Skip to content

La La Land (2016); Don’t Buy the Hype

December 19, 2016

lalalandposterLa La Land has received an ongoing litany of praise in the past few months–beginning well before its official widespread release date. Critics have heralded it as “dazzling” and “unforgettable” with many making it a shoe-in for awards season. Multiple critics have vomited a slew of praiseworthy sentences even claiming it “the best picture of the year”. I beg to differ. La La Land is a gem that’s for sure, but it’s not a polished diamond in the rough. Instead it’s more a rose quartz, not rare to find and not the greatest gem you’ll stumble on, but it’s pretty enough to keep on your mantel and show off to your friends. Damien Chazelle’s musical romance isn’t bringing back the musical as so many reviewers will have you think, because to say that would be to assume that’s it’s a musical to be considered on par with the greats from the era it so proudly homages. La La Land instead is just helping keep us all talking about musicals so maybe more can continue to emerge.

I thoroughly enjoyed La La Land, but on the car ride back home after I started to pour over the details and break down what I liked and disliked about it, only then did I have that a-ha moment. I realized La La Land isn’t a great story, nor an exceptional musical for that matter. This is a film that owes the praise and accolades it’s receiving to cinematographer Linus Sandgren for creating such a beautifully sensational spectacle that could make even the most hardened critic ignore the gaping holes in the story that prevents this film from being a top notch banner of what a musical can and should be.

Let’s start with the facts: La La Land is not a great musical. It’s good at best but that’s mostly thanks to the score that wafts through the background. There’s maybe two songs that are actually memorable but that’s the music itself and not the wooden and shallow dance numbers. The spectacle around the songs–the colors, the costume design, the background set– is what makes them so enchanting and entertaining. If you’ve watched only handful of musicals, chances are you have seen better examples of this spectacular genre. La La Land simply doesn’t soar as a musical leaving director/writer Damien Chazelle to let his script act as the pulse of the film. At first glance it seems works, but then I began to pull at the other pieces of the thread causing the whole thing to unravel in a 20 minute car ride home mulling over the story with myself.

La La Land (2016) Sebastian (Ryan Gosling) and Mia (Emma Stone)

Aside from this, a major problem with La La Land is Ryan Gosling, and y’all I hate writing a sentence with that phrase. Gosling is my modern day Paul Newman, an actor whose skill and personal qualities cements my love for an entire lifetime. I have been in a long-term serious love affair with Gosling since I was about 9 years old. From “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” and “Breaker High” to The Believer and Dead Man’s Bones, I have been every step of the way with Gosling’s career. So that’s why it’s painful to admit, and even shocking to see, how mediocre he is La La Land. He dances with all lower body leaving his torso and arms lame and weak taking away from his overall pizzazz in dance numbers. The music isn’t written to accommodate his vocal talents resulting in subpar, and sometimes just bad, singing. While his character is somewhat likable, I didn’t care for him and it seems the script didn’t either. As someone who has followed Gosling since both of our adolescent years, I know he’s capable of wowing me in all of these areas, so why in La La Land didn’t he?

Then it hit me; because his character is developed to be a schmuck who makes no sense when you step back and examine him. This is a guy with a firm chip on his shoulders who meets Mia twice before beginning their relationship and each time he could care less. They do a literal song and dance about how he’s just not that into her. He denies the initial spark between them leaving her with no indication that he cares to pursue any type of relationship with her. And yet, like a light bulb going off when it’s convenient for the plot line, he shows up to her job adamant on spending a day with her. The formation of their relationship is equivalent to a trite pre-teen love affair. The span of time they spend together doesn’t lend itself to fully understanding the problems that arise between them. We see montage of their blossoming relationship but not the details needed to truly care (though kudos to the elements of cinema that make you cry on cue in spite of this). Instead of communicating with each other about their relationship, Mia and Sebastian both make assumptions about the other leading to a very confusing climax in the second act of the film.

la-la-land-ryan-gosling-emma-stone

These character just aren’t fleshed out enough to feel real. It’s almost a one-sided game here in which Mia wins getting the bulk of the attention and development while Sebastian, who is so undersold I didn’t even know his name coming out of the movie, plays out like a one note caricature of a tortured artist. These characters make the decisions they make because a script pushes them to, not because of the natural progression of human growth and change. Emma Stone delivers a great performance but like her character it’s all a facade. Stone has improved in talent over the years (and she’s the unmitigated star here), but has unfortunately lost the natural charm she once held in films like Easy A. Plus, a romantic chemistry is void between Stone and Gosling. They seem like old pals rather than passionate lovers.

So if that’s the case, why did I like this film so much? Because of the technical side, namely Chazelle’s always stunning movement while filming and Sandgren’s illustrious, mesmerizing use of color and framing of scenes along with the production design that is a lighthearted nostalgic treat for all the classic Hollywood film lovers. There’s odes to Singin’ in the Rain, Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Humphrey Bogart, Louise Brooks, James Dean and Busby Berkeley’s stunning work (unfortunately La La Land doesn’t dive too much into good old Busby’s work during a pool scene, pun intended). There are excuses to provide cameos of almost every major star of the past so if you’re passionate about classic Hollywood then it’s exciting to watch!

In spite of the issues that prevent La La Land from being as immaculate as most critics have attempted to make it out to be, this is still a must see film. Television alone has kept keep the musical alive in the traditional sense in part due to NBC’s live musical resurgences, and also moving musicals into the future thanks to the CW’s hilarious “Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.” La La Land is somewhere between the two. Not wholly traditional, not necessarily foreword thinking but it is clever in its attempt and it’s a hell of ride. Just don’t think of it too much.

SEE IT. If you feel it’s a “best picture” type film, then let’s chat about it in the comments.

Sounder (1972); And Ramblings on Writer’s Block and Other Films in Dark Times

December 14, 2016

I’m forcing myself to write and post this because I haven’t in a while. Once again I’ve hit a wall, that inevitable stopping point that happens every so often where writing slips down the priority ladder all the while clawing at my heels. “I don’t have time”, “I’m too busy”, “my brain is fried”, “I don’t wanna”: there are always excuses rumbling around in my head that prevents me from engaging with my thoughts during these blocked days. I’ve rarely even mediated lately. Not that I was a poster child for it or anything, but I just haven’t allowed myself to simply create and be. I’ll manage to write a few sentences here and there, and ideas bubble to the surface frequently. But I don’t give in. I haven’t really figured out why I don’t give in. Maybe its all the reasons above. Despite it all, the block never stops my clamoring need to feel whole by writing and getting whatever it is out of me.

I find that in these moments of writer’s block, I make time for everything else but myself. Life has sped by me faster that I can feel the wind graze my skin. I’ve been adjusting to a new job at my favorite television station, Turner Classic Movies while staring at screens all day. I’ve been panicking about the state of the planet and humanity under a new presidency. I have been working on plans to fix it the issues at hand, as if I’m equipped enough to do so. I’ve been watching more movies than I can count, which makes me even more anxious that I’m not writing about them. But then I wonder, should I? Should I write just because I saw films x, y, and z? Or should I save my posts for something powerful?

portraitofjason

Portrait of Jason (1967)

Nevertheless, so many powerful films have crossed my radar while working at TCM. Of the dozens I’ve watched in the past few weeks, a few immediately spring to mind: Solyent Green (1973), Coal Miner’s Daughter (1980), Crossfire (1947), Portrait of Jason (1967) to name a few. I particularly loved Gerald Mayer’s Dial 1119 (1950) and its brilliant social commentary on the ways in which American society chooses to criminalize the mentally ill instead of possessing the empathy to learn and work with them. In this film, Marshall Thompson portrays a vengeful mental patient with a chip on his shoulder and delusions in his head. These two elements convince him to find the doctor he blames for putting him away.

The journey doesn’t turn out the way he expects, however, instead leading him to a bar where seven strangers with their own hangups and problems are staying. There his cover is blown resulting in a stand-off in which he holds the bar hostage while the outside world clamors to get a piece of the action. The cops only want to resolve it their way. The doctor his way. The bystanders theirs. And all the while these seven people worry for their lives as the  gunman becomes more and more unhinged.

dial_1119c

Dial 1119 (1950)

Another powerful gem that I re-watched was Sounder. There’s something about the 1970s that allowed filmmakers to do a magnificent job at capturing reality through film. A night or two before Sounder, I watched History channel’s reboot of “Roots” and all I could do was roll my eyes at a production value high enough to include the likes of Derek Luke and Forest Whitaker, but still low enough to ruin itself with historical inaccuracies and mediocre technicalities. “Roots” felt like a project that was trying way too hard, like someone who realizes they have an important piece of history in their hands but botch it by trying to explain too much of the particulars. African accents frequently drop into American ones. Scenes go on far too long into ad nauseam for what it’s trying to articulate. Forest Whitaker’s intense monologues lack the genuine pathos needed to truly be engaging, although he delivers with great energy. Everything is bright, well lit, acted, fake.

That’s what sets it apart from the 1970s version and the reason for my intense craving to rewatch it while completely forgetting to watch episode two until editing this piece. There was a grit and grime that attached itself to films from the 70’s. A realism that plastered itself right on to the celluloid. Other decades don’t possess this life force. Even the poorest quality films from the 40s or 50’s don’t hold that grungy, dank look that truly makes you feel you’re watching these people in real environments live their lives the way the 1970s did.

sounder2

Sounder (1972)

That’s what Sounder has—that’s why it shook me to my core. I first watched it years ago in elementary school after reading the novel. Time, and my failing memory, allowed the details to slip away from me all too easily after years of never truly thinking of it again. After watching it at my desk in the middle of working, I fell completely in awe. Sounder is an effective film because so much of its story is rooted in realism. Cecily Tyson doesn’t have to deliver a powerful monologue as the music swells for you to feel what’s present. The camera doesn’t have to spend long beats staring at the saddened look on the Morgan children’s faces when their father is hauled off to prison. We don’t have to wait in fields searching for Sounder when he goes missing to young David Lee’s dismay. These things aren’t contrived, instead they fall into place at a natural progression that happens in brief spurts then continues on with its story, because life goes on. 

David Lee breaks your heart not because he’s a poor black boy. This family’s tragedy isn’t just because they’re poor. The sadness felt by watching their plight emerges because life goes on. While father Nathan Lee is in prison, the Morgans must continue despite his absence. They miss him, they long for him but there’s no time to grieve. They don’t have the privilege to do that. They realize their loss but must continue on for survival. David Lee’s youth is tainted by his need to provide for his family. He doesn’t bemoan it. He just does what needs to be done, just as father did when he stole ham from a house to feed his family after a night hunt to catch a raccoon for food fails. 

sound2

Sounder (1972)

Sounder doesn’t possess over generalizations of society but focuses on the general emotional reactions people. It doesn’t look to demonize white people for how they treat this family during the time period. It address issues with compliance and how humans are predisposed to do what they are told, some without ever questioning why or what they truly believe themselves. The sheriff can’t give David Lee the name of his father’s prison camp because the law tells him he can’t. Even when the sheriff’s kindly white friend and neighbor attempts to get the information from him, he denies her. He’s furious with her and even threatens her reputation as well as their friendship when he catches her snooping for the information. He reminds her that he does what he’s told saying, “When [the Judge] calls me, I jump!” Even the guard at the jail shows his impetuous compliance when he  pokes holes in a freshly baked chocolate cake to assure there’s no files or hatchet in it. Davids face of disappointment is all we need in that scene.

Rebecca (Tyson) laments to her husband Nathan Lee (a highly underrated and always incredible Paul Winfield) one night; what’s the point of them working when it all just goes back to the land owner leaving them hungry and starting from scratch. As she speaks, she walks around their shack allowing the flow of her dress to revel the tears and rips throughout it. The family wears scarps for clothing with the youngest rarely wearing shirts. Their clothing is for necessity only not luxury. The cinematography and muck present in 1970’s 35mm gives this film a near documentary feel.

sounder-family

Sounder (1972)

But Sounder isn’t one of those films where it has to beat you over the head to drive its message home. In its Depression-era time frame we don’t see much of the “upscale” high-class life. We see country living for everyone featured in the film, even if some of their homes are nicer than others. Sounder is a portrait of a family in a time when life was rough. But their love for one another is apparent and shown in their support for each others goals and achievements. The demand for equality and justice for black lives is ever present by simply watching this family be during harsh times.

Sounder is heartbreaking because its shitty to watch good people struggle. To be reminded of the timeless truth that no matter how hard you work, shit happens. But despite that shit, it takes perseverance and surrendering to some extent before things can open up and change. Maybe that’s been my lesson during this writer’s block as my mind grows more and more preoccupied with the future state of my country and this world. Shit happens and we can’t just get distracted complaining about it or looking for someone else to guide us through it. We have to treat life like every generation has before us by working hard to fix what we can and accept what we can’t. Regardless, life goes on so we must keep living.

The Handmaiden (2016); Sex and The Big Screen at its Best

December 6, 2016

handmaiden_poster_2764x4096_1200_1778_81_sI almost don’t want to write a review about The Handmaiden. I went into this film knowing absolutely nothing about it except that its directed by South Korean visionary Chan-wook Park. Park first came onto my radar back in the gestation of my cinephiliac days after I stumbled upon Oldboy. Young and ripe in my cinema fandom, Oldboy completely changed my perspective of what film could do and was capable of. Oldboy is a masterpiece that astounded me to the point of possessing a permanent residence among my top favorite films of all time. When a friend mentioned she was seeing The Handmaiden for her birthday and that Park was attached, I asked no questions—just showed up.

What I watched in a theater of about 13 people was unlike anything I had ever seen before and perhaps the most intimate movie going experience of my life. For that reason, I want people to stumble into this film ignorant of what it is. I want anyone who sees this to be completely unaware of its plot, its content, it’s twists and turns, and the sensations that will arise from it. I want this film to utterly blindside and shock you, and regardless it will. I want The Handmaiden to make you shuffle in your seat, cross your legs in prurience, and fan yourself as emotions arise and your body reacts to the images that flow across the screen. To watch this movie and take note of your responses to it is what the cinematic experience is all about.

So because of this, I will not delve into the plot much except to mention that it’s set in the early 20th century with Japan and Korea as its backdrop. The story breathes in a time of history that I knew nothing about: Korea under the rule of Japan from the early 1900s until the end of WWII. Park uses this setting to allow both cultures to revel in their history while complementing and critiquing aspects of both. Prepare yourself. Although The Handmaiden moves in a placid flow, it simultaneously plows through elements of the story.

handmaiden_-_h_2016-large_transiwa83j0hzdejtjmphbxpchsfjkrlhalara5cdieerni

English-speaking viewers will likely have a bit of trouble keeping up at first due to both Korean and Japanese being spoken throughout the film. Subtitles are present to guide you along (Japanese in yellow, Korean in white), but if you have a brain like mine that likes to wander attempting to pick up subtleties in inflection and culture, it’ll do you good to know that you need to shut off your mental tangents to fully focus on what is going on.

The plot of this film is grossly captivating and it shifts and turns in ways you wouldn’t expect or imagine. It’s an ode to film noir, more specifically the femme fatale. It’s a feminist herald that combines explicit sexual content in beautiful, and at times ghastly, ways to both sensate and criticize the society in which the film is set. But that’s beside the point. The Handmaiden impresses here mostly because of Park’s visual mastery of the camera complimented by editors Jae-Bum Kim and Sang-beom Kim. Meanwhile, cinematographer, Chung-hoon Chung, proves absolutely magical creating breathtaking visual cues and a trenchant color palette. The Handmaiden is stunning. It’s the type of film that will likely get nominated for an Academy Award for its visual talents, if the Academy has the balls to give credit to such a controversial piece.

Park doesn’t just use his visuals as a pretty centerpiece. He brilliantly directs with levity littering nuggets of hilarious moments on a continued basis throughout. The Handmaiden is a must see film that will challenge your thoughts about cinema and about sex. It’s reminiscent of past films like Blue is the Warmest Color and In the Realm of Senses. But where Blue fails in its depiction of consensual sex between adults by filming in exploitative, harsh ways centered through a male-gaze, and In the Realm of Senses lacks in its ability to bring excitement to its love scenes, The Handmaiden marries art and titillation for an almost completely new framework to center its images through. Sure the film could’ve shaved off some scenes to lessen its 2 hour and 47-minute runtime. And yes the last scene is completely unnecessary and I thought the men of this deserved harsher comeuppance all around. Despite it all, The Handmaiden is a witty and brilliant film that I recommend everyone see. But not with your family. For God’s sake don’t see this with family.

SEE IT. But seriously, don’t bring your mom.  

Ava DuVernay’s 13th (2016); And America’s Prison Problem

November 7, 2016

the13th_27x40_1sheetThroughout our teaching of American history, it seems Americans have been taught to regard the constitutional amendment as if it’s an infallible document perfect in every way. We often fail to contextualize the time period in which the amendments were ratified, just as often as we disregard that those who signed the amendments into laws resided comfortably in upper elite classes far above the average citizen. There is a stubborn resistance against conversations about improving laws in America, reiterating our unwillingness to reexamine anything the forefathers of this country established—despite knowing the damage these laws and rules have on certain parts of our society. Ava DuVernay unpacks how the 13th amendment has done very little to actually free African Americans from slavery due to its wiry, diluted language that only promises to keep enslavement thriving under the guise of punishment for a convicted crime.

13th highlights decisions made and rhetoric used in the presidencies of two of many despicable men who’ve run this country throughout the centuries. Through a glaring lens focusing on how Richard Nixon and Ronald Regan enacted laws that continue to influence unchecked fears and biased racism among the American people. DuVernay lets recorded audio and television clips roll revealing the true intent of these men during their time of power. It’s a truly chilling moment to hear Lee Atwater, consultant and strategist of Regan and George H. W. Bush, explain his strategy for Republicans gaining southern votes: “You start out in 1954 by saying nigger, nigger, nigger. By 1968 you can’t say nigger. That hurts, there’s a backlash, so you say stuff like “forced busing”, “states’ rights” and all that stuff. And you’re getting so abstract now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all of these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. And subconsciously maybe that is part of it.”

screen-800x430

Likewise, 13th’s clever use of focusing on media gives an amplifier to voices often silenced behind bars, like the teenaged Rikers island detainee, Kalif Browder, whose lack of conviction didn’t stop officials from locking him away for three years over a false accusation of stealing a book bag. 13th also revisits memories often spread throughout various documentaries like the wise words Angela Davis during her tenure in prison and immortal words from Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. DuVernay allows her hosts of experts and societal figures to lay out the chilling statistics that explain how and why America has stayed in a place of perpetual injustice and conservative stalemating that has left more people enslaved in prisons today than were enslaved in 1850.

I initially felt apprehensive about watching 13th due to the mediocre ratings it generated across the board from users. I knew Ava DuVernay behind such a product had to be fascinating, but felt reluctant in part because of a 6.8 rating on IMDB and barely average rating on Netflix. I am almost stunned with confusion as to why after finishing the film, although I’m sure race played a large part in it as most ratings for primarily Black films or shows tend to have lower ratings from users.

DuVernay is not the best at welding a documentary as she is with fictional narrative. But her intentions shine through. The usual talking head trope gets spiced up by heavily cropped angles and off-center framing. The camera often picks up a speaker from a side profiled shot then moves around with an almost impatient reaction. Music busts up heavy dialogue with lyrics coming to life on the screen to punctuate the power of the prose delivered in these songs. These seem like great decisions on the surface, and sometimes throughout the film they work. But mostly it comes off clunky and amateurish. Documentaries are one of the few genres that revel in using standard tropes. Nevertheless, DuVernay reminds us that it’s the meat of the story that matters not how it’s presented, and the meat of 13th is pungent, tough and hard to swallow but needed to satiate this country’s ever growing hunger for racial justice.

ava-duvernay-jpg-crop-promo-xlarge2

13th is gut busting and crushing which is why everyone need to see its images and hears its words. To turn away from what is shown in this film or to tune out the stories told is a disservice and complete belittling of those whose broken bodies and bloodied faces are crystallized within these images. This is the film that people who believe racism no longer exists needs to watch. This is a film that needs to be seen by those who question why others get queasy at Donald Trump’s calls to make America “great again.” Lyndon B. Johnson echoed these sentiments telling Americans sitting in their homes to put away “silly differences” and make America whole—a statement that translates to “stop this reckless abandonment of law and go back to being docile and complacent.” Nixon’s rhetoric of law and order mirrors that of Trump’s another frightening realization captured in 13th. Nixon’s hard laced thoughts on drugs and who used them is almost verbatim words that Trump has shouted. So when Nixon’s own adviser admitted the drug lingo was about “black people and the anti-war hippies” you must see why minorities and our allies accuse Trump supporters of being racist.

What this movie can’t do in its 100 minutes is trace the history of Black lives that have been where we are right now and how our paths have been paved in sweat, blood and vital breath to get us out of the bubble we are trapped in. An arresting montage in the film condenses video images of murdered black men over the past few years (Eric Garner, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Philando Castile etc,). The image freezes on a bloodied body before shifting to a piece of blacked out paper. Each black strip is a name, age and method of death. This page is obviously longer than we can see, and it serves as a counter for the countless bodies killed. Currently, the federal government does not keep tabs on the deaths of citizens by police although they calculate the number of people killed by shark attacks or the number of pigs on farms throughout the United States. The online death trackers are the results of independent reporters keeping up with these number as best they can in rudimentary ways. Similarly, in 1893, it took a young Black woman, journalist Ida B. Wells, to print The Red Report, an official document listing the  deaths of Black citizens by lynching across the country.

screen-shot-2016-09-26-at-10-58-12-am

13th creates a need for accountability and a call for regulation on a horribly unjust system that has evolved before our eyes. It juxtaposes images of the past with words of the present to show how little to nothing has truly changed in the scale of justice. It condenses the exhausting numbers and statistics that cement how racial inequality became an ideology ignored by those in power to fix it. We must stop treating our amendments and constitution as if they are infallible. These laws were enacted with the promise of justice for all. But as time has shown, justice is only for some and when are laws are obviously broken, it’s due time we fix them now.

SEE IT. And contribute to the solution, not the problem. 

Moonlight (2016); And the Birth of Black Coming of Age Stories

October 31, 2016

la-1470932350-snap-photo-1471019442

Coming of age stories often possess a visceral effect that can leaves its audiences feeling content and tingly inside. Usually, a few wacky hijinks come into play before a film’s protagonist is able to transcend the odds against them in order to explore first love and find their footing in a sea of awkwardness. Audiences usually get a kick out of coming of age tales because in some ways, we’ve all been there before. First loves and those strange feelings that emerge when you leave childhood but haven’t grown into adulthood yet is universal. What Berry Jenkins does so casually and cleverly with his feature film debut, Moonlight, is take these elements and flip them on its head. Moonlight is a reminder that while we all experience similar realities of being a tween; hating our parents and catching sight of who we are in our middle years, there’s an intersection at which some people’s experiences are far removed from what Hollywood has shown us for decades.

Moonlight’s protagonist is Chiron, and his coming of age is far too real, and achingly heartbreaking. His transition from boyhood into adulthood is taken into his own hands, but the tray that molds him is undoubtedly the environment he is born into. Chiron begins the film as a reserved little boy who often stares into space and would rather run away from a fight than confront it. Because of this, he is often singled out by his peers who sense that something is different about Chiron. Like many youths who come to see the world as black and white when a lack of proper representation and education is bestowed upon them, his peers chose to hate what they don’t understand and often beat the child for his “funny” tendencies. This, coupled with a home life of a mother (Naomie Harris) struggling to stay mentally present through drug addiction, leaves Chiron meek. His defense mechanism causes him to go inward and shut everyone out. One of the few who cracks through this hard exterior is Juan (Mahershala Ali), a local drug dealer who becomes the father figure he never had. Along with Juan’s girlfriend, Teresa (Janelle Monae), Chiron finds brief asylum from the ails of living in the hood.

1663

That is until time passes and life goes on taking some people away from Chiron and keeping others to evolve and become larger obstacles, or escapes, in his life. It is in this era of life that Chiron realizes the truth behind Juan’s words to him in his youth: “At some point you’ve got to decide for yourself who you gonna be. And let nobody make that decision.” Chiron’s life is segmented into three parts— three hats he wears to get by in life. As a youth he’s Little (Alex Hibbert) as a teen— Chiron (Ashton Sanders). In adulthood he becomes Black (Trevante Rhodes). It’s in these modifications of personality and transitions between pivotal life moments that Jenkins’ ability as a writer and visionary truly shines in bold vibrancy.

Jenkins uses dream-based imagery drenched in pinks and blues highlighted in implicit fluorescents to breathe life into Chiron’s growth in Miami, Florida. Water and air act as prime elemental forces that keeps  Chiron satiated in times of provisional emptiness. Chiron seems most stable with his head in ice water, his body in warm water, his hands riding the wave of air while in a car and most peaceful when he feels the breeze from the ocean on his face. Jenkins highlights these moment by wisely embracing minimalist sounds, a beautiful soundtrack and tight closeups throughout the film to show us nearly every nuanced expression and sedated emotion  painted on Chiron’s face.

moonlight

Moonlight is being heralded as a “masterpiece” by many critics.  While I think this film is arguably the best of the year and a culturally significant work of art, and all the other hyperboles critics love to throw out so their quotes gets plaster over movie posters and in commercials, “masterpiece” is term that treads dangerous waters as it sets up expectations that a film is perfect. Moonlight has its shortcomings. In part, its use of overly indulgent dream sequences feels forced, assuming that in dreams we’re able to see ourselves as we are. These moments are rooted too much in reality, marring the surrealistic atmosphere Jenkins attempts to portray. Similarly, I understand that Jenkin’s choice to follow Chiron’s journey through tight intimate close-ups and a camera that rarely stays still is an effect intended to draw the audience into Chiron’s world, but this element adds a constant layer of tension that feels unnecessary and distracting to the overall story.

This isn’t to denote from any greatness that Moonlight possesses, because make no mistake about it, this is a film that stands on its own two feet alongside paramount pictures of our time. Moonlight is significant for showing the coming of age for a homosexual man of color living in the hood—something major studios rarely ever touch despite the large number of men who experience this journey. It’s a testament to how nature effects our being. It’s the heartbreaking reality that shines light into how people grow into the individuals they become after having who they are supposed to be beaten into them by society. A childhood friend telling Chiron in his older age that he’s become someone he’s not. As Chiron’s journey shows, it’s easy to become someone others don’t expect you to be. Not because you’re trying to be something you aren’t, but because societal forces can morph you into who you have to be to survive. Moonlight is a powerful tale that will hopefully give rise to new stories for Black and Brown people from the hood on screen and give minorities of color the freedom to finally express our world from our own eyes.

SEE IT. And  remember all the Duquan’s and Michael Lee’s of the world (The Wire).

Political Parallels: Why You Need to Watch A Face in the Crowd (1957)

October 12, 2016

A Face in the Crowd is one of my favorite films of all time. Andy Griffith plays Lonesome Rhodes, a smooth talking, tell-it-like-it-is country boy whose flamboyant personality sends him soaring into popularity with the help of Marcia Jeffries (Patricia Neal), a gentle radio host who initially sees his potential. Rhodes’ popularity soon grants him political power while his true self begins to emerge creating a megalomaniac that appeals to television viewers across the country. Screenwriter Budd Schulberg crafts a marvelous story that warns audiences against the tantalizing lure of populism, while director Elia Kazan paints a picture completely ahead of its time to drive the film’s point home. Have we learned anything from this 1957 masterpiece? We’ll find out on November 8th. Read my review of this gem, then SEE THIS FILM to understand its greatness and relevance and be sure to vote in the upcoming election.

The Girl on the Train (2016)

October 7, 2016

girl-on-the-train-glamour-19july16-pr-bMemory is faulty. Despite this truth, humanity relies heavily on it to validate our experiences. We place too much power on the memory of ourselves and others as if our brains are a steel trap capable of cementing a detailed moment for life. We put people in prison based on often times fraudulent memories that are easily distorted the moment the we take them in. Simply finding your car in a parking garage is an ordeal for many when you know for a fact where you parked. Science has reminded us time and again that we shouldn’t rely on our memories, and yet as a society we forget this lesson and continuously do so. The Girl on a Train capitalizes on this aspect by toying with the notion of memory in clever ways to explore how an unstable, alcoholic must unwittingly rely on her memory to prove her innocence in the murder of a woman she has become obsessed with.

Emily Blunt wades through heavy water works and one-off stares into space giving an impressively pitiful performance as Rachel, a motherless cuckquean wandering through life in an alcoholic stupor. Rachel is unable to deal with the loss of her family, more so how In Vitro Fertilization didn’t take and how happily her now ex-husband, Tom (Justin Theroux), has settled in with his new wife, Anna (Rebecca Ferguson), and their infant child. Adding insult to injury, the new couple lives in the home that Rachel and Tom once shared making for a mentally jarring train ride twice a day.

Rachel’s life is miserable. She manages to cope through an unhealthy habit of guzzling vodka masked in water bottles, after train martinis and ending her nights with a bottle of wine. This loopy existence only gives her enough mental awareness to make unannounced house calls to her ex and stare out the train window at what once was and what could be in Megan (Haley Bennett), the nanny and neighbor of Anna. Rachel develops a fantastical attachment to Megan and her obnoxiously sexy husband, Scott (Luke Evans). The couple gives Rachel hope for love, that is until she spots Megan locking lips with another man. This sends Rachel into a rage that gets stifled by a black-out, then ends with Megan’s mysterious disappearance.

the-girl-on-the-train-movie-26

The Girl on a Train aims high at psychological thriller status desperate to entice and enthrall its viewers. It misses the mark by wallowing in monotony and poor character development for the sake of psyching viewers out. The Girl on a Train spends the majority of its run-time setting up the final “gotcha” moment instead of truly delving into the connection between the three female leads and their mental hang-ups. The narrative unfolds in broken pieces that coldly bounces between characters and in between time, but surprisingly much of the film feels stagnant never quite getting to its point until the film’s 3rd act.

The meat of the story is thrown to Rachel which benefits Blunt, but leaves scrapes for other characters to gnaw on— although Ferguson gets a chance to exercise her acting chops for a smidgen of the film. Screenplay writer Erin Cressida Wilson adapts her script from Paula Hawkins’ acclaimed novel of the same name. Nevertheless, Wilson presents moviegoers with a cast of unlikable characters whose redemption’s are either never given, (for instance the psychiatrist who for some reason puts his practice and life’s work in jeopardy in order to sleep with a damaged patient or the sad and questionable Scott) or only granted asylum at the end, by which point there are so many loose ends to grasp at that you don’t care about the individuals anymore.

3110

It was hard to sympathize with the people we follow based on the fragmented bits of them we see through director Tate Taylor’s vision. They are either annoying, rude, disrespectful or just plain unlikable. The mysterious mood needed to make The Girl on a Train thrilling and captivating is lost in part because of the oddly bright high-key lighting and Danny Elfman’s upbeat, melodramatic score. Admittedly so, the screenplay’s ability to test the moral compass of characters is intriguing as it slightly explores the complexities of human nature.

I admire The Girl on a Train for its heavy emphasis on emotional and mental abuse experienced by women at the hands of people who are manipulative and more socially powerful that they are. The Girl on a Train is more about reconciling social gas-lighting and how quickly we vilify members of society who have fallen by the wayside due to substance abuse. How an individual copes with pain through alcohol and sex are themes slightly touched upon but not fully unpacked to my disappointment. Instead, its time is wasted on giving Blunt room to weep and sulk so that we can all cheer when she regains strength. For some this is effective, for others it’s grossly expected and largely disappointing.

AVOID IT. I’m sure the book is much better as diving into this topic and story.

Last Year in Marienbad: Film as Art; And Musings on the Tragic Beauty of Traveling

September 23, 2016

img_3572

It feels good to be back on American soil after a much needed, extended vacation– although the comfort of being back in the states is comparable to returning to a cult. For the first time in my life I traveled across the Atlantic Ocean on a trip that took me through two states and around four countries. I’ve had dreams of visiting Paris since childhood thanks to an early obsession with Madeline and an exposure to the French language. These dreams of visiting France got superseded by even larger ideas to check out Berlin after realizing the only tickets available to see Radiohead on their current tour was at Lollapalooza. “Why stop there?” my rampant imagination contemplated. “You’ll be close to Prague and even Austria…why not go to Vienna?” Instead of denying my big dreams, I said yes to them and I am eternally grateful that I did.

img_2787

Despite living in sheer beauty for three weeks of bliss exploring lands I never thought I’d actually see, I encountered decay and heavy-handed sorrow on my travels. Just like in America, Europe is ripe with social change and conflict. Their struggles aren’t in any images I’ve seen on television the way America’s struggle to admit its white supremacy has been. The challenges endured by the other side of the world is much quieter, albeit highly visual all over the streets of the inner cities.

Families of Syrian and African refugees lined the streets of Paris. The Champs-Élysées houses Syrian women with heads bowed begging for change. Families with toddler children run around barefoot on the streets camped out in metro stations and in front of restaurants begging for help. An entire park off the picturesque Seine river houses hundreds of tents where African refugees live washing their clothes in fountains of the park. All are waiting for the opportunity to make it to England where work and security is. Graffiti lines the walls of buildings in Berlin and Vienna vocalizing opinions on these social issues showing a strong mentality of socialist mindsets battling a nationalist rhetoric that shouts loudly across the media.

img_3747

This vacation turned out to be a realization of the cataclysmic state this world is undergoing, an issue that is not isolated in America as I so ignorantly attributed in the past. The waging conflicts taking place in America is happening on a macro level on nearly every major continent on the planet. Every stretch of my trip exposed me to more truths and realities I didn’t know existed. In some respects it felt comforting having critical conversations with liberal-minded Parisians as well as Malaysians and Turkish visitors in a hostel of Prague that reiterated the insanity of clashes happening all over the world. But each time after these conversations fueled by passion for humanity and a disregard for injustice ended we were left with the same question; “well what do we do now?” That reassurance that we aren’t alone only became more despondent at the realization that we are all suffering together, and perhaps the only remedy is to let the tides crash and work in our communities to soften the blow for those who can’t help themselves.

Courtesy of The Telegraph

Courtesy of The Telegraph

Nevertheless, these musings weren’t the whole of my trip, although I definitely welcomed them to take up much of my thought. I reveled in the wild nightlife of Berlin, the prismatic beauty of Prague, and the sheer opulence of Vienna. I loved every moment of my visit even when I was exhausted, drained, and ready to get back to the messed up home I know and love. It’s only natural that the highlights of each city were the cinematic glorification I received from each. I spent a night drinking beer and swapping movie recommendations with a German pal at Filmkunstbar Fitzcarraldo. The beers were cheap, the dance floor packed and moving, and the walls are lined with old posters and DVDs available to rent. I got to walk the streets of Paris imagining I was Jean Seberg in Breathless. A night out in Vienna introduced me to Top Kino, a comfy bar that houses an art-house theater in the back. But, it was in Prague that I marveled in delight at one of the most unique film exhibits I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience.

Tucked away in the back of the Galerie Rudolfinum is the fall exhibit, Last Year at Marienbad: Film as Art Exhibit curated by Dr. Christoph Grunenberg. In an exquisite, carefully constructed exhibition that mixes mediums and themes, Grunenberg allows Last Year in Marienbad to be the pulse of a larger body of work that explores techniques and influences based around the film itself. The exhibition cleverly plays on the form and structure within the film giving credence to the halls of various artworks related to Alain Resnais beautifully abstract film. A set of five televisions flatly line a dark wall; each screen frozen on moments of the film until it’s their time in the queue to come alive. Each screen suspires in cross cutting action coming to life for a minute or two before turning a new page where one screen begins and the others end for spectators to view. The images on the screens drip with sensual intrigue balancing sharp angles with pointed objects and rounded edges as the camera moves in placid formation. Thick books are attached to each seat for spectators to learn the history of Last Year in Marienbad’s inception.

The product of a collaboration between French director, Resnais, and Nouveau Roman author Alain Robbe-Grillet, Last Year in Marienbad is a film in which its charms exists in its extensive tracking shots, slow fluid panning, and surrealistic dreamlike nature. Robbe-Grillet adapted the stream of consciousness screenplay in painstaking detail for Resnais to bring to the screen, creating a story buried in confusion and brain fog. Their collaborative efforts allow lighting to play a major part in the existence of characters while simultaneously creating characters from the essence of shadows. The blocking of actors on screen is immaculate as the space between the leads exudes an angst and tension between them allowing the absence of objects to tell its own story. The score adds a layer of cryptic tension to the overall feel of the film, and there are moments of it where I almost lost all composure at how beautiful the shots were. Last Year in Marienbad is living art, a manipulation of time and space.

The exhibit wraps around the inner walls of Galerie Rudolfinum lining the museum with poster art, behind the scene photos, storyboards, and artists renditions of scenes inspired by the film done in pencil, mixed media, paints, and photography. More televisions fill other rooms showing creative uses of movement captured through camera that are direct, and indirect, influences of the film. Last Year in Marienbad is a film that prior to this exhibit I had never heard anything of. This is film that during its time received just as much criticism as it did praise due it to his ultra bourgeoisie theme and its dismissal of a clear storytelling structure. This lack of focus on reality was directly challenged by other filmmakers in the rise of the French New Wave. If this exhibit taught me anything, which I think the film itself intends in its own way, it is that despite the opulence and luxury one may see on the surface, reality is always a matter of perspective. All that glitters isn’t gold and though at times beautiful, life is a confusing, unscrupulous mess that we haven’t figured out just yet.

%d bloggers like this: