About Grant

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

Tuesday, August 1, 2017

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

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

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

My rating: 3/5

Thursday, June 29, 2017

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

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

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

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

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

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

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

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