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Thursday, December 21, 2017

Thoughts on Mudbound and Pottersville

Mudbound is a heavy and brutal drama about how racism affects a white family and a Black family working side by side as farmers in WWII Mississippi. It is a little long, at nearly two and a half hours long, but is a tragic and sad story to watch.

I especially appreciated how writer/director Dee Rees characterized the strife of the Black woman as caregiver to her white boss’s children, being expected to be their live-in caregiver while being away from her own children. Mary J. Blige was excellent in showing the pain of being pushed to agree to an unfair deal made to support her family financially while sacrificing caring for her own kids to be there for a white family’s needs.

The film presented not only how devastating racism was to the Black family, but also how racism and classism infected the white family, as they had a hard time moving down from their middle class status to be rural farmers and kept expecting the Black family to be their support at every call, not thinking about how they were more equals than different in their social class.

I really liked Rees’ breakout indie Pariah from several years ago, about a teen girl struggling to come out as a lesbian to her conservative mother, and was happy to see her back again with a successful film. This is a sad movie to watch, but very realistic and honest.

Pottersville is a Christmas indie movie directed by Seth Henrikson starring Michael Shannon as a small town general store owner who, after reeling from the shock of his wife cheating on him, gets drunk and puts on a gorilla suit and runs around town at night hollering, only to be mistaken as Bigfoot and become a local media sensation, bringing tourism dollars to the struggling small town.

It is an offbeat movie, and I had my doubts about Shannon being able to convincingly play a nice and decent person, given that he has a crazy intensity in nearly all of his roles. But he dialed back the crazy to play a mild-mannered and likable guy who just wanted to make the townspeople happy, and he holds off on revealing the truth because he likes that “Bigfoot” is bringing everyone together in a fun community spirit.

The film has a stellar cast for a small holiday film: Shannon, Judy Greer, Ron Perlman, Thomas Lennon, Christina Hendricks, and Ian McShane. The movie is nice to watch for its funny story and talented cast.

My Favorite Films of 2017

Logan - (directed by James Mangold) A mediation of a hard life long-lived, and the wear and tear of being a superhero and saving the world over and over again. It is a powerful Western that was stunning to watch, and it felt as if the audience had lived this journey with Logan.

Professor Marston and the Wonder Women - (directed by Angela Robinson) A sexy, funny, and emotionally rich film about an unconventional poly relationship between three people, and the inspiration that led to the creation of Wonder Woman. I was very touched by this film, and believe it is one of the underrated gems of the year.

The Big Sick - (directed by Michael Showalter) While I didn’t like how this film portrayed Pakistani women in a very old fashioned “foreign” way compared to the liberal white girl lead, I still really enjoyed this film for its humor and its character development of Kumail and Emily’s complex relationship and shared chemistry, and their families as they struggled with sudden life changes and shifting views of their adult children. Holly Hunter was fantastic as a blunt mother determined to save her daughter’s life from a deadly illness, and Ray Romano showed more growth in drama as a caring and sympathetic father.

Spider-Man: Homecoming - (directed by Jon Watts) This movie was such a bright joy to watch. I loved how they portrayed Queens as a multicultural neighborhood of regular people, and it felt very warm. Michael Keaton was great as a villain, and incredibly chilling in one particular scene. I loved how Tom Holland portrayed this boyish excitement at being Spider-Man, he reminded me of a young Michael J. Fox. Along with an adorably hippie Marisa Tomei in granny glasses as Aunt May, it was just a wonderful film.

Good Time - (directed by Ben and Josh Safdie) A crazy night adventure of a film that felt like a scuzzy 80’s low-budget movie. I loved how bonkers it was, and its portrayal of a seedy underworld of Queens at night. It was just a really wild movie to watch.

Blade Runner 2049 - (directed by Denis Villeneuve) A stunning and gorgeous film that carried on the story as if there hadn’t been a 35-year old gap between films. I found the film fascinating and very engrossing in its mediations on humanity of “real” humans and androids. I loved how much the visuals brought so much atmosphere to the film, whether it was an expansive dry desert or a rainy dark city. It truly felt like a magnificent cinematic experience to watch this film.

Maudie - (directed by Aisling Walsh) This is a tough movie to recommend because it portrays domestic violence in a time where it wasn’t questioned, but I liked that the film was in part a portrayal of a marriage that came out of convenience and slowly grew into love. That unfortunately was a lot of women’s realities, when they had to marry for economic stability. Sally Hawkins was fantastic in this film, portraying Maudie with a sense of dignity and strength, and a determination to let her artistry shine through and not be held back by any limitations in life.

Paris Can Wait - (directed by Eleanor Coppola) This isn’t a great movie, but I enjoyed watching the charming and delightful Diane Lane traipse across France while drinking wine and eating cheese, so this was a lovely movie for me to watch.

I know there are tons of other movies that got great reviews and are on best-of lists, but I didn’t see them. I liked It, Wonder Woman, Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2, Girls Trip, Mudbound, Wind River, OkjaIngrid Goes West, and Three Billboards Across Missouri. So my list isn’t going to be as big as a professional film critic’s is, but I can’t afford to see tons of movies in theaters, so I likely missed a lot. So these were my favorites, though I may like more as I see them later on.

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.