Changing the World Brick by Brick in Loving

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In Caroline County Virginia in 1958, an oridinary white man (Joel Edgerton) shows an ordinary black woman (Ruth Negga) the plot of farmland upon which he wishes to build them a house and then asks for her hand in marriage. It all seems so sweet and pedestrian and normal. He drag races cars when not building houses while she preps family meals and squeals with her sister over her coming nuptials. But it was anything but normal…in fact, their relationship was against the law in their own home state where both their families had lived and died alongside each other for years. After stealing away to Washington D. C. to get married, the couple are arrested in their bedroom upon returning to their peaceful Virginia homestead where the state refuses to leave them in peace.

Writer/director Jeff Nichols, who has become the premier chronicler of the American South for his cinematic generation, crafts a script that highlights the quiet, simple dignity of Richard and Mildred Loving while showing the casually insidious everyday acceptance of institutionalized racism. “You should’ve known better,” the law tells Richard. There’s no physical violence against the couple, but a threat of being torn apart emotionally hangs over them like a pall. Yet there are no histrionics over the Lovings’ predicament, no highfalutin ideals to which they subscribe, only a sense of what is decent and true. They love each other. It’s that simple. And they deserve to build a home and family just as much as anyone else. Both Edgerton and Negga transmit the feelings left unsaid through the nuances of their body language and facial expressions…both of them delivering master classes in subtlety and repressed emotions that come pouring out of their eyes. Always dignified…never wanting the spotlight. Continue reading

Who Did You Expect in Moonlight?

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In Miami, a lonely, bullied child named Chiron (Alex Hibbert) is taken under the wing of drug dealer named Juan (Mahershala Ali, Oscar-worthy) while his own mother (Naomi Harris, also Oscar-worthy) succumbs to addiction. It sounds like the perfect recipe for a bombastic melodramatic Lee Daniels opera. But in the hands of writer-director Barry Jenkins, it’s anything but. We visit with this character Chiron at two other pivotal points in his life (played by Ashton Sanders as a teenager and Trevante Rhodes as an adult) each rife with their own emotional spectacle as he comes to terms with his identity as an African-American, as a homosexual, and as a human being struggling through this thing we called life.

The culmination of Barry Jenkins’ three-act coming-of-age tale is two childhood friends standing quietly in a living room after having not seen each other for over a decade. Kevin (whose interesting evolution we’ve also watched from the periphery) says to our protagonist, “You’re not who I expected.” To which our protagonist says, “Who did you expect?”

Every step of the way, be it in the subtle nuances of direction and framing, or the sometimes jarring yet exquisite use of lighting, or the poignant and careful choices of music (Mozart and pop songs mixed with Nicholas Britell’s fantastic original score), Jenkins’ quiet, steady, thoughtful film challenges the viewer’s expectations.   Continue reading

What Don’t Ya Want in Hell or High Water?

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Saucy old-lady and scene-stealer Margaret Bowen makes the menu options at T-Bone’s diner pretty dang clear to Texas Rangers Jeff Bridges (just. one. case. from. retirement) and Gil Birmingham (long time sufferer of Bridges’ playfully racist jokes and sagely gristle). Everyone gets a T-bone steak and a potato, and you either don’t want the corn or you don’t want the green beans. And you gotta ask yourself throughout the film…what don’t the characters want? Bridges doesn’t want to go down in a blaze of glory…right? The bank robbing brothers (Chris Pine – the good one, and Ben Foster – the bad one) don’t want to hurt anybody…right? Nobody in West Texas wants to use their concealed gun, it’s just for protection…right? Well, maybe wrong…and when everybody has hurt feelings, a trigger finger and is armed, there’s bound to be blood…eventually.

The “innocent” bystander women get some of the best lines in Taylor Sheridan’s sharp screenplay. Character actress favorite Dale Dickey, upon being asked if the bank robbers were black or white, pointedly responds, “You mean their skin color or their souls?” Another sassy waitress (Katy Mixon) who took to flirtin’ with one of our dastardly handsome brothers while the other robbed the bank across the street pitches a fit when the Rangers try to take her $200 tip as evidence. “That’ll pay half my mortgage!” Thank you very much!

And it’s those mortgages that are the root of the evils in David Mackenzie’s Neo-Western Hell or High Water. In fact, I would argue that the Texas Midlands Bank makes one of the greatest recent on-screen villains. Continue reading

Netflix Oddities with Cemetery of Splendor and The Invitation

It’s the dog days of summer and the perfect time of the year to hibernate in the cave of air conditioning and explore the stranger side of Netflix. Two weird films deserve special notice.

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What is there to say about Thai director Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s Cemetery of Splendor?  I would say you don’t want to go into a Weerasethakul film cold, but one of his somnambulist odes needs to be your first, so why not this? In a rural hospital for injured and comatose soldiers, an elder nurse (Jenjira Pongpas, also from the director’s masterpiece, Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives) muses on nationalism and the world both seen and unseen. There she befriends a psychic who claims to speak to the comatose soldiers and delivers messages to loved ones (a wife calmly demands to know the whereabouts of her husband’s alleged mistress). Meanwhile, long dead kings wage battles with the soldiers in their dreams…a story told by two young women claiming to be the physical manifestations of the goddesses to whom the nurse delivers offerings. All of this might sound a bit fantastic, but it’s all presented matter-of-factly as mundane discussions about relationships and everyday life intertwine effortlessly with talk of spooky splendors. Continue reading

Well, He’s No Solomon…in Love & Friendship

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Mild-mannered, well-groomed, high-stakes, period-piece social satire reigns supreme in Whit Stillman’s sharp film adaptation of a “lost” and incomplete Jane Austen novella.  Austen simply titled it after her conniving, widowed but still lively anti-heroine Lady Susan (played with perfectly vivacious high-brow snark by Kate Beckinsale), but Stillman plays on Austen’s “Blank & Blank” template and renames it Love & Friendship.  The title itself a rouse, much like the import of debutante season in Stillman’s Metropolitan.

As in the most superior of Austen or Stillman works, high society types are on display in all of their entertaining mannerisms and foibles.  The two authors separated by centuries seem a perfect marriage, as humor both scathing and dry, bites and blows across the posh manners, country estates and London townhouses where Susan plots to find both her and her daughter (Morfydd Clark) rich husbands to secure their futures.  Never do the characters seem aware of their preposterousness, as if all of life is a parlor game, and their scruples (or lack thereof) never are challenged even as gossip and innuendos challenge their lot and plot. Continue reading

We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things in Midnight Special

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*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

“We Got People Die Everyday Believing in Things”

It’s a potent line spoken by Joel Edgerton as Lucas, a lost soul of a man who recently reunited with his childhood best friend, Roy (Michael Shannon, perfectly run-down but not out, as always) and now finds himself in a fine mess, waxing about the nature of people and the world with Sarah (a quietly fervid Kirsten Dunst) in a hotel room hoping that Roy (who “believes in something” Sarah’s fatalist romanticizes) makes it back from wherever he just went with his and Sarah’s son Alton (Jaeden Leiberher), a sick little boy with special powers wanted by the cult from which he came and the US government.  They’ve got to get the kid to a very specific place for a very specific reason (to fulfill a destiny?), but they don’t know what or why that is.

Everyone in the film ends up believing in Alton’s powers, but all have their own perverted take.  The cult sees him as their chosen one, the government as a weapon.  Early on in the film Lucas and Roy hide out with Alton at an ex-cult member’s house (played with perfectly subverted creepiness by David Jensen).  In the middle of the night, the whole house shakes and Roy and Lucas run into Alton’s bedroom where Jensen’s character is doing “that eye thing” with the child – perhaps a creative veil meant to symbolize child abuse at the hands of the religious?  Later in the film after Lucas and Sarah’s conversation about belief, Roy duct-tapes a Kevlar vest to Alton’s small frame (for his protection, of course) which eerily echoes the images of child suicide bombers with bombs strapped to their chests (they, too, fulfilling a destiny).  Yes, indeed, we got people dying (and killing) everyday believing in things.  This kind of subtext is becoming Jeff Nichol’s trademark, and where his writing and directing is able to build tension and elicit primal emotional responses from his audience.

In this way, Nichols masterfully uses the science fiction genre as a vehicle to explore modern-day societal fears.  Continue reading

I Spy in the Sky an Eye on the Moral Ambiguity of Modern Warfare

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*WARNING: POTENTIAL SPOILERS AHEAD*

How quickly can things escalate?  How much bureaucratic red-tape, coordination with allies and “referring-up” (where the political ramifications are cynically weighed with the moral implications) needs to happen before a decision can be made?  What is the human price of preemptive strikes against known terrorists?  These are the questions weighing heavily in the razor-sharp new thriller, Eye in the Sky.

Colonel Powell (Helen Mirren), who commands a drone squad surveying Kenya and other spots in the horn of Africa, wakes up one day to find three of the top ten terrorists on the East African most wanted list have gathered in a suburban home in the middle of a militia occupied neighborhood.  The original orders from higher up (led by a Alan Rickman in one of his final roles) were to survey and capture (one of the terrorists is a British citizen), but that’s too dangerous with the militiamen around.  When a bug-drone confirms they are preparing suicide vests inside, Powell pounds the drums to kill.  But when an innocent girl selling bread in the market area outside the house enters the kill zone, things get even more complicated and everyone (and I mean everyone…at one point the British Foreign Minister is rung-up while he’s on the toilet with food poisoning in Singapore) must weigh in before the strike can be executed. Continue reading

Justin Kurzel’s Macbeth is Everything that is Wrong with Modern Shakespeare Adaptations

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In an unnamed tented wilderness (seriously, you could’ve convinced me these people were living in Mongolian yurts) some psycho (Michael Fassbender – all grit and style, no substance) starts killing people to become king while his libidinous, depressed wife (Marion Cotillard – wasted) pines for their beautiful Guns-N-Roses music-video-style-photographed dead child (buried…or burned…in the opening scene).  Eventually the action moves to some moodily lit chapels and castles where I finally realized the growling and whispering actors were speaking with Scottish accents (except Marion Cottilard – who spoke with….a….what the eff accent?)

Macbeth is allegedly an adaptation of my favorite Shakespeare play and I had no idea what was going on most of the time.  Kurzel’s adaptation (which incidentally has some 1980’s big-hair metal band meets Game of Thrones style cinematography from the otherwise talented Adam Arkapaw that could fool someone into thinking they are watching something dreadfully artsy) is completely incompetent.  For the most part, the film is slavish to Shakespeare’s language (when it’s not cutting key lines), which seems like a good idea (umm, considering Shakespeare’s dialogue is like the best dialogue ever written in the English language) except for the fact it is spoken by otherwise award-caliber thespians with absolutely no sense of feeling or nuance or wit or…well…anything. Continue reading

Harrowing Wave almost Washes away Cliches

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It could really happen, the news clips prefacing the movie tell us.  Fjords are dangerous places, and if a mountain just up and decides to slip into one, as it does in Geiranger, Norway in Roar Uthaug’s slickly produced Bolgen (aka The Wave), there are gonna be a lotta people running for higher ground.

The Wave is a better than average disaster flick that balks at the over-the-top cartoonishness of its American brethren like 2012 (still one of my favorite comedies) and the recent San Andreas (which I was able to watch entirely in French on a plane from Paris last fall and didn’t need one bit of comprehensible dialogue to know what was happening – ironically, I’m told, which is the exact same experience as watching it in my native English).  There’s no Rock here, except for the rock slide that causes the catastrophic lake tsunami, which is rendered with truly spectacular special effects that rival the superior work done in The Impossible. Continue reading

Reverence for The Revenant

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Oh, how I wish I could have gone into The Revenant completely cold, knowing nothing other than it was Inarritu and DiCaprio.  Curiously the film suffers from following an amazing, shrewdly edited trailer that promised uncompromised tension as DiCaprio fights for survival across dreadfully gorgeous cinemascope-worthy mountainous winter landscapes photographed in otherworldly fashion by the king of pretty “sunlight through trees” cinematography Emmanuel Lubezki.  What if I hadn’t known that epic bear attack was coming?  What if I hadn’t known Tom Hardy was going to murder (wait, does everyone know this yet?).  What if…what if…what a shock the film would’ve been had I not already known its moves.

Bu the trailer and its subsequent building buzz hit perfectly on everything:

  • This was loosely (very loosely) based on a harrowing true tale that became a book.
  • DiCaprio gets viciously mauled by a bear (in fact, gets his throat almost ripped out and spends the rest of the film in sparse, pained speech when not completely silent or gurgling blood) and left for dead.
  • Mother Nature is both heartless and beautiful.
  • Tom Hardy (sporting his own unique growling speech and interesting accent) is gonna get his.

Despite being in awe of the craftsmanship and audacity of its scope, watching the film seemed stripped of any suspense.  You feel like you’re going through the motions even though it’s utterly captivating from a visual sense.  Continue reading