Sunday, November 15, 2015

Review: "Brooklyn"

Director: John Crowley
Runtime: 111 minutes

As far as immigrant stories go, the one found in Brooklyn, as adapted from Colm Toibin's novel, doesn't present the most obvious obstacles. Eilis Lacey (Saoirse Ronan) goes to New York with a place to stay and a job already set up. The bulk of her stress comes not from being discriminated against or manipulated, but simply from the weight of being away from home. Without simplifying Eilis' journey, director John Crowley and writer Nick Hornby locate the source material's powerful statement about identity without becoming heavy handed. Brooklyn is, like Eilis, relatively modest in its ambitions, but there is undeniable beauty and grace in its execution.

Those qualities are expertly communicated through Ronan's central performance. With her pale skin, piercing eyes, and otherworldly features, she's an instantly watchable figure, even at her plainest. Though Eilis comes from modest means, she wants to make the most of her excursion across the Atlantic, even if it means leaving behind the only place she's ever known. When Eilis attends a local dance, we immediately get a sense that - at this point in her life - she's something of an outsider. For all of the ties she has to her native Ireland, she still feels out of place.

The question of home is the driving force of Brooklyn, and Hornby's nimble adaptation hits all of its marks effortlessly. The story is constantly moving, even when there's little that's overtly dramatic going on. There was probably room to make a much longer movie out of Brooklyn's story, but Hornby avoids the trap of trying to cram everything from the source onto the screen. Certain developments happen rather abruptly, but Crowley's sure-handed direction holds it all together. 

Ronan's aforementioned work is the other part of the equation that keeps Brooklyn from losing control of its story. With great poise and intelligence, she portrays Eilis as a hardworking, noble soul without trying to sanctify her. Though initially quite modest, she develops her own sly sense of humor, especially when she's around Tony (Emory Cohen), her charming Italian suitor. Like Brooklyn, Ronan can be wise, charming, funny, and absolutely heartbreaking. Between this and 2011's Hanna, the 21 year old continues to prove that her Oscar nomination for Atonement roughly a decade ago was no fluke. 

And even when the possibility of a love triangle emerges, Crowley and Hornby refrain from taking their focus off of Eilis' identity crisis. If anything, the hints of a love triangle are merely a red herring meant to drive the film towards its conclusion. Only in the final stretch does Brooklyn's tight pacing start to seem like less of a smart decision. Eilis' eventual return to Ireland is plowed through so efficiently that the final frames almost don't have time to fully resonate. 

But the heart of the narrative remains utterly sincere, and that's often more than enough to compensate for the sporadic instances of narrative short-cutting. Inside and out, Brooklyn is a lush, lovely story (costumes are especially striking) that beautifully externalizes a largely internal struggle. There are, obviously, more important immigrant stories out there that deserve to be told, but Brooklyn's is more than satisfying on its own terms to merit a look. 

Grade: B

Saturday, November 14, 2015

Review: "Spotlight"

Director: Tom McCarthy
Runtime: 128 minutes

A meticulous dramatization of real events, Tom McCarthy's Spotlight makes a compelling case in favor of journalism done right. Though the Catholic Church sex abuse scandals have been in the global limelight for nearly two decades, this trip back to the explosive 2002 Boston Globe story remains queasily relevant. Without giving into either lurid spectacle or a traditional white knight narrative, McCarthy's new film exhibits the very journalistic qualities that it celebrates. In Spotlight, American cinema has produced a work of cinematic journalism that deserves to sit on the same lofty shelf as All the President's Men. 

Like President's Men or Zodiac, what Spotlight does so well is fully throw itself into the tedium of the story's details without becoming tedious itself. Montages can be a cheap shortcut to cut through large amounts of time or activity, but McCarthy and editor Tom McArdle incorporate them without ever making a false move. Spotlight runs just over two hours, and every scene is carefully orchestrated to build to the next. This can make the initial set up seem a bit dry (seeing as we know that yes, the Globe's Spotlight team will eventually take on the case). But the eventual payoff is, like a great work of news writing, compelling because it keeps a level head, and lets the facts speak for themselves.

That last bit is especially important when we consider the horrific crimes at the center of the story. The rather academic tone gives enough emotional heft to the story without amping up the material to make it "juicier." The Spotlight team (played by Michael Keaton, Rachel McAdams, Mark Ruffalo, and Brian D'Arcy James), as well as the audience, hear the disturbing details, but McCarthy and Josh Singer's script leaves enough to the imagination to avoid exploiting the situation. There are plenty of famous faces in Spotlight, but none of them are conveyed as being of equal importance to the greater impact of the story. 

But even though the film doesn't stand out as a performance showcase, McCarthy's actors bring respectable gravitas to the material. As a unit, the Spotlight team is basically different shades of a single character, and that ends up working in the film's favor. These men and women have outside lives, but those outside lives only intrude upon the central narrative when absolutely necessary. Every look we get inside the lives of these reporters adds fuel to the physical and emotional trajectory of the story. 

Beyond the performances, most of the below-the-line contributions do little to steal focus as well, which is for the best. Masanobu Takayanagi's camera frequently moves, but in a way that further draws one into the immensity of the investigation. In one of the simplest, and most expressive shots, the camera merely drifts backwards as the Spotlight team listens to a source over a speakerphone. As we learn what the characters learn, the frame widens, visually complementing the sudden expansion of the abuse scandal's scope. Spotlight may rely heavily on talking, but it still finds room for subtle (even invisible) moments of thoughtful visual composition. 

Other tech contributions, including Howard Shore's simple score, are appropriately invisible. Beyond the screenplay and direction, McArdle's deft cutting deserves the most praise for stitching together so much information all while allowing it to develop so smoothly. As it is in journalism, so it is in filmmaking: having a sharp eye in the editor's chair is crucial into shaping a well-intentioned vision into a legitimate work of impactful art. 

Grade: A-

Sunday, November 8, 2015

AFI Fest '15 Review: Mountains May Depart

Director: Jia Zhangke
Runtime: 131 minutes

There's about 40 minutes worth of a good movie in Jia Zhangke's Mountains May Depart. Sadly, it's trapped between 80 minutes of unsuccessful material that ranges from amateurish to downright dreadful. By the time the film's two hours draw to a close (with an admittedly lovely closing shot), the only thing that emerges as worthwhile is the performance from lead actress Tao Zhao.

That said, you wouldn't know based on the film's opening scenes. Jia's film is split into three distinct sections (1999/2000, then 2014, and finally 2025) and his opener isn't terribly convincing. Tao, the eventual main character (Tao), starts off as an oblivious Pollyanna who quickly slides from endearing to grating. You almost want to smack her, but then her first suitor, the aggressively capitalist Zhang Jinsheng (Yi Zhang) starts boorishly interrupting like "The Great Gatsby"'s Tom Buchanan. On the opposite end of the tolerability spectrum is coal mine worker Liangzi (Jing Dong Liang), the first act's only convincing character. 

With the tripartite structure looming over the whole enterprise, Act 1 is tasked with breezing through a love triangle that never convinces. The cup of dramatic irony runneth over, and everything is so clear as day to the viewer that what transpires on screen is tedious. Worse, Jia is unable to get his actors to push beyond their initial traits. Liangzi quickly gets pushed aside for the sake of set up, leaving us with a wide-eyed naif and her jerk-wad beau for company. When the first section ends, a title card appears, and you'd be forgiven for using this fake-out as an excuse to bolt from the theater.

But if you decide to stay, at least you'll get to take in the lovely middle section, which does a near-miraculous 180 in terms of quality. Though it opens on Liangzi and his medical woes, the focus finds its way back to Tao, and Tao Zhao suddenly makes leaps in quality. In part two, Jia gifts the viewer with a protagonist full of genuine emotional conflict, mostly stemming from her marital woes. As age creeps up on Tao, as well as those around her, a sense of emotional urgency finally appears, and the central performance soars. Finally, after almost an hour of waiting, Tao's hype from Cannes seems justified. There are individual scenes - like one between a mother and son on a train - that speak volumes in their carefully chosen words. If Act 1 was Jia operating on autopilot, Act 2 showcases the director throwing himself into his material.

After such a transcendent mid-section, Mountains seems prepared to move on to better things in its conclusion. Yet this is where the film gets horribly yanked back down to earth. The story switches locations (Melbourne) and languages (English), and neither of this shifts do any good. The leap into the near future returns to the amateurish clutter of the opening, only with even worse writing. The emotional struggles that arise in the final act range from groan-inducing (a standard "I'm not following your dream, dad!" arc) to borderline creepy. 

The introduction of so much new territory wouldn't be such a hurdle were it not for the drastic drop off in the quality of the acting. Moments that should hit hard generate uncomfortable laughter, and this isn't helped by the writing (Actual dialogue: "It's like Google Translate is your real son!"). The poignancy of the final scene, a callback to a recurring musical motif, is but a bandaid on a gaping wound that demands more intensive treatment.

Grade: C/C-

AFI Fest 15 Review: "Carol"

Director: Todd Haynes
Runtime: 118 minutes

As restrained and repressed as its time period and characters, Todd Haynes' Carol still has a beating heart at its center. You might just have to work a little harder than necessary to get to it. At times emotionally reserved to a fault, this adaptation of Patricia Highsmith's "The Price of Salt" thaws out just in time to deliver an understated wallop of an ending that catapults it from the ranks of the 'good,' and into the realm of the almost-great. 

Not counting his HBO miniseries remake of Mildred Pierce, Mr. Haynes hasn't released a narrative feature since his Bob Dylan fantasia I'm Not There, so to see him reemerge with such a beautifully controlled work might take a little getting used to. The director has returned to the relative time period of his excellent Far From Heaven, albeit from a drastically different angle. Far From Heaven sought to emulate the rich melodramas of Douglas Sirk, while Carol - despite its scenes of wealthy people in pretty clothes - brings to mind Inside Llewyn Davis. This is not the picture perfect vision of post-war America, but rather a grittier vision that further deconstructs the societal norms of the day. 

This is all evident in the Christmas-y color scheme, using rich reds and greens that are still made to look a little worn and desaturated. When young shop girl Therese (Rooney Mara) shows up for work at a pricey department store, even the showroom looks a little dingy (not to mention the staff cafeteria). It's not exactly gloomy, but rather that the artifice of everything in the store (as well as the artifice of the 1950s concept of a homogenized society) is made clear as day to Therese and the viewer. Sharing in that vision, despite belonging to the upper class, is Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett), who saunters into the store one December morning to buy a gift for her daughter. Out of a crowd of faces of parents and children, Therese and Carol's gazes meet, and very slowly, the dance begins. 

Ostensibly a story of forbidden love, Phyllis Nagy's script refuses to fall into the trap of radically altering the source material for the sake of a more conventional tale. This is a story about isolated souls finding a connection against the odds and in violation of every social more. Carol never becomes a psychological thriller, but Haynes is gifted at emphasizing small gestures in order to convey the utter seriousness of Therese and Carol's burgeoning relationship, as well as the risks of exposure. Quick glances and touches on the shoulder are stand ins for traditional romantic gestures, even when the two women are in private. It's a romantic game of cat and mouse, only with both players working together to avoid the crushing weight of "traditional values."

And, as much as my admiration for the film has grown since I saw it, it's all to easy to understand why many will find Carol a little too distant for its own good. Haynes' pacing never drags, but it does move at a steady, stately rate, without too much variation for the first half or so. Carol is all about the wind up to a purposefully muted release, and for some it will be too little and too late. But even as I can see where detractors are coming from, I continue to find little details that stand out. Carol's story is not complicated, but it is complex, and the film practically demands a second viewing just to absorb every little move involved in Therese and Carol's covert courtship.

Keeping the whole enterprise going, even when Haynes himself seems a bit unsure about how to best move it all along, are the two beautiful performances from the leads. Mara has a much more passive role, but her quietness is an asset that the film needs. She is our window into the more obvious drama of Carol's domestic woes, and she reacts accordingly. 

Meanwhile Blanchett, the actor to Mara's reactor, is nothing short of sublime in the titular role. It's a role that the actress could have done on autopilot, but instead, Blanchett invests every look and touch and vocal flutter with a lifetime of experience. Therese is still finding and shaping herself, while Carol has known for years what she truly wants and what it will cost to have it. Without ever reaching for a big moment, Blanchett captures the character's turmoil with heartbreaking restraint and intelligence. Arriving just two years after her towering work in Blue Jasmine, Carol once again asserts the otherworldly Australian as one of the leading performers of her generation. 

And even though I may have some quibbles with some of Haynes' lulls in the narrative, his overall work here is excellent. Working with a talented group of collaborators, he's created a beautiful, yet realistic-looking film every bit as refined and textured as one of Carol's pricey fur coats. Costumes, production design, and photography are all superb, without getting in the way of the film's slowly blooming emotional center. Carol favors the exploration of a human bond over the sexier details, so even when the one proper sex scene arrives, it feels not only justified, but intimate and tender. 

Yet even the consummation of Therese and Carol's affair pales in comparison to the magic trick that Haynes pulls off in the closing chapters. Carol goes in a few surprising directions, with certain events arriving in ways that don't initially appear satisfying. But the careful windup finally comes together when Haynes and Nagy take both leads through their respective low points, yet allow room for hope. There is sadness and regret in Carol, but by the end, it hardly comes off as a cinematic depressive. All of those furtive, smoldering glances and gentle touches on the hand lead to one final, wordless exchange that is nothing short of heart-stopping in its beauty, and a perfect ending to the year's most delicate, albeit chilly, romance.

Grade: B+

Saturday, November 7, 2015

AFI Fest '15 Review: "The Lobster"

Director: Yorgos Lanthimos
Runtime: 118 minutes

Without any notable visual flourishes, The Lobster does what so many films set in the near (or far) future fail to do even with massive budgets: create an instantly convincing, wholly immersive world. Greek director Yorgos Lanthimos (Dogtooth), making his English language debut, has outdone himself with his break from his homeland and native tongue. Absurd, strange, blackly funny, and even oddly touching, The Lobster will most certainly be an acquired taste. Those who can get on Lanthimos' wavelength, however, are in for one hell of a treat as the film makes the rounds at festivals ahead of its currently TBD American release next year.

The end of a relationship, especially one that lasts for more than a decade, is always painful. But there isn't much time to wallow in newfound loneliness in the world of The Lobster, as we quickly learn from following newly single David (Colin Farrell, heavily de-glammed). In accordance with current government laws (setting is undefined, though signs point to French Canadian territory), David is carted off to a sleek countryside resort, where he will be given 45 days to find a new mate. If he fails, he will be turned into an animal, albeit one of his choosing (in David's case: the film's titular crustacean). 

Unfolding with a level of deadpan that would make Wes Anderson envious, The Lobster's chief strength, among many, is how maintains its tricky tone over the course of two taut hours. From a pacing standpoint, this is easily the most polished of Lanthimos' films, which prevents one from falling out of touch with the uncompromising idiosyncrasies. The Lobster's second half breaks the narrative out of a delightfully repetitive cycle, yet manages to maintain and build upon the successes of the beginning. Just when you think that Lanthimos is getting too lost in his own vision, Yorgos Mavropsaridis' editing keeps things moving with laser-cutter precision, all without disrupting the deliberate flow of the story. All other technical aspects are similarly excellent, especially the green and beige-hued photography of Thimios Bakatakis and the discordant soundtrack that mixes pop songs with jolting string pieces.

Lanthimos reigns all of this in beautifully from the director's chair, with plenty of crisply-assembled passages composed of stealthily compelling shots with little or no camera movement. For as much time as the film spends at the singles' resort/internment camp, Lanthimos always finds new visual alleys to drag one further down the rabbit hole. Even the most mundane hotel hallway comes loaded with bizarro uncertainty in the world of The Lobster, which prides itself on subverting the ordinary by underlining it with hints of ludicrous, yet somehow plausible, extremism. In Woody Allen's Crimes & Misdemeanors, Alan Alda's character quoted Larry Gelbart's, "if it bends, it's funny; if it breaks it's not funny" remark, and that manifesto is certainly true here. Lanthimos bends The Lobster to its absolute further, keeping it on the precipice of breaking without ever going too far.

Yet for all of The Lobster's understated work in the arts/tech departments, Lanthimos' script ultimately holds the key to the aforementioned control of tone. The Lobster could have easily become a one-note joke, but Lanthimos and co-writer Efthymis Filippou dole out the bizarro details of the film's setting in carefully constructed vignettes that gradually coalesce into a spectacular whole. Some are strange, some are disturbing, and some are gut-bustingly funny in their deliberate emotional vacancy. Few scenes capture the whole of The Lobster quite like the one wherein the hotel manager (a pitch-perfect Olivia Colman) and her husband try to serenade the horde of single folk with listless performances of romantic songs and robotic dance moves. 

And as much as I lit up every time Colman appeared, the rest of the cast are all a treat to watch as well. Farrell continues to excel when given darker, off beat material, and while 'David' doesn't allow him the range of In Bruges, it demonstrates his skill as a versatile actor who should never have been propped up as a traditional leading man. Other hotel residents are marvelously filled out by the likes of Ben Whishaw, John C. Reilly, Extras's Ashley Jensen, and frequent Lanthimos collaborator Angeliki Papoulia (as an ice cold "hunter" who delivers the film's darkest joke). Later arrivals like Lea Seydoux and Rachel Weisz (the latter of whom narrates the film throughout) are welcome presences as well. 

However, these characters are ultimately pawns in Lanthimos' oddball experiment. In some ways, he's taking a page from the Coen brothers, playing a narrative god with a merciless combination of dark humor and irony. But even when the ambiguous ending arrives (he's a fan of those), Lanthimos refuses to let his detachment from his characters slip into cruelty. The characters may do horrible things (or have horrible reactions), but in the film's later stages Lanthimos subtly shifts into empathy without puncturing the carefully crafted tone and losing all thematic control. Like another film set to play at AFI Fest (Todd Haynes' Carol), The Lobster possesses an unwavering dedication to a strict code of tone and atmosphere that will strike many as redundant and exhausting. Yet for others, the relentless unwillingness to make major changes will become its main selling point, highlighting, for better or for worse, the purposeful vision at the helm. 

Grade: A