Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

30 December 2015

Best Supporting Actor 2015

My top choices in the order I would place them on my Academy ballot if I were allowed to vote. In other words, this is my top five, but I acknowledge that this list is already influenced by awards buzz, and the actors whom I think would theoretically benefit the most from my vote are at the top.

LOUIS GARREL, Saint Laurent

EMORY COHEN, Brooklyn

PAUL DANO, Youth

HARVEY KEITEL, Youth

SYLVESTER STALLONE, Creed

Also loved:
Christian Bale, The Big Short
RJ Cyler, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Domhnall Gleeson, Brooklyn & The Revenant
Walton Goggins, The Hateful Eight
Sebastian Koch, Bridge of Spies
Hassan Mutlag Al-Maraiyeh, Theeb (Wolf) (ذيب‎)
Will Poulter, The Revenant
Michael Stuhlbarg, Steve Jobs 

Related:
My Best Supporting Actor Picks from past years (2004-2014)

28 December 2015

More 2015 Films. Awards-Season Edition. Part 2.

Adam McKay's The Big Short is funny and smart and moves quickly.

It is also filled with delightful, interesting characters, and a whole bunch of total morons. The Big Short is about how the housing bubble burst in late 2007, and it follows a group of guys who bet against the housing market and therefore made a profit off of the collapse of the economy of most of the world. In other words, it is kind of about guys who profited off of everyone else's bad luck.

But it is a tribute to Adam McKay that this film keeps its characters in perspective enough that they are mostly likable guys. The film's much bigger challenge is explaining the complicated financial situation that really occurred back in 2007. This is definitely a tough row to hoe for a comedy, but The Big Short takes a very clever, Brechtian approach. Instead of trying to tell us all of the things we need to know in some kind of expository way where the information is embedded in dialogue that the characters would never actually say (à la CSI), The Big Short's narrator simply stops the film, addresses the audience, and tells us that "now chef Anthony Bourdain will explain what you need to know". The Big Short is the most Brechtian of this year's films, and it had a true Brechtian effect: getting its audience emotional about information. My sisters and I left the theatre pissed; the mortgage crisis affected all of us very much.

The Big Short is also filled with some pretty excellent performances: Steve Carrell and Christian Bale are particularly good, but the film boasts great performances by Finn Wittrock, Ryan Gosling, Hamish Linklater, Adepero Oduye, Rafe Spall, Jeremy Strong, John Magaro, and Brad Pitt. Oh my god, and Melissa Leo has a hilarious cameo. Again, let me underline that this is a hilarious movie about the mortgage crisis and the collapse of the world economy. It is also a film that explains this crisis to its audience, and points out why it happened, who was responsible, and who was affected by the actions of these criminals, none of whom was ever indicted.

Oscar possibilities for The Big Short: Best Picture and Best Adapted Screenplay seem the most likely. To my mind Picture is a long shot and Screenplay is a lock, but who knows. If people see it, they will respond favorably.
* * *
France's entry this year for the Best Foreign Language Film award is called Mustang, and it is directed by the Turkish-French director Deniz Gamze Ergüven. Mustang is a powerhouse of a film and one of the absolute best of the year.

Mustang follows five sisters living in a small town about an hour from Istanbul. The girls have almost all hit puberty, but are all very much still girls. Early in the film, a crazy village lady accuses the girls of being whores, and their grandmother and uncle, who are raising them, basically lose their minds, lock the girls in the house, stop sending them to school, and begin marrying them off one by one.

The film is made like a suspense-movie, and Mustang is packed with surprises and peripities that you will not see coming at all. It's a story of religious extremism and the ways that religions attempt to control the bodies of women and work to destroy them.

I cannot recommend this enough. It's enjoyable, exciting, and packs an emotional punch. I loved the young women in the film in the extreme. Ergüven's work is extraordinary, and she fills Mustang with lighthearted moments as well as dangerous ones, so that even amid the strict control of the religious nutjobs in the movie, the possibilities for freedom and pleasure shine through. These girls' personalities are bright and beautiful, and they cannot be completely contained by the rules and strictness placed upon them.

Oscar possibilities for Mustang: this film will be nominated for Best Foreign Language picture for sure. No question. It's one of the best movies of the year.

* * *
This is, perhaps, going to seem a little crazy, but Hungary's entry for Best Foreign Language picture is even better. László Nemes's Son of Saul is my favorite film for 2015. 

Son of Saul is a film about Auschwitz, so it isn't going to be for everyone, and it is at times very very difficult to watch. This is a movie about horror, and there isn't any hope to be found in it. Nemes has designed his picture so that it attempts to communicate this as best as it can. It is, to my mind, basically a perfect film, with one of the best central performances of the year, by Géza Röhrig.

I don't want to spoil the movie, but the main character Saul works for one of the Sonderkommandos in the camp. He gets rid of the bodies of Jews that have been gassed, he burns corpses, he shovels ashes into a river, he rifles through the belongings of people murdered by the Nazis in order to pay off guards. This is a portrait of the Final Solution that is like nothing you've ever seen. And the filmmaking is so exquisitely good, that it is organized so that we see every aspect of the camps: the doctor's surgery rooms, the ovens, the yard, the officers dining halls, and the showers. It's absolutely fucking harrowing. And it does not let up. This is not a film that is designed to let up. Nemes wants to show us genocide without the bullshit peddled to us by films like Life Is Beautiful or The Book Thief.

Central to the plot of Son of Saul is the main character's quest to find a rabbi to say Kaddish for a small boy who has been killed in the gas chambers. Early on in the movie he says to one of his companions that he wants to do this: to find a rabbi who can say the prayer for the dead correctly, to mourn for this boy. His companion says "we do say Kaddish for them", and Saul replies simply It isn't enough. To put this another way, the central thrust of Son of Saul is an attempt to mourn correctly for the genocide of European Jews. But this is a task that is already doomed to failure. It isn't enough. It cannot be enough.

Son of Saul had me by the scruff of my neck for its entire running time. It's never boring, not for one second, and it is mostly simply terrifying. Death is around the corner for this man at every instant in this film, and I found this more exciting than any action movie this year. I sat in my seat willing Saul to find a rabbi, to say this prayer, to be successful at mourning. I guess it won't spoil anything for me to say to you that things do not end well for Saul, whether or not he is able to mourn for the boy. The camps were a closed system of power and destruction, designed to destroy as many Jewish lives as possible, and there is no hope to be taken from a story that bears witness to this destruction with any accuracy.

Oscar possibilities for Son of Saul: It's going to win the Oscar for Foreign Language. Done and done.

24 December 2015

Summing Up 2015

Since 2004 I have filled out this survey every December. Almost didn't do it this year, but I figure the end of a year is a good time to do a little reflecting, especially since this was one of the craziest years I've yet to survive.

1. What did you do in 2015 that you'd never done before?
Finally got my first tenure-track job. It was insane getting to this place. Three years of numerous phone interviews and several campus interviews and much nail-biting. But I am in my new job now, and I'm getting my life together.
I also went to the emergency room for the first time in my life. So that was weird.

2. Did you keep your new year's resolutions, and will you make more for next year?
One of my goals last year was to have a guest room and enough space to have more than a few people over to my house comfortably. I totally have that now. My apartment in Orlando is comfortable and I have a guest room, and I have already had several visitors. For 2016, my friend Jaime and I are going to be accountable to one another for our resolutions. I haven't totally decided what they're going to be, but I have writing contracts and due dates that take me through the next couple of years, so I am sure to be busy.

3. Did anyone close to you give birth?
Yes! My wonderful friends Justin & Elizabeth had their baby Violet Bee this October.
And my friends Lindsey and Nathan had their little one Clayton Bradley just this November.
They are beautiful and I got to meet them both a couple days ago.
My friends Jaime and John had their baby Eve Song on January 29th, and my friend Ayana and her husband Derek welcomed their son Marsalis this October.

4. Did anyone close to you die?
Not this year, thankfully.

5. What countries did you visit?
No foreign travel this year. 2015 was very domestic.

6. What would you like to have in 2016 that you lacked in 2015?
I need to decorate my apartment and make it look respectable. I don't really have a ton of money (new tenure-track job does not necessarily equal new very high salary), but this place needs some art on the walls and some TLC. I'll get on it after the new year.

7. What dates from 2015 will remain etched upon your memory, and why?
My friend Tom got married on August 29th and I flew to Los Angeles for the wedding festivities and got to stand next to him while he said his vows. It was a cool moment and I was happy to be a part of it and proud to support my friend.

8. What was your biggest achievement of the year?
Gosh, I don't know. Finally getting a publisher for my essay "Watching A Raisin in the Sun and Seeing Red", perhaps. That was a really long haul and I am glad to have it out into the world and able to be googled.
I would say that getting a tenure-track job was a big achievement, but in many ways this did not have a lot to do with me. The job market is filled with flukes and is very much about how personalities mesh with one another. I feel, more than anything, lucky to be employed rather than accomplished.

9. What was your biggest failure?
I have felt for a long time that I am a pretty enormous failure at relationships. I won't say that this is an actual failure, per se, but I have not really been able to be successful with having someone else in my life. This has, primarily, been my own fault. I simply prefer solitude to being in a relationship – at least at this period in my life. It feels like a giant failure; I have many friends with husbands and wives and kids and kids-on-the-way. But I think I need to start to teach myself to be ok with being alone. I certainly need to stop putting other men through the emotional wringer while they figure out that I am undateable. This will be one of my tasks for 2016. 

10. Did you suffer illness or injury?
I landed in the hospital this November after I got back from the American Society for Theatre Research conference. I had severe abdominal pain and was diagnosed with diverticulitis. No one can actually tell me what I did wrong in order to contract this infection, but they have given me a couple of things that will hopefully prevent this happening again in the future. So I am going to try to be on my best behavior henceforth.
This time in the hospital was really difficult for me. I am alone and mostly friendless in Orlando, and I was in the hospital by myself working through this thing. I have, also, spent a great deal of my time over the last five years or so making myself strong, working out, becoming a person who handles things. The thing about being in the hospital, especially with something that one cannot fully understand, is that one realizes quickly that things cannot be handled. Someone else needed to be in charge and help me get well. Fantasies of my own independence quickly evaporated.

11. What was the best thing you bought?
A new blu-ray player. Movies = life.

12. Whose behavior merited celebration?
President Obama (whose leadership on issues of race in this country I found so lacking at the end of 2014) has completely and totally stepped up his game, really making waves and standing up for what is right on issues like gun violence, white terror, marijuana legalization, police brutality, and the prison-industrial complex. He's been amazing. So amazing, that he has, to my mind, completely dwarfed every presidential debate conducted by either of the two (mostly ridiculous) political parties in the U.S. Who cares what these presidential hopefuls have to say when we have a president who is showing superb leadership on the most important issues of our day. Four more years.

13. Whose behavior made you appalled and depressed?
Last year I wrote: "The Congress in general (across party lines) and Republicans everywhere for the lack of care for the lives of people different than themselves and their inability to see that there might be ideals in the world more important than the accumulation and preservation of private stores of capital."
And I want to say further that when I read about these Republican debates it becomes clearer and clearer to me that what Republicans think are issues are not things in which I have even the slightest bit of interest. They're busy debating things like which way is the best way to be racist against black and brown people and which are the best ways to keep women from having control over their own bodies. Why aren't they debating about how best to fix U.S. relations with countries abroad or repair infrastructure or mitigate global warming? They're actually just not talking about important things anymore. It's very depressing.

14. Where did most of your money go?
Refinancing my house in Tallahassee. It was a really good decision, too.

15. What did you get really, really, really excited about?
Serial.
Youth.
Violet Bee's arrival.
The new release of Seneca's Letters on Ethics: to Lucilius. (In fact, I got way too excited about this. My love for Seneca is really irrational.)

16. What song will always remind you of 2015?
Kraak & Smaak's "Way Back Home"
Some albums, as well: Sufjan Stevens' Carrie & Lowell and the original cast recordings to Fun Home and The Bridges of Madison County.


17. Compared to this time last year, are you:
a) happier or sadder?
Happier
b) thinner or fatter? Thinner
c) richer or poorer? Poorer

18. What do you wish you'd done more of?
Hiking, swimming, eating, vacuuming, cooking, styling my hair, shopping for clothes, drinking wine with friends, seeing theatre that is actually good, going to museums, reading poetry, looking at modern art.

19. What do you wish you'd done less of?
New employee "training".

20. How will you be spending Christmas?
I'm in Los Angeles with (most of) my family and (so many of) my friends.

21. Did you fall in love in 2015?
No ma'am. I did not.
I did date a guy for a little bit that I thought could be a love-match, but he gave up on me after a bit and ghosted. C'est la vie.

22. How many one-night stands?
I think only one.

23. What was your favorite TV program?
I did not watch any television at all this year, as far as I can recall. Maybe an episode here or there, but that's it.


24. Do you hate anyone now that you didn't hate this time last year?
No, not really. Hating someone is an awful lot of work. Who has the time?

25. What was the best book you read?
Ta-Nehisi Coates' Between the World and Me was an awesome read.
I fell in love with a couple of great plays, too: Anne Washburn's Mr Burns and André Gregory's Bone Songs.
I had a great time reading Michel Foucault's Collège de France lectures from 1981-82 called The Hermeneutics of the Subject.
And as for classics, I loved Dracula and Tess of the d'Urbervilles and especially loved The House of the Seven Gables. (I am audiobooking classics these days, and it is really rewarding.)
Oooo. And one academic text: Judith Pascoe's totally badass The Sarah Siddons Audio Files.
Let me also say that I read a lot of Nathan Englander this year, and I think he is the best novelist currently writing.

26. What was your greatest musical discovery?
Max Richter's Sleep.

27. What was the best piece of theatre you saw?
Ivo van Hove's sensational View from the Bridge with Mark Strong.

28. What did you want and get?
A job.

29. What did you want and not get?
Oh lots of things, I guess, but let's not be ungrateful. We aren't owed anything in this life; what we get is a gift.

30. What was your favorite film of this year?
So far it was the Hungarian dog-story White God, which absolutely blew me away.
And last night I saw Paolo Sorrentino's Youth, which is a close second.
I also loved Spotlight and Beasts of No Nation.

31. What did you do on your birthday, and how old were you?
I turned 34. I had dinner with my friend Irma at the Prohibition Pig in Waterbury VT, and then I spent time with my dear friends the Société du Sandwich.

32. What one thing would have made your year immeasurably more satisfying?
It would be nice to live nearer to people I love.
I need to make some more friends in Florida. Especially if I'm not gonna have a husband, I need some local friends in my life.

33. How would you describe your personal fashion concept in 2015?
Shaving the sides of my head and keeping the top long is the most hipster thing I've ever done in my life, but, I swear it takes 5 years minimum off of my age. Everyone always says I look like I'm in my twenties ... and let me tell you that does not feel bad at all.

34. What kept you sane?
Chats with Patrick McKelvey. Seriously, I no longer know what I would do without him.
Vermont beer.
Hanging out with my friend Daniel every month or so.
Happy hour with David.
Remote workout partnering with Joe.
P90X.
Phone chats with Jaime.
Getting to hang out with Andrés, who was only 2 hours south of me for my first couple of months at UCF.

35. Which celebrity/public figure did you fancy the most?

Jai Courtney.
He's just perfect.

36. What political issue stirred you the most?
It seems extraordinary that we continue to allow the number of deaths that we do each year in this country by gun violence. And I continue to be shocked at how little this country values the lives of black and brown people.

37. Whom did you miss?
So many people; chief among them were my nephew and nieces.

38. Who was the best new person you met?
Julia Listengarten. She's my new colleague and mentor at UCF. We met when I interviewed here at the end of April, and I immediately fell in love with her. This woman is amazing.

39. Tell us a valuable life-lesson you learned in 2015:
You're getting older. It makes no sense to be in love with your body (there will always be more you could be doing), but you must, must, must work on it. You may not love it, but you must work on it. You must be good to it, or it won't be around for as long as you want it to be around.

Amazon Prime just encourages you to spend more. That "free" two-day shipping means that you order things more frequently. But it will be here so soon! Yeah. Your wallet will be empty soon, too.

Trying new recipes from cuisines about which you know nothing (I've been cooking new things from Ottolenghi's Jerusalem) is a great way to learn about new flavors and flavor combinations and a great way to get you out of your head. I recommend it. Buy a cookbook and start working your way through it.

40. Share an important quote from 2015:
"Do everything as though Epicurus were watching you. ... Let everything be done as if watched by someone. Solitude encourages every fault in us. Once you have progressed far enough to have some reverence even for yourself, then you may dismiss your tutor; meanwhile, put yourself under the guardianship of men of authority. Let it be Cato, or Scipio, or Laelius, or someone else at whose coming even desperate characters would suppress their faults, while you go about making yourself the person in whose company you would not dare to do wrong."
—Seneca, Letters on Ethics 25.5-6

23 December 2015

The Danish Girl

As soon as I found out Tom Hooper was going to be directing The Danish Girl, I was skeptical. In my mind, Tom Hooper (The King's Speech and Les Misérables) equals Oscar bait and bad direction. The Danish Girl is not really an exception to this rule, but the script and the acting are good enough that I didn't mind nearly as much as I might have.

Maybe I should start with the costumes. The Danish Girl is set in the 1920s and is, in many ways, about costume – about how what we wear corresponds with who we feel we are. So to begin The Danish Girl is beautiful to look at. It also helps that the gorgeous Alicia Vikander (Vogue has, by the way, pronounced 2015 "the year of Alicia Vikander", even if she is unrecognizable on the cover) is wearing all of these clothes.

The Danish Girl is the story of a person named Einar Wegener (played by Eddie Redmayne). Both Einar and his wife Gerda (Vikander) are painters, she a portraitist and he a landscape artist. Through a series of sexy games and little coincidences, Einar starts to become attracted to women's clothing, to wearing it and to dressing as a woman. At a party where he is dressed as a woman, another man kisses him and he (and his wife) both freak out, but gradually he begins to see himself as a woman. Or, to be more accurate – and this is one of the reasons the screenplay really works – he begins to attempt to figure out what is going on with him. Einar, who is sometimes using the name Lili, has not actually made sense of the feelings he/she is feeling.

This journey is the most interesting part of The Danish Girl, and the script spends a good deal of time on this – there is a fascinating sequence where Einar/Lili dresses as a fairy and goes to a library in Paris in order to read about sex perversion and homosexuality. I liked The Danish Girl best during these sequences of discovery and confusion, in which Lili works to become Lili, to find some kind of identity with other people in her world. She is not a homosexual, she decides, she is not a third-sexer, like a fairy; she is a woman, and wants a surgery that will make her a woman.

La Vikander
I liked The Danish Girl quite a bit, but it has its problems, as well. The script is too padded in places. For example, there are at least two separate sequences where someone says "I want to go with you", the other person says "no, I need to do this alone", and then after the person goes alone she immediately decides she didn't want to be alone after all, at which point the person who should have gone with her in the first place shows up after all. This literally happens twice. And there is way too much crying in the movie. Sometimes there are just shots of people crying. Now, there is quite a bit to cry about, of course; times are hard. But I was often confused as to what exactly we were supposed to be crying about at some of these moments. For me the film spent a little too much time on the relationship with Lili and Gerda, too, and not quite enough time on Lili figuring out what was going on with her. We don't for example, get much time at all with Lili and her first male love interest, Henrik, even though this is clearly an important, life-changing period of time for her.

And then there's Hooper's direction. The film is sporadically shot with this odd scoping technique, where the center of the frame is clear and everything around it is slightly distorted. This looks so dumb, and it only happens every once in a while, so that it seems designed to say: Lili is confused, so the world looks slightly confused as well. We know Lili is confused; we're watching the movie. He also does this ridiculous thing where he puts the subject of the camera in an extreme corner of the frame, filling the majority of the frame with blank wall. It is as though Hooper has no idea how to shoot more than one thing at any given time. Extreme close-ups and shots that are mostly empty wall – these seem to be Hooper's standbys. They drove me crazy. I really think he is an awful director.

But the acting in The Danish Girl is great. Vikander is fabulous, and Eddie Redmayne is better here than he was in last year's The Theory of Everything. The film also has an excellent supporting cast – Matthias Schoenaerts, Amber Heard, Sebastian Koch, Ben Whishaw, and Adrian Schiller. There is lots of other great stuff, too. The costumes are beautiful, the score is excellent, the art direction is always interesting, even when it is shot poorly, and the screenplay is mostly very good.

Oscar possibilities for The Danish Girl: a bunch. Best actor, best actress, costumes, score, art direction, adapted screenplay, at least. A cinematography nomination wouldn't surprise me either, even though I thought the photography was awful.

22 December 2015

More 2015 Films. Awards-Season Edition. Part 1.

Confession. I have other writing deadlines that I should be working on and other reading I am supposed to be doing. But I am in Los Angeles, and I've been here for about 5 days. In that time I have seen 4 movies. And if I don't write down some thoughts, then I'm bound to forget everything.

The best of this bunch – and one of my favorite films of the year – is Youth, Paolo Sorrentino's new movie about two octogenarians (Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel) relaxing in a hotel in Switzerland. Caine plays Fred, a retired composer and conductor, and Keitel plays Mickey, a brilliant filmmaker who is working on his next movie with a team of young writers.

Youth is the follow up to 2013's The Great Beauty, and it is very similar in style to the earlier film. Its themes are somewhat similar, too, although I think Youth is more introspective, more about how we behave with the people around us, than The Great Beauty was. But Youth is filled with extraordinarily fascinating characters (Paul Dano, Rachel Weisz, Robert Seethaler, and Jane Fonda are all excellent in supporting roles), powerful dialogue, and lots and lots of magic. This movie, perhaps, has even more magic than The Great Beauty. There is a gorgeous shot early on in the film where Caine is walking on a tiny footpath in Venice. He's just above water level and is surrounded by many Venetian buildings lit up gorgeously. Coming toward him on the bridge is Miss Universe. They inch past one another comically and then continue. It looks like a tribute to Fellini's Casanova at the same time as it looks like something only Sorrentino could dream up.

Vacationing with Paul Dano
Fellini comes up again and again while I watch Sorrentino's movies, and he makes me like Fellini even more. He seems to have imbibed all of Fellini and then coupled it with dance music and irony and a kind of hopeless utopianism. I absolutely loved this movie. It is everything I need from a film. This is a film I wanted to see again as soon as it ended, a film made by a master of the craft (and he's still very young!). There are numerous sequences I could describe that are unforgettable – an extraordinary section where a retired football player (an homage to Diego Maradona) kicks a tennis ball repeatedly into the air without it ever falling, a running joke about a couple that doesn't speak at dinner, an entire bizarre and beautiful section with Adolf Hitler – these sections just keep coming in Youth. The film is consistently surprising, constantly beautiful. As in The Great Beauty, beauty is everywhere around us. And the final sequence – a gorgeous song by David Lang – is the most deeply moving scene of a film I've seen this year. I cannot recommend this enough

Oscar possibilities for Youth: not too many. Jane Fonda is looking good for a supporting actress nomination, although it seems insane to me that no one is talking about Harvey Keitel for best supporting actor. He is amazing in this movie. David Lang should also snag a best original song nomination for "Simple Song #3".

* * *
Lebanon's foreign language submission to the Academy Awards this year is a film by Naji Abu Nowar called Theeb (Wolf). It is an exciting little film with several surprise reversals in it. Theeb is a sort of combination character study slash adventure film slash coming-of-age story. It is by turns strangely erotic and oddly sentimental. In fact, I should say that I think what Theeb is is what Bone Tomahawk sort of wished it could have been. It also boasts an excellent performance from an actor named Hassan Mutlag, a murderer turned father figure who is much more fascinating than the child at the film's center.

But Theeb isn't quite as exciting as I wanted it to be, and it doesn't quite have as much to say as I wanted it to say. This may be (I've noted it before) related to my own impatience with films about children growing up or films that see the world through the eyes of a child. (In fact, I am sort of positive that this is part of the reason I was rather soft on the movie.) But Theeb is also a kind of love letter to a way of life that has passed. The film is set in 1916 during World War I and it mourns the passing of desert guides as the railroad arrives. This struck me as odd, too, since there are, of course, still nomadic peoples who live in the desert and raise animals the way Theeb's family does in the film.

In any case, Theeb is a good little film with some interesting and surprising plot twists, but it never really got under my skin.

Oscar possibilities for Theeb: One. This film made the shortlist of 9 possible nominees for Best Foreign Language Film out of the original 81 submissions. I can't see it actually scoring one of the final five slots, but it could happen.

More movies to come in the next couple of days.

16 December 2015

Far-too-quick 2015 Movie Roundup

I've been seeing a ton of stuff over the last two weeks, cramming everything that is in wide release (i.e. in theatres in Orlando) in before I get to Los Angeles, so that I can spend time seeing the limited-release stuff like Youth and Carol and 45 Years while I'm there. I have already posted about Creed, so I won't review that, but here's some other good stuff. Almost all of these movies are really good, so get out to the movies.

Brooklyn is a beautiful, small picture with some absolutely lovely performances. Saoirse Ronan is a lock for a best actress nomination, and she carries the picture with her deep, beautiful eyes and enigmatic smile. But, in truth, the movie itself doesn't need a lot of carrying. It is elegantly scripted by Nick Hornby, and the supporting performances are all spot on thoroughly enjoyable. Julie Walters, in particular, is very funny while simultaneously feeling richly created; she takes a simple part and makes it into something legitimately fascinating. Domnhall Gleeson, too, gives his usual excellent performance, quietly moving through his role with sensitivity and care. But for me the breakout here is Emory Cohen, who plays an Italian boy Ronan meets in Brooklyn at an Irish dance. Cohen's performance is buoyant, endlessly lovable, and overwhelmingly charming. I was in love with him in under five minutes, but he looks at Ronan with such love in his eyes and half-smile that it seemed to me impossible not to love him back. It is, perhaps, a relatively simple role, in what turns out to be a relatively simple movie, but I found the whole thing emotionally satisfying and wonderfully romantic.

Oscar possibilities for Brooklyn: quite a few, I'd wager. Actress, picture, adapted screenplay, score, costumes. And that's a conservative estimate.

* * *
The Good Dinosaur... was better when it was called The Lion King. The plot is simple and clichéd, like most kids movies, I guess. The look of the film is its most interesting feature – which isn't to say that it is good because the look of the film is decidedly odd.

The scenery in The Good Dinosaur is hyperrealistic. Beautiful water, gorgeous trees and sunsets. And then there are storms and weather: all of these are done pristinely, as though this were CGI for a Marvel movie, ready to be inhabited by basically realistic-looking humans and animals. But then the dinosaurs in The Good Dinosaur, and the other animals as well, all look like they were drawn by an intrepid sixth grader. All of the actual inhabitants of the world of this film look like cartoons. Cartoon creatures and humans living in a carefully crafted realistic world. The effect is bizarre, to say the least, and contributes to a kind of constant, nagging confusion I had while watching the movie. Still, the script is charming and funny (particularly the sequences with Sam Neill and Steve Zahn), and I quite liked The Good Dinosaur while never quite feeling comfortable with it.

Oscar possibilities for The Good Dinosaur: a definite nomination in the animated feature category. That's it, though.

* * *
I loved Spotlight, on the other hand. Directed by Tom McCarthy, who has directed some excellent movies over the years (The Station Agent, Win Win, The Visitor), this is his best film yet. Spotlight is an ensemble picture that follows the story of the sex-abuse scandal in the Boston archdiocese of the Catholic church. I honestly don't think I have much to say about this because I just thought it was solid, and I enjoyed it completely.

In truth, if I am honest with myself, Spotlight is a sort of conventional movie about truth and justice and doing the right thing and making the bad guys pay, but it felt so much more than that while I was watching it. McCarthy ratchets up the stakes, and for me Spotlight came to be about the way that each of us allows injustice to continue in the world because of (a) devotions and loyalties to various dogmas and traditions, (b) apathy and indifference about the real sufferings of other people, (c) actual fear that people might not like us, and (d) greed and self-interest. We watch the film's central characters struggle in different ways with all of these qualms and difficulties, and these miniature character studies are all very interesting, even compelling.

I enjoyed Spotlight from start to finish, admiring the filmmaking (it's shot cleverly and without ostentation) and the powerful ensemble work from Keaton, Ruffalo, Liev Schreiber, Rachel McAdams, Brian d'Arcy James, Len Cariou, and Billy Crudup. And I like the film's subject matter, too. It is so easy to cover up something instead of truly dealing with it, so simple (especially if you're getting your pockets lined) to choose to kowtow to the powerful and the wealthy instead of telling the truth. By the time Spotlight's end title cards rolled around, the sheer scope of the conspiracy that this team of reporters exposed bowled me over. This is a conventional film but a stunning story.

Oscar possibilities for Spotlight: This is currently the Best Picture frontrunner, so that means all of the nominations that go along with that: editing, screenplay, cinematography, supporting actor (Ruffalo? Keaton? who knows), and director.

* * *
I shall leave you on a sour note. I had crossed Trumbo off of my list because the trailer looked so... whimsical, but then the Screen Actors Guild nominated it for ensemble, best actor, and best supporting actress, and then the Golden Globes followed suit with nominations for best actor in a drama (even though it is a comedy) and (again) best supporting actress. So, I put Trumbo back on my list and headed over to the cineplex.

Trumbo is an awful film. It is ostensibly the story of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of Roman Holiday and The Brave One and Spartacus, and I guess it is that, but this movie is so all over the place that one is never quite sure what it's about. It covers an enormous span of time, and its opinion about its protagonist shifts rather a lot, but this isn't really the problem with Trumbo. The problem is that the script is terrible, the acting is hammy and nonsensical, the makeup is too thick, the cinematography is inept, and the whole thing feels so phony that even though this is apparently a true story, one comes away from the film feeling as though it was rather a nice story, but not that our government actually, you know, was fascist and used violence and imprisonment to silence political dissidence. It is all designed to feel so charming: the good guys won. Of course they did. This is America! Utter nonsense.

Oh, and if you think this film might be about mid-century politics? Like Communism or Fascism? You would be wrong. Fascism in Trumbo is a mere plot device. Fascism in Trumbo is just an excuse for John Goodman to get laughs by swinging a baseball bat around an office and for Helen Mirren to say fuck.

I am not Spartacus, but I play him in the movies.
There is more to say about how bad Trumbo is, I guess, but it seems to me that perhaps the most egregious thing about this movie is Hollywood's obsession with having younger actors play famous bygone stars of yesteryear. Trumbo boasts Edward G. Robinson, Kirk Douglas, John Wayne, Otto Preminger, and Hedda Hopper as characters, so that younger actors do their best impressions of these Hollywood royalty, but it always feels so fake. Michael Stuhlbarg, a fine actor, does a rather awful Edward G. Robinson impersonation as it turns out, and although Dean O'Gorman and David James Elliott do very good impressions of Kirk Douglas and John Wayne (respectively), the impression is all they do; characterization is non-existent, as though because they're trying so hard to play the famous face they forgot how to play humans. As for the two racking up nominations, Bryan Cranston growls his way through his part, and as far as I can tell all Helen Mirren does to get into the part of Hedda Hopper is simply to half-heartedly drop her British accent.

As for old Hollywood itself? In Trumbo (as in Saving Mr. Banks and Hitchcock before it) 1940s and '50s Los Angeles looks like a candy store. It's as though the entire purpose of these movies is to increase nostalgic tourism in the city of Los Angeles. Trumbo looks nothing like the real world in either the mid-twentieth century or the early twenty-first. Avoid at all costs.

Oscar possibilities for Trumbo: I honestly don't see any. The Globes and the Actors Guild are fine, but I predict that Trumbo will follow its predecessors (Banks and Hitchcock) and score a single nomination in some below-the-line category. For Trumbo I predict costumes. The film is so bad that if it scores any more than a single nomination in January I'll be shocked. It could happen, of course, but I just can't see it.

11 December 2015

Two 2015 Movies about Punching People

More boxing movies? I am not sure, actually, why Hollywood keeps making boxing movies, or for that matter, why I keep going to them, but boxing is certainly that most cinematic of sports. The camera gets close up in the faces of the pugilists; we hear the thuds and thwacks and the clang of the bell; and it really does feel like we're there. I'd definitely rather watch a boxing movie than a basketball movie (there aren't many of those, come to think of it) or a movie about, say, the 400-meter relay.

The trouble is that there have been so many boxing movies and there are, consequently, so many established tropes and clichés. I remember being totally baffled when everyone went nuts over David O. Russell's The Fighter: isn't it just another typical boxing movie? But, then, I don't know if I can tell you why I liked Creed enormously and why I found Southpaw to be mostly boring and cliché-ridden. I am going to try anyway.
 * * *
Antoine Fuqua's Southpaw is a movie about a rage-filled champion whose wife is senselessly killed and who, following this event, completely loses his mind, does an enormous amount of dangerous activity, loses his house, and gets his kid put into protective custody because he is a total mess of a parent. He must (and this is a standard boxing-movie trope) get a new trainer, straighten up and fly right, and bounce back.

Jake Gyllenhaal is pretty awesome as the film's protagonist (he's sentimentally called Billy Hope), and the actor has really been on a roll, with excellent performances in Prisoners and Nightcrawler; sooner or later critics and the Academy will pay attention. In Southpaw he has transformed physically into a completely ripped and lean beast of a man-child, and his characterization is very interesting: he mumbles and stumbles his way through the film, solidly creating an unpredictable but rather lovable figure.

Still, I found it hard to root for this character, and maybe this is because the film as a whole is so dependent on feelings. Billy Hope is pure anger, lashing out at anyone and everyone, and then, when he needs to get his daughter back, he becomes pure sentiment, weeping his way through the film's third act. Southpaw sees this transition as totally natural, and perhaps it is, but I remain rather unconvinced by the idea. Does a man with enough of a problem with rage that he gets his kid taken away from him suddenly become father of the year after a couple of weeks working with Forest Whitaker? I am skeptical.

I think the kid thing bothered me, too. I need to become the light heavyweight champion of the world because my daughter needs lunch-money isn't, after all, that exciting of a reason for a film's final sequence. Once we got to act three I really kept hoping that Southpaw wouldn't end with a big boxing match but would avoid the trope and end with Billy Hope training kids and just worrying about making ends meets instead of worrying about getting a championship belt. If one's major concern is paying the rent and feeding the family, one doesn't actually need to make a $30 million deal with HBO. But, no, Southpaw ends the way you think it's going to end; no surprises here – just lots of feelings.
* * *
Creed has plenty of feelings, too, don't get me wrong. But I was into this movie from the very beginning. Ryan Coogler's film has its share of clichés, as well – difficult childhood, disapproving mom, complicated relationship with a trainer, and phrases like the real enemy in the ring with you is yourself.

But Creed just does all of this better. Michael B. Jordan is a young office worker named Donny Johnson who fights in Mexico on the weekends. He's the son of the boxer Apollo Creed from Rocky and Rocky II, III, and IV, and Creed both plays up this history and does something interesting with it. How does a person have a legend as a father and also try to make something of himself? What does the name mean? Does it hang over one like a curse? An impossible hurdle? Or can it be something that strengthens and emboldens one? This might seem like a less interesting reason to fight than, say, the love of one's small child, but I found this an infinitely more interesting character study.

Coogler's film also has Sylvester Stallone, the Oscar-nominated star of the Rocky films, and (obviously) a huge movie star in his own right. Stallone is wonderful in this, a retired boxer who wants nothing anymore to do with pugilism and isn't interested in training a young fighter. For Apollo Creed's son, however, Rocky Balboa sets aside his resistance and starts to work again.

Here Comes Mr. Jordan
Stallone is great, but Michael B. Jordan, the film's star and the star of Coogler's first film Fruitvale Station, makes this movie. Jordan is a fine actor, who keeps getting great roles and keeps turning in great performances. His work in Creed is sensitive and angry and frustrated and confused all at once. The part must've been written for him, and he is perfect for it, allowing us into the character's personal struggle even while the character puts up walls.

The conscious, knowing tribute (it never felt like a gimmick) to Avildsen's 1976 film works beautifully because it's understated and mediated in clever ways. Donny watches his dad and Rocky fight, for example, by pulling up YouTube videos of their matches. And the famous theme from Rocky creeps quietly but unmistakably into Ludwig Göransson's Creed score. Another reason this works is that the characters in Creed are actively trying to deal with the events of the Rocky movies, even to destroy them.

These are some reasons, I guess, but I don't think I can fully say why I found Creed's use of boxing-movie clichés to be interesting and Southpaw's boring. Maybe I just like narratives about men dealing with their fathers better than narratives about men dealing with their eight-year-olds. I think, though, that Creed just really is a better movie all around – better acting, better script, better editing, better photography. I loved it.

10 December 2015

Tangerine

Not to be confused with Tangerines (Mandariniid) (an excellent movie), Tangerine is a film that was apparently shot entirely on an iPhone. (I am actually ignorant, but I have heard that the title Tangerine is apparently a filter (? or a color?) related to the iPhone. I don't know.)

This movie is about two transsexual prostitutes on the streets of Los Angeles, and we follow one of them as she tries to get revenge on a young woman who has been having sex with her boyfriend while she has been in county lockup.

The film also follows a married man who drives a cab and who also has sex with these two prostitutes (and a particular crush on the woman who is so hell-bent on revenge).

This is, of course, an interesting premise, and Karren Karagulian, who plays the cab driver, is really great. But that pretty much sums up all the positive things that I can say about Tangerine. I thought this movie was absolutely terrible. The acting was awful: from the very first minute of the film I knew we were in trouble. I didn't believe the top-billed actress, Kitana Kiki Rodriguez, for one second. She spent the entire film commenting on her character – a character she clearly despised even while playing her.

The film's editing, too, doesn't make one lick of sense. We jump back and forth between Razmik, the cab driver, and Alexandra and Sin-dee, the call girls, but the film can't figure out why it jumps between them, and the stories themselves don't work together. The whole idea is supposed to be a kind of vérité / dogme 95 thing, but it is far too contrived for that, jumping from one improbable character that the script despises to the next.

Even worse is the "screenplay", which is not a screenplay at all. Instead, Tangerine appears to be mostly an improvised sort of thing. The film might have benefited from an actual script, and the acting, if scripted, might perhaps have seemed less phony, less forced, more authentic. But as it is, Tangerine feels like something that wants to sell us the idea that it's real. But to the contrary, it felt outrageously fake.

04 December 2015

Bone Tomahawk

I was really hoping that Bone Tomahawk was going to be great. It's a horror / western that stars the awesome Kurt Russell, as well as Patrick Wilson, Matthew Fox, Richard Jenkins, and Lili Simmons. I found the trailer for the film simultaneously bizarre and terrifying, and so I was looking forward to it.

But... although the script is mostly great, the movie itself is a fairly consistent letdown.This has nothing to do with Kurt Russell's taciturn performance as the film's main character, and nothing to do with the earnestness and nuance that Patrick Wilson mobilizes in order to play his role, but everything to do with the uneven way the film is directed by first-timer S. Craig Zahler.

The film's plot is delightfully gruesome. A trio of people is kidnapped in a small, 19th century Western town in the desert. The town's sheriff, two deputies, and a vengeful husband ride off to find the three. They have been kidnapped by cannibals – a bizarre tribe of Americans who paint their bodies white, implant whistles in their voice-boxes, speak no language, have no name, and rape and murder their own mothers. Grisly stuff.

Everything about the film, though, is uneven. The performances are occasionally great, but sometimes very very stilted. The score sometimes fills a scene beautifully; at other times, Zahler has opted for no music at all and the film feels lifeless and boring. A different (gorgeous) sort-of western from this year called Jauja spends most of its running time in longshot, observing its characters from afar and studying, instead, the landscape and the feeling of the world. Bone Tomahawk seems to want, occasionally, to do this same thing, to observe its characters from a distance, to set them out from a very general background of desert by putting them in relief. But the camera doesn't seem to cooperate. It jumps from closeups to wide shots without apparent rhyme or reason, and the film's meditative elements seem only half-hearted, as though what we're all really here for are the grisly sequences that we watch in act three.

Matthew Fox as John Brooder
These are decidedly grotesque. The centerpiece of this sequence is the scalping of actor Evan Jonigkeit.

He is then turned upside down and hacked down the center of his body lengthwise. It is extraordinary to watch and really, really gross. Definitely the nastiest thing I've seen all year. There are a bunch of other grotesque images here, as well, and they are worth watching, but I found myself wondering what exactly was happening. If the grotesqueries in act three are the point of the film, why waste all the time in acts one and two doing faux character study as we follow the men to the camp for three days and nights? Why not concentrate on the murders and the corpses that result?

Comedy is a problem in this film too. Nearly all of Richard Jenkins' lines are directed to be a kind of steadily running stream of feeble jokes. Some of them are funny – the audience I was with chuckled out loud at several – but this film is a horror/western, and the comedy always felt out of place to me, or as a kind of attempted but failed nod at the Coen Brothers.

And I suppose it is mean, but I thought Lili Simmons was terrible in this. Her performance holds a single register throughout, and she never looks or acts like a woman at the frontier. She's a beautiful woman, and a nice match for the very pretty Patrick Wilson, but she struck me as awfully miscast. Matthew Fox, on the other hand, is great. He is mean and effete and arrogant and just delightful, even if the camera tends to avoid him and the film's narrative disposes of him.

In any case, the film felt to me like something that had as its priority the telling of a story, instead of having as its priority the way to tell the story. Bone Tomahawk needed as its director someone who didn't write the screenplay.

18 November 2015

Clouds of Sils Maria


Rich, complex, Chekhovian, and very sexy. Talkier than other Assayas movies, but Clouds of Sils Marie deals with the problem at its center through circumlocution, spinning around and around it, talking about it, certainly, but then, as it turns out, the important stuff is never what is said.

Clouds is all about desire, and the clouds at the film's center (or are they at the film's peripheries?) are a perfect metaphor for the desire(s) the film attempts to describe in roundabout, impossible ways. These eponymous clouds are known for a phenomenon where they come down through a mountain pass and shape themselves into the form of a snake, coalescing for a very brief moment before going off on their own and becoming simply clouds again.

Clouds of Sils Maria is also, in many ways, an All about Eve for 2015, discussing our desire to live other people's lives, the difficulties of embodying the lives of others, and the ways that other people's lives can take over our own, both by eclipsing them and through sheer force of the other person's will.

The acting is flat out superb. Juliette Binoche knocks it out of the park yet again, and Kristen Stewart is flawless. I was really into this picture.

15 November 2015

Votes for Women!

Suffragette is a fairly straightforward Hollywood-style movie, although Suffragette is a British film, perhaps more emotionally akin to last year's The Theory of Everything than to anything else I can think of at the moment. [The following may have some spoilers, but this is all historical fact, so none of it ought to be particularly surprising if you know what happened to British suffragettes in the years before the '14-'18 War.]

Sarah Gavron's film follows a young working woman in 1912 as she becomes politicized around achieving greater rights for women in a country (England) that doesn't extend rights to women. This fight about women's rights (especially the rights of working women) is fought under the banner of voting rights. In this way Suffragette has obvious debts (in style as well as structure) to last year's Selma. Gradually Maud Watts, the film's main character (played by Carey Mulligan) comes to understand that she actually has no rights whatsoever in England. She is beaten, imprisoned, tortured by London police, her child is taken away from her. She is disowned by her husband, fired, kicked out of her house, and reduced to homelessness on the streets of London. Her body, she finds out quite clearly, is not her own, and she has no recourse to fight any of these assaults upon her her person or her family. And so she decides to join the suffragettes, and the suffragettes decide to fight.

All of this is shown to the audience in an emotionally rousing, sentimental style, and the film does its best to spend time awaking all of the feelings we have about justice and motherhood and bodily integrity. In this way the film succeeds somewhat and is a crowd-pleaser, but it is not my kind of film. The older white-people crowd will love it – the audience I was with applauded when the film was over – and the film in many ways makes people feel good about beliefs that they already possess. Yes women should have access to their children; no one oughtn't to be fired for a political view; no one oughtn't to be sexually available to one's employer. Yes women are just as smart as men; no women oughtn't to be kicked out of their houses by their husbands; yes women ought to be able to vote.

But, then, these women are also terrorists, let us make no mistake. They become criminals, existing outside of the law, defying a government that affords them no protections. And here is where I am pretty sure that my read of the film differs from the read of its intended audience. For me, Suffragette became a film about unchecked state violence.

At numerous points in the movie, police literally beat peaceful protesters until they are bloody and then they arrest them and imprison them for any amount of time they wish. The police violence on the bodies of civilians goes absolutely unchecked. Here, for me, is where the film becomes more interesting. Watching this violence onscreen we might be in Harpers Ferry or Auschwitz or Selma or Ferguson or Baltimore in 2015. Police in Suffragette act with absolute impunity. They are the law and there is no law above them to check their actions because the bodies broken by their violence possess no rights of their own. In this way Suffragette, if it is a film about the struggles of working-class white women in Britain in 1912-3, can also be read about violent resistance to police brutality and unjust governments across the globe in 2015. It certainly called up for me police violence against black bodies in the U.S., the violence that says that people from non-European countries deserve no protections under the EU, and certain Republican presidential candidates' refusal to accept immigrants from other countries, including Mexico.

Ms. Bonham Carter
But the film also conflates "voting rights" with other problems, and this is where I got a bit confused by the film's politics. Many of the problems I articulate above – problems with the lack of rights attached to women's bodies in Britain before the first World War that the film addresses (men's presumed sexual access to working-class women, women's rights over their own children, the gender pay-gap) – are really unrelated to voting rights, or at least their links to voting rights are not made clear by Suffragette. This is, perhaps, one reason why one easily jumps to thinking about other injustices in the world rather than thinking deeply about the means the women took to achieve their desired political result. Because this is a sentimental film, the whole thing becomes about justice and injustice in the generic. These are women who couldn't get any newsmedia to cover their struggles and so they resorted to terrorism to get media attention, including suicide terrorism. The film, for reasons I find baffling, isn't really interested so much in these political tactics as it is in "good" and "evil". In this way Suffragette to my mind falls far short of a film like Selma, a movie that discusses political realities and the decisions with which activists must grapple when attempting to achieve political change.

In any case, Suffragette should do pretty well with Oscar, I'd wager. Expect a nomination for Carey Mulligan and maybe also one for Helena Bonham Carter (both are great). Ben Whishaw is also great, but his character is "bad" and in a picture this sentimental he won't get any awards love. A costume design nomination seems like an easy get, here, too. And Alexandre Desplat will probably get one for his score. In short, expect a couple. As I said, this is a crowd-pleaser.

 * * *
Oh! One last word. There was some brouhaha during the marketing of Suffragette about the film's (white) actresses posing in t-shirts that contained the phrase "I'd rather be a rebel than a slave" as a way of marketing the film. My opinion of this kerfuffle is that it was (like most things that happen on social media) a too-quick, knee-jerk reaction that practices both an anti-historicist view of political struggles and (as my reading of the film reflects) a too-strict view on readings of cultural products like films. For me, Suffragette was about the immigration crisis in the EU and unchecked police violence against black bodies and the gender pay-gap in the U.S. Representations always make meanings that vary from their ostensible subject matter, and to attempt to restrict the word "slave" to a particular historical period erases real instances of the enslavement of bodies that are ongoing in the world today.

09 November 2015

Beasts of No Nation

Clearly one of the best films of the year so far is Cary Joji Fukunaga's Beasts of No Nation.

It is true that I generally find it difficult to find a lot of words when I am talking about a movie that I simply love without almost any reservation, but I am holed up in the Portland airport waiting for a red-eye back to Central Florida from the ASTR conference, and I am way too tired to read. In other words, forgive me if this post is out of control; know that I have slept very little the last few days and won't get to sleep for another large number of hours.

Beasts of No Nation is a film about child soldiers, better even than 2013's War Witch. This is a film mostly in English and it is upsetting a lot of people because it is being released on Netflix simultaneously with its (Academy-qualifying) theatrical release. Distributors can say whatever they like about this, however. It will not alter the fact that this is a superb film.

If War Witch is Beasts of No Nation's most obvious recent cinematic reference point, if you ask me the film's debts are primarily to the ecologically minded utter genius filmmaker Terrence Malick. Malick's style isn't copied here – that would be profoundly unfair – but many of Fukunaga's questions about the world are the same. Like Malick, Fukunaga is fundamentally interested in the natural world that violence destroys and the ways that adults have powerful effects on children.

I am evoking Malick, too, because Fukunaga uses (but does not overuse, as some of Malick's acolytes do) a voiceover technique, where the film's main character articulates to us the reasons he has made the decisions he's made and the ways he deals with the psychic wounds of having done what he has been forced to do. This allows Fukunaga (who also wrote the screenplay) to describe the wounds experienced by a character while at the same time turning his camera on the jungle or on plant- or animal life.

Both filmmakers also present the violence in their films in fundamentally ethical ways, treating acts of bloodshed with horror and surprising the audience with the viciousness exhibited by their characters. Fukunaga doesn't let us be sentimental about violence without then following sentiment with ruin, with terrifying details that shock us out of our tendency only to mobilize the default emotions of pity or fear. (I guess I shouldn't speak for all of us, but I am convinced that this is how these things work so I'm just going to keep talking.) Sequences of excessive violence treated with a truly horrifying perspective have the power to unsettle us deeply, so that once we move past pity or shallow sentimentality, we can move into an area where we no longer feel like we understand this violence's limits. What I think this refusal to allow us to see violence's limits does is transmit to us a deep feeling that we no longer understand what humans are capable of doing. It becomes clear – we know in our bodies – that there are worse things than the director has allowed us to see. We know we have not understood. Beasts of No Nation does not let us rest in the complacency of believing we "get" it. The limit Fukunaga's film makes clear is not the limit of the violence of child soldiery but the limit of our ability to think it.

It is this kind of superb moviemaking for which Fukunaga has come to be recognized. Think about some of the sequences in True Detective's first season; there were entire sections of that show when my jaw was in a permanently dropped position.

Mr. Attah
It goes without saying that the film's photography is breathtakingly detailed and exquisite. Fukunaga was his own DP, and the film's cinematography is precisely what we have come to expect from his camera: images worthy of Malick himself. His camera, like the master's, lingers lovingly on the land, treats with beauty and respect the bodies that have been destroyed, refuses the pleasure that audiences desire when they watch violence. And he has set the film in the most gorgeous locations. Characters slog through trenches of bright red clay, the sun on the ocean serves the function of allowing the film finally to breathe near its end, and the banal, artificial lighting of the war rooms and bunkers allow the audience to appreciate beauty where the film wishes us to do so, and feel constrained and even slightly nauseous when such a feeling is merited.

I must, of course, also tell you that the acting is excellent. Abraham Attah, a fourteen year old Ghanaian actor, is absolutely riveting as the lead character, Agu. And Idris Elba brings extraordinary depth to this terrific villain. His performance is so extraordinarily brave that the film, almost entirely through Elba's performance, is able to address the tensions of desire that exist between the exploiters and the exploited in this situation of child soldiery. I am using only the word desire (without qualification) here on purpose. What becomes clear throughout the film is a kind of longing for youth, for acolytes, for sexual subjectivity, for mastery, that comprises the exploitation of child soldiers. It is a harrowing insight from what is, finally, a brilliant film, absolutely not to be missed.

03 November 2015

Walking on Air

I thought Robert Zemeckis's movie The Walk – which is based on a story told in James Marsh's Oscar-winning 2008 documentary Man on Wire – was a trifling bit of fluff.

I had heard tell that The Walk was an exciting movie, that it took some time getting started, but that once Philippe Petit, the tightrope walker who put a wire between two corners of the Twin Towers, got onto his wire and started walking across, the movie was really going to get going.

I had also heard that people were getting sick in this movie, getting vertigo or becoming disturbed somehow by the dizzying heights portrayed in the film. (This obviously appealed to me.)

But... The Walk is, more than anything else, a kind of whimsical fairy tale. The screenplay is designed like a children's story, and it is actually narrated by the actor playing Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) from the balcony at the top of the Statue of Liberty's torch. He tells us the story from there, while pulling rabbits out of hats and making coins appear from behind the ears of ingenuous children.

One might say that there is more to this film than whimsy, but The Walk insists on a kind of triviality, one that believes in the magic power of mimes. Throughout the film Petit talks a great deal about Art with a capital A, and he believes that his walk is a grand, superb artistic gesture. Frankly, I am inclined to agree with him. But Zemeckis's film is not interested in Petit as an artist, despite the number of times the word art is repeated in the screenplay. For Zemeckis, the protagonist of The Walk is a kind of magical grown up who can show us all what it is like to be a child again. Petit is reduced from what he thinks he is (an artist) to a kind of street magician, a latter-day Peter Pan who refuses to grow up and from whom we all can learn how not to be old. I don't know about you, but I think that kind of thing is silly.


The Walk is also a miniature love letter to the World Trade Center towers at the center of the film. This is understandable, and this aspect of the film is The Walk at its best. Near the film's end a character says something like "People have hated these towers since construction began on them, but now that you did what you did, people say they love the towers – they say that the towers mean something to them now". The actor who says this line, Steve Valentine, renders it beautifully, and embedded in his delivery is what happened to the towers in September of 2001, and what Petit did as an artist to change how people saw the towers. (The Eiffel Tower had its haters when it was first erected in 1889, as well.)

In short, the likability of the film's star and the sensational quality of the narrative the film wishes to tell are both undermined almost irrevocably by The Walk's writer and director. There was a cool film hidden in here somewhere, but maybe the cool film to which I refer is actually just Man on Wire.

01 November 2015

Pal Joey


Pal Joey is actually really good despite Kim Novak's terrible acting. The gowns by Jean Louis are incredible: imaginative, gorgeous, novel. There are a couple of good tunes in here, too – and Rita Hayworth gets two great numbers.

But this film is at its high point when Sinatra blows the roof off with "The Lady Is a Tramp".

29 October 2015

Murder, Inc.

This is bad. Peter Falk is great, and the star, Stuart Whitman, is excellent. But this faux-documentary is poorly directed, badly shot, shoddily edited, and hastily scripted with a silly bit of moralizing at the end and an absurd narrator device that isn't introduced until midway through the picture. Shot in Cinemascope, you'd think it would be more interested in its photography, and it seems occasionally to be so, but mostly this picture is just getting by. It felt like a rush job more than anything else: a total mess.

Jauja



Jauja is an entrancing dream of a film. It is a kind of combination of Tsai Ming-Liang and Apichatpong Weerasethakul, which is to say that it is definitely not for everyone. But I was into it.

27 October 2015

Generic Title (Bridge of Spies)

A (sober) conversation with my friends Chris and Walter about Spielberg's new movie Bridge of Spies. This does contain spoilers, so be forewarned. Still, none of us recommends this movie, so you can probably just keep reading and then skip the film.

Walt: Ok fellas, I'm off to see Bridge of Spies. Wish me luck.
Chris: Stay strong.
Walt: Let me just say that I am the youngest one here.
Chris: Off to a good start.
Aaron: I just got out of the movie.
Chris: Initial thoughts?
Aaron: It was boring.
Chris: Agreed.

Aaron: What was this movie about? America and stuff, right? Principles? Doing the right thing? I don't mind a movie about all of those things, really, but I think what bugged me about this movie was something I kept puzzling over the whole time it was going on. What kind of movie is this? Is Bridge of Spies supposed to be a character study? It certainly isn't one; we know nothing of the main character except that he is a kind of symbol for "American values" and "giving a guy fair shake" and that sort of thing. We literally get only one little flash that there might be something else to his character in that little moment when he says that the Yale kid is the same age as someone else (no one follows up on this little red herring, but it is some indication of this character's humanity). But then if the movie isn't about this character, then it is a movie about plot, which means this is supposed to be a kind of suspense movie! If it is, then why is it so slow? There are all of these ponderous scenes where characters philosophize about the right thing to do, but where is the suspense??

Chris: So this is basically a heroic tale of human compassion, right? Mark Rylance has this line in the holding cell where asks for a pen and paper to sketch with. Hanks denies him and Rylance responds with something to the extent of "You would want your man to be treated just the same over there, right?" – cut to soft-focus close up of Hanks trying his best.

Walt: It was a parable or something. Or something.

Chris: The trailer wants us to think it's a thriller and at the very top (the opening sequence with Rylance being pursued) I was totally on board with that. But then this goes away and I wasn't sure what was left in its place. The plane sequence was pretty great; wish there was more of that. Something that my buddy Joey brought up was that we never get a chance to really care about the Hanks/Rylance relationship, because we spend so little time with them together. This caused the final bridge scene to fall flat since it was hard to care about them as much as the movie wanted us to. 

Hanks is feeling a little bloated
Walt: I think I just watched three different movies (or maybe I’m just responding to the three endings). At some point we’re in the one of the Berlins and I’m like “this is the same movie? But I thought Alan Alda…” Ugh, it was so bloated. I feel like Spielberg used to be so tight and now he’s become so much more ponderous. A year or two after The Color Purple, he called the it “the most grown up film I’ve made”. And if I think about it, all of his grown up films are bloated. So maybe it's not about where he is in his career so much as it is that he think grown up films should be bloated. Really, though, the movie kind of wanders. I remember watching an interview with him in the '90s talking about how he has this group that he screens his films with (I’m guessing Scorsese, Coppola, yadda yadda yadda). What the hell kind of notes are they giving him, anyway?

Aaron: And I wonder about the novel, actually, because there are really three plotlines – this had to have been cleaner in the novel, and it certainly could've been written more cleanly for the screenplay.

Walt: I didn't know that it was originally a novel. That makes sense. I don't think the adaptation is very strong. This thing should’ve been an hour on the history channel, not a Hollywood film. Seriously, why did anyone make this movie? What do we need it for right now? Spielberg reminds me of my dad in a way: he still thinks we should hate the Russians and that Castro is public enemy #1. This movie hated Russians. And Amy Ryan. They must hate her, to give such a great actress such an impossible and ultimately meaningless role. All she does is complain, right to end, when he doesn’t bring back that sweet sweet British marmalade. Imagine Odysseus returns home, saves Penelope from all the suitors and she just complains about how he didn’t bring back one of those amazing Trojan rugs! Also, what’s with Tom Hank’s son? Why is there even one scene with him? And what about the humor? All those jokes stood out like a sore thumb.

The camera loves Amy Ryan but this movie doesn't.
Aaron: I love your note that it is three different movies. But for me this is both a screenplay problem and a direction problem. There are so many little jokes. Spielberg can't help himself with these little bits of silliness. It baffles me. I'm thinking of that chief prosecutor in the GDR picking up the wrong telephone. Ha ha. And the little trick that Hanks plays on the assistant who is dating his daughter. What a prankster! And when that little joke comes back to bite him when the assistant spills the truth to Amy Ryan I actually laughed out loud. I thought this was quite a comical sequence. But this has nothing to do with the rest of the film in either its plot or its tone. It is very early in the film, and is, I presumed, designed to set the tone for what we're watching, but it's so comic that the tone it set confused the rest of the movie.

Chris: Oh yeah, that assistant... what happened to his plot line/why was he in the movie? For the joke?

Aaron: You are so right about the stuff with Hanks' son. Who cares. Maybe it is supposed to contrast with that final moment on the train? "American kids used to live in terror and sleep with their bathtubs full, but now they happily scamper over the fences of their neighbors so that they can more quickly get to the orange juice in Mrs. Thompson's icebox."

Walt: I don’t see a strong enough connection between the kid in the bathtub and the kids jumping the fence, but I had other things on my mind when that was happening. Yeah, his kid meant nothing.  When he’s deciding on whether to handle the negotiation and who does the pilot remind him of?  Some older kid that works for him that he’s not even related to!

* * *

Walt: But anyway, it’s about the power of the everyman or something. A guy realizes how awesome his life is or how awesome it could be, maybe. Like Joe vs. the Volcano, except the volcano is just a bunch of shitty people he has to wade through. Tom Hanks had a cold in that one, too, except he got better as the movie went on. Maybe that’s the difference between comedy and drama? The cold gets worse in drama. Oh my god. He had a cold. I kept wondering about that in the movie, but it just hit me. Cold. Cold War? Oh my god, I bet that’s it. Like they read a Syd Field screenplay book and got to the section where they suggest you give the character a physical marker à la Jack Nicholson in Chinatown (Jake is nosey so his nose gets cut) and thought “oooh, we should do that for Tom, too! I mean, it’s the Cold War, amiright, Stevie?”

Chris: Worst bit: That old woman on the train. She notices Hanks and scowls at him (you know, because he's defending a traitor). Then weeks later she happens to be on the same train car with him, but this time smiles because he did good job. Steven, we get it.

Walt: Oh my god, that woman on the train. She smiles for an awfully long while, doesn’t she? That’s bad train etiquette, even in an age where you didn’t have to lock your doors at night. Also, what about when Tom Hanks is looking out the subway window down onto the Brooklyn streets and is most likely thinking "god, I’m glad we’re not Russian"?

Aaron: Can we talk a little about Tom Hanks's acting in this? I kept looking at him in this picture and I just don't get it. What is he doing?

Tom Hanks is a little lost.
Walt: I don’t know what to say about Tom Hanks. I love him. I miss him, actually, but not enough that I want him back yet. He should hang out for a while. Thanks to TBS, he’ll never really go away, anyway. They basically just alternate screenings of Big and You’ve Got Mail. I mean, he was fine, he really was. But just because he’s our Jimmy Stewart doesn’t mean he has to take roles that they can’t offer Jimmy Stewart anymore. 

Chris: Hanks was not bad, but forgettable. I thought he was fantastic in that Captain Phillips movie and had high hopes for this. I will say he was a great casting choice, as was everyone. Rylance was fantastic but we didn't get enough!

Aaron: I thought Mark Rylance was great, and I also really liked Peter McRobbie (who plays some sort of higher-up dude in the CIA), and I also thought Sebastian Koch was perfectly cast and he was probably my favorite thing in the whole film. He was so good.

Walt: I enjoyed Mark Rylance. I’ve seen some clips of him doing Shakespeare and one of his funny Tony acceptance speeches, but that’s about it. I found him a bit too adorable, though. Wasn’t there something about him that was just kind cute? With that “would it help?” catchphrase? What a darling. I loved the KGB guy (Mikhail Gorevoy) and Sebastian Koch as well. In a movie that tried so hard to make everything look so dangerous, the danger he presented felt authentic to me.

* * *

Chris: Positive thoughts: Cinematically, it was everything we've come to expect from Spielberg. Just beautiful to watch with great attention to detail. Really lovely.

Walt: You’re right: it was beautifully shot. Spielberg is a master at conventional visual storytelling. That shot of Hanks on the bridge in the 1st ending was breathtaking. I thought the film should’ve ended there.

Aaron: Yeah, it surprises me that you guys thought it was well shot. The whole thing looked simultaneously washed out and milky to me. All of that bright, hazy sun pouring through the windows (this was especially annoying when we were in the chief prosecutor's office at the GDR). I don't understand Kaminski's style anymore. What is the point of bleaching all of the color out of every shot? 

The milky glow of sunlight beatifying our star
Walt: I agree with you that the lighting exposure in a lot of the film didn’t really work, but I’ll still defend the visual storytelling.  Little things, really, like the reveal of all the policeman in front of Tom Hanks' house. A lot of other directors would have shown all those police cars at the beginning of the scene to establish the tension, but Spielberg holds that off and waits until after he’s confronted by the single policeman to reveal what looks to be the entire precinct out there. Before that reveal Hanks and the policeman are on equal ground, but after, we see that Hanks’ character is all alone in this. I’ll also stand behind that beautiful shot of Hanks on the bridge in the first ending. However, I will not stand behind the several shots of using window panes as a literal framing device.

Chris: To be fair, the dismal/it's really cold look with the saturated color scheme was effective. Russia looked terrible and I wanted to put on another coat. Then we get a nice sepia tone for the pilot plot because we're going back in time. Haha.

Walt: Oh man, and what about how the Supreme Court glowed like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude? Spielberg really loves the America. And the 50s. I didn’t mean to write the “the” in “the America”, but it actually seems right somehow. 

Aaron: But I don't think it is fair to say that Spielberg loves the 1950s any more than any of the cohort that he came of age with - Lucas and Barry Levinson and Zemeckis and Coppola all love the 1950s. It was an important time for them. "When men were men" or maybe "when ethical questions meant something" or something like that. The movie does try to deal with those things. As much as Spielberg loves the U.S. – and that absurd shot at the end where Hanks is glad he's not a Soviet is evidence of that – the  movie can't help but notice that the Americans themselves are just as bad as the Soviets and the East Germans at several points. Note Hanks' crack about his East German prison cell being no better than his digs in West Germany. And then there was that crusty old judge and his total railroading of American justice, and the CIA's attempts to get Hanks to violate attorney-client privilege. The movie can't help but show us that Americans are no more a just group of people than the East Berliners or the Soviets. For all its highmindedness about the Constitution and liberty and all of that, the soldiers at the end are still dishonorable assholes to that kid who got shot down over Soviet territory and managed not to talk even though he was tortured. Bridge of Spies believes that the American people are, in truth, just as bad as Soviets and East Germans; we just have better laws over here.

Mark Rylance being adorable.
Walt: Oh man, I totally kept cracking to myself “when men were men” during this movie.  And you’re right too, that the movie includes Americans in the shitty people/volcano that Tom Hanks has to fight (I thought of Lionel Barrymore a lot when watching that cranky judge. Doesn’t that judge belong in a holiday movie about a guy who doesn’t believe reindeer can fly or something?). Perhaps Spielberg is wrestling with the idea that while he was having his American Graffiti moment there were all kinds of assholes pulling strings at the highest level. But do we need this movie for that? Or this story?

 * * *

Walt: Was anyone else struck by Tom Hank’s color palette at the end of the film?  He’s passed out on the bed wearing a charcoal gray suit with a dark red sweater poking out the sleeve.  Does he come back from East Berlin a lil’ bit Communist?  Does it signify Mark Rylance’s last impact on him?

Aaron: I didn't notice a change in his color palette when he returned. Perhaps that was further evidence of that never-ending cold??

Walt: Also, why go through the bit at the end where Rylance mentions that if the Russians don’t embrace him upon his release at the end it will signify his death only to tell us in the credits that nope, never mind, he didn’t die actually?

Aaron: That Mark-Rylance-doesn't-die bit was so Steven Spielberg - a habit he has that is just as marked as his multiple endings. Create tension and make something seem really scary, and then show us that we had nothing to be worried about after all. It happened when the CIA guy followed him in act one, as well. That guy seemed really dangerous, but turns out he was able to be defeated simply by a few snide remarks about American values and some nonchalant snacking on an almond or two. I kept hoping Rylance would get shot on the bridge itself by those snipers. I know that's terrible, but this movie needed some actual stakes, and then all of that tension would have actually had a payoff.

Walt: I fully expected him to get shot. Otherwise, oooooo snipers.  Better watch out, cause, y’know, they might… let you know if someone’s coming or something.

Chris: This was a true event right? So there's boundaries.  I assume Rylance's character didn't get shot on the bridge - then again maybe that whole scene didn't actually happen on a bridge. I don't know.

Hanks on the eponymous bridge
Walt: It had to happen on a bridge, otherwise no title. The bridge was so inconsequential to the film though. What’s the bridge of spies? Is it East Berlin? Tom Hanks? The actual bridge? It works on many levels, but so little is made of the actual bridge that there’s nothing concrete to tie it to. I’m just generally confused. About why the movie was made and what we’re supposed to get from it. I’m sure Spielberg’s great uncle loved it. It felt like a movie that a great uncle would tell his filmmaker nephew that he should make. “Now THAT would be real story.  None of this treasure-hunting crap. You wanna talk about danger?  When I was in Berlin…” 

Aaron: I am not actually sure how I stayed awake.

Chris: So why are people giving so much love to this movie? Is it palpable to today's attitudes towards war?  The paranoia factor? Are people just suckers for Spielberg? The shot that rings most true for me was the Germans getting shot down climbing the wall: that demonstrated the terror of the entire situation for me. That "oh shit" moment. Then Steven screwed it up by having American kids climbing over a fence at the end.

 * * *

Aaron: I am not really a Spielberg fan or a Hanks fan, so I don't have the same kind of affection or emotional attachment to these Hollywood icons that the two of you do, but to me this kind of "prestige picture"/Oscar-bait garbage that Spielberg makes is completely uninteresting. It reminds me of the sort of old-school Clifford Odets-style of writing: a kind of writing that makes itself look very important but actually doesn't say anything at all; it simply pretends to be serious. I think Spielberg should stick to genre pictures.

Walt:  I love Spielberg and I love Hanks, but I’m over their being paired together. I’ve heard that Spielberg thinks Hollywood is broken, though he and his “cohorts” as you called them, namely Lucas, were really behind the breaking. Now he’s trying to make up for it by being a grown-up, except it feels like a 14-year-old’s version of what being a grown-up is. Not that “being grown up” really means anything anyway, but Spielberg seems to think it does, and who better to cast in a grown up movie than Tom “American Dad” Hanks. I don’t know. I don’t know what to do about either of them as a fan of theirs.  I just want them both to go away. Like Star Wars. Just go away so that I can be glad to see them again. 

Chris: If I had to rate this movie with a facial expression, it would be the one that old lady made on the train. Mildly disapproving with a touch of confusion.