The studios' Oscar-hopefuls and festival darlings are about to ramp up and drop into theaters but before those make waves and suck up all the attention, I wanted to shout out some of my favorite films so far of the year.
AFTER THE STORM
Somber and dryly funny Japanese film about a faded writer turned private detective and compulsive gambler (Hiroshi Abe) who is struggling to deal with divorce and the gradually dwindling connection he has with his young son. Kirin Kiki as the protagonist's mother delivers a sly and moving performance. Known for his astute and thoughtful direction, the movie is helmed by Hirokazu Koreeda (Nobody Knows, Still Walking).
"I would say that After the Storm is much more informed by my personal life than my other movies. Much of it is based on memories of myself as a child. And then there’s the “How do I portray this?” approach, which is based on several things in Japanese tradition: the house, the way in which tatami is depicted. There’s a whole tradition of this and I certainly see myself as fitting in that history, the history of Japanese drama. I particularly relate to the films of Mikio Naruse and Shinichi Kamoshita, a person whose work I watched very much as a child, a director of family dramas for television. He’s about 80 now. And I feel more and more that I’m exploring Naruse, and feeling Kamoshita’s influence, in terms of how to create drama." -Hirokazu Koreeda
BATTLE OF THE SEXES
Emma Stone and Steve Carell are both excellent and engaging as the real-life dueling tennis stars. Alongside them are a game, eclectic ensemble in this rousing and touching sports drama based upon the famed and socially significant 1973 match. A crowdpleaser, yes, but one that rounds out its characters with insight and compassion and pays attention to detail in artful ways (Linus Sandgren's elegant photography and Mary Zophres' spot-on costumes are just some of the tech highlights).
"I think [the movie] caught the essence of the time, the essence of my life, and what I was dealing with. I think the movie caught the essence of what Bobby Riggs was going through, too. I think they caught the essence of what we were dealing with on and off the court — off being probably more interesting in some ways, I think. I thought Steve Carell did an amazing job of capturing the different layers of Bobby, and the authenticity and accuracy of him as a human being. And I think Emma captured who I am. It's kind of eerie actually. If I have my head down, not watching, just listening to the dialogue, her voice sounds exactly the same [as mine]. I don't enunciate well; she got it just right. And she got the phrasing, the tempo, all that in my speech patterns. She must have worked really hard on that." -Billie Jean King
Extraordinarily atypical of the traditional rah-rah war film, director Christopher Nolan and editor Lee Smith shape the complicated story of Dunkirk through separate points-of-view. It has the burnished look of a traditional picture but it's a bizarre piece, with a lucid, mostly dialogue-free narrative. It's also strangely distant from the subject matter with gorgeous visuals shot on 35 mm and a thrumming Hans Zimmer soundscape. The sense of wide-spread suffering is overshadowed by themes of isolation, small scope incidents of violence and the coalescing of disparate lives.
"It was very carefully orchestrated. Literally the film was always designed to be the third act of a movie. You drop into the action from the first frame, no backstory. There was no let up in the sense of dread, just this burning desire for survival without all of the exposition and the dialogue that would normally be attributed to a World War II film. We didn’t have the ability to crosscut between the war room and the generals and all of the traditional stuff you’d have in a war movie." -editor Lee Smith
At 88, Alejandro Jodorowsky, best known for his acid westerns like El Topo, is frankly still doing whatever he pleases in his late career with this daring and vibrant autobiographical tale of his life in Chile. It's a messy movie with occasionally beautiful and sometimes garish visual imagery. Sometimes brash and brazen and occasionally a sentimental, meditative sojourn on mortality.
"I am not speaking in reality of myself... I am mixing art creation with real life... I'm not working with rationality, but with emotionality, to show the viewer his or her capacity for sublime feeling… in this case of me and my family, it is a public display of family therapy. And that is real. Not the film." -Alejandro Jodorowsky
Jordan Peele's perceptive, funny and masterful horror film is the best, complex and layered of the genre since The Silence of the Lambs. But it's also just a flat-out great picture overall, with a great ensemble and technical bravura--brimming with Peele's sobering, witty and ingenious ideas. As we watch young Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) stuck in the woodsy, remote enclave of his girlfriend's (Allison Williams) seemingly genial family, peculiar incidents begin to stack up until the twisty, breathtaking climax that cements the picture as one of the most subversive popular entertainments of the decade so far.
"The gestation period for this idea kind of spanned several years, and I think one of the most important milestones in that process was just realizing that every true horror, human horror, American horror has a horror movie that deals with it and allows us to face that fear, except [that] race in a modern sense, hadn't been touched. It really hadn't been touched in my opinion since Night of the Living Dead 50 years ago. Maybe with the film Candyman. That to me, I just saw a void there. So it really started with this notion of like, this has to be possible, let's figure it out." -Peele
Absorbing doc weaves in and out of the lives of various passengers as they ride along the Empire Builder. A celebratory documentary, skillfully assembled and a fitting swan song for legendary and groundbreaking filmmaker Albert Maysles.
"After many months of negotiating permission with Amtrak, our small crew was given full access to film on the Empire Builder, Amtrak’s busiest long-distance route. We took three round trips from Chicago to Portland/Seattle and back, finding all of our subjects spontaneously on these trips. Our Story Producer Martha Wollner and an Associate Producer were tasked with canvassing the train as soon as we boarded, and they would begin meeting passengers and getting a sense of who might be interesting on camera or at least willing to participate. They would then pass along the passengers’ info and location to one of our four to five cinematographers who would also themselves meet passengers as they explored the train. Sometimes we’d be able to record several hours of someone’s story and sometimes we’d only have captured several minutes of footage before the passenger had to disembark at their stop." Co-Directors Lynn True and Nelson Walker
I was surprised how much I loved this shaggy, ramshackle NASCAR heist yarn. Much is owed to Channing Tatum's charismatic lead and Adam Driver's eccentric supporting turn as his one-armed brother. The blend of droll comedy, and slowly-paced observation with energetic slapstick works well under Steven Soderbergh's beautifully-attuned direction.
"If it weren’t different enough, then I don’t think it would have appealed to me. It fit in this place where I was excited by the inversion that was necessary. They have no technology, no money. They are not criminals. One of the biggest differences between Logan Lucky and an Ocean’s film is in the Ocean’s films they’re already criminals. They’re already con men. This is their world. They’re multi-generational recidivists. And here you have to watch a group of people kind of learn... how to put a job together. There are a lot of trust issues involved because some of these people know each other and some of them don’t. -Soderbergh
Writer / Director Oliver Assayas has a way of hooking us in with dreamy imagery and taut plot-lines that often unravel in unexpected, quizzical ways. Entertaining, slick ghost story / thriller / psychological drama with a bewitching lead turn by Kristen Stewart.
"On Personal Shopper, I was like, "oh man, this is going to kill me, I can tell." I have experience with loss. I don't have experience with mourning death. I think there are few catalysts that send you unanswerable, existential questions that are very necessary. But not satisfying because there's no resolve, but they're very necessary to move forward. It's either traumatic, traumatic events such as death and loss on a grand scale, or extreme physical anxiety. I'm so physical that I'm often times really limited by it, and it starts a thought process for me that absolutely is the same one that Maureen has, which is, "is this fucking real? I don't even know if I can go on, I might actually just not be able to go on." So that, I knew, is painful and scary, and the only way that we could do it for real is if you abandon all of your default facets, and you actually become honest about how incapable and unknowing we are, rather than relying on all of these constructs that you've built in order to move on. It alienates you immediately, you become like a foreigner in the entire world." -Stewart
A QUIET PASSION
I gasped early on with a brilliant use of time lapse in the portraits of family members (the luminous photography is Florian Hoffmeister) and for the remaining run time, I was entranced. This unhurried, aching Emily Dickinson biopic features a mesmerizing Cynthia Nixon, not to mention great supporting players (especially Jennifer Ehle and Joanna Bacon). Directed by Terence Davies; his rich and witty script pierces.
"When I’d written the script, I thought, “We’ve got to have that 10, 15 minutes, however long it goes, to introduce all these people, but also to lay down the template of the film, the nature of her relationship to religion and her family.” But it couldn’t have been a long, gradual “they grow up and get old” — it would have taken too long and we simply didn’t have the money, it was as simple as that. So what is the simplest way of doing it? When I looked at the photographs, the simplest way to do it was track in on them as they aged. It was succinct — and it was cheap. There were just two tracks, one when they were young and one when they were old. When we did it, we told the actors, “You mustn’t blink.” We did Cynthia last, and she said, “Sorry, I’m a blinker.” I said, “Well, try your best.” And at the end of the track on her, she just half-blinked." -Davies
A good pairing with another humanist documentary--In Transit--Ewan McNicol and Anna Sandilands bring us to Uncertain, Texas. Lush, green and beautiful-looking, we meet a scattering of townspeople hanging by a thread as the socioeconomic and environmental changes continue to shift. It's a poetic, metaphorical film, with deep insight into redemption, American poverty and the human condition.
"The biggest challenge in making “Uncertain” was that for a really long time we didn’t know what the film was about exactly. We knew is that we had these great characters, with extraordinary stories in an incredible place. Our instinct was to keep filming. We could feel it, but we couldn’t explain what the story was. It was about a year into filming when it really started to cohere. Oh the irony of making a film called “Uncertain” and being uncertain what your film was about." -McNicol & Sandilands
Friday, September 29, 2017
Thursday, September 28, 2017
Soundscape like amplified tones of a finger on the rim of a wineglass.
Nature as a possessor: Kristen Dunst smokes up and sleepwalks through the dreamy ins and outs of her existence in the wake of her mother's death.
Somewhere in the redwoods--trunks like the feet of dinosaurs
Trees as living bodies. Hands caressing bark. Hands caressing wood paneled walls.
Tightly tying a ribbon on a nightie.
Blond-lit photography. Elements of trees: wooden dresser, papers to flame, leaf-adorned curtains.
K.K. Barrett did the tactile art direction. The artist behind the visionary sets of Her.
Whenever men appear, the dream world is broken with less interesting imagery and sonic volume--usually fuzzed-out indie rock strumming around them, their hair and beards the color of wood.
Songs like "Dream Baby Dream" by Suicide.
There's the dissonance of synthetics versus natural--plastic baggies--a plant shaped neon light, the automatic brushes in a car wash.
A sleek and stark dispensary in what used to be a flower shop.
Earth drugs as a possessor.
Campfire-lit house party. Tapping at goldfish in an aquarium. Lit match blowout.
Misty, rain-glazed car windows.
The film is directed by Kate and Laura Mulleavy, the sisters who founded Rodarte. Their filmmaking is visually appealing. The film throbs.
Their sartorial choices for Dunst: soft, muted, white mohair (?) sweater, waffle thermal shirt. Black bra and jeans.
A house mostly cut off from the accouterments of popular culture.
A mustard princess phone. Eggs gone bad in the fridge. Cake adorned with flitting moths.
Prisms through trees. Prisms through a crystal vase.
Some of the dispensary customers begin to die.
Dunst is like a bird in a cage that perches itself at the end of a toothbrush. Like the goldfish behind the aquarium glass she taps upon.
Sudden curdling of strings during levitation.
Faces and bodies cut in mirrors like a forest of trees.
Dried flower overlays.
Blood splattery mist of wood shavings flying at the chainsaw's cut.
The final dress is a wisp of a silvered sheath.
The film is for ones who like to be left under a spell. ***
Monday, September 25, 2017
In homage to the formula embraced by the 1970s disaster picture of its time and the typical sports movie, the film criss-crosses an array of characters, with our heroine at the helm, up to the main spectacle. King and her all-women's tennis co-horts ditch the United States Tennis Association in protest of unequal pay and end up touring, under the feisty, chain-smoking guidance of Gladys Heldman (Sarah Silverman) with sponsorship from Virginia Slims. King, married to husband Larry (Austin Stowell), is wrestling with her sexuality and striking up a romance with her tour's adpoted hairstylist Marilyn (Andrea Riseborough). Meanwhile, pro-player Riggs is a boisterous gambling addict with a wealthy spouse (Elizabeth Shue) whose grown tired of his antics. Even though the audience and the film has warmer feelings for King and her fight for equality, the parallel stories are both compelling, sympathetic, and well-played by the seasoned cast. Once the two agree to the match, Riggs' clownish behavior increases alongside rising media attention, while King makes her own shrewd decisions (such as nixing an outwardly sexist sports announcer) and trains her heart out, refusing to back down.
There is an inherent risk in an actor's portrayal of playing a real person, especially a particularly determined, noble person, of being too "actorly"--and yet Emma Stone, with her grounded naturalism, delivers an exceptionally fine performance of warmth and spirit. Carell, a love-him or hate-him actor perfect for this part, infuses the story with humor and with a knowing wink to the audience at the eye-rolling lines of his character. The film around him respects King too much to make Riggs her one-note adversary: when we see the blight of panic on his face during the match, there's a glimmer of pathos for the showboating chauvinist. The bigger villain is probably Bill Pullman's Jack Kramer; like Riggs, he is entrenched in the ways of old-guard white male tennis elite; but unlike Riggs, he doesn't make any motions to stir things up. One doesn't bring Pullman into a picture for subtlety. He's great at hamming it up just slightly enough to make his Hollywood stick figure effective. Overall, the ensemble is aces. Known primarily as a stand-up comic, but underrated as a character actress, Silverman nails her role with great wit. It was also a joy to see Shue back; despite her small role, she imbues it with humanity and dry humor.
Dayton and Faris are excellent at bringing a talented, misfit cast together and also a top-notch crew. Nicholas Britell (Moonlight) drums up Rocky-like excitement with an exhilarating score that mixes early 70s-Baroque moog-melody kitsch with charging sports motifts and a bittersweet bend that emphasizes the historical importance of the event. The cinematography by Linus Sandgren (one of La La Land's great assets) stage people within and against geometric designs (similar to the boxed-in feel of the court) of hotel balconies and spaces that are distinctly Californian; in a nod to the time period, that isn't too on-the-nose, the film is dipped in a richly fuzzed, navy hue. The costume design (Mary Zophres) is particularly tremendous--with a keen eye for the everyday, the suits, the glam (Shue's get-ups) and Alan Cummings' character's brilliantly-captured tennis skirt creations. It seems that 70s cinematic costuming has become more sophisticated over the years--accuracy with vivid visual appeal and without blatant condescension--and the work in this film is particularly strong.
Overall, unlike King herself, the movie doesn't necessarily break much ground: Simon Beaufoy's script (Slumdog Millionaire) is peppered with cliches and easy set-ups. I can see how many could find the lesbian romance, as well-played and gently nuanced as it is, not particularly fresh (didn't we also hear "Crimson and Clover" in the love scene in Monster?). There's also Cummings' character (real life Ted Tinling, who probably deserves his own film) which may seem somewhat stereotypically peacocky by today's standards but to me, also feels like a reverent figure lost in time. Despite all this, the cinematic depiction of this story and the ensuing match as traditionally crowdpleasery feels just right: hopeful, acutely refreshing and rousing in these times. More than once my audience clapped and oohed-and-awed through the electric climax. Like the film's recycled 20th Century Fox logo, since the year of the match, much has changed in society, been steamrolled over; yet much still hasn't or has just morphed into new forms. ***1/2
Friday, September 22, 2017
Brad (Ben Stiller) is distressed about his status. He feels inadequate compared to his college buddies who have gone off to have ridiculously luxurious lives of private planes, escapades, and dwelling spreads in Architectural Digest. In the midst of his crisis--or perhaps at the very root of this crisis--Brad's son Troy (Austin Abrams) is about to go to college, and the two are off to travel from Sacramento across the coast to tour the top choice, Harvard. Brad is either hazily unaware or willfully unaware of his son's plans and dreams. Mike White's carefully directed picture follows the two--with run-ins with coeds and an old friend of Brad, now a famed political commentator (Michael Sheen)--utilizing Stiller's dryly aching voice-overs to great effect. Like Brad's cloistered, heady character, the picture doesn't stretch too far but offers up some amusing ruminations through his slightly exaggerated inner thoughts. The acting and witty casting choices all around are strong and some scenes shine in their depictions of awkward human interaction (especially a dinner scene between Sheen and Stiller). The brittle violin score (by Mark Mothersbaugh) adds to the muted absurdity and sadness within Brad's neuroses as does an inspired use of Dvořák's "Humoresque." If one takes Brad's litany of complaints as droll rather than irritating, the movie has a sly emotional impact. It's not a transformative picture, but welcome as a closely attached character study, even if the central character is melancholy company. ***
Tuesday, September 19, 2017
Last summer, Taylor Sheridan struck gold with his script surprising sleeper Hell or High Water which went all the way to Best Picture and Screenplay Oscar nominations. This year he returns, this time behind the camera, with the quietly potent crime drama Wind River. Like Hell or High Water, the film has also steadily been amassing money as a stealth alternative to junky blockbusters (August was the worst box office for the month in a decade) in a market dry of films with adult appeal.
Plot-wise, the movie is a fairly straightforward crime drama set on a snowy reservation in Wyoming. Cory, an animal hunter (Jeremy Renner) mourning the recent loss of his daughter and the separation from his wife, becomes embroiled in a murder mystery after discovering a body in a snow-swept field. FBI agent Jane Banner (Elizabeth Olsen) is dispatched to the scene, out of her element with the landscape both physically and culturally. Throughout the story of Banner's shaky investigation with assistance from the skilled, knowledgeable Cory and the Tribal Police Chief Ben (Graham Greene), the film reveals social issues within and significant injustices against the Native community. Like Hell or High Water and other American revisionist Westerns, the story is fronted with whites who, in different degrees, impede upon Native soil, both ignorantly and recklessly.
Sheridan's direction is sturdy and masculine in the vein of Clint Eastwood, and sometimes he makes inspired choices, as in his riff on one of the tricks played in Demme's The Silence of the Lambs. The tense action scenes pop as do the sweeping shots of the picaresque landscape (photographed by Ben Richardson, who also lensed Beasts of the Southern Wild). Renner continues to be effective at playing a fierce, stalwart hero that's also emotionally vulnerable. A still underrated actress who does everything she can to imbue her character with detail, I sometimes sensed that Olsen was miscast, perhaps a touch too young, but that seemed a deliberate choice in making her a fish-out-of-water figure. Because the film is so intimately made, the ultimate villain of the piece, who emerges as cartoonishly squealy, took me out of the picture a bit. But the film rounds back with a stirring and affecting closer. Gil Birmingham in particular gives a piercing and haunting turn in his brief screen-time. ***
Monday, September 18, 2017
Sunday, September 17, 2017
Saturday, September 16, 2017
Thursday, September 14, 2017
The title mother! rhymes with "smother," which is a word that recalls the nature of many of Darren Aronofsky's films. His movies sometimes mix a "high art" sensibility with bludgeons of icky imagery. You feel for his miserable protagonists and the actors playing them because their suffering is bright, blunt, physical, breathy, and tear-stained. But there's also a strange sense of remove, as the incidents and the body horror (sanguine seeping wounds abound) in those character's lives, first pitched in a calming sense of reality, seem so outlandish. Very seldom does an Aronofsky movie have a settled place to land (think the ill-fated drop-to-mattress in Black Swan) or much humor. However, in the opening of mother!, there's the immediate cheekiness to the ridiculousness of the title (and the Shakespearean quill font presentation). The setting is peaceful, earthy and attractive with tinges of unease (throbbing walls, a delicate crystal glowing with bits of ember).
Jennifer Lawrence plays a reserved woman living with a poet (Javier Bardem) and obsessively renovating their remote mansion. The film, utilizing killer camerawork by Matthew Libatique, stays mostly in the constricts of Lawrence's point-of-view, with her long brown-gray hair and flowy white t-shirts, painters jeans, and nighties, moving throughout the rambling house. A couple (a pleasingly hammy Ed Harris and a perfectly calculating Michelle Pfeiffer) show up, disrupting the tranquil pale blue and taupe-walled household with discourteous behavior, neon underwear and smokers' hacking (this is a picture that refuses to breathe freely). Bardem eagerly takes them in while Lawrence expresses her displeasure to us through her vivid facial expressions (she's astoundingly good at this--doing so little to express so much with her countenance). It's this subplot where we see Aronofsky doing some of his best directing ever, with humor and unnerving tension. It's like a comedy of manners mixed with Polanski horror.
Then slowly, and in an increasingly garish way, the movie swings into screamy, gruesome farce with blatant shock scenes. Even though the filmmaker has been praised for this half of the picture, for his audacity, rabid energy and disdain for Cinemascore-squared mainstream audiences (you could physically sense the hatred in the theater for this movie after my showing ended), it also seems like an easy way (Aronofsky supposedly penned the script in five days) out of what seemed to be shaping up as a strong, sharp mystery. This is a filmmaker's film though, completely meta, in the vein of the rocket launchpad built on sand in 8 1/2, where the film scrapes away at itself until its destroyed (here, up in tacky CGI flames). There's also seemingly symbolic glimpses of the deification of artists, with worshiping crowds, badgering press and paparazzi, feeding off of the flesh of its targets. That poetry is the source of so much celebrity worship is also a good joke. The movie concludes sort of unsatisfactorily contextually and visually with a shimmer of Dan Curtis' Burnt Offerings. But both Libatique and Lawrence should be particularly commended for carrying us through this nightmare with skillful work and raw charisma. ***
Wednesday, September 13, 2017
I met Patrick Berran at the Virginia Creative Center of Arts a few years ago. His art is really cool and defined.
Berran's work is currently on display at Chapter NY Gallery in right now until October 22nd.