Sunday, October 23, 2016

Review: "Christine"

Director: Antonio Campos
Runtime: 115 minutes

My apologies to Stephen King, but the name 'Christine' belongs to Antonio Campos now. Or at least, it initially belongs to Mr. Campos and screenwriter Craig Shilowich, as they dramatize the downward spiral that led Christine Chubbuck to shoot herself on live television. But move beyond the architecture of Christine, and the same belongs, appropriately, not to Mr. King, Mr. Campos, or any man at all. Instead, it finds note-perfect ownership in British actress Rebecca Hall, who sits at the center of this compelling character study built around her towering performance.

I've been a fan of Hall's work ever since her first breakthrough, as a love interest for Christian Bale in the thriller The Prestige. Amid starry names like Bale, Hugh Jackman, Michael Caine, and Scarlett Johansson, Hall managed to make her mark in what could have been a throwaway role. Since then, she has largely stuck to smaller fare (including the lovely Please Give, in which she's excellent), never quite forcing her way into the conscience of the American movie-going public. Hopefully Christine, arriving 10 years after The Prestige, changes that.

Chubbuck's story is an easy one to mine for cheap tragic theatrics, but Christine makes the wise decision to dramatize the reporter's life, rather than attempt to recreate it. That leaves Campos, Shilowich, and Hall tremendous room to mine what we know of Chubbuck's life for an absorbing look inside a complex woman who is defined by more than her tragic end. Gangly and stilted, Hall's Chubbuck is not the warm, easy-going type. A perfectionist to a fault, she clashes regularly with her station manager (Tracy Letts) at the local Sarasota news station, never letting up even when she should take a hint and back off. When we first see her, she's practicing for an imaginary interview with President Nixon, and asking a co-worker (Maria Dizzia) if she nods her head "too sympathetically."

Amid the shifting landscape of TV news, Chubbuck struggles most with the knotty dilemma of how we present ourselves to each other, and how we feel others perceive us. Though Shilowich's screenplay is sporadically on-the-nose, it largely provides a gripping series of obstacles that push Christine to her breaking point. Such a straight forward march toward death may sound like a grim slog, but Shilowich finds moments of awkward humor that keep the film from drowning in depressive moods. A perky, bubbling score contributes to the flashes of levity as well, without becoming distracting or overbearing.

Yet even if Christine were a tonally one-note exercise in misery, it would still be worth it thanks to Hall. With her rigid posture and grating voice, Chubbuck isn't an easy protagonist to latch onto, but Hall is transfixing throughout. Lesser films and performances would be all about the look and the voice, but Christine pushes right past that, and subtly digs into the underlying mental health issues that eventually took hold. Whether fighting with her hippie mother (J. Cameron Smith) or trying to pitch a news story, Chubbuck is a hard presence to ignore. Hall's unwavering stare, coupled with her unsteady mask of a face, keeps up an icy front while allowing bottled up emotions to flood out. It's immensely subtle, yet still hauntingly expressive.

Only at the story's end do the limitations of the script become apparent, although not to the point of undoing the film's accomplishments. This is a performance vehicle through and through, with the larger issues of mental health, self doubt, and workplace sexism only marginally explored as they suit the story's needs. There's also the matter of the film's final 10 minutes or so, which end Christine on a puzzling note. Rather than conclude with either solemn remembrance or bitter irony, Christine's ending takes a stab at, well, I'm not quite sure. There's a "point" in there somewhere about the role of TV and entertainment and news, but it never really lands. It's a bizarre pivot for a film that seemed to understand its limitations. You had me at Rebecca Hall giving the best performance of need to push for more.

Grade: B

Review: "The Handmaiden"

Director: Park Chan-wook
Runtime: 142 minutes

Is it really a "return to form" if you never really tumbled from grace to being with? That was the question that lingered in my head as I realized that I was starting to fall for The Handmaiden, the latest opulent melodrama from South Korea's Park Chan-wook. The director's last film, Stoker, was a rare English-debut that was, to me at least, a success despite a few wobbles. That film received mixed reviews, with some questioning if Park to lose his edge. Now, three years later, the director is back with a roaring statement that he's still a force to be reckoned with. Most surprisingly, he accomplishes this not by doubling down on his tendency towards sensationalized violence, but by turning his attention an an intricate web of double and triple crosses.

Adapted from Sarah Waters' novel Fingersmith, Park transplants the story from Victorian England to 1930s Korea, putting himself back on his home turf. Not that he needed to, seeing as his highly stylized directing is as forceful and confident as ever. Like an immense German cuckoo clock, The Handmaiden is full of little pieces that are exhilarating in their intricate connections to each other.

In the straightforward opening, a young maid named Sook-hee (Kim Tae-ri) arrives at a lavish manor for a reclusive noblewoman and her powerful uncle. But just as Sook-hee gets settled for her first night in service of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-hee), Park pulls the rug out from under us. Sook-hee is not just a maid, but a trained con-artist. Handpicked by fellow con Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-woo), Sook-hee sets out to push Lady Hideko into sham marriage to secure a share of her immense fortune (the majority of which will go to the Count).

If the 10 minute mark of a 142 minute movie seems too soon to break out the big story-telling moves, fear not. Park hasn't gotten impatient to played his hand too soon. He's just laid one of many traps that will steadily contort the narrative in ways that even the most accomplished Cirque du Soleil troop wouldn't attempt. 

This dedication to such dense plotting is a big part of what makes The Handmaiden such a thrilling success. Melodrama, in which plot takes precedence over emotion, is sometimes thought of as being lesser. Drama takes the form of Ibsen plays and Philip Roth novels, and melodrama manifests as what we sometimes refer to as "airport novels." Lots of plot, lots of twists, but perhaps lacking in authenticity. But, like Gone Girl (and many of Park's own movies), The Handmaiden makes an emphatic case for dropping the pretense of introspective drama, and just telling a labyrinthine yarn. Right on, man.

And despite plot being of greater importance than character development, Park remains adept at drawing engaging performances from his actors. Most enjoyable, perhaps becuase of the layers of deception at hand, is Kim Min-hee's work as Lady Hideko. Initially cast as a sheltered woman-child defined solely by her naiveté, she eventually takes hold of the film's most thrilling sequence of narrative reversals and switchbacks. 

Every bit as compelling is Park's attention to the world his colorful characters romp around in. Regardless of your feelings about his filmography, it's hard to deny that he's an aesthetic magician. Sets and costumes are all sumptuous, and Chung Chung-hoon's restless, prowling camera drinks up every square inch of Hideko's mansion, a beguiling fusion of English and East Asian architecture. Like Hideko's mansion, everything in The Handmaiden is expertly designed to pull you in and take you just up to the point of being scandalized, without ever fully crossing the line into exploitation (well, barring a few scenes). Guided along by Jo Yeong-wook's majestic score, The Handmaiden glides along like the elegant page-turner it originated with. 

To go too much further in depth into the three part structure of The Handmaiden is to spoil it. So, to avoid giving away too much, I'll simply throw out a few choice elements and let your imagination do the rest. Ingredients in The Handmaiden include, but are not limited to: unreliable narrators, mercury, a giant octopus, lesbians, Japanese erotica, and an insane asylum. How do all of those fit together? Discovering that for yourself is all part of the fun. The Handmaiden is the cinematic equivalent of one of the clubs recommended by Bill Hader's Stefon character. "This place has everything!" And then some.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 22, 2016

Review: "Moonlight"

Director: Barry Jenkins
Runtime: 110 minutes

The events that would otherwise consume a standard coming-of-age tale - deaths, brushes with the law, drug addiction - all happen off screen in Barry Jenkins' Moonlight. Jenkins' adaptation of Terrell McCraney's play "In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue" is narratively uneventful on the surface. And yet, for all of the radical events and cultural shifts that happen offscreen or in the background, what's most arresting is the apparent simplicity of the three-act story. Like its central character, Moonlight often hesitates to speak, yet the roiling emotions under the surface nevertheless make themselves known and beautifully felt.

Set over three defining periods in the life of Chiron (Alex Hibbert/Ashton Sanders/Trevante Rhodes), Moonlight uses its intimate specificity to construct a mesmerizingly textured essay on identity, masculinity, sexuality, and self worth. Chiron's youth is littered with elements that could easily come off as cliche (an abusive mother, bullies, drug dealers, gangs), but are so precisely inserted into the story that they all feel vital to defining who Chiron is and who he'll become. Jenkins refuses to turn up the volume of his story and his protagonist's state of mind. Instead, he acts much like Chiron's father figure Juan (House of Cards' Mahershala Ali), providing gentle guidance without ever intruding.

Chiron's story unfolds over such a short period of time (each section comprises only a few days), yet it registers deeply. It is both a slice of life, and an intimately epic portrait of young adulthood and hidden desires. Though its setting (not to mention ethnic makeup) could not be more different, Moonlight in many ways resembles last year's Carol. It is a film of stolen glances, barely perceptible reactions, and simple gestures that come loaded with volumes of feeling that defy articulation. In the middle section, featuring the one instance of sexual exploration, Jenkins' conveys the confused, heated passion of a first kiss not by jamming the camera in the actors' faces, but by focusing on teenage Chiron's hand clenching the sand underneath it. If at first it seems a bit distant, give it time - the final third has the hushed tension of the best tales of "forbidden" romance.

And despite the similarities shared with Haynes' masterful film, Jenkins' direction puts its own firm stamp on the thematic material. Mixing fluid long takes (the opening shot practically involves the camera making figure eights around the actors) with jumbled, earthy handheld work, cinematographer James Laxton gorgeously captures the Miami setting in all its washed out pastels and pulsing neons. Whether showing the vivid motion of young boys playing, or the solemn stillness of an uncomfortable conversation, Jenkins and Laxtons images are a beautiful mix of post-card prettiness and rapturous mundanity.

The hushed tones of the sound work are equally critical, effortlessly putting us in Chiron's stiflingly introverted headspace. Chiron's seeming lack of place in the world is magnified by the distancing effect of the muted sounds that make their way in from the world at large. The minute sonic details of the real world are, instead, supplanted by a small soundtrack and Nicholas Britell's achingly beautiful string score.

Yet even though there are moments where the stylistic flourishes threaten to overstep, Jenkins keeps his performers front and center, perfectly positioned within his artful abstractions. The three actors who play both Chiron and on/off friend Kevin (Jaden Piner/Jharrel Jerome/The Knick's Andre Holland) are all wondrous in their own ways. But while the youngest actors often play second fiddle to the adults like Chiron's mom (Naomie Harris), Juan, and Theresa (singer Janelle Monae), their development never loses focus. In truth, they are a bit blank, in the way young kids are; they're still waiting to discover themselves while being shaped by those around them.

Moonlight is, in many ways, open-ended, yet it's also a masterclass of how to fragment a narrative and have each section perfectly build on what preceded it. It's not a fast process, but as boyhood becomes adolescence, and adolescence becomes manhood, the characters only become richer. When Chiron and Kevin reunite as adults in a Miami diner, Jenkins' film reaches full bloom, and it's magnificent to watch. Rhodes and Holland are spectacular together, and I wouldn't have minded watching their segment continue on for another two hours. But just as soon as Moonlight reaches another moment of dramatic intensity, he lets it slip back into the steady flow of time. In watching these characters transform, we see how they evolve as people, with entire lives stretching out both behind them and off into the distant future. I can only thank Mr. Jenkins and his actors for allowing me to have even a few disparate chapters of their stories.

Grade: A

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Review: "The Innocents"

Director: Anne Fontaine
Runtime: 115 minutes

Regardless of a story's basis in reality, a film still has a duty to make sure "real events" stand on their own. All too often, films that proudly proclaim that they're "based on actual/true events" use reality as a crutch. They live solely on their connection to reality, often forgoing legitimate drama. This is most often the case when it comes to biopics, particularly those that chart a notable figure from cradle to grave. "All of this stuff happened, isn't that something?" Well, sure it is, but how that stuff gets presented still matters. Truth can be stranger than fiction, but that doesn't mean it's automatically more compelling.  

For an example of "based on true events" filmmaking done right, one need look no further than Anne Fontaine's exquisite The Innocents. First released in the US in the spring, the film is finally available to rent, own, or stream. Be warned, however. Watching this one on a laptop or TV (even a big one) will have you kicking yourself for missing out on seeing it in a theater.

Set in the immediate aftermath of World War II, The Innocents opens with a group of Polish nuns singing hymns. Despite the ravages of war, the nuns' rituals open the story in a moment of prayerful serenity. Everything is business as usual...almost. A far off scream punctures the atmosphere, at least for one member of the faithful, and she scurries away to a different part of the monastery. Turns out, one of her fellow Brides of Christ is in labor. Not long after, the monastery enlists the help of Mathilde (Lou de Laage), a French doctor stationed in town, who soon discovers that the situation extends beyond this one incident.

The story presents plenty of opportunities for one-sided lecturing, but Fontaine avoids the temptation at every turn. Rather than set up science vs. faith debates, the screenplay forgoes contrived clashes and allows characters to reveal their ideologies with mesmerizing restraint. Some of the justifications for the nuns' actions and beliefs may seem absurd, but Fontaine refuses to condescend. Mathilde, thanks to de Laage's lovely performance, is there to help, even when that means acquiescing to the sisters' faith or making compromises with it. 

Faith-based films tend to fall into two categories: simplistic endorsements of religion, and scathing indictments. The Innocents, however, finds a beautiful middle ground, similar to the way last year's Spotlight did. It points out hypocrisies, and subtly challenges them, but never tries to show off. Faith matters to many of the women on screen, so it matters to the film as a whole. Despite the presence of some standard-issue Catholic guilt, the film is filled with surprising nuance. 

This is echoed in everything from the performances, which are uniformly excellent without pulling focus from the larger storytelling concerns. Mathilde could have easily been pushed front and center as a traditional hero, but Fontaine keeps the story's perspective community-oriented. The French doctor is integral, but she can leave the screen for significant periods of time without leaving the film adrift. Some of the nuns aren't terribly complex, defined more by their situation than their personality, but the handful Fontaine zeroes in on are magnetic to watch. Agata Kulesza's (the alcoholic aunt in the Oscar-winning Ida) stern mother superior is a brilliant combination of conflicted faith and self-aggrandizing martyrdom. Her subordinate, Sister Maria (Agata Buzek), led a previous life as party girl with several lovers. Whether sharing a scene or operating separately, these two characters are masterfully composed studies in subtle contrasts. Buzek, in particular, is a revelation as she peels back the layers of Maria's past and present lives.

And even with such loaded material, Fontaine is able to inject a surprising amount of energy into the narrative without going overboard. The camera often gently moves across and around the actors, adding movement to what could have been a flat, heavy handed experience. Rather than leave all the heavy lifting to the actors, Fontaine does a remarkable job of framing and positioning her actors in the minimalist sets cradled in pale winter light. There are dozens and dozens of shots that have the attention to placement of a Vermeer painting, albeit one with a chillier color scheme. 

Every facet of The Innocents is so thoughtful, and so gorgeously rendered that, by the time the end titles appeared, the fact that this was based on a true story was the least interesting part of the whole enterprise. Rather than let truth get in the way, The Innocents uses factual basis as a springboard to not merely recount a story, but to dramatize it with a haunting beauty that makes it all actually worth telling.

Grade: A-

Saturday, October 15, 2016

Review: "Certain Women"

Director: Kelly Reichardt
Runtime: 107 minutes

A truck runs off of the road. Someone has an affair. A routine legal case escalates into a hostage situation. Characters from disparate stories cross paths. All of these occur in Kelly Reichardt's Certain Women, yet they're hardly what lingers after an unhurried hour and 45 minutes. Instead, Reichardt, one of American indie cinema's most reliable poets, draws attention to the breaths that take place in between words and actions. The small gestures take center stage, and what Reichardt pieces together, despite starting slow, builds to a series of gently moving conclusions. 

Arriving two years after the more accessible eco-terrorist thriller Night Moves, Reichardt is back in more familiar territory with her latest. Adapted from the short stories of author Maile Meloy, Certain Women elegantly weaves together the lives of three different women, and those around them, as they do their best to stake their claim in the world.

Despite the vast emptiness of Montana setting, there are any number of obstacles, most of them in some way intangible. For Laura Wells (Laura Dern), it means dealing with men who either won't listen to her, or who only enter her life when they need to use her. Laura's client (Mad Men's Jared Harris) refuses to take her legal advice until he hears it from a male colleague, while the man in her life (James LeGros) only needs her as an escape from the tensions in his marriage. Elsewhere in the Treasure State, Gina (Michelle Williams) scouts for raw materials for a home she hopes to build. And lastly, Native American rancher Jamie (Lily Gladstone) strikes up a friendship (and possibly more) with a night school teacher (Kristen Stewart).

So much of what happens in Certain Women is mundane, but Reichardt manages to stealthily craft a delicate, sensitive tribute to the ordinariness of her character's lives. Aided by beautiful, rough-hewn visuals, the writer, director, and editor paints an understatedly rugged portrait that hits home in surprising ways. Rather than force an "everyone is connected" overarching narrative, Reichardt is content to merely have her various characters brush shoulders at most. Each little reaction and movement counts, even if it seems inconsequential at first.

Even at their most accessible, Reichardt's stories never move with urgency, and she doubles down on the approach here. But patience is rewarded once the Gladstone/Stewart part of the triptych guides the film into its second half and mini-finales. Carol director Todd Haynes is credited as a producer on the film, and that shines through most evidently in the third story. The inciting incident is almost random, but from the moment Stewart wanders into Gladstone's line of sight, an inexplicable sliver of tension slips in. A few conversations later, juxtaposed with Jamie's repetitive duties on the ranch, and the intensity of unrequited affection blossoms into something astoundingly realized. 

The third segment could easily have been its own full feature, yet it never feels shortchanged by being forced to share time with two other stories. Yet by placing the most complete section at the end, Reichardt is able to construct a master arc encompassing three small stories that each have their own starts and finishes. The least developed of the three is Williams' story, which feels more connective and symbolic, but nonetheless is still a worthy addition. Parts 1 and 3 focus on women dealing with situations and emotions they can't completely control, while Williams' Gina is her own boss (and likely the breadwinner of her household). These women are all distinct, yet they're all cut from the same multi-textured cloth.

So much of what drives Certain Women rests on Reichardt and her behind the scenes team, but the women in front of the camera are equally vital. Even though we know precious little about these people, Dern, Williams, Gladstone, and Stewart are all constantly adding shades of depth without interfering with the reserved tone of the film around them. There are deep wells of desire, frustration, and exhaustion coursing through these women, all in ways that feel authentic and lived-in. Even when Reichardt flat out states a Talking Point in dialogue, she does so with elegance and brevity ("...if I were a man, people would listen and say, 'ok.'"). The men aren't too shabby either. LeGros brings gentleness to what could have been a detestable character, and Rene Auberjonois is quietly heartbreaking as an old man sought out by Gina. And, in his final scene, Harris brings unfathomable nuance to his part through only a handful of perfectly chosen words. 

And while Dern, Williams, and Stewart all have the most name value, but it's Gladstone who ends up shining brightest among the women. Her low key kindness seamlessly transitions into deeply felt moments of longing without missing beat. It's star-making turn, only without all of the flashy theatrics that usually come with such a "moment" for a performer. Like the film around her, Gladstone's performance is founded on introspection and empathy. While it may not jump off of the page as traditionally exciting or entertaining, those traits are what make Gladstone's work, and Certain Women as a whole, such a tender triumph. And all without a single car crash or shootout in sight.

Grade: A-

Sunday, October 9, 2016

Review: "The Girl on the Train"

Director: Tate Taylor
Runtime: 112 minutes

Sometimes book adaptations get the filmmakers they deserve, and sometimes they don't. Unfortunately, for The Girl on the Train, aka Gone Girl: Gaslighting Edition, the film adaptation has fallen into the latter camp. Roughly two years ago, David Fincher's twisty, black-hearted Gone Girl showcased a filmmaker capable of handling (and cinematically elevating) juicy source material. Train director Tate Taylor (The Help), on the other hand, can barely keep up with Hawkins' novel or Erin Cressida Wilson's adaptation. Even an ensemble of reliable actors can't give this one the consistent spark (and malicious allure) it desperately needs.

Chief among the actors trying to hold Taylor's film together is a terrifically committed Emily Blunt, as the story's less-than-reliable narrator. Blunt's Rachel used to have it all, but an ugly divorce has caused her to implode. Now, she's an unemployed alcoholic mess who's only stability in life comes from her commute to and from Manhattan each day. Left alone with her thoughts on the train, she develops an obsession with a seemingly perfect couple (Luke Evans and Hayley Bennett) living in the house next door to her ex-husband and his new wife (Justin Theroux and Rebecca Ferguson). One night, Rachel's evening commute, combined with a convenient blackout after a heavy bout of drinking, ends with her covered in blood, some of which may not be hers. And then Bennett's Megan is reported missing.

Rachel is a fantastically set-up character, and Blunt dives headfirst into the unstable messiness inherent in the role. If only Taylor were more adept at capturing and maintaining control of her performance. Despite the visible effort Blunt exerts, Taylor has a habit of filming his leading lady in ways that threaten to work against the performance. In her moments of black-out drunkness, Blunt looks less like a mentally unstable alcoholic, and more like a woman experience a light bout of demonic possession. These extreme pieces of Rachel's personality are hammered home so clumsily at the outset, that after the first 20 minutes or so, Blunt runs out of nuances to dig up. 

Taylor's odd ability to direct the film on autopilot while still making the proceedings overwrought is fascinating in all the wrong ways, and that applies to the way he handles the rest of his cast. Evans, Theroux, and Edgar Ramirez (as Megan's therapist) are given little to do (even when playing out the fantasies in Rachel's head), while Laura Prepon and Allison Janney are utterly wasted in throwaway roles. Of the three central women, Bennett largely gets by unscathed, seeing as her role is basically just a rehash of Rosamund Pike's flashback scenes in Gone Girl. Also, Lisa Kudrow stops by for two (two and a half?) scenes that - a ha! - wind up being the key turning point of the mystery.

Poor Rebecca Ferguson (and her wig), on the other hand, is completely let down on all fronts. After being such a delight in last summer's Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation, Ferguson is oddly cast as the blindly loyal Emma. And though Ferguson tries her best to make the most of the part, she can't quite overcome the character's near-total uselessness, even during the story's most critical scenes. Ferguson and Blunt wind up as opposing extremes, the former wasting away with nothing to do, while the latter is forced to go full-throttle from the opening scene and never let up.

Below the line credits do little to help create a sustained sense of narrative intrigue. The visuals range from competent to ugly (when in doubt, avoid Dead Leaf Brown for your color scheme), while the great Danny Elfman turns in one of the most mechanical, anonymous scores of his career. There's some minor elegance to the film's jumbling of perspectives and timelines, but there are times when you may groan and wonder why the whole thing couldn't have been assembled more linearly.

Yet even Taylor's clammy grip on the story isn't enough to dilute a few of the film's twists and revelations. By the time Kudrow inadvertently steers the film towards its conclusion, it's hard not to be minimally engaged as the various lies and manipulations finally wash away. But a few nifty shocks and some paper-thin commentary on abusive relationships aren't enough to justify either the overheated opening or the punishingly mundane middle acts. When The Girl on the Train was initially published, it (and the instantly greenlit adaptation) was hyped as the next Gone Girl. But I get the sense that, if either David Fincher or Gillian Flynn see Taylor's film, they won't be losing any sleep.

Grade: C

Saturday, October 8, 2016

Review: "The Birth of a Nation"

Director: Nate Parker
Runtime: 110 minutes

President Woodrow Wilson has been (falsely) quoted for decades as describing D.W. Griffith's landmark cinematic epic/paean to white supremacy The Birth of a Nation as being "like writing history with lightning." Regardless of the quote's actual attribution (or total fabrication), or the film's hideous messages, it's hard to fault the line as inaccurate. The film was, on a technical level, a groundbreaking push forward for cinematic techniques, particularly in the editing department. 

Now, roughly a century later, actor-turned-director Nate Parker has admirably set out to rewrite history with lightning. In sharing a title with Griffith's KKK epic, Parker's The Birth of a Nation acts as a historical and cinematic corrective. The story of Nat Turner's bloody slave rebellion is one that hopefully makes Griffith turn in his grave. A shame, then, that such worthy subject matter and contextual significance is spent on an altogether amateurish endeavor. Nat Turner's story and its relation to American race relations is important, but that can only carry a film so far. 

Arriving three years after Steve McQueen's 12 Years a Slave, Parker's film is not without merits, but comes off as pale imitation of bolder, richer narratives about our country's great shame. As is often the case with historical biopics, the protagonist's rougher edges have been sanded down to make him an archetypical hero. The same goes for just about everything else in Birth, which proceeds through a checklist of Signifiers of Slavery on its way to the end of a tepid Great Martyr story.

In fairness, there are times when Birth hits home, whether due merely to its content or the film's tackling of said content. A scene involving a slave being force fed (it involves clearing out some teeth) is harrowing stuff any way you slice it. And there are other moments that speak to broader truths about the silent community that built up among slaves on a plantation. After Nat (Parker, pulling triple duty) is whipped for disobedience, the camera pulls up to reveal that, in the hours since the whipping, the other slaves have put out candles in front of their quarters as a sort of secretive vigil. And, in the film's most impressive moment, the camera pulls back from a close up of a black boy's face to reveal that he's one of six or seven slaves who have been hanged together on a tree in a hauntingly still tableau.

But these are grace notes in a movie that often feels too caught up with its main character (and thus, it's star, director, and writer) to speak to bigger concerns. By casting Turner as a semi-prophetic shepherd of slaves, the actual man's mark on history becomes diminished. When Turner's wife Cherry (How to Get Away with Murder's Aja Naomi King, who's excellent) whispers that hundreds of blacks have been killed in retaliation for Turner's rebellion, it almost feels like an afterthought. Yes, slaveowners exacted terrible vengeance on people, but at least Nat Turner got to have one last conversation with his beloved and then die for our sins. Oh, and to cap it all off, the last thing Turner sees is an angel with classic feathery white wings smiling down at him. Pile on the overeager score (which would be a better fit for a Spielberg-directed historical romance), and the film reveals its lack of finesse. There's a difference between flinging down lightning bolts hoping that something leaves a mark, and wielding them with eloquence.

Grade: C+

Saturday, October 1, 2016

Review: "American Honey"

Director: Andrea Arnold
Runtime: 162 minutes

More than any other country, America loves to put itself in the titles of movies. American Sniper, American Hustle, American Beauty, American Graffiti, American Gigolo, etc etc etc... At this point, movies with "American" in the title are as American as baseball, apple pie, and really uncomfortable discourse about race. That there are two new movies due out this year bearing the "American" flag in their title isn't surprising. The fact that both are directed by Brits, however, is. Adding to the intrigue is that both films, Andrea Arnold's American Honey and Ewan McGregor's American Pastoral, depict such radically different slices of American life. Hollywood spends so much time inflicting its ideas of other cultures on the cinematic landscape that it's only fair for the tables to get turned now and then.

Which brings us to Arnold's Honey, the first of the two to land in US theaters. Following generally positive response out of Cannes (and the Grand Jury Prize, the fest's equivalent of 3rd place), Arnold's vision of American decay and poverty is quite a wallop. But even though the director and her collaborators offer up a handful of bravura, inspired passages, they are drowned in a nearly three hour journey that covers lots of physical terrain yet rarely goes anywhere. Adjectives like "sprawling" and "freewheeling" seem like inevitable parts of the conversation about American Honey, yet the film earns neither. It's simply too much fat wrapped around a less-than-filling piece of meat.

From her Oscar-winning short Wasp, Arnold has been preoccupied with the lives of the impoverished and the lost, and American Honey is no different. Despite hailing from across the Atlantic, Arnold's vision of lower class America feels spot on. It's not sugar-coated or fetishized, despite the abundance of it that fills the cramped framing. Working with regular DP Robbie Ryan, Arnold turns scenes of spontaneous action into memorable, pseudo-mythic images without sacrificing the grime and grit beneath the surface. Despite the absence of meticulous framing or composition, there are any number of shots and sequences of American Honey that have been seared into my memory. Even something as simple as a close up of the main character's thumb, stuck up to hitch a ride, coated in cracked pink nail polish, lingers thanks to the texture that Ryan's lighting brings to each moment. 

Arnold also continues her hotstreak of mostly untrained actors, and getting performances out of them that ring true. Front and center is Dallas native Sasha Lane, making quite a debut, even when she's stuck in a role that eventually runs out of steam on page. Whether concealing a smirk or calmly taking in some strange new sight, Lane is a find on par with Katie Jarvis, the lead of Arnold's Fish Tank. Lane's character Star begins promisingly. A well-intentioned misfit from the rough side of the tracks, Star bolts at the chance to get the hell out of dodge and hitch a ride with a traveling group of wayward youths crisscrossing the country and selling magazine subscriptions.

Despite the wide array of characters, Lane makes a more than able lead, even when going toe to toe with the experienced actors of the bunch. Her on/off chemistry with Jake (Shia LaBeouf) is palpable and messy, and she holds her own against icy group leader Krystal (Mad Max: Fury Road's Riley Keough). The other kids piled into the white van with Lane are all effective in small doses, and Arnold creates an aura of unforced camaraderie among the bunch in the many scenes in which dialogue floats from one end of the vehicle to the other. 

But there's only so much Arnold, her cast of misfits, and a killer soundtrack (including the eponymous Lady Antebellum track) can wring out of American Honey's set up. Lane's performance never wavers, somewhere in the second hour her development stops being an arc and turns into a circle. By the time American Honey lurches to a close, it's Keough's Krystal who emerges as the most compelling character, if only because we get the sense there's something more behind her facade. Arnold gives us so much of Star (and even Jake) that she outgrows her status as protagonist. Characters like Krystal leave us with questions and possibilities, while Star and Jake eventually exhaust and exasperate. 

And so, for 162 minutes, American Honey casually careens from one episode to another, never quite finding a steady-enough rhythm to become a melody. It's not too much of a good thing, but rather just too much. The exhilarating final minutes, pitched perfectly between bittersweetness and ecstasy, prop up American Honey enough to keep it from collapsing under its own weight. But what those final minutes are tasked with supporting, despite its highest of highs, is too unwieldy to justify the sum of its parts. 

Grade: B-