Graduation

Cristian Mungiu’s tightly wound procedural rivals the tension of “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days”

Graduation PosterThere have been plenty of movies that involve the premise, “How far will you go to protect your family/daughter/son/children, etc?” Many of them may even be provocative stories of fatherhood or motherhood. But in some cases, the child in question vanishes from the picture; they’re used only as a plot device to advance the motivations of the character.

Cristian Mungiu’s “Graduation” keeps this particular father’s daughter a continual source of emotion, conflict and intrigue. The Romanian director Mungiu gets back to the form of his seminal thriller “4 Months, 3 Weeks, 2 Days” with a tightly wound procedural drama set in Transylvania. It raises questions of community, morality and how the place you’re raised shapes the person you become.

17-year-old Eliza (Maria-Victoria Dragus) is just days away from taking her end-of-year finals before following a scholarship out of the country for university. But one morning before classes, she’s sexually assaulted, which leaves her mentally scarred and causes her to do poorly on her exams. Continue reading “Graduation”

The Edge of Seventeen

Kelly Fremon Craig’s teen comedy is perfectly at home in its millennial generation and is destined to be a classic

edge_of_seventeen_posterHere’s how I know “The Edge of Seventeen” is destined to be a teenage classic: director Kelly Fremon Craig isn’t trying to be John Hughes or Wes Anderson. She isn’t trying to shove what it’s like to be a millennial today down our throats. Her film is hardly nostalgic for some golden age of culture. No one in her movie is a caricature or a stereotype. And her main character isn’t obscenely quirky and trying to be “Juno.”

“The Edge of Seventeen” may not be the best teen coming of age story in recent memory, or the funniest, but by not trying to be a callback to anything else, it’s perfectly at home in its generation.

When Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) storms into her teacher’s empty classroom during his lunch, she collapses into one of the desks exasperated and spurts out what sounds like a prepared diatribe about how she’s going to kill herself. Her teacher takes a long pause and a deep breath before answering her. But because her teacher is actually Woody Harrelson, he slowly works into what sounds like a profound speech and life lesson before teasing her by suggesting, hey, maybe he’ll kill himself too. “It sounds relaxing.” Continue reading “The Edge of Seventeen”

Nocturnal Animals

Tom Ford’s garish and gritty movie within a movie pushes and pulls between high and low art

Nocturnal Animals PosterPerhaps no one other than fashion designer Tom Ford (“A Single Man”) could’ve nailed the beautiful, perverse, bizarre blend of high and low art he attains in “Nocturnal Animals.” Equal parts alluring and sickening, sexy and bleak, lush and trashy, Ford’s film within a film is deliciously silly pulp, but also stylishly deep and smart in its examination of psychology and privilege.

The disturbing dichotomy between each of those polar opposites starts as soon as the movie does, when Ford stages a perplexing, bordering on exploitative opening credits sequence. Morbidly obese women dance fully nude except for some Stars and Stripes hats and streamers. They’re dancing in front of a bold, deep red backdrop and writhe and gyrate endlessly in slow motion. Ford sees them as grotesque and trashy, but also as sensuous, hypnotic, beautiful and human.

The dancing turns out to all be part of Amy Adams’s art gallery, where she glides detached and unaware through the garishness on display. Her life is perfect and extravagant. Her home is luxurious and empty. Her husband (Armie Hammer) is a perfect specimen, but also lifeless and barely hiding an affair. She’s delivered a manuscript written by her ex-husband (Jake Gyllenhaal) called “Nocturnal Animals,” a pet name he used to describe her ambition. Continue reading “Nocturnal Animals”

The Red Turtle

Studio Ghibli’s spiritual, silent fable is an early favorite for Best Movie of 2017.

The Red Turtle PosterIn just 80 minutes and with absolutely no dialogue at all, the incredibly beautiful animated fable “The Red Turtle” runs the gamut of the life experience and evokes the presence of God watching over our existence. It’s breathtaking.

The Dutch director and animator Michael Dudok de Wit brought his hand drawn work to Studio Ghibli, the famed Japanese studio that spawned Hayao Miyazaki and his spiritual, life affirming films like “Spirited Away” and “My Neighbor Totoro.” What de Wit provides in meditative, thoughtful and dreamy filmmaking on par with Ingmar Bergman, Studio Ghibli gives “The Red Turtle” a deep connection to nature, a hint of whimsy and curiosity. Continue reading “The Red Turtle”

Shia LaBeouf is Awesome

With his misunderstood He Will Not Divide Us project, a tribute to Hollywood’s most fascinating weirdo

It didn’t take long. Just a week into a four-year long campaign, Shia LaBeouf lost it…and it was amazing.

LaBeouf set up an art project encouraging people to chant, “He will not divide us” into a web cam in an act of solidarity against Donald Trump. It is quite possible Trump won’t last long in the Presidency, but no one was guessing the kid from “Transformers” and his web cam would outlast him.

As you might guess, Trump supporters and white nationalists have specifically targeted the project as a way of showing they won’t be divided either. They held up photos of Pepe the Frog, they came out to the camera and spoke coded white nationalist phrases like “1488” into the speaker, and they mass ordered pizzas for the gathering protesters that no one could afford. Maybe even more predictable though was that LaBeouf would let these trolls get to him.

On Day 3 LaBeouf was caught on video shouting down a Trump supporter. A crowd of people had gathered in front of LaBeouf’s art project outside the Museum of the Moving Image to voice their support. A bearded Shia was among them, wandering, smiling and bundled in a red felt hat and a jean jacket. He wasn’t leading the ritual but was a gleeful participant. Then in steps a dude blocking the camera and beginning to rattle off white-nationalist talking points. Shia doesn’t break in rhythm, but he quickly escalates, thrusting into the kid’s face and growing louder and louder, clearly rankled. A moment later when they’re off camera, one of the protesters steps forward and narrates, “Shia just shoved the shit out of some Trump supporter.” Days later, LaBeouf shoved another person. This guy asked if he could take a selfie with Shia, and when the two got on camera, the man instead said, “Hitler did nothing wrong.”

Guess who came off looking like the asshole in that situation? Despite the way the media reported it, this wasn’t proof of another failed stunt by Shia; it actually went off like gangbusters. Maybe LaBeouf shouldn’t have gotten aggressive, but he shouldn’t come off like some crazy person either; in fact, he’s kind of awesome. Continue reading “Shia LaBeouf is Awesome”

The Cake Is a Lie: On Donald Trump’s Bizarre First Few Days in Office

There is no shortage of crazy, maddening, Orwellian stories to have come out of the new Trump administration in just the last few weeks, not to mention the whole election. But the most bizarre may have come from a pastry chef.

At Trump’s inauguration, he and Mike Pence cut a giant celebratory cake with a sword. It was a glorious blue, star-studded layer cake that looked so familiar. Too familiar. The chef commissioned to make President Obama’s inaugural cake made the identical one eight years ago, but not this one. And the bakery even innocently posted on Instagram that they were commissioned to recreate the cake as inspired by the Obama one. This story sounds delicious until you realize THE CAKE WAS MADE OF STYROFOAM. It was strictly ceremonial, nothing more than a prop.

Unlike Sean Spicer’s blatantly false inauguration attendance announcement or Trump dodging questions about his tax returns, this isn’t Trump attempting to pull one over on the press and the American people. It’s too obvious and transparent for anyone to have not noticed or for the Trump office to pretend it’s an oversight.

No, this is a sinister coded message from Trump directly to Obama: “I am going to take everything that stands for you, and Mike Pence and I are going to cut into it with a fucking sword.” Continue reading “The Cake Is a Lie: On Donald Trump’s Bizarre First Few Days in Office”

Hidden Figures

Ted Melfi’s crowd-pleaser needs to do more to enact real change in race opportunity

It’s hard to be cynical about a movie as crowd pleasing as Ted Melfi’s “Hidden Figures.” This is an underserved story about the African American women who made a major, untold contribution to the space race, and it’s finding an audience.

But here’s the scene that threw me for a whirl: Katherine Johnson has earned a spot in the main room calculating rocket trajectory, but everyday she runs off to the bathroom back in the “colored” section of the NASA campus. “I have no idea where your bathroom is,” a preoccupied and disinterested secretary says to her with just a pinch of salt. Her boss, played by Kevin Costner, chews her out wondering where she disappears to each day. And in a moment of desperation, she pleads that she’s working extra tirelessly to do her job and overcome these absurd segregation barriers. After hearing that, Costner agrees. He takes a sledgehammer to the “coloreds only” bathroom sign and declares free bathrooms for all. Continue reading “Hidden Figures”

20th Century Women

Mike Mills’s follow up to “Beginners” tries to be too profound for too many generations

20thCenturyWomen PosterMike Mills’s “20th Century Women” is trying to be too profound for too many different people. It aims to encapsulate the life experience of men and women, adolescents and adults, mothers and daughters, yuppies and the ordinary. And it does so in a string of literary axioms and bluntly illustrated anecdotes. It attains higher meaning only in doses, a result of a smattering of smartly written scenes and thoughtful performances. But it’s never universal, namely because it’s trying too hard to be.

The three women in teenage Jamie’s (Lucas Jade Zumann) life are his divorced mother Dorothea (Annette Bening), his wants-to-be-much-closer-yet-still-platonic best friend Julie (Elle Fanning), and his mother’s 30-something roommate who acts like a cool, older sister Abbie (Greta Gerwig). Dorothea senses that because he doesn’t have a strong male presence in his life, what Jamie really needs is a stronger female influence. Continue reading “20th Century Women”

Lion

6-year-old Sunny Pawar carries Garth Davis’s observant, anecdotal film on his tiny back.

Lion PosterSaroo Brierly got separated from his family in India when he was just a boy and spent his whole childhood raised in Australia by a foster family. It wasn’t until he was in his 20s that he used Google to trace down a past he could hardly recall and a home he didn’t know would still be there.

What makes “Lion” special is that it shows that Saroo’s story isn’t entirely unique. It spends its first hour immersed in young Saroo’s perspective. It observantly and anecdotally illustrates the livelihood of poverty-stricken children across India. Saroo’s story feels profound not only because of the journey toward a tearful reunion, but because it devotes so much time at the eye level of this young boy. Continue reading “Lion”

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

The push and pull between new directions and tones and nostalgic fan service make for a frustrating “Star Wars” spinoff.

Rogue One PosterThe paradox of “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story” is that it’s somehow tonally and thematically separate from the original “Star Wars” films but pays even more homage to the original trilogy than even “The Force Awakens,” amazing, since that movie is essentially a remake of “A New Hope.”

Its hero is not a wistful young farm boy but a cynical girl named Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) who has been in exile and shuttled around Galactic Empire prisons and work sites for years. The film’s first scene recalls the cruiser soaring overhead at the beginning of “A New Hope,” but “Rogue One” forgoes even the iconic opening crawl.

There are moments at which the film even diverts from George Lucas’s ideologies of good and evil and of the power of faith and religion. One of the film’s standouts is Chirrut Imwe (Donnie Yen), an acrobatic yet blind protector who is not a Jedi but senses the Force in the world. When he chants relentlessly “I am one with the Force, the Force is with me,” it’s a noble yet bleak mantra as he marches into certain death and the unknown of the open battlefield. Continue reading “Rogue One: A Star Wars Story”