True Crime, The Last Dossier, and the Melancholia of Moving Paintings and Black and White Photography

David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon sounds like a rip-snorting true crime epic.  The labyrinthine conspiracy that lead to the murders of numerous Osage Indians for their oil headrights and the botched FBI investigation that followed is rife with terror and tragedy, but although Grann attempts a few passages of ponderous heft, most of the book is a dry by-the-numbers procedural that presents far too many names and suspects to keep coherent track of, never allowing us to latch on to any one person, and leaving us lost in the immense scope of the dastardly deeds.  The book is slated for a film adaptation to be directed by Martin Scorsese, and if there is anyone who can provide both focus and pep to the story, it’s probably him…though Eric “hit or miss” Roth is to pen screenplay, leaving me to worry the Osage might never get their due.

Though it’s presented like a true crime book, Mark Frost’s Twin Peaks: The Final Dossier couldn’t be more fantastical and “out there.”  Mercifully brief (compared to The Secret History of Twin Peaks), this dossier compiled by Special Agent Tammy Preston following the events of Showtime’s Twin Peaks: The Return is designed to feed the fans.  Continue reading

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There is a Meadow in my Perfect World of Wind River

The Native American reservation of Wind River is as far from perfect as one could imagine, a destitute landscape of snow and silence where forgotten people can’t rely on luck…they survive or die. But the inhabitants there can still dream of better places. They can make their way if they fight for it.

The film opens with a thoughtful young woman’s voice-over reading a poem about “a meadow in my perfect world” while we watch on the screen a battered young woman running for her life across a deadly nighttime landscape of moonlight snow and sub-zero winds. It’s another fifteen minutes or so before we witness her body discovered days later by Cory Lambert (an Oscar-worthy Jeremy Renner), a game-and-wildlife tracker hunting a lioness on the reservation, who has his own tragic past that casts a shadow on the current events. Into town comes a green but game FBI agent (a fabulous Elizabeth Olsen, evoking a young, steely Michelle Pfeiffer), who along with the reservation police force (lead by a stoically sardonic Graham Greene) and our determined tracker forms a posse to catch the predator who drove the young woman out into the cold and her ultimate death.

Writer/director Taylor Sheridan’s neo-noir meditation on grief and resilience is a brutal and beautiful thing that also operates on the surface level as a rip-snorting crime drama/police procedural which satisfies our hunger for the perverse while defying our expectations with novelistic depth of back-story and character. Continue reading

Finding Strength to Pass on in The Beguiled and Moka

“I admire your strength,” Corporal John McBurney (a devilishly manipulative Colin Farrell) remarks to the headmistress while under the watchful care of the women and girls of the Farnsworth Seminary for ladies, a bastion of secluded tranquility hiding roiling pent-up emotions during the Civil War. He is an injured Union soldier (or perhaps an AWOL mercenary?) discovered in the woods by the nature-loving Amy (Oona Laurence…a stand-in perhaps for director Sofia Coppola?). They are self-sufficient well-bread Southern Belles shielded from the horrors of war, but full of fanciful imaginings and longing.

“I’m just trying to give them what they need to survive in these times,” Martha Farnsworth (a masterful modicum of repressed anxiety underneath a gauze of stern maternal stoicism as played by Nicole Kidman) replies.

Sofia Coppola’s re-imagining of the Southern gothic potboiler novel by Thomas Cullinan (previously brought to screen in 1971 by Don Siegal and Clint Eastwood) is a lean, mean, beautiful thing streamlined through white lace and steamy moss-strewn environs with seductive Louisiana plantation swamps draped in lush symbolism standing-in for war-torn Virginia. Every single meticulously composed shot…from Amy, both resting and sentinel, on the hulking branch of a giant moss-covered live oak…to ennui-suffering teenager Alicia (Elle Fanning) leaning back in her chair in the streaky sunlight while the younger girls play in the tall grass…to a candlelit dinner darkly roasted with insidious intentions…is like a moving painting. There’s not a single shot directed by Coppola and executed by Philippe Le Sourd wasted here, all ripe with symbolism or moving the plot along. Likewise, sparse to-the-point dialogue (the entire language of the film mirroring the bluntness of Martha’s speaking and pitting it against the flowery antagonism of Corporal McBurney’s invitations) moves everything forward. Music, be it wonderful renditions of the olde-timey standard “Lorna” or the suspenseful ambience of Phoenix’s barely-there musical score, is exactly where it should be and precisely where it’s not. Continue reading

How Does a Man Become a Cow in The Salesman and My Cousin Rachel?

“How does a man become a cow?” a student asks in reference to a realistic story with one, odd, fanciful element being analyzed in class.

“Gradually,” Emad, the teacher (Shahab Hosseini) responds in a prescient scene in the beautifully layered, rightfully Oscar-winning Iranian domestic melodrama, The Salesman.

The better animal choice might be a pig…but the answer, crypto-Feminist writer-director Asghar Farhadi implies, is the same.

(SPOILERS AHEAD – READ WITH CAUTION)

No man is born a disgusting, sexist pig. You become one…gradually, based on the choices a misogynistic society forces you to make. When you live in a religiously repressed and politically oppressed society that systematically puts value on their women based on what their men do (or don’t do) to them, and in turn puts value on the men based on the value put upon their women, men will often too easily devolve into metaphorical pigs obsessed with shame, dishonor and possessions…even unwittingly sometimes.

Take for instance Emad, the teacher who brings to his students eye-opening Western literature and moonlights (along with his loving, lovely wife, Rana, played by the powerfully emotive About Elly alum Taraneh Alidoosti) as an actor, currently putting on a production of Arthur Miller’s “Death of a Salesman” where he is Willy Loman and Rana is Linda Loman. The play, by the way, is being threatened with censorship by the government. I loved how this threat of censorship is presented as a throwaway line, a common, all-too-everyday annoyance in Iranian middle-class society (and don’t think this couldn’t happen here…or anywhere, with the right strongman in place). This couple seems like a liberal bastion in a repressive society, self-aware and quietly trying to bring about enlightenment through education and the arts.

But the world they live in wants to turn women into objects and men into pigs. Continue reading

Searching for Momentum in The Lost City of Z

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Writer/director James Gray’s latest cinematic tome, The Lost City of Z (based on David Grann’s bestselling book about the incredible true story) unfolds like a long…very long…novel. It’s a curious think-piece about a man’s obsession with finding a lost civilization in the Amazonian rain forest that despite being handsomely mounted (among many other cinematic accomplishments) lacks momentum due to a decidedly old-fashioned pace. Yet, there is so much to admire here.

Witness the classical cinematography by Darius Khondji, exquisitely lit and painterly to highlight the sumptuous locales and pristine production design. Individually there are some amazing sequences staged by Gray and Khondji, including the film’s opening elk hunt done up in a thrilling manner that one wishes would’ve punctuated later moments in the epic narrative. While overall the film could’ve used some judicious editing (and script tightening), a series of amazing dissolves and scene transitions (witness liquor poured onto the uneven floorboard of a ship transition into steam from a train cutting across the Bolivian countryside…or wind through the Amazonian jungle transition to a seaside breeze in England fluttering white curtains inward over the desk of a wife reading her husband’s letters) create indelible moments one wishes to savor like a top shelf whiskey. Continue reading

Spotlight on the Independent Arts: Krisha

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From its cold, brooding Bergmanesque opening…to the discordant chords of its Johnny Greenwood style score…to the cyclorama of its spinning DePalma inspired camera…writer/director/star Trey Edward Shults borrows from the best to put on display one woman’s spiraling miasma of bad life choices, addiction and emotional abuse that can’t help but tar the lungs of everyone around her like lingering cigarette smoke.

Krisha looks like a student film but hums like a the seasoned work of a master. When Krisha (played with eerie frantic madness by Krisha Fairchild, the director’s own aunt) pops in for Thanksgiving dinner, the tension slowly builds amongst the family. Shults brilliantly shows Krisha’s various levels of disconnect and desperation as she both distances herself and awkwardly tries to connect…her dependency on a variety of mind-altering substances coupled with her hysteric self-doubt and self-loathing building a psychic wall that haunts the house and her loved ones like a screaming banshee.

While I expected to see a dysfunctional family and the holiday from hell, I did not expect the level of studied cinematic touches Shults employs. Continue reading

Jalebis, Google Earth and Lost Children in Lion

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The unexpected presence of jalebis (an Indian street food/sweet treat) at a friend’s party in Australia transports Saroo (Dev Patel) back to India and memories of being a hungry child desiring that delicacy, which was always out of reach but his older brother promised him he would have one day. Saroo was adopted at age five from a Calcutta orphanage by a loving Australian couple living in Tasmania. Lion would have you believe this jalebi moment is the first time he has thought about his birth mother and family (a dramatic interpretation from this true-life tale) since then, but we the viewers have that story and its compelling images and emotions seared into our brains by this point. Thus we willingly go along with adult Saroo’s journey back to those moments on his quest to find his original home and family.

The film wisely plays out the drama in chronological order. We first meet Saroo and his family when he is five, where they live a harsh but happy rural life…one that disappears when Saroo falls asleep on a train that takes him 1600 km from home to Calcutta where he becomes a street urchin running from danger at every corner. Even in light of the clever cinematography (aerial shots early on meld into dream-like memories and scanning of Google Earth for home in his adulthood), the star of the film is without a doubt young Sunny Pawar, who leaves an indelible mark that follows the proud tradition of orphans and lost and wandering children in such classics like Pather Panchali and Salaam Bombay! The episodic nature of the film’s first half is effortlessly compelling and casts a Dickensian spell over the viewer as Saroo encounters increasingly shady characters before finally connecting with those who could help him. Continue reading

The Spin’s Cinema Rewind: 2016

Outside of the theaters, 2016 was one of the most tumultuous years around the globe, especially politically with Brexit and a US presidential election that saw “the virulent madness” prophesied in 1976’s Network come to a red-hot orange, roiling, boiling head. The greatest of films often speak to the times in which they were made, and 2016 saw tumult of the artistic kind in cinema mirroring (whether intentionally or not) what had been bubbling up in society for years. If it proved anything, it’s that art is 50% the artist’s intent, and 50% the lens with which the audience views it through. Artists and audiences alike brought heavy baggage into the theaters, and we witnessed some potential masterpieces.

For me, the year’s most memorable film, Arrival, allowed the audience to breathe a collective sigh of relief at just the right time and showed us life is still worth living even when we know how (potentially horrifically) it will end.  The lovely and melancholy musical La La Land arrived at the tail end of the year to remind us it’s still okay to dream big, even when those dreams don’t always play out how we originally hoped (hope is not a strategy…but hard work is). The masterful character study Moonlight showed humanity and beauty can still be found even in the most dire of circumstances, and the search for one’s true self is a continuing journey. The true-story Loving uncovered the most sturdy bricks for building a compassionate society are quiet dignity, grace, and steady determination to fight for what’s right. Then there was the neo-western Hell or High Water, which tapped into some of the same economic rage a certain political campaign did, and showed presciently that sometimes “what don’t ya want?” is what you accidentally bring upon yourself.

My Top Ten picks for 2016 have been chosen with some initial thoughts and links to my full reviews below: Continue reading

I’ve Got a Part You Will Kill in La La Land

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“Betty, I’ve got a part…you will kill,” casting director Linney James (Rita Taggart) tells naive ingenue Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) in David Lynch’s self-described “love story in the city of dreams”, the seminal classic, Mulholland Drive.

Fifteen years later, Damien Chazelle has delivered the greatest “love story in the city of dreams” since Mulholland Drive with his swooning, joyous and melancholy musical La La Land…and he’s left the greatest part for us. In his story, we get to play the audience. And, boy, in this year of pop cultural celebrity deaths that has 1980’s children in nostalgia tinted tears and a political wasteland that hath wroth His Orange Emperor, man…we are so PERFECT for this part! We are gonna kill it! And we are going to love La La Land with its toe-tapping musical themes and heart-ringing ballads forever echoing in our collective unconscious to be passed down from generation to generation like our communal love for flickering wonders in the dark and dreams writ large on a silver screen. It’s possibly the defining fluff piece of our times, and it is beautiful.

Like Mulholland Drive, La La Land weaves an archetypal tapestry of dreamers falling in love and getting swept up in the pulse and vibrations of Los Angeles. Here we have struggling actress Mia (almond-eyed, red-haired, fair-skinned, cute-as-a-button and sassy as all get-out Emma Stone in the type of role you wonder if a young actress could ever out-shine) and struggling jazz musician Sebastian (Ryan Gosling at the top of his Gos Game) breaking out into song (hell, and why shouldn’t they?) and literally dancing on air (a feeling anybody who has fallen in love can relate to). Like Lynch’s film, there are moments where you will drift away into the most rapturous of reveries (the opening “drivers-stuck-on-the-LA-freeway-breaking-out-into-song” bit perfectly disembodied, transportive and tone-setting), fall in love, laugh, perhaps cry, and wonder along with our big-eyed dreamers.

Where Chazelle takes the film from beautiful fluff to art is his insistence on not resting on the musical norms while at the same time exploiting them for all their worth. Each wondrously choreographed dance number is breathtakingly dreamlike, both eschewing what we expect (and I normally loathe) in musicals while adhering to the genre’s most universal and transportive tropes. Chazelle employes lyricists who tell the story through the songs, not just put on a show…while the set designers, costumers and choreographers put on one hell of a show.   Continue reading

The Specter of Past Relationships in Nocturnal Animals

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*SPOILER ALERT – READ WITH CAUTION*

(Read With Caution could’ve been an alternate title to the film, by the way…)

Fashion designer turned director Tom Ford’s Nocturnal Animals has been ridiculously advertised as a schizophrenic film within a film that anyone watching any of the tonally different trailers would be hard pressed to tell you what the devil the thing is about. But one almost wonders if the strange advertising is all part of the Ford game? Look at Jake Gyllenhaal’s tipsy smirk plastered across your IMDB homepage…oh…and look…he’s taking a blue-eyed gander at the even bluer-eyed Amy Adams, all red tresses and smiles…America’s sweethearts. It’s all so fake. And all so wrong. Like much of the film. But also so symbolic. And borderline brilliant when it’s not absurd.

Ford’s opening credits of obese women doing some post-modern Burlesque (ah, what an art show!) will put some off with its Lynchian inspired weirdness (and there’s more sick touches interspersed throughout the film)…but it serves a purpose if you wisely invest in the film until the very end. It’s just one of many tricks the director pulls off here…like inserting a go-for-broke performance from…you guessed it…the ubiquitous – and if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times –  always amazing, Michael Shannon, into the film within the film on what seems like a total lark.

Nocturnal Animals is really much more straightforward than any encapsulated description of its plot would lead you to believe. Or is it? Simply put, it’s a psychological thriller about reading. In a grander sense, it’s about how the viewer (or reader) brings their own emotional baggage to viewing art. In a bizarrely humanist bent, it’s also an infinitely sad testament to the spectre past relationships and traumatic break-ups cast upon one’s ensuing life.

In the film (based on a novel by Austin Wright), a teetering-on-depression art gallerista named Susan (Adams, so delightfully complex and subverting all her norms in what is her second great performance this year after Arrival) receives a manuscript from her ex-husband Edward (Gyllenhaal, who somehow both under-acts and overacts, Edward’s tottering emotions always subject to Susan’s sometimes melodramatic interpretations of his writing) that he has mysteriously dedicated to her. Continue reading