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”

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”

I, Daniel Blake

Ken Loach’s Palme D’Or winning film is a powerful tearjerker and scathing indictment of the State.

I Daniel Blake PosterIf Americans can’t respond to the politics of the Palme D’Or winning “I, Daniel Blake” as strongly as the Brits, they’ll still be able to appreciate its emotional wallop. Director Ken Loach has spent his life in film defending the poor, working class by championing human fortitude and decency. And by taking on the worst form of inane bureaucracy, something that Republican or Democrat, Green, Labor or Conservative have all found frustrating, he’s told a story that’s as funny as it is heart wrenching.

We first hear a frustrated Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) impatiently fielding invasive questions about his health to a faceless bureaucrat with a voice so blandly calm it sounds like a recording. His doctor says he’s not fit for work, but the government says he’s fine. Daniel’s caught in limbo: unable to work but also unable to receive benefits.

We hear stories like this in the US, and in Trump’s America it’s anyone’s guess as to whether someone could find empathy for this person. “I, Daniel Blake” however is very specific to Britain, exposing a convoluted system that should inspire as much debate as sentiment. Continue reading “I, Daniel Blake”

Toni Erdmann

Be patient with this slow-burning, yet hilariously unpredictable German comedy

toni-erdmann-posterYou need to be patient with “Toni Erdmann.”

This nearly three hour-long German film goes nearly an hour as just a modest family comedy with some awkward humor before finding its voice. It’s only with a complete and sudden surprise does the movie’s naturalistic, deadpan filmmaking get thrust into full on anarchy. It’s worth the wait.

Maren Ade’s film milks the absurd from the ordinary, a loving comedy between a father and daughter grown estranged. And yet “Toni Erdmann” overcomes its Hollywood log line by establishing a tone of suspense and uncertainty. The film is rarely manic, but the set pieces defy predictability. Continue reading “Toni Erdmann”

Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them

J.K. Rowling plays up the whimsy over the darkness in her first of five Harry Potter spinoffs.

fantasticbeastsposterYou may have forgotten how whimsical the original Harry Potter book and film once were. J.K. Rowling’s first novel was akin to a Roald Dahl classic, a magical story fit for children and only slowly developing the stakes and the real world connections across the entire series.

Now comes “Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them,” a Harry Potter spinoff in which the story is not based on a book but is an original screenplay developed by Rowling. It carries the weight and expectations of the darker, later films, all of them directed by this film’s director David Yates. But the story’s charms are far lighter in nature, only hinting at the many directions this blossoming franchise can go.

For instance, the movie opens with the portent of the rise of Gellert Grindelwald, the evil wizard who believed in magical purity before Voldemort came around. But that prelude soon gives way to Newt Scamander (Eddie Redmayne) chasing a fuzzy, teleporting platypus around Manhattan. Continue reading “Fantastic Beasts and Where To Find Them”