Is this Hell in Transit?

In ways complex, subtle and surreal, Christian Petzold has crafted another enthralling think-piece / thriller with Transit. When troubled opportunist Georg (Franz Rogowski) agrees to deliver papers to a writer looking to flee the fascist take-over of France and quickly finds the writer has committed suicide, a sea of events take place leading to Georg to Marseilles where he becomes entangled in the stories of a multitude of refugees, including the dead writer’s wife, Marie (Paula Beer), who knows not her husband is dead and has fallen into the arms of an altruistic doctor (Godeheard Giese) who passed up a passage to Mexico to stay with her while she still pines for her husband to join her.

While this bizarre love triangle (or is it a square?) built upon stolen identities and pining for those already passed on (both literally and metaphorically) is enthralling enough on its own, Petzold layers in side stories to enrich Georg’s tale. When he first arrives in Marseilles from Paris, he has to deliver bad news to the wife and young son of his traveling companion who died in transit, and he quickly becomes immersed in their loneliness. The woman (now widowed) is mute and deaf, and the boy (now orphaned) is just looking for someone to play soccer with, and both had been waiting in Marseilles for the boy’s father who was to help them all flee to the mountains. Meanwhile Georg gets distracted by his own conflicting drives to flee and stay. His feelings for the boy (who has an asthma attack after Georg takes him to an amusement park) are what lead him to the doctor and Marie, and when he falls for Marie, too, his feelings and anguish only become more twisted. Meanwhile other refugees come and go from his stage (a sickly conductor, an architect stuck with her client’s abandoned dogs), all longing for someone to listen to their story, just as Georg ends up telling his story to the proprietor of the restaurant where he, Marie, and the doctor frequent.

Based on a novel by Anna Seghers, whose original context for the story was Nazi-occupied France, Petzold makes a bold choice in assigning no definitive time period to the story…it could’ve been told then…it’s certainly potent now. Continue reading

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Unbow Your Head in If Beale Street Could Talk

How does one even begin to unpack the layers of brilliance on display in If Beale Street Could Talk?

How does one even begin to unpack the impacts of hundreds of years of institutional racism on African-American culture, and society as a whole?

“Unbow your head, sister,” Tish’s older sister (Teyonah Parris) tells her after the revelation that Tish (Kiki Layne) is pregnant…by Fonny (Stephan James)…who is in jail…unjustly awaiting trial for a rape he did not commit. There should be no shame when amongst family, when you are in love, and when a cruel world has stacked the deck against you. Tish should hold her head high because that child was born out of love, and she and Fonny would’ve been married had he not been unfairly accused. The epic emotional confrontation that happens next, where Tish reveals this to Fonny’s parents (his mother a spiteful holy roller), is a masterclass in directing, editing, and acting, with Tish’s loving family fighting fiercely in her (and Fonny’s) corner.

If Beale Street Could Talk is above all a love story, but not just a love story between Tish and Fonny. It’s also a love story about parents (Regina King in a crowning performance, and an equally unforgettable Colman Domingo) who always believe in their children. It’s a story about love, romantic and familial and communal, in the face of the most extreme adversities.

Barry Jenkins fulfills the promise of Moonlight and takes all of his artistic elements to the next level in his gorgeous adaptation of James Baldwin’s novel. Continue reading

The Flow of Life in Roma

There’s something paradoxically both achingly intimate and frustratingly passive in watching Alfonso Cuaron’s quasi-autobiographical familial drama, Roma.  There are few, if any, close-ups, and his famous tracking shots display a gleeful chaos bubbling up as we flow in and out of the everyday life of an upper middle class family’s nanny/maid named Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio) in Mexico City (and later the countryside and then the coast).  The first two-thirds of the film are intermittently fascinating (in an “oh, look at how amazing that shot, or that framing, is!” kind of way) and meditatively boring (in an, “oh, huh, what just happened and who is that?” kind of way).  We’re just kinda there, floating along with his camera (Cuaron epically does his own cinematography here – and it is astounding), awash in heavy water symbolism.  It drips, drips, drips, much like the scattered details of these people’s lives.

But there’s an external political chaos brewing in the background, Cleo gets pregnant by a martial-arts loving deadbeat, and the family’s patriarch flakes off and never comes home after a business trip to Quebec.  Suddenly there’s a political riot while Cleo is shopping for a crib, and all emotional hell breaks loose.  The last third of the film is an engrossing, unforgettable revelation, and the water that once merely dripped or washed away dirt is now swelling (literal ocean waves) and washing away regret and grief, simultaneously threatening and bringing loved ones closer.  The quietly thrilling beach sequence involving Cleo and her young charges is one of the most beautifully shot enthralling pieces of emotional suspense ever captured on film. Continue reading

Sympathy for Queen Anne in The Favourite

Emma Stone in the film THE FAVOURITE. Photo by Yorgos Lanthimos. © 2018 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation All Rights Reserved

Well, that was interesting…

In many ways, The Favourite (detailing the competition between a Duchess and a would-be “Lady” to be Queen Anne of England’s right-hand woman in the early 1700’s), is the best kind of historical drama.  It made my wife and I want to google and research the facts of the matter as soon as it was over, and indeed all the key players were based on actual people, but liberties were taken with timelines and how they related to each other for dramatic effect.  The film is also blessed with amazing lighting (giving Barry Lyndon a run for its money when it comes to candle-lit naturalism, especially in the breathtaking nighttime palatial scenes), exquisite costumes (a work of art in their own right), transporting sets, and award worthy acting.

But, it’s also a Yorgos Lanthimos film, the man who directed one of my most loathed films of recent memory, The Killing of a Sacred Deer.  So there is a tone of satire, moments of gleefully wicked farce, and well, just plain weird moments.

There are duck races, debauched feasts, and one of the best royal ball dancing sequences I’ve ever seen that’s so offhand in its anachronistic absurdity one can’t help but think, “Wait…What? I kinda liked that!”  Though the Queen apparently hated the funky moves. Continue reading

From Whence Did This Beast Spring?

On the isle of Jersey, a troubled young woman named Moll (Jessie Buckley – a revelation) emotionally enslaved by her manipulative and unforgiving family (headed by her posh, cruel, ice-queen of a mother played perfectly by Geraldine James) has a chance encounter with a guy from the wrong side of the sand dunes named Pascal (Johnny Flynn) that leads to a dangerous romance amidst the frenzied summer of a serial killer on the loose in Michael Pearce’s electrifying and disturbing directorial debut, Beast.

Beast is a classic sleeper film, having come presumably out of nowhere, and confounds all expectations of its tried and true “doomed romance” genre, here presented through the lenses of neo-noir and modern gothic.  The less you know about the film going in the better.  The complex psychological disturbances it displays (and transmitted exceptionally well by the cast, and most of all, by Buckley) need to be wrestled with, unpacked…not unlike the work one would do in therapy to better understand their past trauma and current motivations.  For Moll, who is introduced to us through her own voice-over about the tragic fates of killer whales isolated in captivity (a chilling metaphor for what is about to unfold), being ostracized is clearly a trigger, but what the film accomplishes so brilliantly is confusion in the mind of the viewer.  What are the true motives behind Moll and Pascal’s behavior?  They compel us to sympathize with them even as we watch them careen into emotional and criminal mind-fields.  Continue reading

Is The Death of Stalin Funny?

Seriously.  Is the Death of Stalin funny?  Not the actual event of Joseph Stalin’s historical death (no death, not even that of a mass-murdering dictator is funny…right?) but the movie, The Death of Stalin…is it funny?  I’m asking for a friend.

Can a film that ends with a central character being shot dead, and his body then burned, being placed literally into the ash heap of history, be funny?

Ladies and gentlemen…Mr. Steve Buscemi…as Nickita Khrushchev!  He’s brilliant, as per usual.  Buscemi deftly goes from neurotic joke-man to cold-blooded power-grabber (oh, that’s so Buscemi).  But is the performance…funny?  I mean, yes…it is (as is Jeffrey Tambor as an air-headed and feckless Georgy Malekov)…but funny how?  Funny how it looks?  How it sounds…Steve Buscemi…as Khrushchev?  Funny ha-ha?

Armando Iannucci (of In the Loop and Veep fame) has become the modern master of the politic satire (usually aimed at current events), but here is a historical period-piece.  What’s his end-game?  A correlation to Putin’s Russia?  Trump’s America?  Any cult of personality that innately leads to gas-lighting the public and internal chaos?  Is this a cautionary tale? Continue reading

The Spin’s Cinema Rewind: 2017

My Top Ten Films of 2017:

  1. Phantom Thread – d. Paul Thomas Anderson
  2. Wind River – d. Taylor Sheridan
  3. Dunkirk – d. Christopher Nolan
  4. Blade Runner 2049 – d. Denis Villeneuve
  5. Personal Shopper -d. Olivier Assayas
  6. Mudbound – d. Dee Rees
  7. The Beguiled – d. Sofia Coppola
  8. Get Out – d. Jordan Peele
  9. Wonder Woman – d. Patty Jenkins
  10. Lady Bird – d. Greta Gerwig

Honorable Mentions:

Notable Omissions (films I’ve yet to see that are showing up on a many Top Ten lists):

Call Me By Your Name, The Shape of Water, I Tonya, The Post, All the Money in the World

Most Overrated:

  • Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri – d. Martin McDonagh
  • The Big Sickd. Michael Showalter

Worst Films of the Year:

Tell us what your pick was for Best Film of 2017.

What movies would make your Top Ten List?

Speak your mind and join the discussion by leaving a comment!

If you’re a fellow film blogger with your own awards, top ten list or 2016 wrap-up, share your links in the comment form.

Every Little Stitch of Alma and Phantom Thread

Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread opens with a simple, stately title card and the emerging sound of a crackling fire.  Soon, a moodily lit young woman (an impeccably unpredictable Vicky Krieps) is providing the introductory voice-over to our cinematic affair.  Right there, Anderson upends our expectations, as this being a Daniel Day Lewis film (and purportedly his last!), one expected if anyone would be narrating this tale, it would have been him.

Daniel Day Lewis is indeed the main focus of attention, a classic Andersonian archetype, the tortured artist/mad genius…a true narcissist who is also somehow sympathetic, likely a result of Lewis’ and Anderson’s own symbiotic genius.  Their finely stitched designer Reynolds Woodcock is the toast of the 1950’s London fashion scene, and his art, those costumes, are to die for.  But the story is told mostly from the point of view of his new love interest, the enigmatic Alma (Krieps), an initially demure waitress he picked up in the British countryside…both actress and environ exquisitely photographed, as is every single thing, by Anderson’s camera lens.

We know there’s more to Alma because of how Anderson frames the story, but we’re never given any exposition on her (and only a modicum of backstory – mostly surrounding his mother – for Reynolds) and thus we’re forced to judge her (and ultimately Reynolds) only by what unfolds on-screen.  We slowly see how Alma takes hold and upends Reynolds’ structured life enmeshed with his sister Cyril (a perfectly reserved but commanding Lesley Manville).  Alma is far more than the typical girl Reynolds and Cyril routinely toss aside like an off-season dress.  In fact, she emerges from her cocoon as another Andersonian archetype…the person willing to do anything to fit into, and keep together, their new makeshift family, no matter how dysfunctional (in ways both comic and tragic) that family becomes. Continue reading

Movies I’ve seen this year that I didn’t review because they were just totally Meh or Eww but now at the end of the year I want to tell you about them

The Big Sick – Meh.  It wasn’t funny.  At all.  Deadly serious, actually.  But it was an okay relationship drama.

Darkest Hour – Meh.  It was actually quite good (especially Gary Oldman’s impersonation of Winston Churchill, and some of those cool “views from above planes” pan-over shots)…but after Dunkirk, this “behind the scenes” political game came across as perfunctory.

Personal Shopper – WOW!  I tricked you, just like director Olivier Assayas did to the audience here!  This one (though horribly ineptly titled) is actually a minor masterpiece likely to make my top ten list for the year.  As I proclaimed on the Facebooks after watching it, “So like seriously, we just watched a Kristen Stewart movie where she was texting with a stranger on the Paris-to-London Chunnel for 20-30 minutes, and it was scary as hell.  Personal Shopper is a truly modern ghost story that will perplex, unnerve, and move you.”

The Dinner – Eww.  Do yourself a favor and just have an actual dinner.  Skip this tripe about the 1% all together.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer – Eww.  Double Eww.  Triple Eww.  Vile bougie trash that’s not even worth being set on fire.

What if this is the Best Version in Lady Bird?

When her mother (Laurie Metcalf) states that all she wants is for her daughter to be the best possible version of herself she can be, our titular anti-hero (Saoirse Ronan) delivers that biting and heartbreaking line that’s been playing in all the trailers for Greta Gerwig’s coming-of-age tale, “What if this is the best version?”

It leaves one to wonder if this film is the best version of the writer-director?  The story of a Catholic school senior in Sacramento, California finding her way while dreaming of going to college in NYC is highly autobiographical.  And while it brings out the best in Gerwig as an artist, I can’t help but hope (like Metcalf’s character) for more from her that will surprise and delight us in the years to come.  Many of the quirks people have come to love or loathe in Gerwig (mostly from her work with Noah Baumbach) are present here, but distilled through the amazing Ronan they become more palpable and endearing to the masses (and I write this as a fan of Gerwig in all her faults and glories as an actress).  Likewise, Lady Bird longs for acceptance of her whole self, warts and all, from those around her, especially her mother. Continue reading