Wonderstruck

October 29, 2017 at 7:16 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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I first heard of Todd Haynes in the very early 90s. His college film project “Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story” was famous. You can find the entire short film here and it is well worth watching. He was also part of the New Queer Cinema movement with 1991’s “Poison,” and has followed that one with multiple period pieces that look at repressed sexuality (“Velvet Goldmine,” “Far From Heaven,” “Carol”). He knows how to create the mood and feel of a particular place in time. Though this film has not got a drop of any sexuality in it, it definitely has that same sense of place. This is a story in two parts. The first takes place in 1927 as a 12 year old girl arrives alone to New York City. The second part takes place 50 years later, in 1977, as a 12 year old boy does the same thing. These stories weave back and forth as the two kids’ lives parallel each other. The film was at its best when it was comparing those two worlds. Haynes did a masterful job of creating two different versions of the same city and both felt truly authentic. In particular, I loved the scenes shot in the Natural History Museum. I would have loved those scenes to have been a much larger part of the film. It might have derailed what plot there was but, truth be told, there really wasn’t much plot to begin with. In fact, the story line felt like the weakest part of the film. As the story focused on characters who are deaf, there was a great deal of silence and very little speaking. It was incredibly effective and gave the film an introspective, almost poetic, feel. However, that silence also meant that the importance of any dialogue was magnified. Here, more than in most of his other films, Haynes gets sentimental and a bit maudlin. As a result, the story stumbles a bit in the final scenes. It was at its best when it was focused on two kids, half a century a part, learning about the world. If he had stayed there, Haynes would have given us a moodier, more cryptic but, perhaps more moving, film. This one had its moments, but its adherence to a narrative arc robbed it of its energy. In the end, Haynes traded the beautiful mystery for sentiment.

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Lucky

October 15, 2017 at 7:31 pm | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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This film follows in a long and venerable line of films that feature an elderly person on some journey. They are typically beautifully shot, languid films that act as a showcase for an older actor who has never been the lead before. The first film that I know of in this series, and perhaps the one I loved the most (I saw it multiple times while it was still in the theater) was 1985’s “The Trip to Bountiful,” starring Geraldine Page. Between then and now, we have also seen “Driving Miss Daisy” (1989), “The Straight Story” (1999), “Nebraska” (2013), and probably others that I don’t remember. They typically center on an older person taking some sort of quixotic journey and the people they meet along the way. Here, Harry Dean Stanton’s eponymous Lucky just hangs around his Arizona time pondering mortality. Perhaps that is why this film did not connect for me the way those other ones did; it just felt like it was going nowhere. Lucky is much like the turtle “Franklin Roosevelt” that ambles along at the beginning and end of the movie, reinforcing it’s incredibly slow pace. Lucky has nowhere to go and is in no hurry at all. Stanton, who died just a few weeks ago, was 89 when he made the movie and it really focuses on death and how one wants to live out one’s remaining days. Which is not to say that it is depressing. It has real moments of humor and exuberance, as when Lucky sings at a young boy’s party. But it is deeply nostalgic, with everyone reminiscing about a simpler time. Even the turtle’s name is a nod to the past. The film was beautifully shot and was, at times, moving. But, overall, it lacked any direction and I think I needed that.

Columbus

October 9, 2017 at 10:50 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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And so, for Columbus Day, I give you “Columbus.” They have absolutely nothing to do with each other but, oh well. I couldn’t resist. If you are going to watch this film, then you must be prepared to see it. This is a film for seeing more than listening. It is slow and quiet and graceful and beautiful. It’s filmed entirely in Columbus, Indiana, which is apparently a mecca for modernist buildings. Who knew? The story is about a young librarian named Casey, played by Haley Lu Richardson (“Split,” “The Edge of Seventeen”) and a literary translator named Jin, played by John Cho (the “Star Trek” and “Harold & Kumar” movies). They meet and walk around Columbus looking at beautiful architecture, while only tangentially talking about anything other than architecture. But don’t think that there isn’t anything going on here. This is a film about symmetry and dissymmetry and all sorts of things being slightly misaligned. Every single scene is so beautifully constructed, with so many of them gorgeously symmetrical and some of them having just slightly skewed symmetry, much like Casey and Jin. Both work with books but in different ways. He has come to Columbus to care for a father he does not want to care for. She cannot stop caring for a mother that nobody wants her to care for. The whole film is like this but all of it is at a distance. The fantastic cast of actors play their characters very low key, even when strong emotions are present. The film feels like much more of an intellectual pursuit. In fact, in one fascinating scene, Casey is talking about why she likes a particular building. Jin accuses her of sounding like a tour guide. This is a clever joke, because the whole film feels a bit tour-guidey. Casey tries again but Jin pushes her to go deeper. She finally says that the building moves her. Jin gets excited and wants to know how it moves her and she begins to tell him. And we are suddenly shifted inside the building. We are now watching Casey’s animated explanation through glass and cannot hear a single word. First time director, Kogonada, has removed the audience from any emotional connection with the film. That is a very interesting choice. We are clearly just meant to be observers of an intellectual process of understanding. Characters do grow and move, especially in relationship to each other, but more as part of a landscape than as people. In the end, the human characters seem no more (or less) important than the buildings around them. They are all part of some larger symmetry. I found that beautiful but not particularly moving. I’m not saying that I want to film to be different from what it was. I think it works exactly the way it should and I think it’s an interesting way to tell a story. I did really really like it. I just didn’t love it.

Blade Runner 2049

October 9, 2017 at 10:03 am | Posted in 2017 | Leave a comment
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There’s a reason Spielberg never made a sequel to “E.T.”  There is just so much at risk when you follow up a beloved film, especially as time passes and that film becomes a classic. There are so many more ways to go wrong than to go right. That is the risk Ridley Scott ran when returning to the “Blade Runner” well. Yet, with the help of the original screenwriter (Hampton Fancher), he manages to pull it off. Scott turned over the directing reigns to  Denis Villeneuve, who is skilled at making both psychologically explosive films (“Incendies,” “Prisoners”) and pensive sci-fi (“Arrival). Villeneuve managed to successfully recreate and add to Scott’s world. This film is stunning in every single scene. From the deeply crowded LA streets to the vast desert wastelands of San Diego and Vegas, everything was a joy to watch. Each detail in the background was so carefully and cleverly constructed. Of equal importance to recreating this world, was recreating the mood of the first film. Ryan Gosling was perfectly cast, matching the world-weary cynical tone that Harrison Ford’s Deckard had. The story is somber and pensive. It could be accused of being a bit slow in part, particularly for viewers who expect high doses of “The Fast & The Furious” in their modern sci fi. But this is not an action film. Deeper themes are being explore here. When are we sentient? What makes us alive? Is it our feelings? Our empathy for others? Our memories and our connection to the past? There is rich stuff getting explored in some very clever ways. We know from the start that Gosling’s K is a replicant. Just like Deckard was in love with a replicant in the first film, K is in love with a hologram, now removing the question of life one-step further out. The complexities of this question are played out beautifully when a giant 3D billboard version of that same hologram talks to him late in the film. It calls him “joe” in a generic way, calling into question the name “Joe” that his girlfriend-hologram gave him earlier. That is brilliant and heady stuff. Much has been said and debated about the various endings to the original film. This one seems to fit with several of those endings (maybe even all of them). The story could have gone in a very obvious, cliché direction. I was sure it was going to and I am so pleased that I was wrong. If there is anything I regret about this film is that there was no Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer) character. There was no one nearly as menacing, nor as poetic. Jared Let0’s Niander Wallace comes close. Leto steals every scene he is in (as he does in most of his films) but there are just far too few scenes with him. I would have liked much more of him, which is admittedly difficult in a film that is already creeping towards 3 hours. But, I never felt bored. Not for one minute during that entire time did I wish I were anywhere else. And that may be the best review I can give.

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