Friday, February 17, 2017
Studio Ghibli. The Japanese animation giant didn't announce their closure but it appears the studio has slowed down in recent years. One of the few films to emerge from the house that Totoro built recently is “The Red Turtle.” Primarily a French/Belgium co-production, the Japanese studio helped out in making the movie because Miyazaki was a fan of director Michael Dudok de Wit's short films. Now this visually scrumptious film has ridden a wave of positive reviews all the way to the Academy Awards, where it's one of two arty foreign films to get nominated for Best Animated Feature.
“The Red Turtle” is a story told without any dialogue, aside from occasional, barely audible shouts of “yeah” or “hey.” It begins with a man adrift in the ocean, tossed by a storm. He arrives on a desert island, covered with a lush bamboo forest. He builds several rafts, attempting to float home. Each time, the raft sinks, tore apart by some animal under the waves. Eventually, the man discovers a culprit: A large, red turtle. Enraged, he kills the turtle. In time, the deceased, aquatic reptile changes into a beautiful woman. Together, the two start a life together, making the island their home.
traditional Belgium comics to mind. Several shots are even done in a wide, flat angle, recalling the panels of a comic stripe. Meanwhile, the island setting is brought to life with incredible detail, making the location seem like a real place that is vibrant and alive. The scenes under the water have a brilliant blue color, appearing serene. When the turtle appears, it has a hyper-realistic look that deliberately contrasts against the minimalist people. Each frame is a work of art, a gorgeously illustrated painting brought that leaps off the screen.
“The Red Turtle” feels like an allegory of some sort. There's a circular aspect to the story. People arrive at and leave the island, just to arrive again, bringing the rhythm of a fable to mind. The film is rift with symbols, like the rain that seemingly gives life. Rafts, bottles, and turtle shells have some sort of deeper meaning, representing the different characters. The way the man goes from hating the turtle to loving it is significant, I'm sure. Dream sequences frequently occur over “The Red Turtle's” brief run time. The dead turtle floating into the air or a wave frozen above the island are but two surreal images that grace the movie. Together, these attribute create a slightly inscrutable film that plays out like a piece of music, floating from point to point in an elegant if somewhat obscure fashion.
a survival story. After all, it concerns a man washing up on an island and doing what he can to live. Yet the film is not so much concerned with the details of surviving on a desert island. Honestly, the setting is sort of cozy. The forest provides the man with shelter and fruit. The ocean gives him fish. The rain gives him drinking water. Before the turtle turns into a woman, he even has company thanks to the adorable crabs skittering across the beach. After the turtle becomes his wife and the two have a son, the island seems like an even nicer place to live. The trio appear pretty happy. The inviting setting makes “The Red Turtle” a pleasant film to visit as you watch it.
If there is indeed any deeper meaning to “The Red Turtle,” it might have gone over my head. Maybe the film is just meant to be enjoyed as a collection of beautiful images? Or perhaps it's not anything more than a dream-like story of love and connection found in an unexpected place? Or maybe the director just really likes turtles? Whatever the intention behind it, the movie remains strangely touching and is certainly worth seeing for its spellbinding animation. I'm glad the Academy decided to honor a unique motion picture like this one. [7/10]
Thursday, February 16, 2017
a racist in the White House, whose top adviser is a literal Neo-Nazi. Things are fucked up. “13th,” from director Ava DuVernay of “Selma,” carefully lays out the case that shit is very fucked up and has been for a very long time. Beginning by pointing out a certain by-law in the 13th Amendment – that prisoners loose their rights as citizens – the film extrapolates from that the different ways American society has conspired to imprison, dehumanize, and persecute the black community.
From the moment slavery was outlawed, black men were persecuted for petty crimes, locked up, and used as free labor. This essentially filled the void the end of slavery left in the Southern economy. “13th” studies the various schemes cooked up to make the imprisonment of black individuals easier. First, black men were depicted as barely human savages prone to rape white women, as in “The Birth of a Nation.” A different method arose in the 1960s, when Richard Nixon began his war on drugs to persecute his political enemies. Which, it must be said, explicitly included the civil rights movement. Ronald Reagan increased this method in the eighties, with laws that more severely punished users of crack cocaine. Which, you might realized, was a drug far more prominent in inner city neighbors with high racial minority population. (It's obvious that DuVernay has no qualms about voicing her displeasure with the Republican party but the Clintons don't get off easily either.)
Then again, the two topics are irreversibly intertwined. “13th” makes the compelling point that certain aspects of American society are designed to paint black men as criminals, as prisoners. Once the film comes around to the topic of black protest in the modern age, it finds itself again. The ugly truth concerning Tryvon Martin, Ferguson, Eric Gardner, and Kalif Browder are presented. An especially chilling sequence shows a montage of videos of black men attacked and sometimes killed by police officers. Inevitably, the big orange shithead in the White House comes up. Another startling sequence contrasts President Trump's thoughts on protesters with vintage footage of black protesters being beaten and attacked.
Before you watch this movie, get ready to be pissed off. You should be pissed off. That's exactly the point. The film has no easy answers. The experts interviewed admit that this is a problem that will never go away, that it is unavoidably wrapped up in American culture. Which makes “13th” a call to awareness, to expose the brutal machinations of the system, its roots and history. As a piece of film making, I wish it was a little better paced. As a piece of activism, it's enormously important. [7/10]
Wednesday, February 15, 2017
Take Shelter” and “Mud,” received plenty of critical praise, scooping up numerous awards along the way. Despite some ace campaigning, neither movie caught Oscar's attention. With his fifth feature, Nichols has finally broke through with the Academy. And all it took was a movie about an inspiring historical event. “Loving” tells the true story of Richard and Mildred Loving, an interracial couple who fought for their right to marry all the way to the Supreme Court. Even then, Nichols' film only received one nomination, in the Best Actress category for Ruth Negga. I'm sure Nichols will get a Best Director Oscar some day. It's just going to take a while.
The place is Caroline, a county in southern Virginia. The time is 1958. Richard Loving, a simple bricklayer, is in love with Mildred Jeter. When Mildred becomes pregnant, they plan to marry. There's only one problem. Richard is white, Mildred is black, and interracial marriage is illegal in Virginia. The couple try to avoid detection, driving to D.C. to marry, but eventually the local cops become aware of the union. They threaten the two with jail time, forcing them to move out of state. When Mildred is ready to have her baby, they sneak back into Virginia, getting them both thrown in jail. After she writes a letter to Robert Kennedy, the case is brought to the attention of the ACLU. The lawyers take the Loving's case, fighting in Washington for a historical ruling.
Time Magazine, Richard reclines in Mildred's lap while they watch TV. It's a muted, low key love story without big scenes of explosive emotions. In the quote that concludes the film, Mildred says Richard “took care of her.” It's an incredibly sweet, genuine romance, brought to life by the small moments that pass through life.
Honestly, “Loving” might come off as too quiet if it wasn't for the two leads. Joel Edgerton – who I have to constantly remind myself is not the same person as Joel Kinnamen – is Richard Loving. He plays the part as incredibly stoic, with Edgerton having few lines of dialogue. Yet his feelings are conveyed in terse looks and quick action. When a car approaches the house, he yells at his kids to hide, fearful of who might be inside. When Mildred is interviewed by a reporter, he quietly attempts to call off the interview, fearful of the attention it might draw to them. Probably Edgerton's best moment is when he instructs a lawyer to tell the Supreme Court, simply, that he loves his wife. The nominated Ruth Negga plays Mildred as more emotive but no less considered. She's a woman who has lived her whole life being careful with her words. Both performances are very good, rooting “Loving” in sincerity.
It wouldn't surprise me if “Loving” proved too laconic for the Academy. They usually like their emotions to be Big and acted to the ceiling. “Loving” is a simple story, of a couple who loved each other so much they were willing to put everything on the line for it. Jeff Nichols tells the story without too much dramatic reinvention or manufactured tension. The result, a movie about real life that actually feels like real life, is surprisingly effective. (By the way, Nichols' good luck charm, Michael Shannon, is brilliantly cast against type in a small role as the nerdy magazine photographer.) [7/10]
Tuesday, February 14, 2017
Nocturnal Animals” was considered an awards contender. The director's previous feature was critically acclaimed. The film, which doubles as a gritty crime picture and a metatextual examination of the relationship between reality and fiction, is based on a respected novel. The cast was loaded with well known, beloved actors. Yet when the nominations were announced last month, “Nocturnal Animals” only cropped up in one category. You just never know what Oscar is going to go for, even when the movie is actually pretty good, like this one.
Susan Morrow is a successful art gallery owner. Many years ago, she was married to Edward, a struggling novelist who encouraged her to pursue the arts. Their relationship ended in a ugly way, with Susan leaving him for another man. Out of the blue, Edward mails Susan his new novel. Called “Nocturnal Animals,” the book is about a man whose wife and daughter are abducted, raped, and murdered by a trio of redneck criminals. As Susan reads through the story, she can't help but notice similarities to the life she had with Edward. As she reflects on how their relationship started and ended, she even considers reconnecting with her ex-husband.
I think every writer does. Perhaps its normal to work through feelings and hurt through creative outlets. “Nocturnal Animals” directly concerns these motivations. Susan imagines Edward as the leader character of his novel. In a further meta choice, the film casts Amy Adams' celebrity doppelganger Isla Fisher as the fictional wife. The novel's theme of loss, guilt, and revenge seems to reflect the events of their relationship. The death of the fictional wife corresponds with the end of their love. The death of the fictional daughter mirrors Susan's aborted pregnancy. And sending the book to Susan is, in a way, an elaborate act of revenge. Through these angles, “Nocturnal Animals” gets at why people write.
If the story-within-the-story wasn't thrilling, “Nocturnal Animals” probably wouldn't work. It would be ridiculous if Susan was reacting so strongly to an ineffective piece of fiction. Luckily, the titular novel is depicted as a very tense thriller. The first scene, devoted to the family's road trip turning into a nightmare, plays out like a horror movie. (It should be noted that the movie also features a great jump scare worthy of any horror film.) A normal situation is interrupted by something terrible, the family's car run off the road by a gang of lunatics. As the situation degrades, a bit of road rage transforming into a random attack, the audience's stomach gets tied up in knots. After that horrifying opener, Edward's novel becomes a grief-stricken story of revenge pursued beyond all other causes. It's an ugly journey into a heart-broken soul. Which, of course, is exactly what the author was feeling when he wrote it.
Aside from a typically excellent Adams, the film's star studded cast contains several other strong performances. As Edward, Jake Gyllenhaal is all optimism and light conversation. As the protagonist of his own novel, Gyllenhaal is a raw nerve, a broken man held together by a nervous unease and constantly sweaty skin. Aaron Taylor-Johnson, best known for being white bread as hell in various blockbusters, has surprisingly grabbed a few awards. As the redneck murderer within the book, he's a sleazy, unnerving presence. Michael Shannon is nominated for his part as the sheriff investigating the crimes. If I'm indulging my own cynicism, I'd say Shannon got nominated primarily because his character is dying of cancer. Beyond the terminal diagnosis, Shannon brings a stoic commitment but quirky energy to the part of man who just wants to see justice done before he dies.
The musical score is equally gorgeous, which becomes especially notable during the heart-breaking final scene. I'm not sure why the film didn't score an Adapted Screenplay nomination, at the very least, as it succeeds in the difficult task of being two very different types of movies, that both function fantastically and comment on one another, creating a richer, more complex motion picture. It's twofold narrative isn't just a flashy meta gimmick, it's a device that brilliantly comments on the motivation behind the creative process. [8/10]
Monday, February 13, 2017
Captain Fantastic” started popping up last year, I had to remind myself that this movie wasn't some off-brand superhero flick or a film adaptation of the Elton John concept album. Instead, the reviews soon made clear, this was another one of those quirky, indie dramedies that emerge so often out of Sundance. What I had read about the film made it sound, to my ears, a lot like “Little Miss Sunshine,” probably the ultimate Sundance success story. That's probably not a coincidence. It's not like there's a lot of movies about quirky families driving around in brightly colored vehicles. Both even feature funerals as plot points! I also wasn't surprised when the film picked up an Oscar nomination. Movies like this are increasingly within the Academy's radar, as much as glossy costume dramas and fancily acted biopics.
Ben Cash has raised his family of six kids in the woods. He's taught them to hunt, to kill and cook their own food, to mountain climb, to make their own shelters. He's also taught them far left politics and philosophy, preaching against the evils of capitalism and the importance of self-expression. Their odd, forested existence is interrupted when Ben receives news that his wife, Leslie, has killed herself following a bipolar episode. When his father-in-law informs him that Leslie will be given a Christian burial, a violation of her final wishes, he packs the kids into a bus and heads out on a quest to retrieve their mother's body and cremate her corpse. Complications arise along the way.
When “Captain Fantastic” attempts to be a serious drama, it becomes far less interesting. The film tries to play the conflict between Cash and his in-laws as a natural reaction to his extreme parenting methods. Yet it's still too willing to make Frank Langella's father-in-law a facile bad guy. The similar misunderstandings between father and sons aren't much to write about. Most annoying is the typical end of the second act shenanigans, when Ben and his kids are separated by a rather contrived dramatic turn. What makes this change especially off-putting is that the son with the least character development is responsible for it. Naturally, everyone is reunited before the end.
an Oscar nomination, is its cast. The nominated Viggo Mortensen finds a nice balance between the character's extreme politics and actually being a reasonable father. The warmth he displays for his kids is genuine, such as when he comforts them after their mother's death. Viggo's character is the film's most nuanced, as he isn't above getting frustrated with his family. Several of the kids give good performances too. George MacKay is very good as Bodevan, especially during his multiple nervous episodes. Samantha Isler and Annalise Basso, as the red-headed twins, get some good moments, such as their reactions to reading “Lolita.” My favorite might be Charlie Shotwell as Nai, the youngest, who has some precocious reactions to learning about sex and a bad habit of coming to the table naked.
“Captain Fantastic” didn't stir too many strong emotions in me, one way or the other. The movie itself is a bit too openly manipulative with its emotions. The ending, which seems to betray the character's fiercely held political beliefs to a degree, is also disappointing. Mortensen is quite good, though I'm not sure if he's good enough to deserve an Oscar nomination. I like the kids and there's one or two endearing scene that makes the film worth seeing. Still, even with its good qualities, “Captain Fantastic” is bound to be remembered as an Oscar footnote. [6/10]
Sunday, February 12, 2017
The Academy's love of her, over all other performers, is baffling to me. Streep is good but why must she be singled out practically every year? Why should Streep be nominated for “Florence Foster Jenkins,” a film considered minor even among those who enjoyed it? Why should Streep take a slot in a category that probably should've gone to Amy Adams or Annette Benning, performers that don't have three Oscars already and haven't been nominated nineteen previous times?
I actually had heard of Florence Foster Jenkins before seeing this film. I recall reading about her many years ago and even recall a college friend who kicked around writing a script about Jenkins. I wonder if she's disappointed that Stephen Frears got there first? For the uninitiated, I'll explain. During the forties, Florence and her husband, a mediocre stage actor named St. Clair Bayfield, owned a musical night club. Foster frequently appeared on stage in bit parts. However, she had aspirations of being an opera soprano. Her husband encouraged this dream, hiring singing teachers and back-up musicians. There was only one problem: Florence's singing was awful. Despite her obvious lack of talent, she journeyed on, her husband bribing journalist to write positive reviews and paying people to see her performances. Eventually, Jenkins would attract an audience of people who saw unintentional comedy in her singing, surely making her one of the earliest examples of “so-bad-it's-good” media.
Florence's singing clearly leaves something to be desired, to put it nicely. Despite that, she is portrayed as utterly sincere. Her love of music is very genuine. The joy she felt from performing, from being on stage, was completely real. Frears' film probably could have been an examination in what role irony plays in fandom. Considering we live in a world where people study over “The Room” and other accidental masterpieces of ineptitude, it's a question worth asking. “Florence Foster Jenkins” only scratches the surface. The film clearly admires Jenkins' unwavering pursuit of her dream while gently ribbing her clear lack of ability. It doesn't dig deeper into why she soldiered on despite the criticism or what went through her head while people laughed at her.
In real life, Jenkins seemed aware of her poor singing voice. The movie, meanwhile, plays her as totally unaware. She seemingly doesn't notice the chuckles during her performances. Instead, the film studies the ambiguous motivations of those around her. The piano player, despite holding in laughter during her singing lessons, keeps showing up for the cash. But what of the teacher, who only offers the most softball criticisms towards Florence? What of her husband? He is sleeping with another woman. He says his wife has given him permission to wander. Yet he hides the affair from her. When question about her lack of talent, he claims not to notice. Yet he buys positive reviews for Florence and goes out of his way to hide negative ones. Despite his philandering and cover ups, St. Clair does appear to love his wife. Frears weirdly plays it both ways, portraying Bayfield as both manipulating his wife and caring deeply for her.
William Hung, The Shaggs – and you can see how mishandled this is. Stuff like this jives badly with the rest of the movie.
Yes, Meryl Streep's performance is fine. She has no qualms about warbling through the singing scenes. Her big style fits someone as blissfully unaware as Jenkins was. Hugh Grant and Simon Helberg do well as her husband and piano player, respectfully. All together, Frears' uncertain approach to his topic makes “Florence Foster Jenkins” an uneven watch and the film does not archive any of the loftier themes it reaches for. “Ed Wood” remains the high water mark for biopics about deeply sincere but totally inept artists. The film is competent but not very memorable and certainly didn't deserve Academy attention. [5/10]
Saturday, February 11, 2017
the next four-to-eight years – there will even be people looking back fondly on the Trump administration. No U.S. President has been more romanticized then John F. Kennedy. In-between his good looks, associated with the end of a more innocent time in this country, and sudden death, JFK is a towering figure in American history. But what of his wife, Jacqueline Kennedy? She's nearly as mythic a figure as her husband, beloved by romantics and tabloid journalists. Pablo Lerrain's “Jackie” seeks to lend some agency and insight into the most traumatic days of Kennedy's life. Typically, such a project attracted award season attention yet Lerrain's film is more then your average biopic.
The screenplay by Noah Oppenheim features an intentionally fractured plot construction. A week after the assassination of John. F. Kennedy, Jacqueline gives a somewhat combative interviewed to a journalist writing for Life magazine. The film flashes between the immediate hours following John's murder, the transition of power in the White House that forced Jackie and the kids out, the complicated process involved in arranging Kennedy's funeral service. Mixed in are more distant memories of a televised tour of the White House Jackie recorded and an intense conversation Jackie had with her priest.
The aspect of “Jackie” to receive the most attention, especially from the Academy, is Natalie Portman's lead performance. At first, the Bostonian accent Portman adopts is slightly distracting. Yet this isn't the only reason Portman's more quiet moments are her most compelling. The most chilling moment in “Jackie” has the First Lady returning home after the murder. She slips out of her bloodied clothes, downs some pills, and puts on a record. She silently weeps as the camera watches her despondently go from room to room. Portman remains in a similar state throughout most of the movie. She plays the historical First Lady as someone barely holding together, a storm of constant emotional upheaval conveyed in her eyes, only hinting at the chaos Jackie must have felt. It's a fantastic performance and, dare I say, superior to the performance that won Portman her previous Oscar.
Kennedy's funeral service. Some of the most bracing moments in “Jackie” concerns the First Lady's long conversations with her priest. The priest, played by the great John Hurt, attempts to reassure her of god's role in the universe despite the pain Jackie feels over a murdered husband and two stillborn children. (As I write this, the news of John Hurt's passing is still in the air, lending these scenes even more importance.) An especially memorable sequence has Jackie talking with Robert Kennedy in the Lincoln Bedroom. In addition to drawing attention to the often cited parallels between Kennedy and Lincoln, it shows both individuals struggling with their pain and how history will see the Kennedy administration.
“Jackie” also contends itself with the immediate fall-out of the Kennedys as cultural icons. The film's entire point is to humanize Jacqueline Kennedy, to show the trauma, fear, and pain she felt immediately following the President's death. The interview draws much attention to the difference between the poised, flawless public figure she projected and the sad, scared person she actually was. Yet she concludes the interview by bringing up the famous parallel between the Kennedy administration and the fictional Camelot. This moment, seemingly, solidifies the Kennedy presidency in American history. In its final minutes, Jackie watches as a clothing store dresses the mannequins in its front window in her famous dresses and pillbox hats. The implication seems to be that the real people involved will be swallowed up by history.
Mica Levi's intense score, and Portman's nuanced lead performance combined to make an emotional, touching film that grapples with history and, perhaps more importantly, the people who make it. [8/10]