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.

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

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Film Review: Love & Friendship (2016) by Whit Stillman 3.5/5

     "Downward mobility" was one of many fears that the protagonists in Whit Stillman's 1990 directorial debut Metropolitan were conversing about, and here in his latest film, Love & Friendship (2016), "downward mobility" is even more plausible.  Prior to Love & Friendship, Stillman's core milieu was populated by WASPs, preps, and yuppies as they struggled to make sense of their place in the surrounding world.  Particularly in Metropolitan, and progressively less so in Barcelona (1994) and beyond, Stillman's young protagonists are representative of a sphere of intelligentsia that isolates them from others, but it's all a facade.  The same can be said of Love & Friendship, a film that is largely about keeping up appearances.  All of this is said to illustrate one key aspect of Love & Friendship: it's not foreign territory for Whit Stillman.  In fact, he's finally working within the time period that the young members of the "UHB" (Urban Haute Bourgeoisie) in Metropolitan would have potentially flourished within.  That the experience of being in this Jane Austen world with Stillman's original touch is not more satisfying is troubling.  
     Lady Susan Vernon (Kate Beckinsale) is the recently widowed mother of Frederica (Morfydd Clark), an attractive teenage girl who is engaged to a silly man (described as "a rattle") named James Martin (Tom Bennett).  In an effort to preserve her status in society and better herself (and potentially her daughter as well), Lady Susan seeks shelter at her late husband's brother's estate in Churchill.  The Vernons are welcoming people, and the "devastatingly handsome" Reginald DeCourcy (Xavier Samuel) has been spending a considerable amount of time with the Vernons, as his sister is married to Lady Susan's brother-in-law.  Naturally, the newly single Lady Susan is bound to become involved with this young man, but her schemes go deeper than the surface would lead one to believe.  Her friendship with Alicia Johnson (Chloë Sevigny) provides the most insight into Lady Susan's true intentions, and they are not always of the most virtuous manner.
     It's not necessarily a problem that the family tree and relations – both by blood and friendship – are introduced quickly, but it does provide a bit to keep up with right from the start.  Cleverly, each of the characters are introduced holding a particular expression with an iris shot highlighting them.  Below each character's name, a quick phrase that expresses who they are is found (many are exceedingly humorous).  Though it is not as true for a character like Lady Susan or Reginald DeCourcy, these brief phrases are in some ways all that we have to grasp who the characters are.  As with Stillman's previous work, Love & Friendship is a dialogue driven film following gifted conversationalists, but the dialogue is generally driving along plot rather than exposing character.  Yes, these were times of restraint in social settings in the 1700s, but the drama does not benefit from Stillman's desire to have characters with unrestrained tongues.  
     Serving as a clear exception to this is James Martin, as he is neither a skilled conversationalist, nor is he lost in the thicket of the moving plot.  His inability to fit in with others in this generally repressed and refined society is hilarious, and in the most uncomfortable manner.  Stillman's use of long takes from a distance render James Martin even more awkward as we observe him move about uneasily as he makes a buffoon of himself while in the presence of anyone and everyone.  Tom Bennett's portrayal of James Martin brings life to the screen that is often lacking, and his lines (though simple and utterly moronic at times) are far funnier than they should be.
       Supporting the rigid lives of those in the eighteenth century is the set decoration, costume design, and hair and makeup – which are accented by selections of Handel and Mozart that complete the mise-en-scène.  There are some nice shots of people looking through windows with uneven glass that distorts what is being seen from their perspective, but there isn't a sense of the surrounding society that these characters are a part of.  It's almost as if the only aspect of the period piece that has been fully embraced is the language, as there's no extra attention paid to the costuming or the locations – this is not a painterly film... Perhaps Love & Friendship's rejection of the traditional romanticization of the aesthetic pleasures of the 18th century (as seen in countless other films set during this time period) makes it even more literary than other films set in or adapted from works set in the era.  All the pleasure in Stillman's film is derived from dialogue and the performances providing it.
     Whit Stillman's films are not that of cinematic excesses and flourishes, but rather of the spoken word.  Though this film has many wonderful lines and characters, the narrative result is uneven as the dialogue convolutes the plot whilst delivering it.  Still, Love & Friendship is a smart film that doesn't have to provide much more than a conclusion that is satisfactory – which it is, though it may be rushed.  Lacking narrative room to breathe, one wishes that it could take more of its time to establish the time and place, but it's still a joy to be told about it instead.

My rating: 3.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt3068194/?ref_=nv_sr_1

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Film Review: A Bigger Splash (2016) by Luca Guadagnino 3/5

     Luca Guadagnino's A Bigger Splash (2016) is a film with great potential that progressively falls flat.  It has many ingredients that, when slow-cooked, could synthesize and form even richer flavors than at the onset.  The cast, the locations, the line of work that the characters are in, and much more sets the stage for something that could be extraordinary.  Instead, A Bigger Splash dips into melodrama in the third act and loses its sincerity.  Politics simmer to the foreground of what could've been an apolitical film about love and the soul, but the film doesn't become a political film either... it's left muddled by its own lack of a precise identity and message.  Still, the events that precede such a narrative collapse are highly engaging because the characters are so interesting.
     Opening to the sound of a crowd cheering and the beat of a drum, Marianne Lane (Tilda Swinton) makes her way onto the stage in a gigantic arena.  Donning a Ziggy Stardust get-up covered in iridescent sequins and a streak of metallic makeup going over her eyes like Adam Ant, Marianne Lane is a rock 'n' roll sensation.  This sequence establishes the scale of Marianne Lane's fame, and then is immediately contrasted by her current state of existence: silent and seemingly normal.  Like a nude by Lucian Freud or Courbet's The Origin of The World, Marianne Lane lies at the poolside naked.  Her partner, Paul (Matthias Schoenaerts), is nearby in the nude as well.  Eventually, they're in the pool making love.  Cuts from shot to shot and scene to scene are quick, but this opening sequence captures the mundanity of their relationship... the patient silence doesn't last for long though as it is interrupted by a cellphone ringtone – a connection to civilization.  Lying under the hot sun, covered in mud, Paul answers the phone and the rapidly-paced voice of the music producer Harry Hawkes (Ralph Fiennes) takes the film out of solitude and into the hustle and bustle of the Italian island culture.
     Traveling with his twenty-two-year-old daughter, Penelope (Dakota Johnson), Harry Hawkes is a lively man who is incapable of remaining silent.  It's around Harry's introduction that it's revealed that Marianne Lane has undergone a surgery on her vocal cords that has rendered her essentially mute for the time being.  Her career as an androgynous rockstar is threatened by this, but her escape with Paul to Italy is treating her well.
     Though Tilda Swinton's character, Marianne Lane, is not supposed to be speaking so that she doesn't irreparably damage her vocal cords for good, she still manages to push through the pain with a scratchy whisper of a voice from time to time.  Her status as a temporary mute is unintentionally humorous, and there was much that could have been dramatically done had she remained silent throughout the film (or at least until the end).  Pantomiming her emotions and desires – after it has been established that she can force out a whisper and doesn't mind doing so – is a bit silly, as she's making a scene out of her own situation instead of continuing to exist as who she actually is.
     Much of the film, particularly its opening with the love scene in the swimming pool, the drives through the desert in a jeep, and the lying out in the sun call to mind Bruno Dumont's masterpiece Twentynine Palms (2003).  Twentynine Palms is subtly concerned with a post-9/11 American culture that is threatened by itself and by immigration.  Similarly, the refugee crisis in Europe becomes a central focus in the final act of A Bigger Splash, and to varying degrees of success.  Marianne Lane, Paul, Harry, and Penelope all have passports that have brought them to Italy for leisure.  There's a moment in A Bigger Splash where Paul and Penelope come face to face with some refugees in one of the most tense moments in the film – anything could've happened, and perhaps something actually should have.  Clearly, that was not an option though, as the film is strongly skewed against the privilege of A Bigger Splash's protagonists.
     Aesthetically, the cinematography is a bit showy.  With a shallow focus, rack focuses from subjects in the background (such as Ralph Fiennes) to subjects in the foreground (like a wine bottle) are distracting, as Guadagnino doesn't hide his filmmaking.  Even the noticeable inconsistencies from shot to shot of digital grain in scenes set at night were a bit off-putting for a film as fashionable this.  Had that digital noise in the image been established as the aesthetic for nighttime scenes, then it wouldn't have felt like a mistake.  Beyond that, Guadagnino's visual style allows for great performances to be captured as his camera moves about to document the actors' and actresses' movements.
     A Bigger Splash is a character driven film that loses sight of its characters when it matters most.  By the end of the film, many of the things that made it so exciting from the start are only faint memories, as Guadagnino's film has transitioned into something else entirely.  The performances remain strong, and Guadagnino's portrayal of the human body is something to be praised, but when the film falls into a conventional plot that heightens emotions for no reason at all, one has to wonder why it couldn't have turned out a myriad of different ways.

My ranking: 3/5

Saturday, May 7, 2016

Film Review: Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) by Richard Linklater 3/5

     Richard Linklater's Everybody Wants Some!! (2016) is a film that is not about everyone, or even a film about someone, but is instead a film about the herd mentality.  A herd is a group of animals that move together.  As a unit, a herd can find all the things that are essential to life: food, water, shelter.  These things are not what this pack of machismo-flaunting athletes are in search of, and it's to a fault.  The film has laughs, and an interesting milieu (albeit, a milieu that has been seen and portrayed more dynamically before), but it's completely inconsequential.  
     Enter Jake (Blake Jenner), a handsome incoming freshman student at Texas State University in the early 1980s, who will be living with his teammates off campus at the baseball team's designated housing.  Upon Jake's entry into the house, the home is almost immediately destroyed by some of his teammates trying to fill up a waterbed on the second floor – an endeavor that nearly merges the second floor with the first, as the structural support of the home is tested.  Something that is less shaky is the camaraderie of the team.  Finn (Glen Powell) knows the ropes of the school and the team (presumably a fifth year senior), and becomes an older brother figure for Jake and some of the other new students.  Among the other students in this house are a plethora of cliché archetypal morons and halfwits, but all of them have their shared athleticism and testosterone.
     Everybody Wants Some!! takes place over the three days leading up to the first day of the semester, so there's not a lot of narrative time for fulfilling plots, but there is time for an experience.  While the idea of an experience sounds like the setup for a promising ride full of jokes and fun, there's little payoff.  When the film begins to get a sense of direction, it falls into the most conventional and trite budding romance variety of narrative that conflicts with everything that has preceded it.
     Throughout the film, Finn discusses the animal instincts of mankind – a fitting topic of conversation with all the partying, cruising, and mindless mating taking place.  Under the paper-thin surface of the film is a quest for identity.  Yes, the film is about a team, but it's primarily about Jake and his interactions within the team as they bond.  When he successfully gets the chance to spend some time with the girl he's been eyeing since day-one, Beverly (Zoey Deutch), Jake is presented with the chance to have a reversal on some of the more animalistic tendencies of his teammates when around the opposite sex (to put it in animal terms, Jake must adapt).  Beverly is intelligent, listens to Patti Smith records, and is a performing arts major – above all, she knows what she wants... 
     What does everybody want?  Everyone wants acceptance.  Everyone wants love.  These are not the answers the film is actually looking for though... what its protagonists are looking for is often found within the "male gaze".  Because all of the characters are essentially the same, there's a lack of contrasting flavor as the herd moves about and no one feels ashamed for the way they discuss and treat women.  Not that Everybody Wants Some!! needs a Tom "Sister Boy" Lee (John Kerr) from Vincente Minnelli's 1956 adaptation of Tea and Sympathy, but the lack of a dissenting voice is troublesome.  Yes, the characters are supposed to be fun, but most of them are despicable.  
     Rising above the others are two students with significant charm and energy: McReynolds (Tyler Hoechlin) and Nesbit (Austin Amelio).  Both characters exemplify the competitive nature of baseball, and are defined by more than their relation to women, but neither are the protagonist.  Yes, the film is essentially an ensemble film, but the lack of variety amongst the characters leaves much to be desired.  There are some wonderful locations and outfits, and an emphasis on male-grooming that is welcome and to be expected of young men living in a post-American Gigolo (1980) world (or even a post-Cruising (1980) world...).  Beyond the lack of variety is the way in which the characters are portrayed: everyone is meant to be sympathized with – even Jay (Juston Street), the delusional wannabe baseball superstar on the team.  With Martin Scorsese's exceptional film The Wolf of Wall Street (2013), women were degraded and bodily humor prevailed, but it was understood that the characters were not good people.  Sure, the only laws being broken in Everybody Wants Some!! involve minors and alcohol, but what makes many of them any better than Jordan Belfort (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his friends as they debauch about?  Such questions can plague the viewing of this film regardless of how much one wants to love it.  Did I have a nice time?  Yes, but I had hoped that we were watching youthful misogyny that would be addressed or eventually come to a halt.  It's clear that such a change of heart wasn't in the cards, but wouldn't that have been interesting? Boys will be boys...

My ranking: 3/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2937696/?ref_=rvi_tt

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Film Review: Knight of Cups (2016) by Terrence Malick 4.5/5

     "'Love and do as you please,' that's what Satan said," states one of Rick's many lovers in voice-over in the latest film by Terrence Malick, Knight of Cups (2016).  That phrase guides much of the direction of the film, as it opens with Rick (Christian Bale) going through the motions of the party life he once knew... the party life he can't escape.  This isn't a tale of redemption, but more-so a series of vignettes tracing the inability for one to be redeemed in a modern world.
     Rick is a Hollywood screenwriter who is searching for meaning and purpose in his own life and the world around him.  He's the ultimate playboy – driving fast cars, attending lavish parties, and entertaining beautiful women with every step he takes.  Throughout much of this, Rick is akin to a somnambulist as he sleepwalks through life – merely the Giorgio Armani-wearing shell of a man whose personal life is in shambles.  Fueling this idea that Rick is in a state of crisis is his inability to speak.  Sure, he has occasional lines of dialogue here and there, but he is internalizing everything – uncertain of how to respond or if he wants to respond at all.  This isn't a film about words (as there are hardly any scenes of back and forth dialogue anywhere to be found in Knight of Cups), but instead it's about experiences – a film in which we can judge the character of a man by his actions.
     Voice-over, delivered by an unseen presence in the film (Ben Kingsley), serves as a loose guide for interpreting Knight of Cups early on.  The opening voice-over establishes that Rick is on a quest as he is compared to the protagonist of John Bunyan's The Pilgrim's Progress – allowing us to realize that there will be trials and tribulations along the way.  Similarly, Rick's journey is also aligned with a legend from the Acts of Thomas concerning a prince in search of a pearl who is offered a cup to drink from that makes him forget that he's the son of a king and that he's on a quest to find a pearl as well.  It is said that the king continued to try to make contact with his son, but that was a challenge in itself... like the call of God to his children who wander in darkness.  Never fully defining the parallel between the prince being sought after by his father in the way that God strives to connect with those who are lost, Knight of Cups benefits from the thematic ambiguity which could've been too heavy-handed otherwise.  This is not a film about absolutes, but such ideas expressed in loose terms strengthen the theme of the film allowing for the audience to actively excavate their own meaning along the way.
     Prior to The Tree of Life (2011), Malick had focused exclusively on the past, recreating the 1950s in his directorial debut Badlands (1973), the post-World War I frontier in Days of Heaven (1978), Guadalcanal during World War II in The Thin Red Line (1998), and colonial life in Jamestown in The New World (2005).  Much of The Tree of Life takes place in 1950s America, but it's a loose flashback from the present in which Sean Penn's character recalls his childhood on the anniversary of his brother's death.  Beyond the 1950s, Malick goes as far to depict the creation of the universe in a tangental flashback near the beginning of The Tree of Life.  To The Wonder (2013) is the first Malick film set entirely in the present, yet it is primarily in the suburbs of a rural state – a film in which the restaurant Sonic is an exotic location.  Finally, we arrive at one of Malick's most stunning milieus: present-day Los Angeles and Las Vegas in Knight of Cups.  
     The location and contemporary setting in Knight of Cups lends itself nicely to certain aesthetic ideas that Malick has been experimenting with recently.  The opening shots in To The Wonder were pixelated video from the travels of our protagonists – a departure from the natural beauty that Malick's work has often been associated with.  It turns out that the pixelated video was from a handcam being used by one of To The Wonder's protagonists, but in Knight of Cups the pixelated quality of consumer digital cameras (GoPros, etc) is a part of the look of the film.  It's a film set in a modern era, captured in a new and fresh way.  GoPro cameras follow characters as they leap into swimming pools, run on the beach, and drive in convertibles filled to the brim with women.  These driving sequences are never filmed in a conventional cinematic way either (the camera facing through the windshield so that we can see Rick's face), but instead the camera is in the back seat filming the back of Rick's head as if we're in the car with him.  The cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki compliments the narrative style of Knight of Cups in that the camerawork evokes an experience.  We are along for the ride in nearly everything that Rick sees and does, and the occasional pixelated shot is far from a distraction, but simply another texture on the screen – as if we're watching a YouTube playlist compiling a few weeks in the life of Rick.  
     Malick's imagery and usage of consumer cameras has an aesthetic immediacy that, when combined with a more traditional cinematic look (35mm or 4k digital), breathes and enhances the speed of the narrative.  From the beginning, Knight of Cups has a natural momentum that cannot be stopped, and the seamless transitions between digital, film, and consumer digital adds to the kinetic energy of the film as it is endlessly interesting.  Yes, the look is comparable to recent work by Jean-Luc Godard, like In Praise of Love (2001) or Adieu au langage 3D (2014), but Malick utilizes it within his regular world and is crafting a different kind of assault on the senses than the pedantically self-reflexive musings of the consistently brilliant Godard.
      Complimenting the juxtaposition of filmic formats is one of Malick's regular themes: the butting of heads between the natural world and the world of man.  In Knight of Cups, this dichotomy is crystal-clear.  The palm trees line the streets, the windmills cross the desert, and airplanes and helicopters soar through the air while pelicans struggle to get off the ground.  Near the opening of the film, Rick's world gets shaken up... literally.  His lamp on his nightstand and other decorative items begin to quiver with a growing rumble from the Earth's tectonic plates while Rick sleeps.  Progressively shaking more violently, Rick is awakened, and hops out of bed as his lamp shatters on the floor.  Outside, potted plants fall from balconies onto the sidewalk below, and people are keeping low to the ground as the aftershocks reverberate through Los Angeles.  The natural world is at odds with the world of man... a world that man cannot conquer or control.  
     Perhaps all of the visual experimentation has also brought out a more mischievous side of Malick, as this film has some comical visuals and situations, as well as a particularly hilarious line during a fashion shoot in which the photographer tells a beautiful female bodybuilder "you're like a 1975 housewife who takes steroids and fucks girls during the day!"  It's not so much that Malick is cracking outright jokes (with the housewife joke and another line being key exceptions), but this film exudes a sense of joy that isn't always as palpable in Malick's other work.  It's a sensation of ecstasy that is actively at odds with Rick's quest, but Rick's problems cannot be solved if he's going to continue living in the decadent metropolitan community that he inhabits... Does he want them to be solved?  That's a question better left for Rick to continue figuring out for himself.

My rating: 4.5/5
IMDb: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt2101383/