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Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Thoughts on Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri

I thought more about Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and how I appreciated how complex and tough the film was to watch. It was in the gray area a lot in terms of defining characters' morals, and while I appreciated that the film did not end with easy resolutions or a conventional ending, I was still left thinking about the complications of the characters, particularly how Sam Rockwell’s character, a violent and racist cop who is also a dimwitted momma’s boy, gets a redemptive arc that I did not feel was truly earned, and was trying to wipe away his earlier crimes for one good deed. 

Frances McDormand was outstanding in the film as Mildred Hayes. I admired how she could emote so much in a clench of her jaw or a fixed glare on somebody, and her anger at her daughter’s murder going unsolved for seven months without any accountability for it was just seething in her body. She was fighting for her daughter’s sake through putting up billboards with intentionally shocking statements like “Raped while dying” and pointing fingers at the chief for not making any arrests. She placed the billboards in the spot where her daughter’s burned body was found, the grass still charred by her presence. She faced the police department by herself and demanded them to review the case again to keep it from going cold and forgotten, despite the lack of any matching DNA. She also received resistance and hate from the town for going up against their beloved police chief, treating her as a public nuisance instead of a grieving and angry mother looking for justice.

 And as she was pushing all this energy out into solving her murder, at home, she was mourning her loss, lonely and devastated, blaming herself for her last memory of her daughter Angela being a fight, in which they had a morning shouting argument over Angela wanting to live with her father, saying awful things to each other, clearly not meaning it for real, and Mildred's face cringing in regret. 

While her anger is righteous, her actions cause more pain than justice. As she drives with her son Robbie (Lucas Hedges) and they approach the billboards, he groans about the “rape route,” and outright says how he has been trying to manage each day without thinking of the death of his sister, and that her choice of words to describe her daughter’s last moments were unnecessarily graphic and hurtful to her loved ones. To paraphrase his reaction: “It’s not enough that she was raped, and it’s not enough that she was dying, but now I have to picture my sister raped while dying. Thanks, Mom.”

Frances McDormand will likely be nominated for an Academy Award for her emotionally devastating performance, though she may be in serious competition with Saoirse Ronan for Ladybird, and McDormand already has an Oscar from Fargo. This is definitely one of her best performances, and in a year where sexual assault/harassment cases are coming out more against powerful men, a story about a mother’s righteous anger over her daughter’s rape and murder with no arrests is even more pertinent today. 

At the heart of the film is the relationship between Mildred and Chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson). Mildred made Willoughby the target of her ire and blaming him for the lack of arrests. Willoughby takes the time to sit with her to explain that the case hadn’t had any leads, and not for lack of trying. Harrelson’s portrayal of Willoughby as a devoted family man and sympathetic police officer makes him one of the most likable characters in the film, as his eyes show compassion and care for the people of Ebbing. He takes Mildred’s verbal punches towards him, doesn’t try to deny her anger, and is accepting of her quest for vengeance. He truly wants Angela’s murder to be solved, but is limited by the lack of matching DNA and no eyewitnesses to her whereabouts, and the reality that many murder cases do go unsolved despite intensive police work on them. 

Sam Rockwell delivers a difficult and complex performance as Jason Dixon, a good ol’ boy cop who has a history of racism and violence, while also having a dimwitted childlike personality, with his affinity for old-fashioned superhero comics and following his rough-voiced mother’s (Sandy Martin) commands. Rockwell hasn’t played a truly unlikable antagonist in many years, often playing charming rogues or soft-spoken Southern hicks, so this was an interesting change of pace to see him play this character. As Dixon, he tosses around racial slurs easily, slacks off at his job reading comics with his feet propped up on his police desk while Angela’s case folder rests nearby, and is often slow on the uptake when receiving news, stuttering with bad comebacks to Mildred’s insults to him. 

But despite his dumb exterior, Dixon has a volatile streak to him, which likely went unchecked for his three years on the force as a component of police brutality, and his quick temper upon receiving devastating news leads to an irreparably violent act that costs him his job (though flawlessly shot in a continuous take that follows along Dixon’s path of destruction), and leaves him acting like a confused child instead of being the middle-aged man that he is. 

While I appreciated that the film presented Dixon as a morally gray, three-dimensional character, and not just a stock villain, I was bothered that he did not suffer more consequences as a result of his violence, and that his redemptive arc nearly made me forget his terribleness, thinking he deserved to be a cop again before remembering why he wasn’t fit in the first place. I felt like because he attempted to do a good deed to both help the case and to impress the police department to get his job back, that he hadn’t really learned enough to improve and to control his anger. He was still allowing himself to be manipulated by his redneck conservative mother, and that he needed to do more internal work to truly understand where his rage and hate came from before he was allowed to be a cop again. 

But despite that I had mixed feelings about this character, I do hope that Rockwell does get serious consideration from the major film awards ceremonies. I have been a fan of him for nearly twenty years, and admire him as an off-kilter character actor who loves 1970s films and digging deep into playing difficult people, and since the Oscars didn’t consider him for Moon in 2009, I hope they come around this time for him in Three Billboards

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri is a darkly comic drama that explores themes of grief, loss, and revenge, and presents characters as complicated people who have shades of good and bad to them, and are fascinating people to watch. The film was sharply written and directed by Martin McDonagh, and beautifully shot in the North Carolina mountain town of Sylva. The film truly stands out as one of the highlights of this fall’s cinematic offerings. 

Thursday, September 28, 2017

Madame Hyde

Isabelle Huppert excels in portraying characters who are often tightly wound with a hidden dark side, just brimming beneath the surface. Whether she is playing a video game CEO who is playing a dangerous game of seduction and violence with her rapist (Elle); a piano teacher who secretly engages in voyeurism at peepshows and porn cinemas (The Piano Teacher); or a postmistress who coerces a housemaid into murdering her bourgeois employers (La Cérémonie). Huppert never settles for characters with each morals or a transparent image, they always have to have a fascinating complication to them.

Huppert continues with this style of characterization in Madame Hyde, co-written and directed by Serge Bozon, a modern-day retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, with Huppert as a nervous and timid science teacher named Madame Guteil in a high school in the Paris suburbs. Guteil struggles to maintain control over her rambunctious students, who openly mock her and harass her because she cannot lead with confidence. The students are pent-up with boredom from wanting to perform physical experiments instead of listening to lectures, and, as they are ethnically diverse tech students, are considered by the school as being made for labor, not brains. And she is mocked by her colleagues when she attempts to defend herself against the school council criticizing her performance as a teacher.

Madame Guteil tries to psych herself up to lead her class, assuming her devoted husband’s advice of “Don’t let fear tense your body,” and telling herself, “A teacher doesn’t need to be liked, but understood.” Nevertheless, the students laugh at her, and make a fortuitous comparison between her and Spider-Man, in which they admire a fictional character more than they respect her as a real person.

As fate would have it, Madame Guteil is accidentally electrocuted by lightning in her home lab by the harvest moonlight, and, like Spider-Man, she has now been changed through a science accident. Her body stands more erect, and she emanates an inner glow that eventually encompasses her body like a radiation of her repressed anger.  Her alternate self, Mrs. Hyde, possesses her to the point of walking out in the middle of the night, glowing in her nightgown like a ghost of the Victorian Gothic era, with a distant look in her serene expression.

Her transformation infuses an authority in her, and she uses her newfound strength to guide her students into understanding critical thinking and problem solving for themselves, and learning how to explain scientific experiments for themselves. Guteil especially develops a mentoring relationship with her student Malik (Adda Senani, in an endearing and sweet performance), a handicapped teenage boy who dresses in track suits and is at both cocky and shy at the same time. He acts out in class out of boredom, outright sexually harassing Guteil to fit in with his peers, especially the hip-hop loving boys in his local housing projects, but as they are both the misfits targeted by their peers, they find a connection with one another. Malik admits that he acts out because “I’m scared of becoming someone like you. Someone weak.” Guteil takes it in stride, and gives him a private lesson in mathematics in her lab, teaching him how to think and develop logic for himself. And as Guteil gains the respect of her students, she transforms into a good teacher, shedding her fear and trepidation.

But despite the positive strengths of her transformation, her alternate self has a power that threatens to consume her innocent morals, and she cannot control what changes her from the inside, and what may have been her saving force may also be her personal destruction.

Madame Hyde is a decent film, and is a rare opportunity for Huppert to not only play an insecure character, but to present her humorous touches as well. Romain Duris, as the school principal, also relishes an opportunity to play against his bohemian type and play an awkwardly dorky administrator, with the ability to say ridiculous lines with a light comic sensibility.  Madame Hyde may not be a very memorable film in the scope of Isabelle Huppert’s catalog, especially with her recent critical successes of Things to Come and Elle, but it is an interesting and unusual film about a woman’s metaphysical transformation as a schoolteacher and beyond.

Monday, September 4, 2017

Thoughts on Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence

I went to see Ghost in the Shell 2: Innocence last month at MoMA as part of their Future Imperfect: The Uncanny in Science Fiction film series. It is an anime film from 2004, directed by Mamoru Oshii, based on the manga by Shirow Masamune, and is a sequel to the classic anime film from 1995. I really liked it a lot, I was totally into the mixing of cyberpunk with noir aesthetics. I enjoyed how the film mixed hand-drawn animation with CGI, and had moody jazz music to set the atmosphere in the often rainy and dark city.

The basic plot was that androids created by a company as girlish-looking sex dolls were intentionally self-destructing and killing their masters, and a pair of cops, a human and a cyborg, are assigned to the case. Meanwhile, the heroine of the first film, Major Motoko Kusanagi, has now assimilated into technology as a sort of "ghost," where her spirit lives on, with communication with the cyborg cop.

The story mostly centers on the cyborg cop, Batou, as he wrestles with both his humanity and his cybernetic technology, and he resembled Dolph Lundgren to me. And though the story takes place in Hong Kong 2032, the human cop, Togusa, was sporting an 80's mullet, it was a little funny to me.

The film explores themes of humanity, death, what it means to be alive or "real" as human or otherwise, and questioning reality. It was really fascinating and interesting to watch, and I was happy to have spent my evening watching this trippy film.

Thoughts on Profit

Last Friday, I was watching the short-lived 1996 Fox series Profit, a very dark drama starring Adrian Pasdar as a sociopathic businessman named Jim Profit who climbs up the corporate ladder through ruthless ways, using blackmail, deceit, manipulation, and cheating to get what he wants and ruin people's lives. The show was created by David Greenwalt and John McNamara, who have written for The X-Files, Buffy, Angel, Lois and Clark, and The Adventures of Briscoe County.

It is an intriguing show, mostly full of corporate people wrapped up in their public images and being cold and self-serving behind the scenes. The plots can be complex, as Profit sets a lot of traps in motion that intertwine with each other, and the details can get a little confusing. But the overall plot is that Profit is playing people against each other and pulling the strings with little detection in order to get what he wants.

For example, in the pilot episode, he blackmails a secretary who has been embezzling business funds to pay for her sick mother's nursing home care in order to get her to hack the company computer system to find evidence that the company has been selling tainted baby food. The story is leaked to the press, and the company is trying to find the employee who ratted on them. Profit is on his first day, so he is seen as the innocent, and he ends up getting one woman fired after 18 loyal years, and the secretary gets fired, only to be re-hired by Profit as his assistant in his already-promoted position.

Pasdar gives a very chilling and intense performance, and while this show got cancelled for being too dark and amoral, the TV antihero would become a more common lead in cable shows over the next twenty years, with characters like Tony Soprano (The Sopranos), Dexter Morgan (Dexter), Walter White (Breaking Bad), Cersei Lannister (Game of Thrones), Vic Mackey (The Shield) and Patty Hewes (Damages).

Another compelling character was Joanne Meltzer (Lisa Zane), the head of securities in corporate who is skeptical of Profit and is investigating his shady backstory and role in business politics. Zane plays her with a self-assured confidence and an intimidating ability to see through Profit and to be a threat to him, no matter how manipulative he can be.

While this show was very ahead of its time, there is a glaring feature that sets the show squarely of its time: the mid-1990s computer graphics of the secret files that Profit infiltrates to dig up dirt on his colleagues. The scenes in which he hacks the computer shows him navigating a 3-D office setup with terrible graphics that have not aged well at all, with the characters' faces pasted over their files, and their faces exploding whenever Profit has ruined their lives. The attempt at 3-D graphics looks like a first-person shooter computer game where the player is just navigating halls and rooms, and it looks incredibly out of place on a show meant to have a real-world nihilism to it.

It is a very interesting show, that had a lot of promise when it premiered, but quickly had a reputation for being too "dangerous" and "devilish," and got cancelled after four episodes. Today, it doesn't seem that bad compared to later ground-breaking shows, but it provided an early path for them, and has its place in critic lists of unfairly cancelled TV shows.

Monday, August 7, 2017

Ingrid Goes West - A Film Review

Ingrid Goes West – A Film Review

            Social media can be deceptive in that its users often present themselves in their best possible light, carefully curating the good in their life without nuance. It can appear as if life is always positive and carefree, and for lonely, socially awkward people, it can exacerbate depression and feelings of inadequacy. For Ingrid (Aubrey Plaza), the character in Matt Spicer's thriller meets comedy Ingrid Goes West, her idyllic self is informed by Instagram “influencers,” sun-kissed, L.A. boho-chic blonde women who post filtered images of sunsets, vintage boutiques, avocado toast, and their equally handsome husbands, peppered with hashtags like #blessed or #livelaughlove.

            Ingrid's eyes, reflected by the glow of her smartphone, light up at the thought of becoming friends with these women and entering their world, and she habitually stalks social media stars, infiltrating their lives, and lashing out when she is rejected by her dream “best friend.” When the film opens, she crashes the wedding reception of a social media star, pepper-sprays her, and is institutionalized in a psychiatric hospital. Ingrid doesn't understand the extent to which she hurt people, thinking that she was being misunderstood. Upon release from the hospital to the quiet home of her recently deceased mother, Ingrid's only companion is her smartphone, with which she scrolls through Instagram profiles similar to her target, beginning the cycle all over again.

            After discovering the profile of Taylor (Elizabeth Olsen), a photographer with L.A. upscale hippie tastes, Ingrid works on being seen by Taylor and receiving acknowledgment. Ingrid clearly struggles with social awkwardness and possibly being on the autism spectrum. She works harder to mimic the socially accepted cues of likable women and seem off-the-cuff and charming.

           She crafts the perfect comment on a post about avocado toast, re-writing it several times, including ways of expressing laughter on the Internet (“heh-heh-heh” vs. “hahahaha”), and revising her own social boundaries.Through these superficial connections, Ingrid ends up cashing out her mother's large inheritance, flying to L.A., and conniving her way into Taylor's life through “chance” encounters and, Single White Female-style, dyeing her hair to match Taylor's.

Plaza excels at simultaneously mixing both vulnerability and intensity. Her eyes have this sharp focus to them, whether she is reading a favorite author of Taylor's, memorizing Taylor's preferences on social media, lighting up whenever Taylor acknowledges her as being “the best” or posting a photo of them together on Instagram (and letting out an excited squeal upon seeing it go live). Plaza highlighted similar traits in the indie comedy The To-Do List, in which she plays a perfectionist teen trying to become more sexually experienced in the summer between high school and college. Plaza has this very particular strength in playing tightly wound and awkward people trying hard to act confident and casual, while mentally checking themselves on the right things to say and do. With Ingrid, she mirrors Taylor's California vocal fry voice, laughing in a forced attempt to sound carefree, and claiming that her landlord (O'Shea Jackson, Jr., in a scene-stealing performance as an sweet and kind aspiring screenwriter and a lover of Batman) is her boyfriend.

            While Plaza is the heart of the film, the rest of the characters aren't as well-developed or as complex. Olsen, as a character actress known for both indie dramas and Marvel films, is believable as a superficial photographer who seems friendly on the surface, but treats people as if they are the backdrop to her curated life. This is especially distasteful in a scene where she makes a gas station employee take multiple photos of her and Ingrid in posed shots for Instagram, goading the man to lie on the dusty ground to take glamour shots of them from below while affecting a patronizing and disingenuously sweet tone with him. Taylor may have been Ingrid's idol, but to the audience, she often came off as very ordinary and indistinct from many other upwardly mobile L.A. women. Her fatal flaw is that she talks in a hyperbolic manner, saying that everything is the best and amazing, and Ingrid takes it literally, believing that if Taylor says that she is the best, that she truly is Taylor's one and only best friend.

            Jackson, Jr., as Ingrid's landlord turned boyfriend Danny, is a standout. Billy Magnussen plays Taylor's reckless, supposedly sober brother Nicky, a rich trust fund baby with frat boy looks.

           Both actors infused a lot of energy and charisma at different levels. Jackson, Jr., best known for portraying real-life father Ice Cube in Straight Outta Compton, brought a chill, laid-back vibe to Danny, whose Batman fandom gives him a lot of heart as a nerd. At times, Danny did seem too forgiving of Ingrid's egregious behavior, and it felt unrealistic that he would be this trusting or understanding of a woman that he barely knows. He compliments Ingrid by saying, “You have a different kind of ring to you,” which is a large understatement.

            Magnussen, meanwhile, brings to Nicky a fast-talking arrogance and a disregard for other people. He has a scorched earth view of life, only seeing ahead to the next moment. He is a terrible person, but shakes up Ingrid's life. He is, perhaps, the complication that Ingrid needs to have in her life to end her dangerous cycle of stalking and emulating social media stars.

            Ingrid Goes West is a solid film that largely rests on the success of Plaza's nuanced performance as a vulnerable and lonely young woman who does terrible things to people in order to feel loved and accepted. People quickly accept Ingrid into their lives without doing any Google searches or social media searches on her, which is odd considering the characters' frequent use of social media. It does stretch the suspension of disbelief that other people wouldn't become more suspicious or more cautious of Ingrid's obsessive behavior, and wouldn't just block her number or ghost her with a slow fade. While Ingrid is able to manipulate people through a charming persona, it seems unlikely that it would last very long. She would likely be shunned from social circles. Plaza's performance is great, as she is truly a gifted actress that, who, while a capable comic improviser, can  find the dramatic center of a deeply troubled individual.

Friday, July 28, 2017

Thoughts on Parents

I enjoyed going to the Film Society of Lincoln Center last week and seeing a weird horror comedy from 1989 directed by Bob Balaban called Parents, about a 1950s suburban family in which the sullen little boy suspects that his parents are cannibals. It was enjoyably messed up to watch, and Randy Quaid was excellent as the strict and unsettling father, he had this slow and measured way of speaking that always just barely hid a psychoticness below the surface. I also adored Sandy Dennis as the school social worker who was funny in a quirky way and had a more 70's hippie look in a 1950s-set film. The score by Angelo Badalamenti gave it that eerie vibe that he used in David Lynch films, of a creeping horror score set amongst ordinary suburban life.

Balaban did a Q&A after the film, and has a funny mix of a quiet voice with a dry sense of humor. The film was a heightened version of his own 1950s childhood, where family secrets were kept hidden from him until adulthood, where he didn't know what his parents' lives were like when he wasn't around, and he felt small and repressed in a environment where everything has to look perfect on the outside. He told a lot of interesting anecdotes about his career, like directing episodes of genre shows like Tales from the Darkside, Eerie, Indiana, and Amazing Stories. He surprisingly did not like directing My Boyfriend's Back (the next film showing after Parents) due to studio restraints, though he enjoyed working with the cast, including an eager and young Philip Seymour Hoffman, who was cast as a bullying jock, but assured Balaban that he could play any role and do it well. It was a good evening of seeing a really odd movie and listening to a pleasant chat with a renowned comedic actor and director.

Thoughts on Still/Born

Last week, I saw a pretty blah horror movie at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, called Still/Born, directed by Brandon Christensen. It is a 2017 Canadian horror film where a woman named Mary (Christie Burke) gives birth to twins, but one is stillborn. She suffers from postpartum depression while taking care of her son while her concerned husband Jack is away being a lawyer. She starts seeing weird visions of a demon that is trying to steal her baby, and begins losing her mind as the demon messes with her life in her empty giant house, and she looks crazy to everyone else.

This film had the potential to be a horror film where the demon is a metaphor for her postpartum depression, and that she battles the demon to save herself and her baby. Instead, it became a pretty formulaic film of predictable jump scares, the woman losing her shit all the time and freaking out her loved ones, the actress turning on the serious crazy eyes and overacting when she is trying to convince people about the demon, and the demon looking like a Samara ripoff from The Ring with a laughable "devil" voice. I thought that the Film Society would have better taste than to include this predictable crap in with their Scary Movies festival. It was pretty mediocre to watch, and a missed opportunity to make a good horror film about postpartum depression.