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, 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