying vehicles.

“Dunkirk's” determination not to explore its characters' back stories extends to its casting. There are very few big names in the cast. Perhaps the film's most recognize performer, Tom Hardy as fighter pilot Farrier, spends most of his screen time with an oxygen mask covering half his face. (Though I suppose Harry Styles, formerly of boy band One Direction, is better known to some people. Styles actually does pretty well, by the way.) So most of the actors have to show their skills more in their faces and body language. Fionn Whitehead shows his youth and inexperience. Hardy is all steely determination and unspoken doubt.

Still, the film does contain some more typically showy performances. Kenneth Branagh, as the voice of authority on the beach, has to make difficult choices during the hardest time possible. The Sea portion features some strong acting. Mark Rylance is great as the patriarch who quietly holds his family together as they cross the sea, keeping his personal pain inside. Cillian Murphy goes in the opposite direction, playing the traumatized soldier as someone who is shaken apart by his experiences. Barry Keoghan is also very good as the teen boy who accompanies the Dawsons on their voyage, an idealistic young man in a film who's depiction of war is anything but.

Visually, “Dunkirk” represents Christopher Nolan at his most Kubrick-ian. He keeps his camera close on his performers but without going inside their heads. This makes a film that sometimes feels quite cold, a bracing experience focused on creating thrills, showing us how everyone is feeling through their actions, not thoughts. This sometimes extends to dropping below licking waves or into burning fires. Matching this approach is Hans Zimmer's score. Similar to his work on “Interstellar,” ticking clock sounds and rumbling noise is employed to create a film that feels as taunt as possible.

Yet “Dunkirk” shows that it does have a heart, and a big one, in a most unexpected way. Towards the film's back half, a fleet of ships arrive on Dunkirk to rescue the stranded soldiers. Some of the ships are military but many of them are personal crafts. At this point, the score swells with feeling and emotion. The supporting heroes cheer. It should be hokey but, somehow, this plea to wartime patriotism – of a country's population putting their own lives on the line to save their soldiers – is quite effective. “Dunkirk” may keep its heroes at arm's lengths but its certainly not cut off from the feelings a military conflict can make people feel.

“Dunkirk” is also excellently paced. If people complained that “Interstellar” was too long, it seems Christopher Nolan took that criticism to heart. “Dunkirk” runs an economical 106 minutes, making it one of the shorter Best Picture nominees this year. It's a story constantly on the move, leaving little room for slow periods. Maybe that's why the film, a chilly thriller about a very specific point in time without any big stars, managed to become a huge box office success. Some have called it one of the film's best years. Some have even gone so far to say it's one of the best World War II movies ever made. I don't know about that. “Dunkirk” is a bit too impersonal for me at times. However, Nolan certainly succeeded at his goal of making a bracing experience, a top-notch thriller that puts the viewer in the place of a scared solider. [Grade: B]

Monday, February 5, 2018

OSCARS 2018: The Post (2017)

Steven Spielberg isn't just one of the most beloved and successful filmmakers in Hollywood history, he's also fairly prolific. He's never taken more than a two year break between any of his films. Recently, he's even gotten into the habit of working on two movies at once, filming one while prepping another. It seems Spielberg likes to split his time between special effects-driven blockbusters and smaller, more serious dramas. “The Adventures of Tintin” was accompanied by “War Horse,” “The BFG” was filmed back-to-back with “The Bridge of Spies.” His latest EFX-fest, “Ready Player One,” will come directly on the heels of “The Post.” The director's latest drama could not come at a more pertinent time. A historical story about a government eager to censor and control the free press was seemingly tailor made for the era of Fake News.

The time is the late sixties and America's involvement in the Vietnam War continues to drag on. After witnessing the war firsthand, analyst Daniel Ellsberg learns the U.S. Government believes the war is unwinnable. In 1972, he leaks a copy of these reports to the New York Times. The Nixon administration, incensed by this breech of security, forbids any other paper from publishing the report. After reporters at the Washington Post receive a copy of the Pentagon Papers, the Times' owners and editors – Katharine Graham and Ben Bradlee – have to make a tricky decision. Do they defy the government, putting their entire paper at risk, in order to get the truth out to the public?

“The Post” is, as you'd expect, a movie heavy on political and social intrigue. Some aspects of this are more compelling than others. The bits devoted to Ellsberg sneaking the papers are decently suspenseful and a strong way to start the film. This then smacks right into a slow series of sequences detailing ownership mix-ups at the Post. You see, Katharine Graham inherited the paper from her late husband and the paper's backers, all men, doubt her ability to run it. When there's a war going on and the government is trying to censor the press, focusing on the interpersonal drama behind the Post's ownership didn't strike me as too pertinent. However, I do like how “The Post” focuses on the day-to-day operation of a newspaper. Leads drop out of nowhere, bit part writers haggle for space with big stories. One amusing scene has a bunch of people, inside a house and being served lemonade by a little girl, trying to assemble the disorganized and unnumbered Pentagon Papers.

Sony purchased “The Post's” screenplay in October of 2016, a few weeks before a failed steak salesman conned his way into the presidency. Despite obviously being written before 45 came to power, “The Post” can't help but come off as a statement on this ridiculous mess we as a country are now in. Richard Nixon hated the press because he was a paranoid control freak who saw enemies everywhere. Donald Trump hates the press because they hurt his big boy feelings. Either way, the comparison is made clear in a scene where Nixon's hatred of the press is explained to Graham. “The Post's” celebration of how important it is for the press to challenge a corrupt government is almost sappy. John Williams' score soars with powerful strings and sweeping melodies. The movie's final scene put almost too fine a point on Nixon's downfall. Still, it's a statement that needs to be said, now more than ever.

If the highly respected director, historical setting, and timely story didn't make it evident that “The Post” is an important movie, check out its cast. The film is headlined by Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, about as critically acclaimed as a pair of actors as you're likely to find. I give Meryl a lot of shit – as should everyone – but she's genuinely good here. As a woman challenged by everyone around her, she makes hard decisions and stands up for herself. Hanks, America's Dad, is even better suited to Bradlee. A slightly cantankerous senior editor, Hanks nevertheless plays Bradlee as someone standing up for what is right. Spielberg fills the supporting cast out with other recognizable faces, many of them from prominent TV shows, such as Bob Odenkirk and Alison Brie. Interestingly, David Cross wears heavy make-up as Howard Simmons but his distinctive voice gives him away.

Despite being in his seventies now, Spielberg's cinematic energy hasn't slowed down any. “The Post's” visual construction is zippy and quick, almost frantic at times. Spielberg's camera frequently slides through the offices and editor's rooms key to the story. In one moment, his camera even leaps back and forth between two men having a conversation. Instead of coming off as choppy, this style emphasizes how little time everyone has to make their decisions. Once “The Post” picks up speed, it rarely slows down. This is also seen in its resolution, where the court case against the newspaper is dismissed over the course of a single, short scene.

In another Oscar year, “The Post” probably would've had a clear shot at Best Picture. It ticks off pretty much every box that appeals to the Academy. However, 2018 is a very strange time to be alive. “The Post” only managed to nail down two nominations. Being the Academy's waifu, Streep got her token nod. The film itself was nominated for Best Picture and probably wouldn't have gotten that if this was a year with five Best Picture choices. Still, it's a pretty good movie, handsomely put together, with a fine cast, and a generally powerful point behind its story. [7/10]