Tag Archives: Movies (2017)

‘Ex Libris’ offers a vision of community gone from public discourse

A connoisseur of Miami-Dade public libraries, I sit at the Coral Gables branch on most late Saturday mornings when I don’t have a movie screening, ears afire from the quiet, marveling at the number of stacked volumes that once saw more thumbings. This phenomenon is more striking at FIU’s Biscayne Bay Campus’ Hubert Library, whose second floor has an area devoted to bound volumes, a collection of fossils from the era before the internet. On my lunch break I’ll pick up a volume of TIME Magazine dated, say, January to March 1972 and flip through the ragged, yellowed pages, marveling at the sexist cigarette ads, the ads for luxury hotels, the frequency with which Henry Kissinger is mentioned. I don’t know the library’s weekend traffic, but I suspect my fingerprints are the only fresh ones besides the staff’s. Continue reading

‘Mudbound’ trapped by structural conventions

Mudbound might have been a solid NBC Sunday movie back when such things existed, or, better, a cable show several episodes long. At just over two hours Mudbound has the problems common to such productions: a “Meanwhile, back at…” chronology, performances without arcs that come off wooden, a predictable rhythm. But it has virtues too, including a strong sense of place, the camera work by Rachel Morrison (the South shot as an endless bog), and Jason Mitchell as the young black draftee who after getting warped by service in World War II’s European theater returns to a South that pretends the service didn’t exist.

For no particular reason the film begins in flashback: Henry McAllan (Jason Clarke) and his brother Jamie (Garrett Hedlund) struggling with burying their father’s coffin in torrential rain. Echoes of As I Lay Dying, of course, but about the only thing this adaptation of Hillary Jordan’s novel has in common with William Faulkner’s rumination on Southern guilt is point of view multiplicity. Closer in spirit is The Southerner, Jean Renoir’s great 1945 film about farmers having a go at it in hostile terrain. But that film succeeded because Renoir and screenwriter Faulkner treated its characters as types; they were alive like figures in a pop-up book. Mudbound, alas, treats itself as a Serious Movie following well-worn Oscar tropes. “He was my rescuer from my life on the margins,” Laura intones in voice-over. She marries Henry, and because Carey Mulligan plays Laura we know she’s in for trouble. From the start thy are sexually incompatible and she learns to recoil from his weakness – he’s too easily suckered by in-laws, shysters, and that horrible father, Pappy (Breaking Bad‘s Jonathan Banks), seen in that flashback. Incompetent or not, Henry at least is as racist as his neighbors in Marietta. On that farm live the Jacksons, sharecroppers led by Hap (Rob Morgan) and his wife Florence (Mary J. Blige, Oscar-nominated), miserably eking out an existence dependent on the mercies of the McAllens.

This is where the literalism of director Dee Rees’ approach sinks the material. By cutting frantically between the Jacksons and McAllens as if the families were equally important, Rees implies that a cycle of poverty dependent on the weather and exacerbated by the quotidian evil of Southern racism traps both families. I haven’t read Jordan’s novel, let me admit, but I call nonsense. The friendship between Ronsell Jackson and fellow PTSD survivor Jamie blooms as a kind of heterosexual Romeo and Juliet, making the town turn their heads everywhere they go, is the device by which the screenwriters connect the families in bonds of intimacy, but as charming as Hedlund is playing the rascal – he and Florence also engage in a movie-length flirtation – it’s unconvincing. Simply put, Ronsell would not have even dared to ride in the front seat with Jamie. In 1946, Sergeant Isaac Woodward, Jr. had his eyes gouged out by a white sheriff and his deputies days after receiving his discharge papers. While Mudbound acknowledges the routine violence perpetuated by Pappy and his type, the casual racism of a dull, stupid man like Henry, and the reality that a black man with ambition – James Baldwin, say – must leave his own country to find self-respect, its structural equivalences undermines the bleakness of its conclusions.

Yet I can’t disregard the details over which Dee Rees pauses with an attention that comes from lived or shared experience: Florence breaking the smallest piece from a chocolate bar Ronsel gives her as a gift, intending to make this gift as long as necessary; the casualness with which Jamie lets his arm rest on Ronsel’s shoulders. Mudbound disappoints because I wanted more from the material onscreen, not less.


‘A Fantastic Woman’ stresses suffering over fantasy

If A Fantastic Woman honored its title, we’d see Marina as a person, not a figure of suffering. Played by trans actress Daniela Vega, Marina is on her terms vulgar and determined, but director Sebastián Lelio prefers her as a martyr to a cause. This Chilean film represents the kind of film that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences respects: the noble cause made nobler by futility. However specious it is to wonder if the zeitgeist has made A Fantastic Woman worthwhile of general acclaim, it’s worse to consider that of the many subjects and characters worth presenting on film the suffering of a trans woman at the hands of her dead boyfriend’s relatives would rank near the bottom. It’s a Helen Hayes or Ashley Judd picture updated for the 2010s: damp, meretricious, calorie-free.

Lelio sketches the contours of Marina’s relationship with the much older Orlando (Francisco Reyes). For reasons Lelio wisely doesn’t explain because the explanation is banal, Orlando likes Marina because he can party with her in downtown Santiago; whether he loves her is irrelevant to them, but it’s a point that comes back to haunt Marina. Then he keels over from a heart attack. Hospital staff can’t save him. Police question Marina after they learn she left the scene (“No, your name,”). After expending almost ten minutes on hospital scenes, Lelio is ready to punch the audience with his thesis, It’s Hard to Be Trans. A detective (Amparo Noguera) mixes courtesy and contempt. Orlando’s ex wife Sonia (Aline Kuppenheim) and grown son (Nicolás Saavedra) deny her right to attend funeral services.  “When I look at you, I don’t know what I’m seeing,” Sonia says coldly. “A chimera, that’s what I’m seeing.”

Now, for a performer there are worse things than being called a chimera. A cabaret singer who can command an audience, Marina is already playing a character onstage. But Lelio denies her interiority; she’s a cushion into which he sticks pins. The high school-level symbolism is often breathtaking. Isolating her in frames, filming her as she blasts “You Make Me Feel (Like a Natural Woman)” in the car, or, most irritatingly, as she walks against a wind gust, Lelio primes the audience to expect a voice-over track shouting DO YOU SEE (I counted one interesting moment: Marina caught in long shot singing in a parking garage, a light blinking stage left).

But A Fantastic Woman has no interest in Marina except brutalizing her. We can expect a humiliation every few minutes – Lelio should have called A Dehumanized Woman. After Tangerine, we’re back to The Danish Girl (also beloved by Oscar). I am not suggesting that there is only one way to film a story about trans men and women – I’m suggesting that Lelio, with the best of intentions, has chose the story calculated to wring tears from an already sympathetic audience. A pity, for when he allows Vega room for levity she responds. A Fantastic Woman is a plea thinly disguised as art. To remind us that this is a 1930s style woman’s picture, the last scene shows Marina singing as if her life depends on it. Her heart will go on.


‘In the Fade’ struggles to earn tragic inevitability

One truth emerges from In the Fade: Germans still tolerate smoking. Katja Sekerci, played by Diane Kruger, is rarely seen without a smoldering fag — in her home, in bars, in an automobile (many Berlin bars still get around national bans, according to reports). When a bomb kills her husband and young son, Katja stumbles through the stages of grief before determining to prosecute the neo-Nazis allegedly responsible. Kruger, who won the Best Actress prize at Cannes last year, holds In the Fade together by sheer force of star power; nothing else matches her concentration, including director Fatih Akin’s script. What begins as a precise depiction of mourning turns into a predictable courtroom drama and an absurd revenge fantasy in its last two acts. Continue reading

In ‘Phantom Thread,’ clothes make the man

Finally — a film in which a seduced woman is required to put on more clothes instead of taking them off. If Reynolds Woodcock is the seducer, then an interest in sex is secondary. A tailor who approaches his profession with the rigor of a poet and the devotion of an ascetic, the absurdly named Woodcock sees women as mannequins — exquisite ones, to be sure. Movies about obsessives fail when the movies dishonor the obsessives’ passion or don’t limn the depths of the obsession, which isn’t the same as sympathizing with the obsessives. Phantom Thread doesn’t. In a filmography devoted to men who, to quote Robert Frost, have made their vocation and avocation one, Paul Thomas Anderson scores a particular triumph with this study of the dressmaker who meets his match with model/wife Alma (Vicky Krieps). This is a film of exquisite control and minute calibrations, and Anderson’s best. Continue reading

Backwoods Barbies: ‘I, Tonya’

I have a foreboding that the next three years smart aleck producers, with the same glee as newspaper editors sending reporters into southern Indiana or West Virginia coal country, will approve movies about Trump’s America, or, as grim a development, critics will tag movies as Examinations of Trump’s America when actors use corn pone accents. But a Hilary Clinton victory in November 2016 would not have made I, Tonya any less awful a viewing experience. Condescending, shrieking, and dull, I, Tonya re-visits an episode in early nineties pop culture that no one remembers and doesn’t deserve reenactment: the plot to cripple Olympic prospect Nancy Kerrigan hatched by the husband of rival Tonya Harding. This cruel picture thinks it’s smarter than the dummies it mocks.

Purporting to be a rube Rashomon but in pseudo-documentary format, I, Tonya depends on the contradictory accounts of the title character and husband Jeff Gillooly (Sebastian Stan in a sad palooka mustache). But their stories agree on the scrappiness of her early life. Egged on by her villainous, emphysemic mother LaVona (Allison Janney), the young Tonya has a childhood consisting of skating lessons and abuse, verbal and otherwise. Yet she is a genuine talent on the rink, particularly when doing the triple axel, and it’s not many years later that she starts looking like a comer. As a result, she develops a robust self-importance. Whether she acts as a product of her dumb-hick background or a young woman striving to transcend it, director Craig Gillespie gives her no credit for the latter. This is the kind of movie in which Tonya shoots a rabbit and Gillespie cuts to Tonya skating, as if to say, now here’s a killer.

The rest of I, Tonya follows the schematics of what the public read about: Tonya may or may not have directed the attack on rival/doppelgänger  Nancy Kerrigan (Caitlin Carver); Tonya may or may not have fought back when Gillolly hits her; the scheme to take out Kerrigan may or may not have been the most stupendously amateurish in the history of stupendously amateurish schemes. Steven Rogers’ script spends too much time depicting how the conspirators flip. Tonya’s story gets lost. According to Gillespie’s treatment of the Rogers script, Tonya isn’t a person anyway — she’s a collection of backwoods clichés, suitable for the tut-tutting of urban audiences. Stuck playing a combination of Tracy Flick and Clueless’ Cher, Margot Robbie can do neither; thus, she makes obvious behavioral choices (Elizabeth Olsen in Ingrid Goes West is a recent example of an actor smartly playing a not very bright person whose ambitions compensate). Janney, an expert at vinegary types, does no better playing this malicious mommy; chainsmoking is her character’s prop, a signifier of bad lifestyle decisions, so the performance consists of rasping through smoke and waving a Bronco.

Audiences couldn’t have known that I, Tonya opens during the same season as Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, yet another putatively comedic look at malevolent small town types in which the director can’t hide his contempt for the characters he’s created. It’s okay to write about or make a movie about contemptible people so long as the script and cast don’t line up for the firing squad. I despised how Martin McDonagh’s movie flirted with endorsing vigilantism only to pull the carpet at the last minute, letting the audience off the hook.  I disliked I, Tonya less but it’s a shoddier piece of filmmaking, isn’t riven by the same tensions. Also, it’s two hours. If I concede that, yes, someone could make a decent movie out of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan, then let Netflix produce the mini-series.


‘The Post’ shows how Beltway oligarchy works – and wins

The difference between insisting on clarity and explaining the obvious is impossible to discern for a master of hyperkinetic narrative cinema, and Steven Spielberg does the obvious in The Post. His account of how The Washington Post’s publisher Katherine Graham agonized over putting the newspaper run by her late husband in legal jeopardy for running what came to be known as the Pentagon Papers has to explain and explain and explain again. From the first ten minutes the audience knows the stakes. It knows how the picture ends. The picture has heroes. But Spielberg’s literal approach sucks out the suspense. What remains are Oscar clips for Meryl Streep and Tom Hanks and a reluctance to implicate these heroes in their own drama. Continue reading

‘The Shape of Water’ kept afloat by too many familiar elements

Adept at treating fables as if they were real and daily life as if it were a fable, Guillermo del Toro goes all the way into romantic lunacy with The Shape of Water. The director of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth shows how a mute named Eliza (Sally Hawkins) and an aquatic creature who may be a river-god can connect despite conclusive anatomical and physiological differences.  A love story between man and fish, The Shape of Water also depicts, less interestingly, the hysteria of the national security state in the years before the Cuban Missile Crisis. But the story is familiar, another example of del Toro the (co-)writer failing del Toro the director. He wants to awe yet the results impress, frustrate, or bore. Continue reading

What happened to Poe and Finn? Burning questions about ‘The Last Jedi’

My crew and I left the theater late yesterday afternoon disappointed with Star Wars: The Last Jedi, but Star Wars universe fans court disappoint like Democrats do despair. No movie can measure up to the perfect Wookiepedia in their minds. At least a half hour too long, The Last Jedi is dependent on the good will of audiences as it immolates — in one scene quite literally — the past as they know it.

Writing a conventional review for Star Wars films exhausts me, so, following tradition, let me list the stuff I liked:

1. Writer-director Rian Johnson wasn’t kidding when he sought to chronicle the collapse of the Old Order: everything must fall. In the first scene, Luke Skywalker makes clear that lightsabers are shit. Second, this galaxy far, far away finally has characters reflecting its diversity. What Luke and General Leia’s arcs eventually reveal is how they yield to a new order. Subsequent Star Wars movies will star Poe, Finn, Rey, and possibly Rose: Hispanic, black, woman, and Asian woman characters, respectively. The Last Jedi goes further: in the film’s last third, Leia accedes to Poe’s leadership. Moreover, the Force-ghost of Yoda cheerfully blows up the Jedi Temple, with its precious hardbound Jedi tomes (Yoda’s quip “Page-turners, they are not” got the movie’s biggest laugh). Sorry, classic Star Wars fans: the old white people are gone. Even Threepio is regarded as at best an annoyance, at worst a cowardly appeaser.

2. The warm, calming presence of Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. Kudos to Johnson for showing the patience to work out the arc of her plot line, who for long stretches of the film has convinced the audience (and Poe) that she’s one thing when she turns out to be another.

3. Because Mark Hamill was not among the original trio’s acting lights, I worried about him. Turns out the years of voice work in animated films have given him a gravelly gravitas. Luke only moves when he absolutely has to, which includes for a rubbing-dirt-off-his-shoulder moment that drew the second biggest laughs. I pat Johnson on the book for having the temerity to acknowledge that the prequels exist — at one point Luke, discussing the long dead Emperor Palpatine, refers to him as Darth Sidious.

4. The debut of the crack comedy duo of Ren and Hux. In one of the film’s first scenes, the Resistance clowns him (see below for additional remarks). Later, when he pulls out his side arm to finish the job on a prostrate and presumably dying Kylo Ren he silkily returns it to its holster after realizing he was…wrong.

The stuff I didn’t like:

1. What is the Resistance, uh, resisting? Although The Force Awakens explained the collapse of the Republic’s senate, an entity as efficient as a condo board, is the First Order so powerful that it simply took over the Empire’s rusting hardware and continued where it left off? How does it govern?

2. Finn and Rose’s journey to Canto Bight, the ill-named Monte Carlo of the Star Wars galaxy, to find a “code breaker.” While the code breaker is an essential plot element, the Canto Blight episode plays like an excuse to (a) introduce more characters available for purchase at your local Target (b) show Star Wars characters drinking champagne.

3. To expect Samuel Raphaelson from Star Wars screenwriters is folly, but, still, too many of General Hux’s scenes played like Spaceballs or SNL parodies. These moments work if you imagine Hux and Snoke as Marxian emblems of a culture that copies historical gestures of power and unintentionally parodies them because that’s all these poseurs can do: young Hux as Drago type with Bela Lugosi hair growing up admiring the Empire, is old enough for its disintegration but knows nothing but what he experiences secondhand. This goes double for Snoke. Why after all does he regard Darth Vader as a suitable model for Kylo Ren? Vader was redeemed. This is as much thought as I intend to give the matter.

4. I suppose audiences must be familiar with the Star Wars novels to know why a Force-sensitive like Leia chose to lead armies and legislate or whatever rather than pursue Jedi training, but a certain scene in space jumped too many Rancors for me.

5. A pause on the growing Poe-Finn romance.

In ‘Call Me By Your Name’ lust is easy, love is hard

Stereotyped as subjects forever on the prowl, gay men are often objects, inanimate objects, especially when young. Moving through spaces where their desires remain unacknowledged and hence ungratified, they develop their powers of observation. They fetishize clothing. They use wit, a powerful weapon with an equally powerful kick, for the wit isolates them too, exposes the differences between them and the straight world. Among the many  things that Call Me By Your Name gets right is depicting how an intelligent and casually erudite young man learns to close the distances between himself and the straight world; he folds his erudition into the rest of his self, making it an extension of his compassion and curiosity, the latter the prime virtue, for without curiosity no compassion is possible. Continue reading

‘Darkest Hour’ will delight wannabe tough guys

In one of the more ignominious reversals in twentieth-century political history, British voters sent Prime Minister Winston Churchill packing not long after Allied forces declared victory over Nazi Germany and the Empire of Japan. Watching Darkest Hour helps modern audiences understand why. The cult of Churchill remains fervent in American conservative circles; the wrongness of many of his positions adds to the air of martyrdom that clings to him like morning frost. Continue reading

‘Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri’ is one screwed-up movie

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a movie that asks the audience to see the moral equivalence between the vengeful woman whose daughter was raped and killed and a racist, homophobic police officer guilty of appalling acts of violence shown onscreen. It also wears the trappings of a comedy, donned when Martin McDonagh thinks matters are too serious for his imagination to explore. This is the M.O. of the director of In Bruges, a potty-mouthed comedic thriller that also reveled in tonal variances. But Three Billboards, his most ambitious project to date, requires the powers of a Renoir or a Shakespeare to integrate the yuks and the tears.

In a performance steely enough to deserve a film that would do it justice, Frances McDormand plays Mildred Hayes, who puts $9000 down in cash for the titular billboards on the highway outside her Missouri town; against a stark blood-red background, the text implicitly accuses Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) of dragging his feet on the murder case. While upset, Willoughby knows Mildred has done nothing illegal. Besides, pancreatic cancer has reframed his priorities. For Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), however, this won’t do. This police officer, in whose custody a man died from possible torture, begins a series of intimidations: arresting Mildred’s friend and co-worker at a souvenir shop for minor marijuana violations; harassing Red (Caleb Landry Jones), the young man who sold Mildred the ad space. As if these outrages weren’t enough, Mildred has to endure the sight of her ex husband (John Hawkes) around town with the nineteen-year-old girlfriend Penelope (Samara Weaving, directed to play a hick in one of the film’s nail-on-chalkboard moments).

Reading the synopsis would suggest McDonagh adapted a Dennis Lehane novel. What’s onscreen is a bizarre amalgam of the broad, the cute, and the gory. A couple of sequences are shot in slo-mo. Close-ups of a dying roach on a window sill. Red reading Flannery O’Connor. As fellow officers react to terrible news about a colleague, Dixon is in the foreground, enraptured by ABBA’s “Chiquitita” (the film hints at Dixon’s sexuality – he’s a bachelor living with a chain-smoking Southern gothic mama – without going there). Mildred has conversations with a doe that hesitantly approaches a billboard and, later in the picture, with a pair of bunny slippers. But the McDonagh specialty is allegedly comic violence, therefore we’re treated to the sight of a dentist drill boring into a thumbnail (in extreme close-up, of course), Dixon punching a woman in the face after he’s beaten another character to a pulp and hurled him out a window, and, in a gesture toward gender equality, Mildred gut-punching a female high school student. Joan Baez’s version of “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down” soundtracks a scene where a certain character hurls Molotov cocktails at a certain building – indeed, most of Three Billboards‘ musical cues are misconceived, including the way Carter Burwell’s score drops in for discordance or inapposite underlining.

To appreciate Three Billboards means getting on board for McDonagh’s attempt at a rural American Winter’s Tale: a story in which forgiveness tempers hatred and revenge. In McDonagh’s film the drama rests on whether Willoughby’s conviction that despite the race-baiting, hair-trigger temper, and fag jokes there’s a good cop in Dixon worth saving. For a while the ferret-eyed Rockwell isn’t bad at Dixon; police work in a small town consists of a bunch of double takes for this doofus. But McDonagh overdoes the Rufus Cornpone parts of his character such that responding to his sadism is a problem: we’ve seen too much of this sociopath’s imbecility to take the sadism seriously yet we can’t laugh off the graphicness – the gratuitousness – when it comes. By threading the needle with Mildred’s own determination to risk life and property for the sake of her vendetta, McDonagh’s script argues that Dixon and Mildred are twins, reflected in a dark mirror; at the end of the film each understands the other. This development is, in a word, ghastly. Doubtless, a grieving mom who resorts to violence needs sympathetic help, therapy, anything; suggesting that she and the cop who was a member of the armed bureaucracy that couldn’t solve the murder would benefit from rubbing against each other is to open a moral chasm. Not helping McDonagh’s cause is the manner in which he introduces a trio of exemplary black citizens who, off the Sidney Poitier assembly line, underscore the pettifoggery of white-on-white conflict.

The last scene is particularly chilling. I won’t describe it as anything but a chicken shit toying with vigilantism under the guise of a road movie. If anyone in the audience needed the film equivalent of one of those myriad NYT features published since November 2016 in which small town Americans commingle economic anxiety and racism – because both liberals and conservatives were tired of the establishment! – then Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is for them.