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Beautiful, romantic and devastating
I put off watching this for a long time because the hype was so extreme, and my hopes were so high, but what a thoroughly beautiful and unique film this was.
Director Barry Jenkins delivers up a very stylish, showy, tenderly delivered character piece about a man at three formative points in his life: as a young boy going by the nickname Little, as a fragile teenager going by his birth name, Chiron, and as a tough adult, going by the nickname Black.
Chiron grows up in a tough Miami neighbourhood getting continually beat up for being soft, though he slowly becomes aware of the fact that this is because he's gay. Each moment of the film explores him as he reaches a turning point and as he must choose who he is and who he will become. To give more details would be to spoil a movie that is beautifully structured and acted, and where the filmmakers trust the audience enough to pay attention to important bits of information that are dropped casually into conversations or in the background.
So the structure and the script is phenomenal. The cinematography is phenomenal (just so tenderly shot, such beautiful camera-work that is attention pulling but not overly showy and serves the story well). The actors. Oh my goodness the actors. Mahershala Ali won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor for his work on this movie, but if I had my way the entire lineup would have been made up of the actors from this movie. Each incarnation of Chiron is embodied by a different actor and all three are incredibly strong, embodying different bits of Chiron as he evolves but somehow keeping the core of who he is consistent.
A beautifully romantic movie through and through about characters and people whose lives are usually not filmed with such respect and tenderness.
A cut above
Jackie is a film that is right on trend with the latest convention of abandoning cradle-to-the- grave biopics for intimate slice-of-life ones. In this case the titular Jackie is Jacqueline Kennedy and the slice of her life we are treated to are the days following the assassination of her husband, president John F. Kennedy. A woman smart enough to know that image is everything, Jackie manages to gather her wits about her enough to fight through her grief and put into place the structure that will ensure that her husband and her own legend, will live on.
The thing that immediately elevates this movie is Pablo Larraín's direction which is frankly excellent. He gets a great performance out of Natalie Portman as Jackie, who's surreal version of the real Jackie Kennedy's voice is jarring at first, but becomes less so as the film goes on. The shots he gets are really, unnecessarily beautiful, and by that I mean that a lesser director wouldn't see the drama of the moment or wouldn't use camera-work as inventive, but Larraín always finds a way. His choice for the scorer, Mica Levin, is pitch perfect. It's not the usual staid sort of music but something quite sinister and nauseating, music that unsettles but never takes over.
All that said, while the techs were all a cut above the usual biopic the more the film went on, the less I enjoyed it and that was down to the script. It's not terrible by any means, but it goes back and forth and back and forth between a handful of settings/conversations. It's very circular (Jackie wants to do something for the funeral, she faces mild opposition, then whoever opposes her gives in). After awhile this formula begins to sag. Also ironically the fact that Jackie was so successful at keeping her husband's legend alive is what undercuts any tension in the film. We may see Jackie furrow her brow at the thought of her husband being forgotten and worry that she'll end up penniless but we know none of that happened.
Still, it's a beautiful film. And though it tries to scratch the surface to give us a little of the woman behind the legend what it really does is further her legend still by reminding us how beautiful, how clever, how poised and how perfect she seemed.
Not quite my taste
I really wanted to love Arrival. I'm a fan of so called "smart" sci-fi, stuff that manages to bend out of this world stuff with beauty. Arrival was one of those movies that seemed to tick all the boxes (female led, prestige cast and crew) but I found myself a bit let down.
The movie is about Louise Banks, a university professor of languages who we first meet in the opening frames of the movie as her she takes care of and raises her young daughter, only to lose her when she is still very young. We then see Louise at her job when 12 alien space ships land at an assortment of random locations around the world. Because of some earlier work she did translating for the military, Louise ends up getting assigned a job helping the army translate and talk to the aliens (quickly dubbed heptapods). Louise and her partner Ian end up becoming close to the two heptapods that try to communicate with them, and they struggle to figure out what to say and how to say it before the trigger happy government attacks the aliens and starts a war they might not win.
There's a lot to admire about Arrival. Amy Adams is great here as Louise (sadly snubbed for an Oscar despite the film receiving multiple nominations). The tech work is also very good. This isn't a movie that goes for intensely gorgeous visuals, but there is still eye-candy in the form of the written version of the alien language.
The central story and the "twist" at the centre of it is really great too, and it's only something that will enrich the film in multiple viewings. And yet despite the intimate story there was something about the film that just didn't work for me, primarily the nitty gritty details of the script. Despite the elegant structure and ideas there's some dialogue that's too quippy and on the nose and there's this whole section in the middle that is just five minutes of information dropping voice-over over montage. It's a weirdly lazy technique for a film that sweats the details. There's also a relationship that ends up being central to the ending and the plot that I never quite bought and doesn't feel organic at all.
Your mileage may vary. While I never quite succeeded in feeling that emotional connection that would have elevated the film from good to excellent I can see from the ratings and reviews that others just don't have that problem.
Feels like a TV movie
I knew nothing about Bessie Smith going into this movie. And after watching it I feel like I still know next to nothing. Bessie is the story of legendary '20s and '30s blues singer Bessie Smith. We meet Smith as she is starting out, playing small time nightclubs. She has a great voice and plenty of ambition, but she's going nowhere fast. That is until she spies Ma Rainey (Mo'Nique, stealing all the scenes) and learns to build her act up.
The problem with the film is that it tries to cover too much ground. It covers about 20 years in Bessie's life, from her start working in small clubs, to her success and decline and eventual comeback. The lack of focus makes the film feel abrupt as their are just too many characters and not enough of a through line as people come in and out of Bessie's life.
Queen Latifah does a good job as Smith. But ironically she ends up completely upstaged by Mo'nique even though in real life the reverse is true. Mo'nique has a small role and only appears in about the first quarter of a movie, but she simply owns every inch of the screen when she's on it. She has a beautiful voice, you can tell she's a singer just by the way she speaks, and a commanding swagger. Once she leaves she takes a lot of excitement with her. She leaves the impression that she could have handled a film about Ma Rainey. The rest of the cast is solid. Tika Sumpter looks gorgeous in a mostly nothing role, playing Smith's long time companion. Michael K. Williams manages to make a solid impression as a brash bodyguard turned lover as Smith's husband.
The real star of the show are the costumes. Note perfect, sumptuous and gorgeous they make every scene appealing and are always photographed to perfection. Even while the rest of the movie disappoints the clothing is always there to give something for the eye to enjoy.
Well crafted look at a sociopath
There have been many movies that critique capitalism, the American dream, and the increasing voyeurism in American culture. Nightcrawer ranks among the best of them. Dan Gilroy's work is so stunningly crafted that it's hard to believe this his debut.
The film follows the rise of Louis Bloom (a truly transformed Jake Gyllenhaal). When we meet Bloom he is working as a petty thief, struggling to find a profession in the midst of a recession and unable to find work. He takes his setbacks in stride, constantly on the lookout for opportunity and a chance to move upwards. That moment comes at the site of a car crash. Slowing down his car to watch as two police officers struggle to free a woman as her car quickly goes up in flames, Louis notices some men aggressively filming the rescue operation. After pumping one of the cameramen for information he learns that they are free lance photographers, working to find the bloodiest most gruesome footage and selling it to morning news shows who keep looking for bloodier and bloodier footage to maintain what little viewership they still have. Stealing his way into obtaining a cheap camcorder Louis sets out to get his own slice of this gruesome pie and it isn't long before he begins to climb his way up the ladder, resorting to increasingly illegal and sketchy tactics to insure that he gets the perfect shot and the highest cheques.
Literally everything about this film is flawlessly made. The script is tight, the cinematography, which captures L.A. at night, is dark and beautiful. Jake Gyllenhaal is the standout. There's just something slightly off and creepy about Louis's physicality but it never descends into parody or caricature. The supporting cast is fantastic as well. Rene Russo is flawless as a cut throat news producer with little ethics. Riz Ahmed is great as Rick, Louis's intern/assistant who swallows his fears about what he's doing for the promise of cash.
An auspicious debut by Gilroy, I can't wait to see what he does next.
The Edge of Seventeen (2016)
Perfectly sweet teen comedy
It's rare for teen comedies to get made nowadays but it's even rarer for them to be this good. Writer/director Kelly Fremon Craig absolutely nails her debut movie and it's a true joy to watch.
The film is about Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) who, as the film implies, is seventeen. Nadine tends to run her mouth off and is anxious and unpopular. When she was thirteen her father, the parent she was closest to, dies abruptly in front of her, leaving the family in disarray. Even four years later, the family is still struggling to hold themselves together. That all changes when Nadine's best (only) friend Krista falls for her older, perfect, brother Darian. Feeling like she's on the verge of losing the only person who really cares for her Nadine issues an ultimatum to Krista and when Krista fails to choose between Nadine or her brother, Nadine makes the decision for her and abruptly cuts off contact between the two of them forcing her to reach out and make new connections.
This is just a great movie all the way through. Great cast (one quibble is that Hailee Steinfeld never feels as gawky or as awkward as Nadine is alleged to be, she's like Hollywood plain, i.e. a brunette). Also despite the fact that this is "just" a teen movie there are so many beautifully framed shots and Craig never plays it safe with making the movie feel good. A tight, clever script, great cinematography, colours, costumes, everything.
Ve'Lakhta Lehe Isha (2004)
I completely fell in love with Elkabetz's final film Gett: The Trial of Viviane Amsalem. It's such a complete film I didn't realize until much later that it was the final piece in a trilogy, the first being To Take a Wife.
To Take a Wife works much the same way. You don't need to know that it is part of a trilogy, it works very well on its own. Ronit Elkabetz plays Viviane Amsalem. When we meet her she is completely silent, and remains so for a good portion of the running time. Men around her beg and plead with her. It's because Vivane wants a divorce from her husband, and her ultra religious family are appalled and want her to give her husband a chance. The scene ends with Viviane relenting, but the rest of the movie is preoccupied with showing just how bad the Amsalem's marriage is. In Gett, Viviane talked about the torture of their marriage, but it was never seen. In To Take a Wife, we learn just how bad things can get between two people who are completely ill suited to one another.
This is the debut film for Elkabetz and her brother and co-director. Unlike Gett this doesn't rise to the level of full masterpiece but it's an excellent showcase for Ronit nevertheless and her portrayal of Viviane is heartbreaking and feels real and lived-in.
White Girl (2016)
Who knew sex and drugs could be this boring
During the publicity blitz for this movie director and writer Elizabeth Wood made a big deal about how this was based on her real life experiences, how unshocking it was (while simultaneously playing up that their were tons of sex scenes and nudity to play up the shock factor) and how unfair it was that white women like herself were able to dabble in drugs for fun in college, while their Latino and black peers were treated like criminals for far lesser offences. Now all these things led me to expect a much different movie, but watching White Girl I was almost bored by how tame and basic it was and how little it had to say beyond that one message.
Morgan Saylor plays Wood's alter ego Leah. Moving into a cheap apartment in a bad (i.e. predominately Latino) neighbourhood with her friend Katie, Leah is immediately attracted to some young Latino men she sees hanging around her street corner. One night, bored and out of weed she introduces herself to them. When they refuse to sell to her she later meets one of them, named Blue, and invites him up to her apartment. They quickly fall in love and Leah helps him upsell his cocaine at exorbitant prices to her wealthy white friends. Of course this all predictably goes bad and Leah lands in a dangerous situation where she feels compelled to save Blue, who has landed in prison.
The strange thing is how boring and formulaic this all feels. I watched a scene with Morgan Saylor bouncing around in a rave with her top off and all I wondered was when the movie would be over. We watch Leah make manic decision after ridiculous decision always protected by the fact that she is young, middle class and white. But it's hard to feel for a character when she's her own worst enemy and you can see her mistakes coming a million miles away. Another thing is, if Wood was so hell bent on showing how white people have the privilege of getting away with things that their black and brown peers can't telling the story from the perspective of the white girlfriend was a huge mistake.
It's too bad, I really had high hopes for this, but it fell short. A more interesting take on millennial hedonism and race and class in America is Spring Breakers which is over the top and ridiculous in a way that packs more punch than White Girl.
A life in fragments
I had heard so many wonderful things about Suzanne and so I went into it with great expectations only to have them dashed.
Suzanne is less of a movie than a series of vignettes. I don't have a problem with unstructured or loosely structured movies, but with Suzanne the movie covers such a broad amount of time (over 20 years) and is so short (90 or so minutes) that it feels jolting to watch as children bloom into adults abruptly with no transitions between scenes.
Loosely, the film follows the Merevsky family which consists of a father and two daughters after their mother dies. The family is working class, and the father works as a truck driver with long absences, but they are close knit. Suzanne is the eldest and she falls pregnant with a son that she raises as a single mother with her family. Sometime later she falls in love with a low-level drug dealer and things go south for the two of them as they can't keep away from one another, nor can they find a more lucrative means of employment.
The acting is very good and director Quillévéré has a beautiful eye for making the movie feel cinematic despite the very basic subject matter, but again, the plot is so scattered and he vignettes go by so quickly it's hard to care.
A missed opportunity, especially with so much talent behind and in front of the camera.
Mistress America (2015)
A screwball friendship comedy
If a theme seems to be emerging out of Greta Gerwig and Noah Baumbach's collaborations it's that women's friendships are complex, loving and real. Their first collaboration together, Frances Ha, left me cold, but I was completely and utterly charmed by their second, Mistress America.
Lola Kirke plays Tracy, an undergrad who is finding it difficult to fit in at university where everyone always seems one step ahead of her. Desperately alone she hesitantly contacts her soon to be step-sister, Brooke, whom she's never met before on her mother's suggestion. Almost immediately she falls for Brooke. Not in a romantic way, but to her Brooke seems the perfect embodiment of everything she wants to be. Wild, passionate, daring, exciting, warm and welcoming. Tracy spends her days being dazzled by Brooke and starts to write a short story about her that she calls Mistress America. Of course Brooke isn't the perfect person she imagines and as the movie goes on the limits of their friendship are uncomfortably tested.
I do not particularly like Gerwig as an actress, but she works best here because she's more of a secondary character. Brooke is seen mostly through Tracy's loving eyes but we can see that she's slightly ridiculous and not all she's cracked up to be. Lola Kirke is fantastic as Tracy. The script is slightly uneven but everyone offers just enough crackling energy to make it really work.
A delight of a film.