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Friday, January 19, 2018

Thoughts on Sunshine Cleaning

One of my favorite films is Sunshine Cleaning, a 2008 indie film starring Amy Adams and Emily Blunt, written by Megan Holley and directed by Christine Jeffs. It has this mix of being funny and grim that really appeals to me, and has oddly stuck with me.

The film is about two sisters, Rose (Adams) and Norah (Blunt) who don’t have real career focuses in life, and fall into an unusual career of running a crime scene cleanup company in New Mexico, and find that they are naturally passionate about it. The work also brings them together in a closer bond, developing a deeper respect for one another, and forging a better future for their whole family.

The sisters grew up with a widowed dad (Alan Arkin) after their mother died by suicide, and had a hardscrabble life of just barely getting by. Arkin’s character feels like his character from Slums of Beverly Hills, a single father raising a family on the brink of poverty who is an eternal optimist and always has hustles to keep the family afloat and looking on the bright side.

Rose is a single mom who cleans houses and motels for a living, and talks more about getting her real estate license than actually going through with it. She is also engaging in an affair with her former high school boyfriend Mack, now a married cop with kids (Steve Zahn). She is so in need of intimacy and to feel attractive that she engages in this unhealthy affair, feeling as if they have a special connection for being high school sweethearts, despite that he started a life with someone else.

It is a testament to Steve Zahn’s likability that he can play a man cheating on his wife with his old girlfriend and still come off as a good guy. He helps Rose start her career in crime scene cleanup, giving her tips on places to clean, so that she can make more money to support her son and have her own independent business.

A poignant moment in the film is when Rose lies to Norah about going to real estate classes, when she is really going to see Mack, and Norah cuts through the lie with “Well, Heather’s pregnant again.” Rose’s face is clearly heartbroken while trying to remain calm and neutral, knowing that Mack will never leave his wife but is her only source of intimacy, not wanting to let go of it or be rejected.

Norah is a slacker in a series of short-term jobs, and grows to appreciate being valued in the cleanup business with her sister, seeing it as a service to help people dealing with tragedy. She also feels connected with the deceased people that they are cleaning up after, learning about their lives through their personal belongings and emphasizing with their pain and suffering.

She also forms a friendship with an unsuspecting woman (Mary Lynn Rajskub) who was the daughter of a deceased alcoholic hoarder whose home Norah cleaned, in order to connect over having lost their mothers tragically, and to feel a meaningful purpose in her life. Blunt is great at playing a character who is at both darkly funny on the outside yet, inside, struggling with grief over the loss of her mother.

Clifton Collins, Jr. as Winston, is one of my favorite characters in the film, as a kind-hearted one-armed ponytailed man who runs a hardware store where the sisters get their supplies. He is just so chill and down to earth, and is this likable and warm presence in the film.

The sisters begin as rough newbies, trying to clean blood off of the walls with spray cleaner bottles, putting contaminated sheets in the washing machine, and dragging a mattress formerly occupied by a deceased person to an average dumpster, being completely unaware of the safety and health hazards that they are committing. But it is rewarding to watch them educate themselves, with Rose taking classes in proper cleaning technique and the two of them purchasing a van for their equipment.

It is great to watch a movie about sisters taking more control of their lives and creating a more positive future for themselves and their loved ones.

Thoughts on Goon: Last of the Enforcers

Goon: Last of the Enforcers is a freakin’ awesome movie. The original is a dirty and hilarious sports comedy where Seann William Scott plays this sweet but dopey hockey enforcer on a rag tag Canadian team. I adored the first movie, and the sequel carries on the story perfectly. Scott’s character Doug gets the shit beaten out of him by a rival enforcer (Wyatt Russell), who is pretty much a psycho Thor on the ice, ending his career. And he has to learn how to balance his love of his team, his desire to come back, and being a supportive partner to his pregnant wife (Alison Pill).

This is my favorite role of Scott’s, next to Country Mac as his guest role in It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. Despite his typecasting as a perverted smug douchebag, he comes off as a sweet and nice guy in interviews, and playing Doug gives him way more heart and kindness than those earlier roles did. He just plays this dim but sweet guy who isn’t inherently violent, but just happens to be really good at kicking ass on the ice, and just loves the warm brotherhood of his international teammates, whose crude humor in their Russian and French-Canadian accents is hysterical.

I cracked up hard during a scene where Russell’s character Cain is supposed to deliver a motivational speech as team captain, but instead just berates everyone with constant swearing and abusive insults. It was like the antithesis of Kurt Russell’s inspirational speeches from Miracle, and hilarious to see his son deliver that scene.

I don’t know anything about hockey, but I love how this movie captures the insanity and love of the game. The first film was a huge hit in Canada, and this film definitely has close ties to Canada and real hockey, between it being directed by the French-Canadian Jay Baruchel, and featuring Russell and Elisha Cuthbert, both who have real-life experience with the sport (Russell was a serious player; Cuthbert dated hockey players), and really feeling like a hometown hero kind of movie.

The sequel really progressed the story forward, it wasn’t redundant, and it felt like there was more maturity and growth with the characters, especially with Doug, Pill’s character (who was adjusting from being a beer-loving hockey groupie to being the pregnant wife of an injured player), and Liev Schreiber’s character, a formerly violent enforcer worn down by age, but could still have some fight left in him. I highly recommend this movie if you like sports movies or dirty, crude humor.

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.