About Grant

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New York, NY, United States
Film director and screenwriter. Cinephile since birth. Director of DREAMS OF THE WAYWARD (2013). Film Studies MA student at Columbia University.

Tuesday, February 27, 2018

Film Review: Alex Garland's ANNIHILATION (2018) 4/5

Today, my review for Alex Garland's second directorial effort, Annihilation (2018), was published on the Flickchart blog. Here's what I thought: http://www.flickchart.com/blog/review-annihilation/

Film Review: Alex Ross Perry's GOLDEN EXITS (2017) 4/5

Last week, I contributed a review of Alex Ross Perry's latest film, Golden Exits (2017), to the Flickchart blog. The film premiered last year at Sundance, and I had been anxiously awaiting a chance to finally see it. Having had the privilege of seeing Golden Exits projected in 35mm at the Metrograph in New York made this even more special. Here's my review: http://www.flickchart.com/blog/review-golden-exits/

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

Film Review: Christopher Nolan's DUNKIRK (2017) 3/5

"When one man dies, it's a tragedy. When thousands die, it's statistics."
- Joseph Stalin

     Less a film about an event and more a film designed to reproduce an experience of an event, Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk (2017) is an interesting work concerning the monotony of warfare and the value of perspective. Aside from the Mark Rylance section of the story on the sea, dialogue is sparse, and emphasis on the collective protagonist is palpable as we are placed in the position of participant rather than merely spectator. How this is achieved is interesting on a variety of levels, and not necessarily bound to the 70mm photography used to realize this story. Perhaps better associated with the approach to narrative that Nolan utilizes to intentionally distance the audience from characters and arcs, our senses of duration and process is engaged as a result of a lack of an anchor in this story, beyond the geography of the space. Still, while the process of Nolan's approach to conveying this iconic moment in World War II is compelling, Nolan falls into his old bombastic habits and can't fully embrace the naturalism of war that he's trying to articulate on film.
     Opening with a series of intertitles introducing the three primary terrains of the narrative in Nolan's Dunkirk, numbers are given early precedent over people. "I: The Mole," "II: The Sea," and "III: The Air" are used to firmly introduce that there are three settings for the evacuation of the 400,000 English soldiers on the beach of Dunkirk in France, and this distinction would feel unnecessary were it not for numbers. From one point of view, Dunkirk could be seen as a film that is removed from its subject and the people involved, but the opposite of that feels more true. That is not to say that this film is particularly involving on an emotional level, but rather that it's a film about experience over dramatics. 
     Numbers, as opposed to names, distance us from individuals, and even in spite of Dunkirk having a set of familiar faces that we can latch onto throughout the course of the film, it is largely a film that embraces the anonymity that only a number can lend to an individual. This is perhaps best illustrated in the aerial combat sequences that make up the second of the three narrative divisions Nolan has constructed. Tom Hardy plays a spitfire pilot whose face is covered by his oxygen mask for almost the entirety of the film. He is not Tom Hardy, the star; or Tom Hardy, the friendly face we can identify with as viewers; but instead a man serving in the RAF with a job to do – he's a character with a distinct function rather than pronounced characteristics. Everyone in the film is comparably anonymous, with their matching uniforms and haircuts, and this is complimented by the general lack of star-power on screen. With exception to Harry Styles, who still manages to blend in while delivering excellent performances in all of his scenes, the rest of the soldiers stranded on the beach benefit from their own relative obscurity.
     All of that is interesting, but working against this cast of "numbers" is an important narrative issue: very few characters die. Dunkirk is a story of a survival, in truth and in this film, and many people did lose their lives, but a vast majority of the characters in each branch of the narrative live to see the closing credits. The stakes aren't high enough when everyone miraculously survives a series of disasters at sea and close encounters with death in the air and on the beach.
     Furthering the combined issue of the number-like quality of the cast and the lack of death on screen for major characters, the violence is generally at a distance. Ignoring the opening five minutes, violence is enacted by a faceless enemy with only a national identity: Germany. Nazi u-boats launch torpedoes and airplanes fire bullets, so the enemy remains as "anonymous" as the Allied forces, but in a different way. Like specters, the enemy swoops in at inconvenient moments and disrupts our protagonists' progress. In Stanley Kubrick's World War I film Paths of Glory (1957), the German enemy is never shown on camera, but it works because there's so much at stake. Seeing the German airplanes in Dunkirk distances us from them, and this is largely a result of the planes being only seen from the perspective of soldiers on the ground, sailors on boats, or Spitfire pilots. When the German's get shot down, it feels expected because of their size against the land and the manner in which that is accentuated by point-of-view shots from a distance. To Nolan's credit, the crashing of planes and the physics of dog fighting feels authentic, but is it cinematically striking? Not really. The repetition of smoke trails from a distance and the difficulty the pilots have in keeping track of who has been shot down is important to show on camera, but not as satisfying as watching glorious explosions and a false sense of competence that is flaunted in many films with pilots.
     Perhaps the most damning aspect of Dunkirk, ignoring the ridiculousness of much of the final twenty minutes, is Nolan's reliance on Hans Zimmer's score. It's classic Nolan anthems, so they detract from the naturalism that much of Dunkirk seems to be striving for. Even then, the final twenty minutes betray the entirety of the film that preceded it in such a way that justifies Zimmer's distracting music. The tension of being drowned alive in a sinking ship evaporates as Zimmer's score surfaces. Nolan's ability to practice restraint is predominantly on display for the bulk of Dunkirk, but his unnecessary use of music is the first sign that he can't betray his nature as a filmmaker and storyteller with a shortage of subtlety.
     Christopher Nolan's Interstellar (2014), which is his greatest film, marked the beginning of a new Nolan – a filmmaker who can actually tell a story in an interesting way with heart. Dunkirk largely proves that he is shifting from the flaws of his earlier work, and yet it still falls apart in the end. Admirable for its lack of a firm center and overt narrative, Dunkirk manages to involve the audience in warfare through distance, but even that effort betrays itself as the film progresses. While it is not an excellent film, it's certainly worth seeing for its ability to make numbers of people as important as singular entities – the experience of the operation to rescue 400,000 soldiers is appropriately matched to a formal approach to narrative and aesthetic (for the most part). While Dunkirk has its own built in grandeur, its ability to feel vital is sabotaged by its own inconsistencies in vision... Be naturalistic and stick to it, but a shift to sentimentality and hope? Forget it.

My rating: 3/5

Thursday, June 29, 2017

ESSAY: Philippe Garrel's LA CONCENTRATION (1968) – Seeing Rare Films In The Present

A few months ago, I had the privilege of seeing a one-time screening of one of the rarest films in Philippe Garrel's oeuvre, La concentration (1968), which was screened in 35mm as part of the Film Society of Lincoln Center's Jean-Pierre Léaud retrospective. Little has been written on La concentration, and little was known about it prior to this screening, but in my essay I have outlined the plot, its aesthetic qualities, the themes Garrel is working with, and the critical context of the film in 1968 and how this rare film is understood by cinephiles and other filmgoers in the twenty-first century. Here's my essay on Flickchart: http://www.flickchart.com/blog/philippe-garrels-la-concentration-1968-seeing-rare-films-in-the-present/

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Film Review: Song To Song (2017) by Terrence Malick 4/5

     "I went through a period where sex had to be violent," says Faye (Rooney Mara) in the opening line of voice-over in Terrence Malick's latest film, Song To Song (2017). Much like the past three dramatic feature films Malick has made that deal with the contemporary world (parts of The Tree of Life (2011), and all of To The Wonder (2013) and Knight of Cups (2015)), Song To Song has a hypnotic quality, but this time it's heightened, which can be partially attributed to its focus on adults in their mid-to-late-twenties and early thirties in a state of transition as they craft their self-supporting selves. Most of the protagonists' identities are not set in stone, and the film's structural and aesthetic form compliments this. Were it about people who knew who they wanted to be and had nothing to lose (as in Knight of Cups), this would be a far different experience. Here, people wander from place to place – or more broadly, through life – with purpose. With an innovative approach to the film's aesthetic and the narrative at hand, Malick has made a brilliant film with a wide range of emotions and sensations bolstered by exceptional performances by everyone involved.
     "Am I a good person?" is a question that Faye asks herself twice over the course of the film, and it seems to be a question in response to internal growing pains. The answers aren't provided for any of the questions asked in Song To Song, but they're tackled with the utmost sincerity. Faye, like everyone else in this film, wants to experience life more fully and know that she hasn't missed anything along the way, but she feels pressure to be certain a way and live at a specific standard – things she can't control. 
     In many ways, Faye is the compass for the film, as she crosses the most narrative lines. At her side is Cook (Michael Fassbender), a music producer in Austin, Texas who has had great success as he lives a life surrounded by excesses of wealth and pleasure. Cook has everything he needs and is the most firmly developed of the four central protagonists (for better and for worse). Recruiting the musical abilities of BV (Ryan Gosling), a friendship is formed between Cook and BV and a new love is kindled as Faye and BV are drawn together. On the periphery of this waltz through Texas is Rhonda (Natalie Portman), a waitress who has abandoned her dream of teaching kindergarten. A fateful meeting with Cook re-energizes her as they fall for one another and begin to face life together. Music and concerts fill their time, and they "live from song to song," but this is not a musical. Instead, it's more of a film around music – a film about the lives of creatives faced with reality. 
     Although the film begins with a line suggesting that sex will have a significant weight over the film, it is merely its relational form that is contemplated upon. There certainly are scenes of romance and even sex, but they are fleeting and often elegantly presented. Within the context of this film, Malick seems to favor love over desires of the flesh, but he acknowledges that they exist. Éros, philía, storge, and agápe – the Greek words for four kinds of love – are all represented, and have an important place or absence in Song To Song. Specifically storge, the love between parents and children, has a degree of precedence over the choices characters make. The bond between parents and their children also motivates some of the most nuanced performances in the film and moments of intense expressions of emotion. As BV sits beside his bedridden father who can hardly take care of himself, he begins to pick off the dried food from his father's shirt and remarks with tears running down his face, "You've got food all over you." It's a line that states the obvious, but it feels as if it's coming from a deeply real place. That's merely one example of many, but they all speak to the nature of becoming an adult who controls their own life.
     Time moves in a fluidic manner in Song To Song, as the narrative can seemingly jump from the past to the present at any given moment. Rooney Mara's hair is seemingly in a constant state of flux, but it's only because Song To Song's narrative spans, what may be, a year or more. Context clues such as hair and clothing cue us into the non-linear nature of this film that is more of an experiential document than a story, and yet it's incredibly compelling. That's what they are though: context clues. This film's narrative is, at times, buried beneath an emphasis on things that don't add up to a conventional narrative (or a narrative at all), but it's immensely rewarding to follow these characters (who are effortlessly brought to life by some of the most interesting actors working today) as they try to find themselves.
     More grounded in the common day-to-day feel of life, Malick's camera – manned by Emmanuel Lubezki – is perfectly married to the cutting of the film. Capturing the essence of life through gestures that are conveyed with a constantly moving camera, and often supplemented by quick cuts, one feels the texture of a digital world without people interacting on devices. People seemingly fall in and out of love as effortlessly as Malick cuts from shot to shot, but it feels right as the non-linearity aides in making this approach to visual storytelling satisfying.
     Although the film is less visually stimulating than Knight of Cups (which was shot immediately before Song To Song), the contrasting of textures from 35mm film to GoPro footage and 4k digital photography remains interesting and speaks to the way life is lived and experienced through different visual frames (the real and the digital). There are even several scenes in which the camera must've been mounted to Fassbender's forehead, as the camera truly becomes his eyes as Natalie Portman looks at us while he reaches out to caress her face. The camera, and where it is, is a factor of virtual tangibility that changes from shot to shot. 
     For the less patient viewer who may have seen a few Terrence Malick films before, this might feel like "more of the same," but it is notably a different kind of film that is traversing through new territory thematically and formally for Malick, and it's a delight to watch it unfold. He continues to surprise with each film he makes, and this is no exception. There's a moment where BV and Faye are running around a puddle in the wide open wilderness of Texas as the Sun sets. The camera gradually pushes in as BV tries to hop over the puddle and a single foot lands in it as he continues chasing after Faye outside of the frame, and yet the camera doesn't follow them. As people, they're in transition, and as they exit the frame, we see a place where they once were as the ripples in the water leave a sign of their presence behind. Though the film doesn't directly answer Faye's question of "who am I?", it does provide the process of her finding out.

My rating: 4/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2062700/

Monday, March 13, 2017

Film Review: Raw (2016) by Julia Ducournau 2.5/5

     Raw (2016), Julia Ducournau's directorial debut, is a coming of age film of two disparate sensibilities. The first, and most readily apparent, being a desire to shock or offend (which is only natural, as the film is about a desire for flesh), but that's where a push/pull relationship is formed within Raw. Clashing with its desire to be a subversive experience is the film's disappointing digestibility. For every step away from an audience's comfort zone that Raw traverses, a touch of comedy or even a palpable penchant for "cuteness" besmirches the film's potential on a visceral level. Making itself an unavoidable presence, the cute-factor of Raw is one of its many textures that coalesce to form a film that is almost voiceless... in some ways, it even reflects the nature of the film's protagonist, but it's likely unintentional.
     There's an inevitability to the events of the film that are established from the first scene following the prologue, as Justine (Garance Marillier) is introduced in a cafeteria. "No protein?" inquires the cafeteria worker as she observes Justine avoiding the predominantly meat-oriented selection. Justine, like her parents, is a vegetarian, and her reaction of spitting out her mashed potatoes when she finds a piece of stray meat mixed within it is telling of how her lack of an appetite for meat will soon be challenged. 
     Upon being dropped off by her parents at the elite veterinarian academy that her whole family has attended, she is quickly introduced to an environment of extreme hazing. Upperclassmen wear ski masks as they round up all the freshmen after tossing all of their possessions out of their dormitory windows, and an attempt by writer/director Ducournau to throw believability out the window is made as well. The attempt to introduce this milieu as a punk sanctuary proves futile, as this initial scene of hazing and many of the scenes that follow will push an audience away from accepting this world which will prevent the more shocking moments in Raw from feeling unexpected. If the whole world of a film is crazy, then a girl who gradually discovers she has a thing for human flesh isn't that outlandish.
     The tackiness of the student body at this academy is an issue that is never addressed, as students roam about with stained lab coats for the duration of the film – or even worse, lab coats that are stained and have drawings and patches on them. It's an aesthetic best suited to adorn a poster for a talentless band in a middle school student's locker. However, the fashion choices of these students – especially while in the presence of their professors – are never addressed because Raw is basically set apart from the real world (it must be). Naturally, this notion can eventually be accepted as the school's history and reputation in the more "normal" surrounding community are revealed. In some ways, the school must be a place of its own for Justine to have this primal awakening.
     Straddling reality and a land of fiction, the issues that arise in the divide between the film's desire to be provocative while being easy to take can all be attributed to an almost voiceless film. When Raw does have a voice, it's not in good taste, or it's telling of the film's need to be liked by viewers. A gentle acoustic guitar soundtrack might be the most significant detractor from this film's potential to shock or disturb, especially when considering the electronic score that appears whenever scenes are frightening. Sure, the soundtrack could be seen as an extension of Justine's transition from vegetarian to an enthusiastic consumer of human flesh, but it's too obvious. There's no room for the audience to decide how they feel without being guided by the non-diegetic music to feel one way or another. 
     In spite of the film lacking a distinct tone, Garance Marillier's performance as Justine is excellent, and the physical daring of many of her scenes allows for Raw to hit its mark as a result of her commitment to Justine's newly discovered obsession. She scratches, bites, sucks, and gnaws her way through this film that makes the human appetite for the body (sexually and gustatory) believable because she is. As a protagonist, she's quite strong, and she's thankfully not as poorly dressed as her peers. It's frustrating though that this character is not supported by a film that allows for Marillier's performance to mean anything without it being announced or explained through this film's visual and aural language. 
     James Quandt coined the phrase "New French Extremity" to describe the spate of films coming out of France in the late 1990s and early 2000s that had a tendency to portray sex and violence with intense realism (often in a very confrontational way with the audience). Many films over the past decade or so have taken elements of that "movement" or perpetuated the affect of that kind of cinema, but Raw popularizes it. This is a teen movie, plain and simple, and it might even work with an audience that has avoided or never seen films by Gaspar Noé, Bruno Dumont, or Catherine Breillat. Claire Denis' Trouble Every Day (2001) might be the film closest to Raw, but Raw is much easier to watch in comparison to Denis' film, which has a consistent tone and style. That an audience or a key demographic can be perceived as targeted while watching Raw is part of the film's problem. This film, frankly, doesn't go far enough with its violence. It's too accessible, and that shouldn't be the case with a film about a girl's cannibalistic desires coming out into the open.

My rating: 2.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4954522/

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

Film Review: La La Land (2016) by Damien Chazelle 3/5

     Mia (Emma Stone) and Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) are kindred spirits at similar places in their personal and creative lives. Young enough to still have attainable dreams, but old enough for life to squelch the possibility of those dreams being realized. This conflict, in addition to the love that Mia and Ryan have for one another, is central to Damien Chazelle's La La Land (2016), a musical with emotional and formal ambitions too great for the script Chazelle has crafted. That is not to say that this film is not enjoyable or well made, but that it is narratively lopsided as La La Land prioritizes trying to be a musical that is both traditional (like those of studio films from the 1950s) and revolutionary (like the Nouvelle vague's forays into the genre). Although such an attempt is entertaining, when a film's story is so thin, the musical numbers begin to work against the plot while still pushing it along.
     Working as a barista on the lot of Warner Brothers, Mia aspires to be an actress like the stars who visit her coffee shop or the icons from classic films she saw as a child with her aunt – the posters for their films, ranging from The Palm Beach Story (1942) to The Killers (1946), adorn the walls of Mia's home that she shares with like-minded talents. Auditioning for a variety of parts (no matter how distant from Mia they may be), she just hopes to have her big break (or anything). Similarly, Sebastian is struggling to make ends meet as he pursues his version of his dream without compromise. He's a lover of jazz with respect for the artists who came before him, and is a talented pianist himself. As the two of them cope with reality, Mia and Sebastian quickly begin running into one another at a variety of places and the stars align themselves in their favor.
     This is where problems with the film begin to arise, as the romantic relationship our protagonists fall into reveals itself to be as lacking in substance as the aesthetic of the film (which I will elaborate on further). Their love is predictable, and it's reliant (to an extent) on cliché, so that the audience can recognize the emotional signposts and place feelings onto those scenes rather than having actual feelings conjured up from a scene unique to the lives of these characters. Still, La La Land is charming and Stone and Gosling's performances are highly charismatic, and they undeniably have an on-screen chemistry, but that only perpetuates the cliché. There's seemingly no need for Mia and Sebastian to have an experience beyond looking like they're experiencing something. 
     Chazelle takes the film, narratively, in realistic directions, but it's merely the directions without the actions to support them. The magnetism between these two creatives and the struggles they face together and apart from one another feel legitimate, but just because they happen doesn't mean that they've been emotionally earned. They're pushed together by fate too quickly, pulled away too swiftly, and yet the parts still kind of work. Were the film not separated by seasons, as it progresses through an entire year (starting in winter), the film would feel like it has more at stake by having a plot that can facilitate causal relationships from one action to the next. Instead, La La Land suffers by choosing to adhere to realistic passages of time instead of embracing the more fantastical elements that Chazelle only flirts with.
     Perhaps the obvious film to compare La La Land to is Jacques Demy's colorful, musical masterpiece The Young Girls of Rochefort (1967), but La La Land is even closer narratively to Martin Scorsese's New York, New York (1977). Robert De Niro plays the saxophone, Liza Minnelli sings, and love is in the air as they try to make their relationship work. However, the difference between Scorsese's film and Chazelle's La La Land is that New York, New York is emotionally taxing as it allows for characters to experience real and original conflict whilst alluding to musicals by Vincente Minnelli and others.
     Featuring colorful wardrobes and scenery, extended long takes to highlight choreography, flashy editing and a creative use of camera movement, La La Land delivers more on the form of a musical than it does as a musical itself. Much like the characters, the film hits its marks based off of what an audience is conditioned to expect from a musical, but it's not lending much to the audience in original technique or visual stimulation. Aesthetically and structurally referencing the dream ballet from the conclusion of Minnelli's An American In Paris (1951), or echoing tracking shots of Deneuve walking on the sidewalk in The Young Girls of Rochefort, La La Land appropriates these references well, but what could be appropriated from La La Land in a decade? The songs are nice, and the primary tune ("City of Stars") is quite memorable, but the music is not always cohesive or tonally anchored to the film. 
     As a dedicated fan of films by Vincente Minnelli and Jacques Demy, La La Land cannot deliver experiences that I haven't already seen in wonderful and eccentric musicals that deal with love and destiny (which is what most musicals deal with). Regardless, La La Land is still a very enjoyable film to watch, but the ingredients have more potential than the product that is actually achieved. Playing it safe from beginning to end, there's little at stake because the film's narrative structure has the action spread too thin over too large a passage of time. Still, as the musical becomes a genre that is seen less frequently in contemporary cinema, there is something special about it just for existing – of course, were the film not as charming or well-acted, simply existing wouldn't cut it.

My rating: 3/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3783958/?ref_=rvi_tt

Monday, December 26, 2016

Film Review: Nocturnal Animals (2016) by Tom Ford 4.5/5

     Susan Morrow (Amy Adams) is an art gallery curator in Los Angeles. On exhibition in her gallery, she currently has an installation piece incorporating video of naked, morbidly obese women dancing and lifelike silicone sculptures of those women lying in a variety of positions – it's like a Patricia Piccinini piece, but without creatures. Real women, bearing their bodies and owning their appearance, and fake versions of those women lying about face down (many even look as if they're dead). Either way, both are not the thing they're representing, as one is an imitation of reality and the other is captured reality. Tom Ford's second feature film, Nocturnal Animals (2016), is all about this relationship between imitation and reality, in addition to art and the people who make it. "Everybody writes about themselves," says Susan's ex-husband, Edward (Jake Gyllenhaal). That people do write about themselves is where the tension and anxiety in Nocturnal Animals derives, and that feeling never dissipates.
     "For Susan," reads the dedication in the manuscript of a novel entitled Nocturnal Animals by Susan's ex-husband, whom she hasn't spoken to in nineteen years. It arrives out of the blue with a typed note saying that Edward will be in Los Angeles soon, and just as Susan's current husband, Walker (Armie Hammer), is about to be gone for a few days in New York on business. They're struggling financially, and their marriage is quietly on its last leg, but they're keeping up appearances. With Walker away, Susan has time to focus on reading this novel. As she reads it, a second narrative unfolds in the film: the novel, Nocturnal Animals, potentially as her mind's eye perceives it.
     Set in Texas, where both Susan and Edward met as children, Edward's novel, Nocturnal Animals, tells the story of a husband, Tony (Jake Gyllenhaal), and his wife and daughter who are going on a road trip across Texas. It is notable that Jake Gyllenhaal plays Tony, and that Gyllenhaal is the only actor in the film who plays two roles – even then, this is Susan's imagining of the words she's reading. This particular road trip that Tony and his family are going on takes a serious turn for the worst. The novel, serving as the second narrative, has an impact on the primary narrative as Susan begins to consider that what she is reading might somehow manifest itself in her actual life. 
      Reliant upon her life being disrupted by the arrival of the Nocturnal Animals manuscript, Susan's narrative arc can go anywhere once the manuscript comes into her possession. Beyond Susan being the programmer for an art gallery, it is only fitting that Susan, who gave up on creating art, is surrounded by art since she couldn't emotionally support a creator of it: Edward. Walking through her gallery, Damien Hirst's Saint Sebastian, Exquisite Pain is on exhibition, which features an actual bull pierced by a barrage of arrows in an upright position, like depictions of the death of the titular saint. The violence and perversity of that piece and a few others that she owns or has on display at the gallery reflect what she's feeling and "cross the line" of artifice and legitimate violence. Further, the way one of the pieces is introduced is particularly shocking, and the reaction we have to that motionless piece is not too different from the reaction we have from Susan's visualization of the manuscript.
     All of these elements are balanced with great precision and grace by Nocturnal Animals' writer and director, Tom Ford. That the film could be even more visceral in its unsettling subject matter is telling of Ford's own restraint, as he makes a watchable film that still pushes enough buttons to make one sufficiently uncomfortable. Evoking the beginning of Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974), but never going quite that far, Ford manages to express the violence of this story in a frugal manner as he delivers punches only when needed for the emotional and tonal sustenance of this gripping film's narrative. Moving in and out of varying times and spaces of reality, the audience is already primed for these shifts because of the way the film begins. Further, the film juxtaposes "reality" with a sense of dread and manages to pull off more melodramatic tendencies that operate flawlessly in the affluent milieu of Los Angeles' art scene and New York's post-graduate lifestyle.
     In addition to the narrative and tonal strengths of Ford's screenplay (adapted from the 1993 novel Tony and Susan by Austin Wright), his ability to film the human form in an emotive manner is remarkable. Capturing various kinds of people in various states of dress, characters wear their skin with personality – it's an extension of their identity that speaks just as loudly as a pair of Vertigo-esque jade earrings. That sounds obvious, but Ford has us see five different kinds of undressed characters in three different planes of the narrative and each instance has something to say about that person in relation to themselves and others. Having one leg of the film set in the art world and another leg of the narrative in West Texas, the clothing says what we need to know for surfaces, first impressions, and even concerns of genre, but it's the moments of undress that communicate the most.
     Complimenting Ford's delicate touch with the subject matter and his aesthetic flourishes is Abel Korzeniowski's original score for the film, which primarily consists of piano, melodramatic strings, the rolling of tympani and the ringing of cymbals. This music, against the images on screen, lends Nocturnal Animals an atmosphere of intrigue and unease as the score is constantly moving and evolving. Its use is calculated, regardless of its beautifully mechanical progression, and with the violence and drama over multiple narratives from varying realities at hand, the music holds the film true to a single standard. 
     All at once morbid and hauntingly sentimental, there's a longing for the past and a resistance to a fictional story that pull Susan and the film in two different directions. Animalistic fear and animalistic violence clash as predatory moves are made and the sense that one is hunted is palpable. The "nocturnal animals" of the title take on a variety of guises and meanings as the film progresses, and all of them are correct at any given time – Tom Ford's ability to maintain a tone that allows for that to be possible is impressive. If Nocturnal Animals pushed its more violent material further, it might be even more effective, but it's still captivating in spite of everything that Ford elects not to show. Set against the backdrop of the art world, Nocturnal Animals manages to portray the gallery, private collections, and the act of creating in an authentic way with well-curated selections of genuine art as well as a very inventive original installation that feels like an actual piece of art and not an imitation of what art looks like (as is often the case in filmic portrayals of art). That it manages to pull off conveying the art world is only the first step to Nocturnal Animals' narrative success, as through those artificial realities come tension and pain that allows for the role of the spectator to be accentuated – and fortunately, we are all spectators of this film, and not victims within it.

My rating: 4.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4550098/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Friday, October 14, 2016

Film Review: Rester Vertical (2016) by Alain Guiraudie 4/5

     Gender roles, specifically masculinity as a social construct, within relationships are flipped on their head in Alain Guiraudie's latest film, Rester Vertical [AKA Staying Vertical] (2016). It's a film of bleak comicality that blends perceptions of the real world with surrealism. The trajectory of this film is unforeseeable from its outset, and by the end of the film the journey that has unfolded on screen continuously outdoes the events that came before it. I saw this film at its US premiere at the 54th New York Film Festival, and Alain Guiraudie mentioned during the Q&A following the film (which was conducted by Dennis Lim) that the word "Guiraudian" has yet to have been applied to his work (whereas "Hitchcockian" has), so I will attempt to outline the qualities of the director's work in correlation to this film and that which preceded it, Stranger By The Lake (2013), to highlight his singular authorship.
     Defying logic while shaping a logic of its own, Rester Vertical opens with a phantom ride as the camera glides across a narrow rocky road on a yet-unseen car. It's unsettling, and yet it's entirely natural. A young man, Yoan (Basil Meilleurat), is standing alongside the road with an elderly man sitting on the opposite side. Excessively loud rock music plays from inside the old man's house, and its muffled sounds can be heard on the street. The car stops, and our protagonist, Léo (Damien Bonnard), exits the car to talk to Yoan. Young and handsome with long hair, Léo asks if Yoan would like to be in a film because he has a great look. It seems innocent, but Yoan's body language and response suggests that he feels that he is being coerced into sex. That may not have been the case at first, but Léo becomes obsessed with Yoan, and attempts to see him again with little luck. These failed attempts initiate an idiosyncratic rapport between Léo and the elderly man, Marcel (Christian Bouillette) – a hilariously racist and homophobic man who sits around listening to rock music that he claims is Pink Floyd (when, in actuality, it isn't).
     While Léo's pursuit for Yoan is in full swing, he starts a relationship with the daughter of a shepherd, Marie (India Hair), that escalates into a sexual relationship with commitment almost instantly. Léo has dinner with her father that evening, and then has sex with Marie again in her bedroom. 
     This brings us to one of Guiraudie's strongest attributes as a filmmaker – his honest on screen portrayal of sex. Depicting sex on screen is innately provocative, but Guiraudie presents it as matter of fact whilst focusing on the source of pleasure: genitals. On three separate occasions, Guiraudie presents the female anatomy in a head-on composition reminiscent of Gustave Courbet's oil painting L'Origine du monde (1866). It's all at once sensual and natural, and the audience is asked to look at the body as both an intimate device and more broadly as something worth seeing and discussing in cinema within a non-prurient context. 
     Beyond that, Alain Guiraidie is a mathematical filmmaker in his presentation of content and results. We see the female anatomy in one scene, and then we see the act of sex, followed by an actual birth – L'Origine du monde, indeed! X + Y = baby boy. Just like that, 9 months of the narrative vanish. There is no pregnancy sequence, and there are only context clues as to what Léo and Marie's life has been like during that unseen pregnancy. As in Dali and Buñuel's Un chien Andalou (1929), time and its passing is irrelevant, and things change and others do not for reasons that are unexplainable. Almost every film has cause and effect relationships from scene to scene, and Rester Vertical accentuates causes and effects to the point of absurdity. 
     Léo is a screenwriter (potentially the director of his own work as well), and he's struggling to write his newest screenplay while he's receiving money to live off from his producer who trusts that Léo is making progress. Realistically, there's nothing to show for the money the producer is giving to Léo every month, so he chooses to hunt down Léo, on a canoe going down an Amazonian-like river shouting, "I just want my screenplay," like Robert Duvall trying to reclaim his surfboard in Coppola's Apocalypse Now (1979). It's a cause and effect that could not be imagined prior to it happening (we hadn't even seen the producer on screen up until this point).
     Contributing to the surrealistic quality of the film's narrative is the fluid sexuality exhibited by every central male character in the film. Homosexuality was the progressive punchline at the conclusion of Billy Wilder's Some Like It Hot (1959), but here it's an ongoing gag that puts standards of masculinity to task. All of the sexual advances come from straight men directed at other straight men, and almost all of them are accepted (and if they're not accepted by one character, that character will accept the offer from another man later on). That which is on the surface is not indicative of what the body will desire or willingly give, which plays into Guiraudie's natural portrayal of the human body. 
     Following one of the finest films made this decade so far, Stranger By The Lake, Alain Guiraudie has the difficult task of continuing to grow while solidifying his Guiraudian touch that so many of us became aware of after that film's success. With Rester Vertical, he excels by going in the opposite direction spatially and tonally. Where Stranger By The Lake was set against a single lake, Rester Vertical finds itself going from the prairies of France to cityscapes and jungle-like terrain. In Stranger By The Lake, there's a hilariously awkward voyeuristic character who wanders around watching all of the couples have sex in the woods while nonchalantly pleasuring himself, and Rester Vertical is a film entirely comprised of moments like that. 
     Though Rester Vertical is not perfect, it's a fun, idiosyncratic piece of filmmaking that demonstrates that Guiraudie has a lot to offer. Symbolic and totally within the real at times, the visual metaphors give this surrealistic film a transcendental quality – something that is spiritual in its melancholy and hilarious in its tragedies. A pure Guiraudian experience, Rester Vertical's narrative develops in ways that are quite unlike anything that one could predict, and it will be a pleasure to revisit this film to further examine how it arrives where it eventually does and to laugh in the face of death and tremble at the sight of coming to existence.

IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5231812/?ref_=ttawd_awd_tt
My rating: 4/5

Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Film Review: American Honey (2016) by Andrea Arnold 3/5

     Andrea Arnold's new film, American Honey (2016), is a journey across the American South. The characters portrayed on screen are like real people that one could see just about anywhere in the nation, but particularly in the South. Unprivileged white youth aimlessly go along with the motions of what is easy. There are no dreams, and there definitely isn't an "American dream" to be had by these young adults... Perhaps there could be dreams, and they certainly have their own desires for happiness, but this vision of America and its young adults relishes in the have-nots and the complexity of their seemingly simple lives. The routine of life on the road is not attractive, but it's comfortable for them, and Andrea Arnold hopes that we'll be content observing the protagonists' own contentment with what they've made of themselves.
     Eighteen and aimless, Star (Sasha Lane) is introduced deep in a dumpster with a seven-year-old girl as they peruse for food. Tossing a thawing chicken down to a three-year-old boy outside of the dumpster, they then make their way to the side of the street to hitch a ride home. No one stops to give them a ride, but a fateful meeting of eyes provides hope for something more. In the passenger seat of a large white van, Jake (Shia Leboeuf) makes eye contact with Star as the van pulls into a supermarket parking lot. Choosing to cross the street with the two white children she's with, Star is pursuing an interest in Jake while taking the first step to separating herself from the little kids she's with. It's an odd sensation, as she enters the supermarket and Rihanna begins playing diegetically over the store intercom radio as she finds Jake – is she going to abandon the kids? It doesn't matter that the kids don't look like Star (as she's mixed and has dreadlocks), but we feel her own desire to escape. "We found love in a hopeless place," sings Rihanna as Jake begins dancing on top of the cashier counter to impress Star. This moment is indicative of the style for much of the film ahead – music playing from speakers and car radios with characters dancing or singing along with the music.
     Following Jake, upon being escorted from the supermarket by security, Star is offered a job selling magazines across the country that would pay at least $300 a day, but she'd have to leave for Kansas City tomorrow if she wants in. The playful sexual tension between them is electric, but we're relieved that she doesn't immediately accept the offer as that would require abandoning the kids at the supermarket. 
     Back home, we see more of what she'll be running away from. A drunken partner, who happens to be the father of the kids she was dumpster diving with, would be the primary thing to escape. Though it's selfish of her to ditch the kids with their birth mom who doesn't want them, that's exactly what Star does – and yet, Star is eighteen and doesn't need to be caring for kids that aren't her own, so we (as an audience) forgive her as she makes her way to the hotel to find Jake. 
     Few films capture the monotony of life on the road as well as American Honey does. Naturally, monotony isn't necessarily a positive trait, and it generally isn't here. The film's length allows for the sequences on the road to become repetitive (which is fitting, as road trips are repetitive), but it's as a result of very little character development taking place in these sequences. The characters are truly passive, which clashes with what most road movies strive to overcome: the passivity of sitting while traveling in a car. Still, it's reflective of their wayward disposition. Jake, for example, knows the character and cadence of privilege, but it's merely an act for him as he uses faux aspirations to attend college to gain sympathy from those who do have privilege so that they'll purchase magazines from him. The ease at which Jake exhibits his lack of honesty is alarming to Star – as she's more likely to tell the truth when asked (as when she reveals nonchalantly that her mom died from a meth overdose). Shia Leboeuf's performance as Jake in these moments is the saving grace of this film, as his charm and on screen presence is galvanizing, but that charm clashes with Star's honesty and integrity that is contradicted by her own spontaneity.
     Complimenting Star's honesty and spontaneity is cinematographer Robbie Ryan's camera work, which is handheld and in the 4:3 Academy ratio. The camera follows the action and movements of characters on screen with a shallow focus that draws attention to the immediate subjects in frame. In which by using the 4:3 aspect ratio, the film aesthetically recalls the look of handcams rather than traditional cinema before the proliferation of widescreen cinema. However, one of 4:3's advantages is that it can accentuate vertical compositions, as opposed to widescreen which emphasizes horizontal landscapes. The sky, and characters juxtaposed against it, is a significant element of the look of the film, as it frees them from their immediate environment and allows for the sky to literally be the limit for their potential, if they choose to push themselves.
     On the surface, a film about young American adults partying and acting out may elicit comparisons to Harmony Korine's Spring Breakers (2013), but it is the films' dissimilarities that make for a more interesting and accurate case study. The protagonists of Spring Breakers come from a nice college, are of privilege, and Selena Gomez' character even attends church. American Honey finds characters coming from the opposite end of the spectrum – a film comprised of young people who have little to live for, but they certainly wouldn't accept that idea (and the film certainly thinks they are people of value – which they are, but the narrative celebrates the path they've taken... which is no better than the party lifestyle the girls in Spring Breakers adopt). Beyond that, the scenes featuring Selena Gomez, Vanessa Hudgens, Ashley Benson, and Rachel Korine singing Britney Spears' songs are at least fun – especially compared to the endless slew of songs the van full of young adults in American Honey sing along to. Realistically, American Honey is more akin to Korine's directorial debut, Gummo (1997), but that's too far down the socio-economic ladder to be taken seriously.
     Though American Honey is not without its flaws, it has some enjoyable moments, powerful scenes, and features Shia Leboeuf in one of his best roles since Lars von Trier's Nymphomaniac (2013). The film's excessive running time is its biggest detracting factor, but even the length of American Honey seems natural to what is being portrayed. It's a road film, and the road is as aimless as the personal journey of the film's protagonist, Star, and her magazine-selling peers. That there's no redemption or exit route for these characters is problematic, but this is their life, and Andrea Arnold accepts that life doesn't always turn out beautifully – a truth that is hard to swallow.

IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3721936/
My rating: 3/5

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Film Review: La mort de Louis XIV (2016) by Albert Serra 4.5/5

     Deep vermillion décor, the ticking of the clock, and the flickering of candlelight define the space in which Albert Serra's La mort de Louis XIV [AKA The Death of Louis XIV] (2016) is set. This location is integral to the film, as it embodies everywhere that our protagonist cannot go. Jean-Pierre Léaud stars as Louis XIV, who can no longer walk due to severe leg pain that remains undiagnosed until much later in the film. These are the final days in the life of the King of France, and they're presented with an honesty that is a product of the film's resistance to a plot. La mort de Louis XIV is not a film about sympathy, or even empathy, but rather a film about the formalities of a natural death in the most formal of settings.
     The film opens with a black screen as the sound of nature fades in. Jean-Pierre Léaud's name appears on screen, and we can see through the text of his name the flowers of the garden in the first scene. Through the window of the text, we see a glimpse of something greater, and that speaks to the nature of Albert Serra's film as a whole. This is the only scene in which the perspective of the film is outdoors, as the King's health begins to quickly deteriorate. Pushed in a wheelchair through the garden, Louis XIV is grand in his old age. The brown, curly hair of his wig goes past his shoulders, and the setting sun compliments the artificial youth on display.
     Following this introduction, King Louis XIV is now bedridden, and will remain almost exclusively in a reclined position for the remainder of the film. Still, he is rarely alone – as his personal valet and other servants care for him as his condition worsens. La mort de Louis XIV is a death procedural, and since the film takes place in 1715, it's death the old-fashioned way. Even kings suffer and wallow in misery as they await the end.
     There are no soliloquies, dialogues concerning the finality of death, or anything that is specifically designed to draw out an emotional response, and yet Jean-Pierre Léaud's mere presence on screen is endearing. Even at the age of 71 (when this film was shot), his youthful charm has not escaped him, and yet we observe the final remnants of the King's charm fade away over the course of the film. Balancing the theatricality of a leader who wants to be heard with the subtlety of a man who knows that death is upon him, Léaud's performance brings him from grunting and wailing in pain for the sake of attention, to staring into the camera in silence with almost every muscle in his face trembling out of fear, bitterness, and anger all at once. 
     Albert Serra's eye for composition and knack for pacing that he exhibited in his previous film, Story of My Death (2013), is on full display here. Static compositions heighten Louis XIV's own immobility, and the duration of each shot expresses a painterly quality. Truly composed, every shot is vital to the narrative and defines the mise-en-scène – many of which feature servants entering and exiting the frame whilst Louis XIV remains stationary. Alluding to Mantegna's painting Lamentation of Christ (1480), Serra's camera looks from Louis XIV's bare feet with a deep focus so that his face can be seen as well. Gangrene, in its early stages, leaves a black mark resembling a hole in his foot, like that of the holes in Christ's feet after the crucifixion.
     Integral to the aesthetic of La mort de Louis XIV is the previously mentioned deep focus, which allows for every detail within the frame to actively be important to the milieu of royalty. For such a confined setting, it would be easy for Serra to choose to focus on the people alone, but the setting is a character in itself. The space Louis XIV inhabits is all he has to focus upon while he's not resting, so we're fully aware of the details within the room, as we would be when looking at the details in a painting by Diego Velázquez. Beyond the details of the location, the ability to have people in the foreground in focus while people in the background are as well further unites the shared space. Once the spots of gangrene are discovered, visits from priests and doctors become more frequent, and the Rembrandt-like staging of these physicians is cohesive with the previously established aesthetic of this well-crafted film. 
     It is easy for one to imagine Jean-Pierre Léaud as the flirtatious Antoine Doinel in Truffaut's Bed and Board (1970) or the playful young man in Rivette's Out 1, Noli me tangere (1971), but that's part of what makes La mort de Louis XIV so successful as a film. The absence of that joy Léaud exuded as a young man is palpable, and yet familiarity with his previous work is not necessary to feel that we're seeing the King in his worst state (as that is readily accessible on the screen). It's the moments when Léaud's youthful wonder briefly resurfaces that the King becomes more than just a dying leader, but a genuine person who isn't too great for simple pleasures – like man's best friend: dogs. As meticulously designed as this intimate film is, Albert Serra manages to depict death as a natural part of life – devoid of cinematic melodrama, yet with room for theatricality associated with the formalities of royalty. These royal formalities are often enacted as routine, but death is the universal routine that Serra brings to the foreground, resulting in an elegant film with far more value than just another period piece.

My rating: 4.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt5129510/?ref_=rvi_tt

Friday, August 5, 2016

Film Review: Café Society (2016) by Woody Allen 4/5

     It would be easy to say that Woody Allen repeats himself (it would also be a severe falsehood), but his development of the themes he's dealt with for the greater portion of his career in cinema has only been complimented by the methods he's perfected in expressing them.  Churning out one interesting film every year, with Café Society (2016) being his 46th film, Woody Allen continues to demonstrate his prowess as a filmmaker.  He's an artist who doesn't feel obligated to take the easy route narratively, or even do the thing he's known for doing best: communicating ideas with spoken words.  Café Society, unlike some of Allen's other films, is filled with ambiguity as it deals with the human heart in a manner that is very close to reality – and it's sometimes the things that remain unsaid in this film that have the greatest impact.
     Introduced in voice-over, by Woody Allen himself, we are taken back to the Golden Age of Hollywood – a time when Ginger Rogers and Barbara Stanwyck were the Kristen Stewarts and Blake Livelys of their day.  Poolside, a braggadocios agent named Phil Stern (Steve Carell) boasts of awaiting a call from Ginger Rogers... The phone rings and Phil is summoned to answer it, only to find that it's his sister (Jeannie Berlin) who is trying to ensure that her son will be able to see Phil when he arrives in Hollywood.  Her son (Phil's nephew) is Bobby Dorfman (Jesse Eisenberg), a twenty-something who is hoping to take advantage of new and exciting opportunities while away from Brooklyn.  After waiting several weeks to see his uncle, Bobby finally meets Phil and is hired by him as an assistant to run errands.  In an effort to get Bobby acquainted with the area, Phil assigns one of his secretaries, Vonnie (Kristen Stewart), to show Bobby around town.  Naturally, love is in the air.
     Not to say that Woody Allen is known for likable characters, but Café Society presents a slew of protagonists who are more like genuine people in that they're not "good" or "bad", but rather they're flawed – for better or for worse.  That being said, the moral ambiguity of the characters and their personal desires makes this a highly unconventional film that spans several years.  Alternating between scenes of private interactions and social interactions, there are many sides to the characters of Café Society on display at any given moment: who they are, and who they want others to think they are.  Some of the finest moments in Café Society are the scenes in which people show their true colors while amongst a crowd – when people are isolating themselves from the joyous atmosphere around them (no matter how contrived that social tone is).
     Narratively, Woody Allen has devised a non-linear story that can go back to the past with a snap, or skip an entire year (or more) entirely.  It's effortless, and the introduction of Blake Lively's character (Veronica) proves it while reinforcing where the heart of the film's protagonist lies.  We don't see Bobby and Veronica fall in love (not at first, at least), but rather she's introduced as his wife out of the blue – signaling to the audience that time has passed and that things have changed.  Veronica is beautiful and glamorous, and yet she's totally on the periphery of Bobby's heart and the plot.  All of this is indicative of the quality of Bobby's moral character, which isn't that high.
     Though the characters are colorful and nuanced, the cinematography by Vittorio Storaro is troubling.  Perhaps much of my concerns do not fall directly on Storaro's shoulders, but I imagine that he had a fair amount of involvement with the color correction of Café Society.  Unattractive grey-tinged filters reside over much of the shots in Brooklyn, as well as shots that are in flashback.  Scenes set in Hollywood have a warmth to them, but they are not exempt from their own issues.  Storaro's use of light highlights the subjects, which enhances the digital gloss of Allen's first digitally shot film.  That's not necessarily an issue, as it is consistent, but digital feels so detached from the era being depicted on screen.  Further, there are two scenes in which the film's lighting can actually be observed flickering at a frame rate that doesn't correspond to the frame rate of the film (perhaps Storaro and the set designer were using bulbs from the era, or maybe the DCP at my theater was struggling in those two scenes?).  
     Unlike the cinematography... the locations, costumes, hair and makeup, and set designs are exquisite.  Look no further than Parker Posey and Paul Schneider's characters, who are dressed and made up with impeccable taste and flare (and they pull it off with incredible authenticity)!  Set against the balcony of a lavish Hollywood mansion or the green fields of a Gatsby-esque estate in New York, these characters and the story they're operating within really come to life.
     It's beautiful though to see a film that embraces the problems and struggles of its central characters and gives us the meat of their moments of vulnerability.  In fact, Café Society is a film crafted solely around such essential moments, and the order in which Woody Allen presents these scenes is vital for determining their meaning and importance.  The conclusion of the film is devastating in its subtlety, and it's remarkable that Allen is able to pull off relating an idea and feeling that is so intangible yet utterly universal.  For some, this ending will be "unsatisfying", as a film by anyone else would keep on going for another thirty minutes or an hour (which would've been fine with this film too), but it's so bold for Woody Allen to end Café Society as he does.  It's an ending reflective of reality, and it's the kind of ambiguous ending that only a director of Allen's caliber could achieve.

My rating: 4/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt4513674/?ref_=nm_flmg_act_2

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Film Review: Maggie's Plan (2016) by Rebecca Miller 2.5/5

     Slowly careening off the tracks, Rebecca Miller's film Maggie's Plan (2016) is a film with extraordinary potential that is far more frustrating to watch than it should be.  On paper, Maggie's Plan has everything that one could want from a romantic comedy: attractive people, intellectuals who thrive within niches of academia (in this case, ficto-critical anthropology), and a fair amount of absurdity.  Where the film doesn't quite deliver is in Rebecca Miller's plan for Maggie's Plan (the script).  This isn't a Noah Baumbach or Woody Allen film (not even an Alex Ross Perry film), but that's definitely the world that Maggie's Plan wants to inhabit.  Sure, Maggie's Plan is not without some wonderful performances and delightful moments, but it's not enough to make this a particularly memorable and enjoyable experience.
     Opening the film, Maggie (Greta Gerwig) is introduced helping a blind man cross the street... it's a touching image (and lightly comical), and speaks to Maggie's character.  She's a wonderful person, from which love and generosity overflow, but she feels that she has a mandate of sorts to change the reality of her life and the lives of others (in a word, she's "controlling"... or at least that's what the movie thinks she is).  Her first absurd plan involves artificially inseminating herself, using a "pickle entrepreneur's" semen, because she doesn't foresee meeting anyone to have a child with any time soon.  Naturally, that's when she meets John (Ethan Hawke), a married man who teaches ficto-critical anthropology at the same college that Maggie teaches at.  John's wife, a tenured professor at Columbia University named Georgette (Julianne Moore), is neglecting her marriage and the upbringing of their children to pursue her academic aspirations.  Fate brings Maggie and John together at the perfect moment, as Maggie now has a man in her life that could potentially love her and give her a child, and John has someone to read the novel that he's begun writing.  At one point, John says that he believes that "unborn children are the gods", as they dictate what happens to the adults that will bring them into existence.
     Perhaps the most glaring error in Maggie's Plan is found within the concept of "time".  Were this a work of surrealism, some of the issues with the script could be accepted, but rarely has the passage of time in a film been so disorienting due to time not being embraced.  Nearly three years pass around the thirty-minute mark (when Maggie and John admit their love for one another and have an affair), and John's kids from his previous marriage are exactly the same age as they were three years before.  No effort has been made to make John look a little more weathered by the emotional weight of having a divorce and another child whilst slaving over a novel, and the only signifier that the time passed at all is that Maggie and John do have a child who is two years old.  As a result of minimal effort being used to express that time has passed, there's this strange feeling that Maggie could wake up at any moment and that her new life circumstances would be a wakeup call for her to delay her desire to have a child and ruin John's marriage (even though they're in love).  However, this really happened – there is no such dream to awaken from, which is unfortunate.  The tone and potential trajectory of the first thirty minutes of the film was joyful and exciting, but Rebecca Miller's script dictated that things cannot remain so in Maggie's Plan.
     Though Maggie is the protagonist, she is one of the least consistent characters devised in this film.  Her introduction would lead one to think that she's a contemporary real-world version of Katharine Hepburn's character in Howard Hawks' Bringing Up Baby (1938), but then her idiosyncratic behaviors begin to get more genuine while her heart is still in an absolutely absurd state.  All of these problems come down to the script, and it's fitting that commitment is a struggle for everyone in the film, as there are few signs that the film is committed to any particular tone or pace.  
     Thankfully, the performances from Greta Gerwig, Ethan Hawke, and Julianne Moore are consistent in nature and in engagement.  Sure, they can't fix some of the airy patches of the script where silence overtakes what could be humorous moments, but they are able to bring a sense of naturalism to a film that is sadly misguided.  Even though Julianne Moore's character, Georgette, has a thick Scandinavian accent, she makes it work and manages to make the pronunciation of basic words hilarious.  Beyond that, the back and forth dialogue between Georgette and John concerning facto-critical anthropology is often brilliant (occasionally too on the nose, with name-dropping and contemporary pop-culture references).  For a film that is this script-driven, it's the actors who manage to drive the film to success because the script cannot support the weight of what it is aiming for.
     Cohesion and a little more attention to detail within the mise-en-scène could have brought Maggie's Plan from mediocrity to grandeur.  Not that a film should be evaluated on how successfully it made one laugh, but the intelligence of many of the jokes were pleasing to the ear and were delivered with great proficiency.  It's a shame that these characters didn't have a better film to maneuver within, but the actors did their best to make Maggie's Plan what it is – a romantic comedy about marriage and the upbringing of children.  Yes, it's a mature topic, and an area deserving of being explored dramatically, but Maggie's Plan still missed the mark.

My rating: 2.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3471098/?ref_=nv_sr_2  

Monday, June 27, 2016

Film Review: The Neon Demon (2016) by Nicolas Winding Refn 5/5

     "In fashion, one day you're in, and the next day you're out," cautions supermodel Heidi Klum in the reality-competition show Project Runway.  Though that phrase is directed toward fashion designers, the same can be said of the cutthroat world of modeling at the center of Nicolas Winding Refn's latest film, The Neon Demon (2016).  Co-written by Nicolas Winding Refn, Mary Laws, and playwright Polly Stenham, The Neon Demon has a firm grasp on competitiveness between women, and the milieu of the fashion industry allows for these rivalries to occasionally occur on superficial levels while remaining relevant and creating tension as the narrative reveals itself.  Fashion is fueled by the desire to appear a certain way, and yet The Neon Demon is aesthetically pleasing while delivering much more than sensory pleasures.
     What is always en vogue?  Beauty, plain and simple.  Jesse (Elle Fanning) has a wealth of natural beauty, and her appearance only benefits from her youth and naiveté.  At the ripe age of seventeen, Jesse has recently moved from Georgia to California by herself and is living in a motel in Pasadena so that she can try to become a model in Los Angeles.  Right from the start, she finds that she has an advantage over others – it's in her eyes, the way she walks, the way she composes herself... everything she does is enhanced by her looks.  Further, it's more than just an advantage, it's power (in the most super, yet still natural, sense of the word).  Naturally, this power comes with a price: jealousy from her peers.  Ruby (Jenna Malone) is a makeup artist who indoctrinates Jesse into the social life of Los Angeles, which plants the seed for much of the tension that will manifest itself as the film progresses.  
     Deftly cast, The Neon Demon doesn't have a single character that feels out of place.  Nuanced and easy to sympathize with, Elle Fanning manages to express a great deal of internal struggle with a blush or the raise of an eyebrow, and it's in keeping with Refn's penchant for quiet emoters as protagonists.  However, this time around, the protagonist is bolstered with a script as accomplished as the aesthetic of the film.  The supporting roles in The Neon Demon support the entire milieu that the film is set within (as they should in every film), and that's where Abbey Lee and Bella Heathcote rise to the top.  Lee and Heathcote have the difficult task of making dialogue of the most petty nature seem believable, and they relish in their wickedness.  Many of their lines are a source of comedic relief,  as they embody everything that is artificial in the fashion industry, and they pull it off without a wink.  In a league of his own is Desmond Harrington, who portrays a fashion photographer with a shaved head named Jack.  Jack's presence alone is discomforting in the few scenes he has – he's a man with a camera in a woman's world, but he makes it a man's world with his demeanor.  Emotionless and stoic, he's one of many voyeurs in The Neon Demon, but one of the most difficult to read.  From behind his camera, he is in control, and though we never see through his camera, the thought of the male gaze from his perspective is actively threatening.
     Refn and cinematographer Natasha Braier's approach to visually conveying The Neon Demon makes it one of the more cinematographically competent films set in and around the fashion industry.  Many of Refn's regular stylistic tricks can still be found here, such as his Summer With Monika-esque lowering of lights in a theatrical manner to accent the emotions a character is experiencing.  Beyond that, Refn and Braier are transliterating still photography techniques into the realm of moving pictures.  Juxtaposing the human form against a solid black background, or against a white backdrop in a photography studio allows for the shape of the body to be isolated from elements that would otherwise distract from the subject.  These backgrounds become negative space, as they are merely there to accentuate the presence of what is in the foreground.  Compositions that evoke still lifes provide new ways to evaluate form, as in a scene where a group of models are spread across a room waiting to audition for a fashion designer's runway show.  The placement of each model is very precise, and each provides a different perspective on the human form within the frame.  
     There's a moment near the end of the film where the narrative is effectively derailed, and the look of the film ostensibly becomes that of a fashion spread.  With the roar of a convertible's motor, the narrative's baton has been passed on to two models who have been on the periphery of The Neon Demon's arc through much of the film, but now they have the spotlight.  The energy of this sequence pours out of the screen as the sound and image dictate that the film can go anywhere – much like the car speeding along the west coast.  Sure, The Neon Demon prior to this moment had an eye for capturing subjects in a way worthy of the world of fashion, but it was often at the service of depicting and dramatizing that environment.  The violence of this transition (the whipping of wind and the revving of the car's engine) reawaken a film that hadn't even begun to grow tiresome.  What follows is a conclusion of staggering beauty and grotesqueness, as logic is expelled from the film in favor of that which is utterly surreal.  Phrases and imagery from earlier in The Neon Demon are all regurgitated in this scene with great tact, and the sum of these components and the reaction to it is rather ambiguous, but more importantly, it suggests perpetuation... If you can be "in" one day, what happens when you're "out"?
     This is not merely a genre film, in fact it hardly conforms to a particular genre that could be categorized in such a way.  The Neon Demon's strength comes from its heart (or the heart as a facade), and the film's moments of tension and horror are merely a texture in this satisfyingly off-kilter tale of dreams coming to fruition.  Yes, there are a host of visual references to horror films (everything from taxidermied animals, as in Alfred Hitchcock's Psycho (1960), to blood rushing toward the camera, as in Stanley Kubrick's 1980 film The Shining), but those are merely allusions, and in the context of Refn's film, they take on a new meaning enabling them to stand on their own.  Nicolas Winding Refn has, with The Neon Demon, a film that plays with expectations and manages to go to places that are unexpected yet artfully satisfying.  Totally invigorating, Refn's foray into the "cinema of women" is fresh, confident, and fun, and that he manages to remain true to himself by crafting a film that will challenge audiences is beautiful.

My rating: 5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1974419/?ref_=rvi_tt