Saturday, June 24, 2017

Review: "The Beguiled"

Director: Sofia Coppola
Runtime: 94 minutes

"There's a war going on, out there, somewhere..." So goes the opening line of current Broadway smash Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. Cannons and guns wreak havoc in the periphery, while a different conflict is waged in the battlefield of opera houses and parlors among those privileged enough to get out of service. A similar framing device hangs over the characters of The Beguiled as well, draped over like a protective veil made of smoke, fog, and moss. Both works exist in realms of refinement, though the latter finds its characters staving off the ugly reality bubbling just outside their line of sight. 

Given that this is a Sofia Coppola film, none of this is terribly surprising. Her specialty has always been her ability to chronicle the shut-off bubbles, specifically of upper class white women. Whether haunting hotel hallways amid the skyscrapers of Tokyo, or traipsing through an unguarded mansion in Beverly Hills, the notion of isolation is the connective thread holding her oeuvre together. Her adaptation of Thomas Cullinan's novel (previously adapted in the 70s with Clint Eastwood) immediately establishes itself as more of the same, at least thematically. 

But the steady progression of The Beguiled (easily her tightest work of pacing) stealthily gives way to something unexpected: a heated, simmering psychological cat-and-mouse game. Or, rather, a cat-and-mice game. Beneath the Southern hospitality and longing glances cast out of windows is a delicious, cunning genre picture ready to claw its way out at any given moment. For once, Coppola allows her female characters to have their bubble punctured, and even violated. The muffled cannon blasts pepper the film's soundscape, but a different, twisty conflict is about to erupt not on the battlefield, but in a place designed to instill manners. 

It takes only a few minutes before Corporal John McBurney (Colin Farrell) collapses on the doorstep of the Farnsworth home. Headed by the steely Miss Martha (Nicole Kidman), the household's exterior suggests a lack of maintenance, and even disarray. But lessons is music, etiquette, sewing, and French still occupy the time of the girls boarded up their by their wealthy Confederate families. And, being the proper Southern ladies they are, Martha's students and their teacher Edwina (Kirsten Dunst) help McBurney inside to treat his wounds. 

McBurney is obviously injured, but there's still a palpable shock for the girls (and, frankly, the viewer), when his gruesome leg injury appears. Coppola loves her introverted, wan ladies, so to see something so lurid is a bit of a jolt. Not soon after, Miss Martha is sewing up McBurney's wound, in a grisly closeup that wouldn't seem out of place in a Guillermo Del Toro drama. Amid all of this, there is a great deal of lustrous closeups of Mr. Farrell's exposed chest and just as much heaving and "oh, my" breathing from the ladies. 

Coppola has dipped her toes into new territory, and while she never takes a full plunge, her restraint is measured rather than timid. With a thick coat of fog, smoke, and mist smeared across many shots, The Beguiled lands firmly in the territory of Southern Gothic storytelling, albeit with an unconventional structure and sense of pace. 

Using only natural/available light (daylight, candles, etc...), The Beguiled has the painterly look of Kubrick's Barry Lyndon, albeit with a color scheme more reminiscent of Goya or El Greco. Amid all the murk, the cinematographer Philippe Le Sourd conjures up an array of sharp images. Most transfixing are the closeups, of people handling tools, utensils, or bowls. The Farnsworth Academy may be a bit Brigadoon-esque in its removal from the "real" world, but it's still grounded in a tactile sense of place and time. The fineries of life are all these girls and women have to hold on to, other than each other. And so they clasp on, never giving an inch, whether it's to a wine glass or a gun. 

Inevitably, a misshapen lust triangle emerges from the fog, and Coppola finally lights the fuse that's been sitting in the corner the whole time. Coppola has shown she can generate tension (Taissa Farmiga playing with a gun in The Bling Ring), but it's never been stretched out in any of her films. The wind up is masterfully done, and when the fuse finally reaches its lengthy end, the resulting display doesn't underwhelm. 

There is little outright violence in The Beguiled, despite the early flash of gore, though what occurs lands well. More compelling, however, are the little digs and power plays initiated through dialogue, glances, and gestures. Kidman, delivering an antidote to her work in Cold Mountain, takes center stage amid the uniformly strong ensemble. In every meeting (many of which involve most of, or all, of the cast), he eyes seem to be in constant motion. She's keeping tabs on Edwina, the students, and McBurney all at once. The subtlety on display is, like the film as a whole, a wicked delight. Dunst, a Coppola regular, is gently and affecting as Edwina, who wants nothing more than to get as far away as possible. Farrell, as the object of the film's Female Gaze, is excellent too, crafting an intelligent portrait of a man who goes from victim to manipulator (and then back again). 

Tonally, it's not all doom and gloom and ripped bodices. There is a tart sense of humor that hangs in the air along with the perfume, sweat, and hormones. At times, The Beguiled is basically a Gothic-accented comedy of manners. That is, until certain lines are crossed, and the battle lines are drawn. The bubble must be protected after all, and it will be done with a stiff upper lip, a beautiful gown, a prayer, and a very carefully constructed recipe. With a flirty, dangerous wink, Coppola signs off with one of those gems of Southern charm that can be wielded as an invitation or a weapon: Y'all come back now...

Grade: A-

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Review: "It Comes at Night"

Director: Trey Edward Shults
Runtime: 97 minutes

Clear-cut answers are hard to come by in It Comes at Night. A catastrophe of some sort, manifesting in the form of a bubonic plague-esque infection, has done its damage. And based on the boarded up home of the main characters, it seems that people aren't too keen on socializing outside of their family. The story opens with a mercy killing, the kind we've seen in any number of post-apocalyptic films and TV shows. But what follows, despite some eventual bloodletting, is hardly standard issue fare. Despite the looming sense of the unknown, the film is ultimately a chamber drama that happens to unfold in a nightmarish scenario. What need is there for answers to big questions when uncertainty is sitting right next to you at the dinner table?

Any given festival circuit is full of splashy debut features. Trey Edward Shults had his at last year's Sundance, with the nervy psychological drama Krisha. Despite its shoe-string budget, the film did what any cinematic calling card should do: introduce potential. Following up on said potential is another matter entirely. For Houston-born Shults, however, lightning has actually managed to strike twice. If anything, it has struck with even more intensity than before. It Comes at Night retains the strengths of Krisha, while applying them to a more established budget and a cast of professional performers. But the film is not exactly a major leap forward for Shults, though this is not necessarily a bad thing. Rather, it's a lateral move, taking on similar issues and themes, but merely restating them in a new setting and with newfound luxury. It may seem like overkill to attempt a second impression after your first went over so well, but in the end, Shults' sophomore effort more than justifies itself.

It Comes at Night does not immediately register as a work derived from personal experience. With its apocalyptic setting, genre demands appear to be at the forefront of the film's concerns (they're certainly behind the marketing campaign). But despite the long shots of a camera gliding down a dark hallway and some gory dream sequences, Shults' film is anything but predictable. There are trace elements of what we would expect from this sort of scenario (blood dripping from a mouth, the ravages of a horrific infection, things going bump in the night), and they are indeed disturbing. But all of that pales in comparison to what It Comes at Night pulls off in its final act, which is a bleak, bruising, and haunting as anything in recent memory. 

The mercy killing that opens the film is not that of an acquaintance or ally, but of a father and grandfather. It is a death hastened out of necessity, but one that also reduces a household from a family of four to a family of three. There is magnitude in this kind of loss. Each person in the house now has one person fewer to rely on. Or talk to. Or laugh with. And so it's no surprise that when Paul (Joel Edgerton), Sarah (Carmen Ejogo), and their son Travis (Kelvin Harrison Jr.) encounter a new person, they immediately go on edge. 

The new person in question is Will (Christopher Abbott), caught as he tries to break in to Paul and Sarah's home for food and supplies. Like Paul, Will is a husband and father. His wife and child (Riley Keough and Griffin Faulkner) are 15 miles away, and desperately waiting for him to return. "Have you seen anyone else?" asks Paul. "No," says Will. He could be telling the truth. He could be lying. If it's the latter, what might he be concealing? It Comes at Night rarely answers questions, even when you might beg for it to give just a shred of evidence in either direction. But in Shults' capable hands, it matters gravely to the characters, but doesn't hinder engagement for the viewer. 

Initially, the films seems lopsided in structure. After the ominous beginning, Shults dials down the dread and suspense, and punctures the mood with bits of levity and charm. One montage is (relatively) joyous, observing two different families working and learning together. You'd be forgiven for thinking that Shults had forgotten what type of story he was telling. But the film's steadily unnerving progression ultimately reveals that Shults and his collaborators have known precisely how to play this all from the get go. No matter how innocent or kind a person seems, few things arouse suspicion like a story that fails to fully add up. All it takes is one stray remark, and the atmosphere in the house undergoes an irrevocable shift. 

Aided by a dynamic score (by Brian McOmber) and claustrophobic photography, Shults is able to conjure up a feeling of imminent disaster that could plausibly stem from supernatural or mundane sources. The ramifications of either are terrifying. If there is some boogeyman out there, then the world is even more frightening than we thought. If it's something totally normal, then it only illustrates how far humanity has fallen. An early scene involves a montage of closeups of a print of Bruegel the Elder's "Triump of Death," filled with images both surreal and ordinary. They exist side by side, feeding into each other. Is there really some singular entity out there to fear? It doesn't matter. The mere notion that there could be is all it takes for paranoia to spread.

Grade: A-

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Review: "Frantz"

Director: Francois Ozon
Runtime: 113 minutes
At around the 50 minute mark, Francois Ozon pulls back the curtain on the big question lingering over his latest movie. It’s skillfully handled and beautifully acted, but then you realize that there’s still an hour left. What on earth can fill up that much time? Based on Ozon’s track record, anything is on the table. The remainder of Frantz, his latest endeavor, could meander and overstay its welcome. Or, just maybe, it has something else up its sleeve to justify laying its cards on the table so early. For those who have followed the director through his ups and downs, you can breathe easy. This time he’s not only sustained his narrative momentum, but actually built one of the most carefully layered stories of his career.
Ozon’s gift and curse has always been his efficiency. Like Woody Allen, he shoots quickly and hops from one project to the next. And, like Allen, this is not always a good thing. Ozon’s prolific nature means there are plenty of entries in his filmography that, while not bad, nevertheless feel half-baked. His previous effort, 2015’s The New Girlfriend, certainly suffered from his own speediness. As did 2014’s Young & Beautiful, which had its strengths (most notably its conclusion), but still felt a bit like a sketch, rather than a fully-realized idea.
But when Ozon really puts his mind to it, his efficiency can yield powerful dividends, as is the case with Frantz. In the tradition of Swimming PoolUnder the Sand, and 2013’s In the House (his most recent full-blown triumph), Frantz showcases the writer/director’s gifts working at full power. Ozon’s own restlessness, after a few cycles of disappointments, has once again manifested in the form of crisp, surprising storytelling anchored by intelligently chosen backdrops designed to enhance and inform the spare drama on screen.
Set in the the almost immediate aftermath of World War I, Frantz opens not in France, but in a rural village in Germany. There we meet Anna (luminous newcomer Paula Beer), a young woman mourning the death of her fiance (the titular Frantz), while doing her best to maintain a normal life among her would-be in-laws. Then one day she finds flowers on Frantz’s grave from an unknown mourner. Mere hours later, she meets the man responsible: a young Frenchman named Adrien (Pierre Niney, adorned with a toned-down Dali moustache). Anna’s father-in-law to be (Ernst Stotzner) is initially abhorred by the Frenchman’s presence (in his mind, any and all French men are guilty of his son’s death), but Anna and her mother in law (Marie Gruber) are more receptive.

Ozon introduces Adrien so quickly that it’s almost a shock he waits until 50 minutes or so before the big revelation. Yet all throughout there are both clues and red herrings, rendered with great subtlety through both the dextrous script and intuitive performances. Even before we grasp the extent of what’s going on, the nimble movements on the actors’ faces speak volumes. Said volumes only increase in meaning in retrospect, when the full weight of the story reveals itself.
One can easily make the argument that Ozon is France’s answer to Pedro Almodovar, and it shows here, albeit with less florid execution. Shot mostly in crisp black and white (calling to mind The White Ribbon), there are times when the secrets and half-truths of Frantz seems like they might collapse in a heap of melodrama. But, delicate as the set up may be, Ozon uncharacteristically maintains his balance the whole way through. There are no odd diversions or subplots. The more traditional mystery gives way to a deeper, richer examination of grief and perception, all plotted with an efficiency that miraculously never undercuts the emotional depth of the story.
With its big twist planted squarely in the middle, Frantz risks coming off as two separate stories vying for attention. But Ozon’s playfulness with structure continuously reveals itself to be a tremendous boon. The two halves of Frantz clever play off of each other, with the latter functioning as an inversion of the former. And in the second half, Ozon avoids mere repetition, and instead deepens both his characters and their existential quandaries. Ozon refrains from directorial theatrics, focusing instead on simply telling a story full of movement with exceptional control.
Aside from one character’s change of heart in the first 20 minutes, everything in Frantz flows together authentically. These are ordinary scenes in the hands of a gifted storyteller with the skills to bring out the extraordinariness lying just under the surface. So often with Ozon’s work, the lack of immediate passion in one’s response signals that a viewer is shrugging off a well-crafted yet hollow provocation. Here, however, the delayed response is only a tease, with the real treat lying in revisiting and replaying the conversations that oh-so-delicately prop up this sumptuous exercise in melodramatic classicism.
Grade: A-
Frantz opens in NY and LA on March 15, 2017.

Review: "Logan"

Director: James Mangold
Runtime: 135 minutes
In Hugh Jackman’s 17-year tenure as Wolverine we have had two Batmans, two Supermans, two Hulks, two James Bonds (the most recent of whom is soon to be done), and now three Spider-Mans. Even Jackman’s co-leads in the X-Men films like Patrick Stewart and Halle Berry have seen other actors play their younger selves. In that span, superhero movies dug themselves out of their graves and burst forth as key priority for the major studios. Before X-Men‘s release in 2000, a sequel (let alone a franchise) was anything but assured. Now, we have interlocking stories being planned and scheduled through the start of the next decade. With all of those seismic shifts, the end of Jackman’s time in his star-making role is momentous in its own way. The character will always outlive the actor, even if that actor is how most envision said character.
The very good news, however, is that this swan song for the Australian actor corrects the mistakes of past X-Men films, while also building on the promise of a previous installment. After the enjoyable but run-of-the-mill X-Men: The Last Stand (2006), the next film in the franchise was a prequel centered on Wolverine’s origins. It came out in 2009, and it was a bit of a mess. Redemption followed with 2013, when James Mangold (Walk the Line, the 2007 3:10 to Yuma remake) helmed The Wolverine, chronicling the clawed mutants exploits in Japan. But The Wolverine‘s success came with an asterisk: it was a big step in the right direction in many way….until the third act, which went heavy on cartoony effects at odds with what came before.
Yet ultimately The Wolverine did enough to pave the way for Logan, so we owe it that much. With Mangold back in the director’s chair, and the freedom of an R-rating, the third time really is the charm for the cigar-chomping anti-hero. It is a Wolverine story that has its own look, its own feel, and despite references to events in other movies, enough narrative confidence to stand on its own.
Opening in 2029, we first meet Logan sleeping in his car, drunk out of his mind. His hair is greying, and his body, though still imposing, looks worn. The character used to be able to heal from nearly all injuries, and now he looks like a man on his last legs. In a world where most mutants have been eradicated (and no new ones have been born), the likes of Logan and Prof. X (Patrick Stewart, also bowing out of the franchise) are relics. They live modest lives, hidden away from general society. No coordinated costumes, no fancy lairs, no custom jets.

Dafne Keen and Hugh Jackman

And then along comes a One Last Job opportunity, which our hero reluctantly takes just for the money. At first. The task is to escort a young, “gifted” girl named Laura (Dafne Keen) from the Texas/Mexico up to North Dakota. Naturally, there are obstacles, including a scheming scientist (Richard E. Grant) and a mercenary with a robotic arm (Gone Girl‘s Boyd Holbrook). At its heart, Logan is a Western-tinged road movie, albeit one with a stray few sci-fi elements.
But its also a movie that generally takes as much care with its interpersonal scenes as it does with its carnage. The characters are often on the move, but it’s rare that Mangold’s storytelling feel rushed. This is heightened by the surprising plot structure, which builds to a major moment that could serve as an ending, only to launch immediately into that story’s sequel. But it doesn’t feel jumbled or inelegant. Mangold is in his element here, crafting a story that has its share of action (a vehicular chase is the standout of the first half), but isn’t afraid to throw in the occasional long stretch of quietude.
It’s easy to sneer at idea of a script being a valuable component of a superhero blockbuster, but a good deal of credit belongs to the foundation Mangold and his two co-writers set. Logan takes into account the past stories of the X-Men, while also demythologizing them. In the film’s world, a comic series about the mutants exists, and one key scene involves Logan telling Laura that most of what’s on those brightly-colored panels is bullshit.
But even if the mutant exploits have been exaggerated, they stem from a shred of truth, even if it’s a truth that Logan would rather avoid: he has gifts that he (and others) can use to help the defenseless. That rediscovery is crucial to the character’s development. It’s certainly been done before (perhaps one too many times), but in Logan the arc comes across as a genuine priority, rather than an obligation.
This is never more clear than when looking at the work from the cast. No one’s here to just fool around, pose, and collect a paycheck. The central trio of performances (Jackman, Stewart, Keen) are excellent and unexpectedly moving. For the two gentlemen who have been with these characters from the outset, it’s a chance to bid farewell to a role (and the audience that came with it) with conviction. Wolverine/Logan in his normal state can be one-note. But this figure, who shows actual signs of wear and tear, allows Jackman the chance to put some emotional weight behind the gruff exterior. That the villains are a bit pedestrian ends up not mattering much. The more frightening enemy is the ravages of time, making themselves felt on a character who spent over a century never fearing them. Who knows, maybe Cormac McCarthy ghost wrote a draft of the script.
Logan is undoubtedly striving to be something “adult” and “grounded,” and it succeeds because when it has a chance to go big, it subverts expectations and goes small. Even when Logan goes into full, R-rated berserker mode, it doesn’t last forever or totally save the day. This is a superhero movie with limitations and consequences (many of them involving dismemberment).
The violence and the special effects are there, but they are always in service of a story where violence continuously bequeaths violence, and takes no prisoners (including children) along the way. It is solemn, but with a few flickers of levity to prevent portentousness. There are references to cinematic influences both subtle and overt (at one point several characters watch Shane on TV), but the tributes have been assembled to tell a story that uses familiar settings and tropes to create a tale with its own identity.
Will Logan/Wolverine rise to fight another day, with another face? Almost certainly. With iconic characters like Superman or James Bond, certain faces stick with roles more than others. But new casting does allow for variations on how a noteworthy role is portrayed (contrast Connery’s suaveness with Daniel Craig’s Bourne-like grit) can reflect changes. Few, however, have played a character through so many stylistic evolutions and remained a constant. So, to the person tasked with filling the shoes with nearly 2 decades of work from Jackman, I can only say: good luck; you’ll need it.

Grade: B+/A-

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Review: "Get Out"

Director: Jordan Peele
Runtime: 103 minutes

Ambiguity is the name of the game for so many horror classics, especially those involving a domestic setting (Rosemary's Baby). Is the central character really dealing with evil and/or the supernatural, or is it - to some degree - all in their head? That first act ambiguity is a powerful part of what helps so many movies land their big twists. And yet, it's not the only way. In the new film Get Out, we know something is "off" with the environment the protagonist wanders into. The question, then, revolves around the degree of maliciousness lurking beneath the placid surface. The answer, courtesy of Key & Peele's Jordan Peele, could not be more satisfying. 

Peele's background (he started on MadTV before creating the aforementioned sketch show with Keegan Michael-Key) would suggest that his point of view is best limited to the short bursts provided by the late night format. Yet with Get Out, Mr. Peele has proven himself more than capable of taking a timely premise and stretching it to its appropriately absurd endpoint without losing steam. 

So what, pray tell, is this thing about? Well, it all starts when Chris (Daniel Kaluuya, of Sicario and the "Five Million Merits" episode of Black Mirror) goes with his girlfriend Rose (Girls' Allison Williams) to meet her upscale parents (Catherine Keener and Bradley Whitford). Some would suggest going in as cold as possible. I, through luck, read a draft of the script last summer. Yet even knowing where every twist and jump scare was located, I nonetheless found myself white-knuckling my way through....even as I was cringing or laughing hysterically. As others have pointed out, the story is essentially Look Who's Coming To Dinner crossbred with The Stepford Wives. But even with those obvious influences, it's hard to deny that Get Out is its own thrillingly unique piece of work.

In the past few years, the issue of race relations has been thrust into the American consciousness in uncomfortable ways. As marginalized voices utilize modern tools, our (by "our" I mostly mean white people) understanding of the degrees of systemic and cultural racism have been burst wide open. It's not just a matter of MLK vs. the KKK. It's all everything from flat-out declarations of racism to the understated, yet equally insidious, actions often referred to as micro-aggressions. You think the KKK is bad? Congratulations, but that doesn't mean you've never engaged in or benefited from other mutations of racism.

If all of this makes Get Out sound like a harsh lecture, fear not. It's entirely possible to enjoy Peele's story-telling based on thrills and scares alone. But I'd also argue that one's enjoyment would only increase by directly engaging with the assertions (both serious and tongue-in-cheek) of Peele's film. The subtext is not tacked on as a cheap play for socio-political relevance. It's a necessary part of telling this story, as outlandish as it becomes, well. 

And what a story it turns out to be. After two acts of planting hints and making sinister suggestions, the homestretch arrives, and it's nothing short of a masterstroke of racially-charged satire. To call the film's finale "bonkers" would do it a disservice. It's certainly insane, but built so organically off of everything that came before that it all feels wholly earned. Peele's direction is nimble, even when dealing with exposition. His actors, meanwhile, are uniformly excellent. Mr. Kaluuya is effortlessly compelling as the story's anchor (one hopes this is the film that will catapult him onto the A-list), never more so than when undergoes a session of hypnotherapy with Ms. Keener. A marvel of directing, staging, and acting, the sequence hinges on Kaluuya's emotional nakedness in the moment, and he nails it, without ever straining for a false sense of dramatic importance.

But, at least for white audiences, the real shock here is Williams. Rose is much more than the cheerful girlfriend, and Williams handles the character's shifting allegiances without ever falling out of step with the carefully-balanced tone. Imagine Williams as her character from Girls, and the whole thing somehow becomes even funnier and dead-on. Marnie can be astounding in her lack of self-awareness. By contrast, Rose enables Williams to play a multifaceted character with an outside acknowledgement of her biases and prejudices. Rose may not always "get it," but Williams clearly does, and the results are riotously good. The old adage goes "art should comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable." From a white viewer's perspective, it's through Williams that this notion hits home. I was tense, I laughed out loud, and yet somewhere deep down, I was left vaguely nauseous. We're meant to identify with the millennial, "woke" girl who has no issues whatsoever dating a black guy, and is embarrassed by her parents' forced hipness with black culture. By the end, those implications are deeply funny. They're also scary as hell.

Grade: B+/A-

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Review: "20th Century Women"

Director: Mike Mills
Runtime: 118 minutes

It has taken six years for Mike Mills to make another film. When we last saw him, he delivered Beginners, a touching ode to his father, who came out after decades trapped in the closet. Yet even though that film was all about the father, one of the most intriguing peripheral characters was Georgia (Mary Page Keller), a stand in for Mills' mother. Now, over half a decade later, Mr. Mills is back to put Georgia (now named Dorothea, and sublimely portrayed by Annette Bening) in the spotlight she deserves.

Set in 1979 in Santa Barbara, 20th Century Women both exists as a maternal counterpart to Beginners while also standing firmly on its own. The film is just Mills' third full outing as a director, and his voice has only grown richer in the too-long gap between new work. Beginners charted a man's relationship with his father late in life (in which Mills got to be represented by Ewan McGregor; we should all be so lucky...). 20th Century Women, by contrast, takes the writer/director back to his childhood. Mills' new avatar is Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann), the teen son of newly-single mom Dorothea. Aptly, the film opens with the never-seen father's car catching fire, thus firmly severing the last symbolic ties with the past. 

As we're seeing a boy/young man in a highly formative stage, 20th Century Women uses Jamie's place in life to examine those around him. In some ways, it calls to mind another 2016 release - Moonlight - in that it traces a child's growth by embracing a nurture over nature (to a point) idea of how our complete adult selves form. We are largely blank canvases coming into this world, and the people present in our lives at critical moments of change affect our growth in ways both obvious and subtle. 

And so, early on, Dorothea enlists photographer tenant Abbie (a wondrous Greta Gerwig) and childhood friend Julie (Elle Fanning) to help raise her son. "Don't you need a man to raise a man?" asks Julie. To which Dorothea, nonchalantly, replies, ", I don't think so." "I think you're what's going to work for him," she says at another point. And even though there is an adult male presence in the form of handyman William (Billy Crudup), the three women turn out to be more than up to the task, in their own ways. The film may set itself up as Jamie's coming-of-age story, but the true subjects are the richly drawn women who lead him through that evolution.

Early on, it's tempting to dismiss the set up as scattered. But as Mills settles into his story's rhythm, the film blossoms. Both as writer and director Mills has grown considerably. His tendency to intercut archival footage and stills into his own material, at times grating in Beginners, feels purposeful and elegant throughout this new endeavor. Mills' films are not necessarily about compartmentalization, but his framing and editing choices (as executed excellently by Leslie Jones) present memories as little moments to be treasured and isolated in curio cases. The lighting accents this notion as well, often capturing moments of stillness by isolating an overhead source of light, so as to catch the subject as if they were occupying a museum display.

Where Mills' figures differ from museum oddities, however, is in their vibrancy. The voiceovers frame the characters in the past, yet while on screen they are thrillingly alive, even at their most ordinary. 20th Century Women can be brittle and caustic, but there is an underlying warmth at the core that practically floods the screen. And yet, in that tremendous warmth also lies clear-cut honesty. Mills and his characters don't sidestep the painful realities of life, whether it's those experienced by a parent or a child. But in that honesty, the film finds its transcendent moments. Those slices of life can be as significant as addressing a childhood trauma, or simply flailing your arms as you try to dance along the music around you. 

Grade: A-

Monday, January 2, 2017

Review: "Silence"

Director: Martin Scorsese
Runtime: 161 minutes

Martin Scorsese has been grappling with his Catholic faith for his entire career, even when it seemed the least obvious. The intensity of his religious convictions, as well as the intensity of his questions and severe doubts, have manifested in ways both literal (The Last Temptation of the Christ) and abstract (Taxi Driver). Catholicism (or, in a sense, any faith) is the third pillar at the foundation of his filmmaking, seated right alongside masculinity and violence (and all of the intersections among the lot). 

Though Scorsese remains an impeccable craftsman, often invigorating his material with dynamism of someone decades younger, he has recently started to run on fumes when dealing with story's beyond their basic text. The Wolf of Wall Street tackles excess, but to the point of becoming excessive itself. Even Best Picture winner The Departed, though powerfully acted and edited, comes up short when one looks for something to chew on beyond the bloody bodycount. 

The apparent exhaustion of two of Scorsese's thematic pillars (well, for now) has left a clearing for capital F Faith to grab the spotlight all for itself. After an on-and-off journey of roughly 30 years, Scorsese has taken Shusaku Endo's novel "Silence" and brought it to life on the big screen. Here, the man who almost became a priest turns his camera to meet not just his maker, but the ideals and practices of those serving in his name. And, while not without its faults (largely at the outset), Silence ultimately proves itself to be a worthy landmark moment of the latter stages of Scorsese's career. Regardless of your religious persuasion (or lack thereof), there is a tremendous amount of value in the issues raised in this exhaustive and exhausting work of Catholic cinema. Though not the director's most polished or lush work, it more than compensates with its staggering devotion to crafting a drama filled with ideas about the earthly and the transcendent. 

Yet much like the film's journey to the big screen, Silence is not without its hiccups. The earliest passages, concerning Jesuit priests Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) seeking out a former mentor in 17th century Japan, come off as stilted. Despite some striking, simple visuals, Silence begins by playing things in a strangely safe manner. At times, it even seems shockingly amateurish. Even longtime Scorsese editor (and basically co-director) Thelma Schoonmaker isn't immune, and turns in some of her weakest work to date. Simple conversations change angles with a frequency at odds with such contemplative subject matter. And Mr. Driver, though an intriguing casting choice, can't quite master what is supposed to be a Portuguese accent (the Portuguese characters speak in English). Early on, a few lines escape his throat like a squawk from a goose raised in the Bronx. Garfield generally fares better, though even he is not without his stilted moments. It's not an auspicious beginning, especially for a film that is so clearly a labor of passion. 

But the further the two Jesuits step into the so-called "swamp of Japan," the more Silence finds its footing. The beauty of Endo's novel, which Scorsese has wisely left intact, is its refusal to sugarcoat or simplify the conflicts at hand. And what conflicts they are. On the surface, Silence's tale involves priests administering aid to Japanese Christians living under persecution. In less enlightened times, such a socio-political conflict would have likely been sanded down to lift the Jesuits up as Christ-like figures. Scorsese includes such a moment, though it's hardly presented as sincere. Alone and starving, Fr. Rodrigues finds himself confronted with his reflection. After a moment, the face transforms into a familiar sight: a Goya painting of Christ's face which we've been shown as how Rodrigues imagines the Lamb of God in his prayers and meditations. Garfield, with his thin features and his hair grown out into a magnificent mane, makes a fitting vessel for this sort of transfiguration. 

The moment, alas, does not come greeted with a moment of intervention or inspiration. Rodrigues bursts into unsettling, hollow laughter. In his manic, dehydrated state, he seems ecstatic with such a vision, but the tone and timing suggests the sort of madness one would find in a 70s-era Herzog drama. Yet Scorsese curtails the sequence before such madness turns hallucinatory. Rodrigo Prieto's images, even at their most painterly, have an air of reality to them. The staging thrives on ordinariness, rather than elaborately constructed tableaus.

All the better, then, to enable the film to cut to the heart of its conflicts. Somewhere towards the middle (I think) of the film, Silence shifts from acting as a drama about the faithful, and morphs into a searing interrogation of men of the cloth and their motivations. Rodrigues meets a number of foils among the Japanese, chief among them a translator (Tadanobu Asano) and the inquisitor Inoue (Issei Ogata). Though radically different in their approaches, the two men proceed to challenge not just Rodrigues' convictions and his mission, but the core of Catholicism itself, as well as its place in a country like Japan. 

And it's here, when it's most bound to simple scenes of people talking, that Silence finally grasps the intangible profundity it's been reaching for the whole time. Asano and Ogata make excellent philosophical adversaries for Garfield's Rodrigues, with Ogata in particular relishing every word (among his most notable jabs: "the price for your glory is their suffering.") So many faith-based films use Christian conviction as a crutch, including this year's Hacksaw Ridge, which also planted Mr. Garfield at the center. With that baseline established, a film like Silence becomes all the more remarkable. Here is a drama with source material from a Catholic writer (albeit a Japanese convert, and not a European), directed by a passionately Catholic director, that avoids turning its protagonists into the one-note martyrs they secretly wish to be. 

The most magnificent wrench of all, however, comes in the form of Fr. Ferreira (Liam Neeson, thankfully not even attempting the accent). In addition to administering to the persecuted faithful, Rodrigues and Garrpe have snuck into Japan to seek out their former mentor, who has been rumored to have renounced the faith and taken up life as an ordinary member of Japanese society. Ferreira's eventual return to the narrative (best left unsaid) gives Silence a final headbutt of ambiguity, heightening the specificity of the film's conflicts, while simultaneously making them all the more universal. Neeson, in his all-too-brief screen time, is nothing short of mesmerizing. In such quick moments, he conveys Ferreira's decades of work in Japan, and the toll it took on him. Ferreira's exploits could have easily been their own film, and the way Neeson takes the bones of Scorsese and Jay Cocks' script and turns it into its own meal is nothing short of astonishing. It's a masterful moment of teaching both for Rodrigues and the viewer, the complexity of which has stayed with me long after the lights went up in the theater.

In my four years at a Jesuit-led high school, one of the theological ideas that I remember most is that faith without room for doubt is not really faith, but merely blind obedience. That remarkably nuanced notion, standing in such stark contrast to the right wing extremists now posturing as 21st century moralists, has stayed with me even as whatever religion I had slipped away. And, whatever my personal beliefs now, that Catholic and Jesuit identity (hello, Catholic guilt, you old bastard) is still etched, however faintly, in my being. To see that same sort of depth is a monumental intellectual achievement, one that overrides the vagueries that somewhat plague the central role of Rodrigues (he is both an individual and a representative of the faith as a whole, though not quite to the degree where it feels possible to empathize with him enough). With such a long wait, it would be tempting to hold Silence to the standard that anything less than a masterpiece would be a letdown. To do so, I think, would be to dismiss the tremendous accomplishments on display. Rodrigues and Garrpe may find themselves starving, but their story is veritable feast of ideas, the strengths of which are made all the more powerful by their existence alongside the flaws. 

Grade: B+