Paterson

January 23, 2017 at 11:41 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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This is the story of a man named Paterson who just happens to live in Paterson, New Jersey. Really, it is just that simple. In what could be considered either a masterpiece or a dull disaster, Jim Jarmusch explores one ordinary week in one very ordinary life. Jarmusch is an astonishingly gifted director, who has given us the likes of “Ghost Dog,” “Coffee & Cigarettes,” “Broken Flowers,” and “Only Lovers Left Alive.” He knows how to create mood, particularly of the melancholic variety, using tone, lighting, music and dialogue. He also loves to delve into the psyche of his characters, revealing the vulnerability beneath the surface. However, none of that is on display here. Instead, Jarmusch shows us the simple beauty of the magnificently ordinary. His eponymous protagonist (Adam Driver) is a bus driver, happily married and living a very simple, routined life. He has the same cereal every morning, the drives the same route every day, he has a beer at his local bar every night. And he’s perfectly happy about it. There is no fundamental tension in this film, no story arc, climax or resolution. But, there is something very deep going on. The film references William Carlos Williams multiple times. Williams lived in Paterson and, in fact, wrote a 5-volume epic poem about the town, also named “Paterson.” Williams is known for capturing the beauty of everyday existence; think of his famous poem “The Red Wheelbarrow.” Jarmusch appears to be adding another volume to the poem, telling yet one more Paterson story that illustrates the beauty in the everyday. Like a poem, this film is filled with recurring imagery. In particular, the concepts of sameness and opposites seem to reoccur. There are continual images of twins throughout the film and there is the sameness of each of Paterson’s days. But, there was also the stark contrast of black and white (in everything his wife did, in the chess sets that kept appearing, in the black and white movie they saw) and the contrasting relationships (how different Paterson and his wife are, Paterson’s happy relationship vs the miserable one his friends were in). Patterns, sameness, routine, laced with contrast. There can be something so beautiful in the very simplest of things. In fact, perhaps the most beautiful things are the everyday. And Jarmusch, like Williams, wants us to see it.

Captain Fantastic

January 19, 2017 at 9:51 am | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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There’s only so far that whimsy and sentiment can take an audience and “Captain Fantastic” is an exercise in trying to find that boundary. Full of easy humor and lovable characters submerged in a soup of quirk, this film ambles along its road in as predictable a fashion as one can imagine. An old hippie (Viggo Mortensen) has been living in the woods and raising his children utterly cut off from the larger society. They hunt and skin their own food, have brutal workout regimes and spend their spare time critiquing Nabokov, memorizing the Bill of Rights and quoting Chomsky. When they have to leave the woods and take a road trip to meet their grandparents, humor ensues as worlds clash. However, what doesn’t follow is any level of insight or character development. In its place, we get lots of well-crafted sentiment. Somehow, this film manages to be both earnest and slightly disingenuous at the same time. Writer/director Matt Ross (known more for his TV acting roles in “American Horror Story,” “Silicon Valley,” and “Big Love”) certainly knows how to create genuinely touching scenes and was able to draw some moving moments from Mortensen and some of the kids. However, he does so at the expense of creating any real complexity to these characters. Their extreme upbringing is presented in unconditionally positive light. These children are miracles of functionality, intelligence, physical health, critical thinking and insight. They are superior in every way to the folks they meet in the “normal” world. The story gives the briefest of nods to the idea that Mortensen’s character may have made some poor parental choices with unintended consequences but, even this is disingenuous, as the main purpose of this aside is to then reinforce how right he truly is. In a film that seems to be trying to explore genuine emotions, it feels frustrating to try and do so with such a phony family. The final moments of the film are beautifully developed and quite sweet but I was nagged by the fact that they simply could not have ever happened and that the true story would end with police involvement and child protective services. This really was a lovely, funny, sweet and moving story. But it was also an utterly unrealistic one. I guess you have to decide how much that matters to you.

Silence

January 15, 2017 at 6:50 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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Scorsese’s newest film is a profoundly ponderous work that digs deep into the heart to what faith is. Scorsese, who is Catholic himself, is certainly no stranger to religious themes in his work. In fact, though I went in expecting something similar to 1986’s “The Mission,” I found this film to be much more like Scorsese’s own “The Last Temptation of Christ,” in it’s desire to deeply explore the interplay between faith and doubt and the way that suffering can bring these two supposedly opposing states of being into alignment. “Silence” would almost seem to argue that faith is, at least in part, the full acceptance of one’s doubt. Based on a 1966 novel by Shûsaku Endô, a Japanese Catholic himself, the story is based heavily in Japanese history and, apparently, the fundamentals of the story are accurate. Taking place in the late 17th Century, it tells of the persecution Catholics experienced in Japan under Emperor Toyotomi Hideyoshi. Fathers Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver) sneak into Japan to try and find Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson), who it is rumored has gone apostate. Their journeys take them through some harrowing experiences. This is not an easy film to watch; though not gory or particularly violent, it is a constant parade of emotional suffering. Against a truly stunning backdrop, the film uses anguish to explore what faith is, how one expresses it and what type of expression is truly acceptable to God. If I have one, rather large, criticism of the film it is that I think the final answers it reaches feel a bit pat. These are incredibly complex issues and the film seems to stay agnostic about the answers right up until its final moments. In the film’s last image, Scorsese seems to be telling us where he lands on the issue. I think I would have found it a much more compelling message without that commentary.

The Secret Life of Pets

January 15, 2017 at 6:10 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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◊ ½

I didn’t bother to see this one when it was in the theaters but thought I would give it a go on a long flight I took this week. What can I say? It is what it appears to be: a sort-of-cute, sometimes funny, children’s movie with just enough to keep adults at least somewhat engaged. The premise of wondering what pets do when humans are not around is hardly a new one and has been done better before. Here we get the adventure of two dogs, voiced by Louis C.K. and Eric Stonestreet, as they try to make their way back home after getting lost while on a walk. Along the way, they meet a variety of domesticated, and not-so-domesticated, animals, get themselves in and out of various jams, and become fast friends (of course). Most of these animals played into all of the standard animated movie tropes. Even Kevin Hart’s “Snowball” (who was the funniest character in the film) was a typical cartoon animal, whose humor came from the fact that he was playing against type. There were some genuine chuckle moments, but not that many. In the end, the plot did exactly what you new it would and didn’t once surprise you along the way. I suppose it’s a harmless way to spend some time, but hardly an inspiring one.

Jackie

January 1, 2017 at 7:31 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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This slightly odd and deeply moody film is the work of Chilean director, Pablo Larraín. I have not seen any of his other work, so I don’t know how to evaluate this one within a context. Covering the first few days after JFK’s assassination, the story follows Jackie Kennedy as she deals with the shock, plans the funeral, deals with various people in the White House and gives an interview. The interview serves as the framework for her reflections on those first few days. Outside of that loose structure, the film felt somewhat wandering and tangential, moving through various discreet scenes without creating a clear plot. That said, story does not appear to be Larraín’s main intention here. Rather, he seems to want to create mood and, to that end, every scene is imbued with a deep sense of sadness, longing, bitterness and rage. This version of Jackie, played beautifully by Natalie Portman, is very very angry at just about everyone. I have no idea how true that was but she makes for a compelling character. In fact, it was hard to not be taken in by Portman’s Jackie. This role is likely to earn her an Oscar nomination and maybe even the win. She is so vulnerable and strong at the same time. You get a sense that Jackie was always seething just below the surface of her polished exterior but that, in the days after her husband’s death, she couldn’t help but let some of the anger leak out through the cracks. Portman does an uncanny job of becoming Jackie, which is a good thing given that she is the entire focus of the film. Other talented actors like Peter Skarsgaard, Greta Gerwig, Billy Crudup and John Carroll Lynch are scarcely used. Even JFK is a minor character in this story, though I will say that they found the most remarkable look alike to play him in Danish actor Caspar Phillipson. This is Jackie’s film and, as such, it rests largely on Portman’s performance. Given how strong it was, that should have been enough but the disjointed story left her performance adrift. In the end, we had an hour and a half of Jackie emoting. As compelling as it was to watch in many ways, it never felt very impactful.

Fences

January 1, 2017 at 6:49 pm | Posted in 2016 | Leave a comment
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When Hollywood approached August Wilson about adapting his 1983 Pulitzer Prize winning play, “Fences,” he agreed to create the screenplay but insisted that only a Black director could helm the film. It took more than a decade after Wilson’s death before Denzel Washington stepped in and created this masterpiece. Watching this film was like watching a master class in film making. Everything was as close to perfect as I could imagine it. Taking place in a working class Pittsburgh neighborhood in 1956-57, the film managed to create a rich sense of place that looked and felt very real. The script tells the story of a middle-aged and disillusioned African American man, barely holding onto his dignity in the only way he knows how, while his family is forced to bare the consequences. The beautifully rich dialogue, complex emotions and multi-layered characters are a reminder that 20th Century American playwrights created a bold and unique art form. Authors like Wilson, Tennessee Williams, Eugene O’Neill, Tony Kushner and Edward Albee were masters at exploring the pain and fragility that lay just below the surface of the failed American Dream. Hollywood could learn from their command of language. I was repeatedly blown away by the richness of the dialogue and the deep emotions that were almost constantly present. But the real joy of this film was in watching its world class cast. As Troy, Washington was at the top of his game, giving one of his best performances ever. He was angry and sad and stubborn and vulnerable and heartbreaking to watch. Especially powerful were his interactions with Viola Davis, who should win the Oscar for this performance. I have to also single out Mykelti Williamson who was fantastic as Troy’s brother. But every single performance was just a joy to watch. These are actors who love their craft. I cannot recommend this deeply touching film enough; it’s the reason I go to the movies.

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