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New York Film Festival

Review: My Entire High School Sinking into the Sea

Apr 13 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220922:43512:0[/embed] My Entire High School Sinking Into the SeaDirector: Dash ShawRating: PG-13Release Date: April 14, 2017 The set-up is at least sort of promising. An earthquake sends a high school on a hill by the ocean crashing down into the water. Students have to swim from floor to floor for air and survival, with a stratified class hierarchy--freshmen on the bottom and seniors on top. There's something questlike about it all, structured like a videogame with different kinds of levels--one sequence is even presented like a screen from the original Double Dragon, with characters throwing punches and jumpkicks with the same poses as Billy and Jimmy Lee. But Shaw takes all of these potentially interesting ideas and dials them down to the same level of slacker disinterest. The voice actors deliver their lines in a uniform indifferent monotone, as if they've begrudgingly recorded their dialogue one afternoon and left. The jokes are never distinct from the asides or the exposition. Apart from the heroic Lorraine the Lunch Lady (voiced by Sarandon), everyone sounds interchangeable. Since none of the voices stand out, it makes the all-star indie cast seem like needless stunt casting for the indie cachet. Lots of the dialogue gets lost in the audio mix, with any hint of personality drowned in the repetitive, overbearing, wall-to-wall score. This is a 77-minute movie that just drones on and on. It doesn't help that the protagonist, Dash (Schwartzman), is the least interesting character in the entire film. He's a self-important high school journalist and stand-in for the real life Dash Shaw. Yes, how twee, this fictional story is supposed to be semi-autobiographical. Dash is the type of tepid lead who gets in the way of the more worthy supporting players. His fellow staff members on the newspaper, Assaf (Watts) and Verti (Rudolph), have a warmth to them as well as a burgeoning crush that would have been great to watch unfold front and center. Even Dunham's overachieving all-goodnik Mary could have been the compelling hub of the story--a class president go-getter in survival mode. But no, it's boring old Dash, the "ugh, that guy" sort of hipster dude. There are moments of beauty in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, like the opening animation of Dash in silhouette running to class, or select flashbacks rendered with great care, or parts of the conclusion that have a zen-like quality. Most of it, though, looks like a hodgepodge of watercolor, acrylic, and magic marker, with a wonky, unrefined aesthetic. It simulates the stuff made while screwing around in a high school art class. The choice makes sense, but it's not always interesting to look at in full wobbly motion. It's animation with a sort of haphazard craft--art as marginalia rather than a point of focus, a talented person's creative assignment put together the night before. I was particularly put off by the film's defensiveness. At points, Dash and Assaf brag about being great writers whose genius and talent no one will understand. That metatextual boast always irks me. I rarely feel that a creative work should gird itself against criticism so overtly, and in such an insecure manner. Especially in this case, in which there's so little at stake and so little offered. Why be so precious over an animated shrug?
Entire High School review photo
A shrugworthy mumblecore cartoon
There are so many possibilities in My Entire High School Sinking Into the Sea, the directorial debut of indie comics artist Dash Shaw. There's the image of an entire high school building adrift on the ocean and sinking. Think...

Review: Paterson

Dec 26 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220910:43125:0[/embed] PatersonDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: December 21, 2016 (France); December 28, 2016 (USA, limited)Rating: R 2003's American Splendor may be the best companion to Paterson. That film chronicled the life of comics writer Harvey Pekar. Pekar lived and wrote in Cleveland, and kept a day job at a VA hospital. Paterson in Jarmusch's film works as a bus driver in Paterson, New Jersey. He uses little catches of time through the day to write poetry in his notebook. This is the writing life of working people--no parties with literati, no salons, no scenester-ism, no pretension, just toil and care with words. Paterson follows a week in the life our bus driver. At the end of the first day, we get the broadstrokes of this character's routine. He wakes up beside his girlfriend Laura (Golshifteh Farahani), he walks to work, he eavesdrops on people's conversations, he returns home, he walks their bulldog, and he has a drink at the local bar. The routine might seem stifling, but Jarmusch enlarges the world that Paterson lives in. Side characters get fleshed out in unexpected ways, and we get new details about who Paterson and Laura are through careful reveals and well-observed scenes. The initial claustrophobia of the structure both folds out and opens inward. Paterson's acts of noticing help convey his sense of the city he lives in, his interior life, and the lives of people around him. Bad poetry ruins everything. To avoid that danger, Jarmusch hired New York School poet Ron Padgett to write original work for Paterson. Paterson's poetry reads like actual poetry (a pastiche of William Carlos Williams) rather than the hokey stuff that movie-poetry often sounds like. Jarmusch depicts the writing of this poetry through voiceover and superimposed text over montages. It isn't the most ideal representation of the creative process, but it works. The whole of Paterson is imbued with its own poetic flourishes, like the constant appearance of twins, doubles, or mirrored lines, as if trying to find a visual equivalent for internal rhyme or rhyming couplets. (Intentional correspondence: William Carlos Williams, writer of the five-book poem Paterson, is the favorite poet of a man named Paterson who lives in Paterson, NJ in a movie called Paterson. Coincidental correspondence: Adam Driver cast as a bus driver. ) One of the more fascinating things I noticed about Paterson was how it explores the relationship between Paterson and Laura. They spend most of their time apart, but thanks to the new information we get about each of them as the film unfolds, I'm able to understand not just how they work as a couple but why. On the surface, Laura seems like a manic pixie dream girl artist who wound up with a polite stoic, but they complement each other and know the importance of space and time in their relationship. Driver is a delicate soul in this film rather than his usual hipster scumbag. His performance reminds me of an artist friend back in the Bay Area who struggles to make time to paint. Farahani adds depth to Laura, who, like her boyfriend, is a type of optimistic American dreamer. Maybe this space and togetherness between Paterson and Laura is an example of the power of interpersonal enjambment. There's been a lot of discussion in the online literary community about the role of writing in the lives of writers. Is writing just a hobby? Can writing really be considered a job? As if those are the only options. Paterson seems to offer its own answers with a zen-like Jarmusch cool. While Paterson keeps so many of his poems to himself in a journal, he writes because he can't live without it. It's where he finds and creates meaning, and issues of ego, publication, notoriety, and the local scene never factor into the significance of what he does. It is significant simply because it is. Perhaps the melancholy of the score is meant as a counterpoint to Paterson the man. So much about the surface of his life suggests the misery of obscure solitude. That might be true in other stories, but Paterson is a writer, and in addition to his good fortune for having the friends he does, he has writing to fill the empty spaces of each day.
Review: Paterson photo
The city, the man, the joyous everday
Jim Jarmusch's Paterson is work of subtle optimism. It's a gentle film, kind and generous, funny, too. Watching the movie, I sensed Jarmusch giving me a reassuring push, like a parent at a swing or a child casting off a toy b...

Review: Toni Erdmann

Dec 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220911:43142:0[/embed] Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren AdeRating: RRelease Date: July 16, 2016 (Germany); December 25, 2016 (USA)Country: Germany/Austria I love Groucho Marx as a character, but I would never want someone like that as a father. In some ways, Toni Erdmann is what it would be like if Groucho Marx was Margaret Dumont's dad. Ines (Sandra Huller) is our girl Dumont. She's a high-level consultant working in Romania to negotiate an outsourcing deal. Like so many women in the business world, she needs to work twice as hard as her male counterparts, fighting the entrenched sexism of the workplace while out-politicking others in the office. She's always working and seems to get off on forceful shows of control. While trying to unwind at a day spa, she complains that her masseuse was too gentle. "I want to be roughed up," she smiles. Winfried (Peter Simonischek) is her dad Groucho. Rather than a painted mustache, Winfried's got a pair of ugly false teeth and a wig. It's not hard to see why Ines' mother divorced Winfried, or why Ines tries to avoid her dad. He imposes, he mocks, he's a bit of a chaos agent. The man can't take anything seriously. After his dog dies, Winfried spontaneously vacations in Romania to connect with his daughter, eventually adopting the persona of Toni Erdmann. The name sounds so serious and German (redundant?), but in English the name apparently translates into "Toni Meerkat". Ines is too ruthless and needs to lighten up, and her father is a potential catalyst for that change. Questions of value are pretty common in works about corporate life (i.e., human value vs. the bottom line), and these are often the weakest parts of Toni Erdmann. They're familiar in an obvious way, as if from another movie that's far safer and more conventional. Perhaps Ade sensed this slip into the obvious when sculpting the final edit. A character and a plot thread totally vanishes from the movie at a certain point. It doesn't prevent Ines' reconnection with the world of the common folk from feeling like an expected destination. Toni isn't just his daughter's Groucho but her Drop Dead Fred. Ade even uses the common grammar of these contrasts between wealth and poverty in the globalized world: from Ines' office window, she can look over a Romanian hovel. Consequently, other reconciliations in the movie felt inevitable to me. When Toni Erdmann lets go, it's at its best, whether it's a bit of kink involving pastries or a belting out a tune. Huller plays so many of her scenes like she's at the verge of a breakdown. She's a great straightwoman, but there are moments of absurd release that hint at the person Ines was before she bought into the quest for status. There are different Ines facades for the different roles she has to play or the tasks thrust upon her, but rarely does she get to be herself. Winfried is a little more one-note on the surface since his solution for everything is a joke, but there are moments of vulnerability between father and daughter that suggest that jokes are all he has left. Connecting with someone emotionally can be painful and awkward, and humor is one way of circumventing those difficulties. If the only tool you have is a hammer, you wind up hammering everything. That goes for both father and daughter. A lot of what works in Toni Erdmann depends on what the audience brings to it, which might be the case of any movie about parents and children. The way we measure other families inevitably winds up being our own family experiences, which is what makes Toni Erdmann familiar in a surprising way. What is it about Ines that I see in myself, or Winfied in my own dad, or vice versa? Sometimes I look at these on-screen family relationships and see myself or people I know. Other times I see versions of characters. Families are weird like that; so is Toni Erdmann.
NYFF Review: Toni Erdmann photo
Estranged daughter, strange father
There's no way Toni Erdmann could ever live up to its hype. Reviews from Cannes and the Toronto International Film Festival touted the German film as a 162-minute screwball comedy masterpiece, packed with high emotional stake...

Review: I, Daniel Blake

Dec 22 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220904:43138:0[/embed] I, Daniel BlakeDirector: Ken LoachRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (UK); December 23, 2016 (USA)Country: UK Daniel Blake (Dave Johns) is a widower who's been denied disability benefits after suffering a heart attack. He's an everyman figure for the vulnerable elderly, and for anyone who's been on hold with customer service for longer than necessary. Daniel doesn't have any family or friends to help him in this situation, so he needs the social safety net. There's a catch: in order to receive any benefits, he has to look for work, and yet he can't work at the moment because his doctor says it will aggravate his heart condition. His plight may sound familiar, but that's because it's a reality for many older people. The elderly and other vulnerable populations often face these kinds of helpless situations. Rather than receive individual assistance with computers or paperwork, the system wants to push him through and out as quickly as possible--men and women chewed up and spat. While Loach and screenwriter Paul Laverty may heighten the dire situation, Johns' performance grounds Daniel. He's an individual man and a common man metaphor, and achingly human. Daniel's path crosses with Katie (Hayley Squires), a struggling single-mother from London trying to resettle in New Castle. Hers is a life of constant denial. Spaghetti for the kids at dinner, and just an apple for herself until morning. She can't find work because there aren't any jobs, and so that cycle of denial continues. In one of the movie's most moving and empathetic moments, we watch Katie overcome by hunger at a food bank. She breaks down. Squires brings a lot of heart to her performance, but in this scene Katie's courage has faltered. There's only a debased shame. Somewhere, mixed in, there's also dread. Together, Daniel and Katie offer a glimmer of hope for the people failed by the system. When vulnerable people slip through the country's social safety net, perhaps their only shot at dignity is to be there for one another. And perhaps because this plight is so familiar--seen on film, TV, in families or down the street--struggling people can feel a little less alone in the world. The situation in I, Daniel Blake is so specific to the UK, and yet the pain and the hardship is relatable throughout the western world. Knowing that someone else has experienced the same thing can help reduce that sense of hopeless desperation that accompanies poverty. It's a meek hope, though, a faint and brief glimmer, which may explain the fervor of the film, like something off a Billy Bragg record. I, Daniel Blake feels like a rallying cry for reform and greater egalitarianism, or at least some restoration of humanity and kindness to systems that have become so good at stripping humanity away. If the characters seem familiar, it's probably because the same tragedies happen so often and have happened for so long to so many. If the story beats sound familiar, it's probably because the cadence of protest chants often have a common pattern. I, Daniel Blake is ostensibly about a man named Daniel and a woman named Katie, but I know these people by other names and with other faces.
Review: I, Daniel Blake photo
Familiar yet powerfully urgent
Bureaucracies make great villains. Faceless and absurd, they operate in such nefarious ways and are perfect machines for dehumanization. Bureaucracies are reliably inefficient, needlessly hierarchical, ruthlessly procedure-ob...


Review: Manchester by the Sea

Nov 17 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220919:43136:0[/embed] Manchester by the SeaDirector: Kenneth LonerganRating: RRelease Date:  November 18, 2016 (limited) Casey Affleck plays Lee Chandler, a handyman who lives in a small room in Boston. He's prickly and withdrawn, a brooding guy who spends a lot of time alone. When his brother Joe (Kyle Chandler) passes away, Lee reluctantly returns to his hometown to help settle affairs with Joe's teenage son Patrick (Lucas Hedges). Whenever Lee's name is mentioned, people around town perk up. They're surprised, shocked, that Lee Chandler, the Lee Chandler, is back. He's got a reputation for something. There's a reason he's avoided home. Affleck's troubled quiet is remarkable to watch. It's a nuanced performance built around restraint. I found myself wondering throughout the film what moments would cause his stoic facade to collapse. There's such an immense heartbreak and guilt in him, which is clear even before his past is revealed, yet he doesn't want to share his emotional and psychological burden with anyone else. As penitent as he is, an intimate human connection would hurt even more. He'd rather get drunk and get beat up. Lonergan drops several telling flashbacks, and he finds elegant ways to loop the past into the present and then out again. It adds dimension to Lee, and Affleck is superb at playing the same man in different keys. Michelle Williams plays Lee's ex-wife Randi, whose character is similarly constrained by her emotions. She wants to speak about their history together, but doing that may be more painful than staying bottled up. A phone call early in the film captures the tense awkwardness of two people who want to say more, say everything, but can't bring themselves to say much of anything. Williams has always been an excellent and underrated actress, and part of me wanted more of her in the film. It would be a different sort of movie. Manchester by the Sea is more about Lee and to a certain extent his nephew Patrick and the shortcomings of masculine tropes when it comes to raw emotional life. On the one hand the male-dominated story feels like a missed opportunity, but maybe it also emphasizes Lee and Patrick's solitude. With regard to family, this man and this boy are all that's left in each other's lives. The restraint in the lives of the characters may explain why I responded so much to the emotional highs and lows of Manchester by the Sea. It's the catharsis for the audience that the characters can't give themselves. All of the funny and sad material gives an alternately absurd and humane texture to these lives. Even the material that doesn't seem like it fits in a streamlined narrative--such as an unexpected but perfect cameo appearance, or Patrick's teenage horndog shtick--enrich the sad, beautiful whole. Admittedly this seismographic portrait of people's lives doesn't work for everyone. I had a pretty spirited back-and-forth with my friend and fellow film critic Nathanael Hood, and he was lukewarm on the film's jagged contours. Lonergan finds quiet and stillness amid mood swings, and also offers the actors ample room to emote or withhold. Frozen chicken falls from the freezer and a person finally breaks down; someone offers a small tip for service and the other person doesn't know how to interpret that sort of kindness. I laughed, I cried, and I laughed. All of the funny moments are punctuated by an unremitting sadness. Lee is comically bad at small talk and social gatherings, but the reasons for it, like so much about Manchester by the Sea, are so personal and painful.
Manchester by the Sea photo
Life is heartbreaking, and funny, too
Watching Manchester by the Sea, I was reminded of two lines from the musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch: "I cry, because I will laugh if I don't" and "I laugh, because I will cry if I don't". Kenneth Lonergan's latest film is ...

Review: Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk

Nov 14 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]221033:43193:0[/embed] Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkDirector: Ang LeeRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2017 You may recall complaints about The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey being shown in HFR 3D. Audiences said it looked strange and artificial, which is why neither of the two sequels had HFR screenings. That was just at 48 frames per second. With Billy Lynn, more frames per second doesn't translate into greater verisimilitude. Instead the high frame rate tends to make the movie look amateurish and fake. This is experimental technology, and only two theaters in the United States are equipped with the projectors to properly show the HFR version of Billy Lynn. The full experience is underwhelming on the whole with a few exceptions. What does HFR look like? Picture an HD cooking show shot with a consumer-grade digital video camera. Or maybe a local news broadcast viewed on an LCD viewfinder. Movements tend to look overly smooth. In some shots, the figures in the foreground look like they were inserted via green screen. In an early graveyard scene, it felt as if Lee was laying Colorform decals of his actors onto a flat background. 3D never looked so artificial. Other scenes felt like HD versions of cut scenes from 90s video games. I was reminded how expensive things can often be so tacky. It doesn't help that the cinematography lacks life. The film is built out of mechanical, workmanlike medium shots, flat close-ups, and pristine tracking shots. Lee continually returns to the POV of Billy Lynn (Joe Alwyn), like a riff on the symmetrical POV dialogue scenes in an Ozu film. There's a problem. Since Billy's eyeline is not trained at the viewer like the people he's speaking to, the Ozu effect is lost from inconsistency. It's one of many curious choices with the overall way the film was shot. The movie doesn't look clinical but synthetic. In terms of camera placement and movement, the movie almost feels as if it was shot by a first-time cinematographer. In fact, the film was lensed by John Toll, whose credits include The Thin Red Line, Almost Famous, and Cloud Atlas. High frame rates may make amateurs of pros. Occasionally the HFR works well. When Bravo Company takes the field before the game starts and throws some footballs around, the vast length of the field is captured thanks to depth of the tableau. But it's also a tech-demo shot ("Let me show you what this baby can really do!"). The battle scene and halftime show--the sole justification for the technology--are pretty spectacular as well, though more the Iraq scenes than the halftime show. At the Dallas Cowboys game, the troops are meant to share the stage with Destiny's Child. Destiny's Child body doubles, to be more precise. Just when the halftime show seemed like something real, the blatant fake-Beyonce took me right out of the scene. So much of Billy Lynn is about small character moments rather than big spectacle, which makes the decision for HFR filmmaking somewhat baffling. Billy flirts with a cheerleader (Makenzie Leigh) after a press conference. It's a medium shot with a dark curtain as the background. The distracting look of the frame rate and the lack of 3D depth in the shot called attention to the artifice of the scene and the superfluous use of this technology to tell this story. It would be a bad shot and a poorly blocked scene in 2D, but in glorious 4K 3D the banality of the shot is much more apparent. I've spent all of this time complaining about the look of the film that I haven't even gotten to the scenes that work. That ought to say something. Lee's got a good lead in Alwyn, who carries the imperfect movie on his back. He has the all-American look coupled with vulnerable eyes. He's a kid always at the verge of breaking, trying to tamp down the unspeakable hurts. Vin Diesel is the late philosopher warrior of Bravo Company, essentially playing Vin Diesel. Kristen Stewart makes a solid impression in her brief supporting role as Billy's anti-war sister Kathryn. A tense Lynn family dinner scene feels more real than the stadium stuff. Garrett Hedlund makes the most of his screen time as the driven head of Bravo Company, a strong center that orients the group. All of the boys in Bravo have an easy camaraderie, though some of it's built on the same old war movie cliches. This may be just a roundabout way of saying the real immersive material in a movie has nothing to do with 3D or frame rates or spectacle and everything to do with the emotional content. I think about an alternate universe in which Billy Lynn was shot in the same way as The Ice Storm or Brokeback Mountain (and with no fake-Beyonce). I wonder how much more moved I would have been. I wonder what kind of movie this would be. As it is, there's a good movie in Billy Lynn that's constantly struggling to break out and breathe. Witness in 120 frames per second and 4K 3D the folly of mismatched form and content. It's ironic yet fitting that Billy Lynn's technology gets in the way of what works in the film. This is a movie about people using troops as a means to an end--they're good for ratings, they're good as a recruitment tool, they put butts in seats, they're fantasy figures, they can angle for a movie deal (a cloying, winky, meta element to the film that's too on the nose). It's also a movie about disregarding our troops as people. Lee had good intentions, but is feels like the tragedy of these heroes is just an excuse to play with some new cinematic toys.
Review: Billy Lynn's photo
High frame rate, low level execution
I can say this about Billy Lynn's Long Halftime Walk: Ang Lee and his cast have their hearts in the right place. Adapted from Ben Fountain's novel of the same name, the film is constantly trying to remind its viewers about th...

DOC NYC Review: 13TH

Nov 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220907:43127:0[/embed] 13THDirector: Ava DuVernayRelease Date: October 7, 2016 (Netflix)Rating: TBD DuVernay's central thesis is that while the 13th Amendment ostensibly abolished slavery, the systems of oppression in the 1800s evolved into different forms of oppression that are currently in practice today. It's a compelling argument that begins with the Reconstruction Era following The Civil War, in which imprisoned black men were used as labor to rebuild the south. It continues into segregation and Jim Crow, the war on drugs, the Republican's Southern strategy, and so forth. DuVernay is expert at cycling various ideas, phrases, and images throughout 13TH, which helps make her overraching argument cohesive.  13TH generally follows a linear and chronological crawl through 150 years of American history, intercutting archival footage and talking heads. Our guides through history include activists (e.g., Angela Davis), academics (e.g., Henry Louis Gates Jr.), commentators (e.g., Van Jones), and politicians (e.g., Senator Cory Booker). While the primary draw of 13TH is the outrage at a corrupt criminal justice system, formal touches contribute to the riveting watch. The settings for each of the interviews, for instance, are often industrial spaces that evoke the feel of jails and prisons. DuVernay withholds identifying many interviewees until their third or fourth appearance on screen. I don't know why that seemed so novel, but I was hanging on people's words a little more that I might have been. There are a few contrarians among the interviewees who don't think systemic racism is a problem. Of course they're white dudes. Surprisingly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich isn't one of these clueless white guys. Gingrich appears in 13TH and says that many white people don't understand what life is like for black people in America. I may not agree with his politics, but credit goes to Gingrich. He's relatively more woke than some people I know. 13TH is predominantly concerned with mass incarceration and how the prison population increased dramatically through the '70s, '80s, and '90s. It's neat and brisk through most of its 100-minute run time, though it becomes loose once we focus on the mid-2000s to today. From prison privatization we then cover issues of police militarization, the rise of Black Lives Matter, and even (perhaps unavoidably) Donald Trump's ugly rhetoric in the Presidential race. (Trump makes an earlier appearance when he calls for the execution of The Central Park Five.) If she wanted, DuVernay could have made a mini-series out of this, or a long-form doc in multiple parts a la Ezra Edelman's O.J.: Made in America. DuVernay's such a skilled cinematic essayist that she's able to rein in 13TH even as it seems to stray. I mentioned her cycle of ideas and images earlier. Just when I felt like the movie was moving off track, she would reintroduce an idea or an image to show why one particular point is a reticulation of a previous one. The death of Emmett Till haunts the deaths that gave rise to Black Lives Matter. Phrases like "law and order" take on a sinister quality. The idea of the black man as a rapacious criminal similarly casts its unending shadow. The most memorable recurring image in 13TH involves a black man in a suit and hat. It must be from the 1950s. He's walking through a suburb. There's a mob of angry white men around him. They shove him. They yell at him. He gets punched in the back of the head. But the black man keeps walking. He's being insulted and assaulted, but he's carrying on unphased. During a press conference, DuVernay referred to this anonymous person as "the dignified man". I don't know where he was walking or if he got there, but I hope he made it okay. I hope everyone does somehow.
Review: The 13th photo
Slavery didn't end, it adapted
13TH feels like a culmination of Ava DuVernay's career to this point. The documentary brings together the racial and social history of Selma, her years of work as a documentarian, her stint as a journalist, and even her under...

Review: Elle

Nov 10 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220908:43150:0[/embed] ElleDirector: Paul VerhoevenRating: RRelease Date: November 11, 2016 (limited)Country: France  Elle starts with the rape, in media res. Verhoeven shoots the scene with surprising restraint. There's the noise of the assault off camera. Michèle's pet cat looks on blankly. The rapist, dressed in black with a ski mask, stands and wipes blood from his hip and groin and then walks away. Michèle tidies up around the kitchen and continues about her day in a daze. She's in shock, but it's subtle. A brief bubble bath scene is so artfully done and haunting. Michèle's a bit angrier at her son Vincent (Jonas Bloquet) when he comes to visit than she would be otherwise. Vincent asks about the bruise on the side of her face. She says she fell off her bike. The rape goes unreported. When Michèle finally mentions it to anyone, she waits for the most awkward moment possible to bring it up. She says what happened as if she lost a credit card. Is it a coping mechanism or is it just the movie playing provocateur? Elle aims for the uncomfortable laugh, and for a while it succeeds in doling out its cringe humor. At a certain point, it's just cringes. While dealing with horrible things in life, one hundred other genres may be occurring in the world simultaneously. A portion of the film plays like a thriller, with Michèle narrowing down the suspects in her life while her attacker stalks and harasses her. As this thriller plays out, there's a family dramedy: Michèle's jealous about her ex-husband's new girlfriend, annoyed by her son's screwed up relationship with his pregnant girlfriend, and can't stand her mother's new boyfriend either. Then there's the matter of her father and an infamous trauma in her past, one essential to Michèle's character but never explored substantively in the story. Huppert's a saving grace for the film in that she plays everything so straight, even Michèle's unexpected actions and reactions. Yet these are just actions in a performance, not necessarily actions stemming from a character. I could rarely get a handle on who Michèle was or how she interpreted the world and the events around her. The rape is replayed explicitly in the film, and then played again as a kind of revenge fantasy. Later, Michèle seems to invite victimization. There's a harrowing scene in which Michèle seems turned on by the idea of the man she's with raping her, recreating the trauma that opened the film. Is she feeling pleasure? Is that pain and masochistic shame? Is it a mix of both, and if so, what then? Huppert wears an inscrutable mask before, during, and after the scene. The moment is never discussed afterward. I don't need on-screen psychoanalysis or to be handheld through a narrative, but I'd like to be given some hint of what Michèle feels about what's happened. Elle avoids exploring the emotional impact of rape. Instead the film tries to offer Michèle's detachment as some opaque and oblique portrait of her psychology, but even this amounts to a blank gray page. This is all extremely difficult and sensitive territory to explore, especially when Michèle's motives are so ambiguous. Sure, there's never a single correct way for someone to respond to trauma, but rather than provide an alternative portrait of recovery or greater insight into this personality in flux, I felt as if Elle was simply pushing buttons and inverting the traditional rape-revenge narrative for the shock value. That's easier and less painful than really getting into someone's interior life after such a traumatic experience. The film's MO seems to be keep the focus on the inscrutable surface, and make it shocking. It doesn't help that Elle's perspective is male dominated; it's directed by Verhoeven from a script by David Birke, and adapted from a novel by Philippe Dijan. Am I watching a woman's experience as she struggles to retake power as all the men in her life rob her of agency? Or am I just watching a male interpretation of all this that indulges in a little bit of rape fantasy? This might all be up for audience interpretation, which makes me surprised that so many critics have written that the film is so empowering to women and makes bold statements. I don't think it says anything at all, or intends to empower anyone; it's just well-orchestrated provocation. No surprise that by the end of Elle, I was left feeling a sour and empty frustration. Michèle is the head of a video game company, though this portion of Elle serves as a mild subtextual and metatextual backdrop. They're making a medieval action-adventure--think Warcraft by way of Assassin's Creed with really antiquated graphics. During a meeting, one of her designers--a man who may be the rapist--says that Michèle's pretentious literary background has gotten in the way of the game's basic playability. I think Verhoeven's penchant for provocation might have gotten in the way of the fundamental human concerns of Elle.
Review: Elle photo
Provocative, but is it saying anything?
Elle has been billed as a rape-comedy, but that's a misnomer. It's a comedy in the classical sense given the events of the story, but it's not necessarily funny (there are funny scenes, though). And yes, it's about rape. Elle...

Review: Gimme Danger

Oct 27 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220909:43126:0[/embed] Gimme DangerDirector: Jim JarmuschRelease Date: October 28, 2016Rating:  R I'll start by accentuating the positive. It's great to watch the Stooges take a victory lap. After years of being a posse of indigent riffraff, The Stooges are now music demigods. On camera, Iggy Pop has such a smooth, comforting cool about him. Whenever he's telling a story, I experienced an anticipatory glee, waiting for that smirk to flourish into laughter and an unbridled smile. Stooges drummer Scott Asheton, by contrast, has a labored voice of a working class life lived hard. His late brother, Ron, pops up in archival interviews. Latter-day Stooges member James Williamson sits near his amp in a bathroom; we also spend some time with Minuteman frontman Mike Watt, who's part of The Stooges' reunion lineup. After the pre-title stinger (standard issue in so many docs these days), Jarmusch starts in Iggy Pop's childhood. Little James Osterberg, who lived in a trailer, tortured his parents with a drumkit and learned punk stagecraft from The Howdy Doody Show. We then zip through the band's formation in the '60s, with a little bit of exploration of the political scene in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Stooges live communally, and share the stage with their big brother band The MC5. Then they record their self-titled album, and then they put out Funhouse, and then it's on to Raw Power. And then this happens, and then this other thing, oh and this. At a certain point it dawned on me: Gimme Danger was mostly comprised of "and-thens". It's more like the events as fleshed out bullet points, not the life of a band as an essay. Jarmusch includes footage of the infamous Cincinnati Pop Fest performance in which Iggy Pop, held aloft by the crowd, smears peanut butter all over his chest and goes hogwild. So oddball and unconventional, which makes the limp plainness of Gimme Danger a bummer. It doesn't feel like a Jarmusch movie at all. Instead, it's more like a competent TV documentary on The Stooges, but one that never really goes deep enough. They mention the radical politics of Ann Arbor and hanging with The MC5, but that's it. They mention a stint in the Chelsea Hotel, but not much more than the fact they stayed there. So much room for expansion, amusing tangents, the sorts of anecdotes that give texture to a life. But mostly it's all back to the bullet points. I come back to the idea of shape that I mentioned earlier. While talking about "Search and Destroy" on Raw Power, Iggy explains the metaphoric shape of the song. Williamson's guitar fills the space in such a dense way, and that informed how Ron played his leads and how Iggy did his vocals. Pieces come together, play off each other, rework and reconstitute themselves, and find a means of working in combination that kicks like a goddamn drum. You hear or sense that shaping everywhere on Raw Power, which is why it's one of the best albums of all time. You're listening to a band when it gets it and gels. Gimme Danger seems to lack this sense of shape, or cohesion, if you prefer. If this interview goes here, how is it complemented there? And if this footage does this, what should that footage do to complement it? Admittedly, editing seems like the most difficult part of documentary film. Still, I wonder what Gimme Danger might have been with just a bit more shaping. It's not bad, don't get me wrong, but it's not something I'll put on repeat.
Review: Gimme Danger photo
I just wanna be your doc
Iggy Pop and Jim Jarmusch sound like an unlikely pairing. One's the primal frontman of proto-punk legends The Stooges, the other's a mellow, measured indie auteur. But maybe there's something magnetic about their respective b...

Review: Moonlight

Oct 20 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]220901:43153:0[/embed] MoonlightDirector: Barry JenkinsRelease Date: October 21st, 2016Rating: R  Moonlight is told in three parts, each spaced a decade or so apart. In part one, Chiron is a child; people call him "Little." In part 2, he's a teenager; one person calls him "Black." In part 3, he's in his late 20s; everyone calls him "Black" now. Each of the three actors is in the poster, which I think is an excellent poster (there are also individual character posters of each actor in the same position, which is less cool). However, the posters all have the same, dumb tagline: "This is the story of a lifetime." That's a terrible tagline. Unlike, say, the Disney film that you might expect to have the tagline, it's more literal. It is, sort of, the story of someone's lifetime. But that's not a very good measuring stick. I look at that poster and think, "That looks really cool." I read that tagline and think, "That sounds really bland." Though that raises an interesting thought (more on that later). All three parts of Moonlight are good, though they are all good for totally different reasons. Part 1 sets Chiron up, but it's less about Chiron than the man who is his mentor: Juan. Part of me wonders if that's intentional, that it's supposed to be about Juan. Certainly he's a critical part of the narrative (and also of Chiron's development as the film progresses), but this is not his story ultimately. And it seems to me that part of the reason it feels so much like his story is because of just how spectacular Mahershala Ali is in the role. Every moment he's on screen belongs to him. If years down the road, Moonlight winds up forgotten (I don't think it will), Ali's performance will not. The conflict of his character — a drug dealer who sells to the mother of the kid he's now begun to take care of, in large part because the kid's mother is a drug addict — is compelling as heck, and the performance makes it all the more so. Juan isn't in Part 2 (and he's not really in Part 3, but he's also totally in Part 3). He's dead, but no one ever says it. That is actually one of my favorite things about the film. There's no, "Sucks that Juan died in that [whatever happened]." In fact, we don't ever find out what happened. We know from the bits and pieces, the "I haven't seen her since the funeral" and the "This is my house." There's nothing expository here; these words are natural and in character. Writer/director Barry Jenkins trusts the audience's intelligence enough to make basic connections. I have always appreciated that in a filmmaker, and Moonlight is no exception. That said, this is where we should double back to my earlier thought: "That sounds really bland." While no part of Moonlight could be justifiably called "bland," a case could be made that it feels oddly "typical." Chiron's story is, really, not a new one. I've long made a point that, if I can see something coming, it was telegraphed from a mile away, because I more often than not will be blindsided by twists that everyone else sees as painfully obvious. And Moonlight is not really a film about twists (the closest thing the story has to one has already been spoiled in this review (sorry)), but it's a film about a sequence of events. The sequence of events in each story can more or less be predicted within the first ten minutes of each time period. This is especially true of the teenage years, which follow an almost painfully conventional structure. Part 3 diverges most drastically, but the way Chiron would ultimately turn out is not unpredictable.  And yet, it didn't matter. In fact, I'd argue that the film is more effective rather than less as a result of this. Because this is something like a story we've seen time and time again, it highlights just how well crafted it is here. In reviews of foreign films, I've discussed how seeing a different culture's take on the Same Old Story can ultimately create something that feels new and fresh. I wasn't really thinking about it within our borders, but that's a matter of my own blindness. The creative minds behind Moonlight have had unique experiences that the white people who usually make decisions just can't grasp. I don't believe for a moment that a white person could not have made Moonlight feel so... vital, because it would have felt like every other story of its ilk. You may know the beats, but they still feel fresh. And it's a combination of everything, because the writing has to be there; the performances have to be there; the technical aspects have to be there. Truly great movies can't succeed on one level. They must succeed on every level. And Moonlight does. (I want to briefly call out the camerawork, which is spectacular. Hell, just that opening shot is a goddamn masterwork.) And so we return to this idea of representation, and the weight that rests on Moonlight's shoulders. People will look to it as the film that can keep the Oscars this year from being so white. If it doesn't get at least four nominations (Best Picture, Best Director, Best Supporting Actor, Best Cinematography), well... I can't even fathom that possibility, because this is a film that more than deserves the praise that's been heaped upon it. By all accounts (again, I will not be watching it), the cracks in The Birth of a Nation as a work of art started to show as the narrative of Nate Parker's past emerged. And so were it to achieve ultimate success, some may have seen it more as a response to controversy than a justified win in and of itself. (That would be unfortunate, regardless of the film's quality, but I know more than a few people who would think that way.) There are no such concerns here. Any success that Moonlight has will come without reservation and without question. When the lights came up, I turned to the man beside me and asked what he had thought. "Beautiful," he answered. Nothing else needed to be said.
Moonlight Review photo
Able to bear the weight of its existence
I don't want to (and am not going to) make this review about the fact that Moonlight is a film about African Americans. It's not a topic I can avoid, but I want to get as much of that as I can out of the way in this intro. So...

Review: Fire at Sea

Oct 20 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220906:43140:0[/embed] Fire at Sea (Fuocoammare)Director: Gianfranco RosiRating: TBDRelease Date: October 21, 2016 (limited)Country: Italy Fire at Sea is two different movies. In one movie, dozens of malnourished refugees die from inhaling gasoline fumes from the ship's engine. In the other film, a 12-year-old boy named Samuele struggles to steer a rowboat at the pier. One moment's dire and heartbreaking, the other is played for laughs. There's the coziness of Samuele's town, and then there's the squalor of a refugee ship. We watch Italian boys shoot cacti with slingshots and play war. We also watch a man from a war-torn country hyperventilate after being saved from a ship; he might be dying, he might have died. Everything about the town seems inconsequential, particularly two or three scenes involving a diver who adds little to the film save for some nice underwater photography. While a mix of emotional highs and lows can work, here's it's just so mannered, calculated, and done with an off-putting emotional disinterest. Fire at Sea has so many obvious counterpoints to highlight thematic or symbolic material, it's as if Rosi cared more about the metaphors than the actual human suffering. There's minimal connection between the refugees and the people in town. None of the townspeople in the film work in the Italian coast guard, and only one person actually interacts with the refugees or talks about them meaningfully. For everyone else, the refugees don't seem to exist. Toward the beginning of the film, an elderly woman cooks while listening to a radio. The DJ reads a report about drowned refugees. Those poor people, she says, and carries on. There's a doctor in town who treats refugees fished from the Mediterranean. He recounts this in troubled tones. The things he's seen, the dire conditions, haunt his dreams. The doctor later appears in the film talking to Samuele about the boy's lazy eye. (A metaphor for how many people choose not to see or cannot see the horrors that refugees face--okay, yeah, I get it). Samuele goes off, performing for the camera like a neurotic elderly man. In another movie, this may be charming. In Fire at Sea, the moment made me angry, and probably not in the way that Rosi intended. Yeah, okay, I get it, the contrast is meant to upset the audience's comfortable lives and sensibilities. But isn't all of this also obvious? Fire at Sea is most effective when focusing on the refugees and the rescue teams. That's when the film feels humane rather than an exercise in contrasting aesthetics. A man who's been beaten on the boat literally cries blood. A woman breaks down before the camera, and despite being severely dehydrated, she first pours a cup of water over her head in relief. In a refugee processing center, a room of refugees prays as if in a Pentecostal revival, singing their story of survival. At night, refugees from different countries have a pick-up soccer game, as if some humanity, that dignity they risked their lives for, has been restored to them. But then back to Samuele, who slurps up spaghetti good and loud for laughs. I understand Rosi's intentions intellectually, and this collection of contrasts and disconnects does sound interesting in the abstract. But these are real people, and the last thing I want out of films or books is to be merely interesting. Being merely interesting is easy. The more I think about Fire at Sea, the more I'm offended by the choice to aestheticize human suffering for the sake of mere interestingness. Rosi may be well-intentioned, but Fire at Sea came across as unintentionally callous. That may have been the point. That doesn't mean I have to like it. It's telling that the final scenes of Fire at Sea are all about Samuele rather than the refugees. Those poor people, Rosi's film seems to say, and carries on.
Review: Fire at Sea photo
When refugees are a secondary concern
Sometimes I'll see a movie and that makes me shake my head and say, "Okay, yeah, I get it". These sorts of movies are ones that I can understand at a formal, metaphorical, or thematic level, and yet even though I understand t...

NYFF Review: The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait Photography

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220930:43141:0[/embed] The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait PhotographyDirector: Errol MorrisRating: TBDRelease Date: TBD "Nice" is such a loaded word. It's often equivocal, a sly insult hidden in a mild compliment rather than a genuine endorsement of character. Stephen Sondheim parsed the word in the musical Into the Woods, noting that nice and good are two different things. (The latter is always preferable to the former.) It's telling that Dorfman uses it as part of her self-description. She's so humble and self-effacing on camera. It's the sort of goodness that can be passed off as niceness and/or mistaken for mere shyness. I got the feeling that this is how she is off camera as well. Morris' adoration for Dorfman comes through in the way he comments on her work and chronicles her career. These warm feelings wouldn't be possible if he subjected his friend to the Interrotron. Dorfman initially seems more like a friend's mom or an aunt than an artist, as if these identities are mutually exclusive. That distinction is ridiculous. Dorfman was something of a fixture in the New York literary scene in the 1960s, taking photos of literary luminaries passing through the city. It's there that she started a lifelong friendship with poet Allen Ginsberg. She would take portraits of him and with him for the next few decades. She's wistful when she looks at Ginsberg's portraits, and while I wondered what she was thinking, I didn't feel like prying. It's not as if I could. The large Polaroids shared in The B-Side are a mix of famous people and everyday folks. In addition to Ginsberg, Dorfman has a few images of Modern Lovers frontman Jonathan Richman. Richman's earnest, wonkily cool/uncool music might be the proper sonic equivalent to Dorfman's portraiture and personality. The intimacy is palpable throughout The B-Side. Morris recreates the experience of hanging out with a good friend and looking at their body of work. If not looking through a portfolio, it's at least the experience of flipping through photo albums and mementos with a live commentary. This sounds merely nice, but there's more to it. Like the little details in a photo that bring it to life, there's an ineffable humane quality to The B-Side, and I think it has as much to do with Dorfman's personality as  her chosen medium. Polaroids are a "nice" format. There's a retro-chic about them, which explains their appeal--cooler than a disposable film camera--but they're impractical by today's standards. What's more, they're intended for common images and not the domain or typical format for high art. Dorfman is essentially offering a Polaroid photobooth experience (photobooths = nice), but she magnifies the internal life in her images. In her own self-portraits, there's an overwhelming domesticity, but her hand-written captions are revealing in the way that diaries and journals are revealing. The portraits themselves are art in plenty of ways: in how they play with expectations, in the way they hint at some story or feeling beneath the surface, in the way their material (Polaroid film) made me rethink the common uses of the material. When the meaning of the film's title is explained, the whole collection Dorfman's shared gains new and endearing meaning. There's something so likable about this nice Jewish girl who's been doing this since the 1970s. There's something charming about these imperfect images in this mostly dead format. There's something so delightful about The B-Side. It's not Morris' best film in terms of scope or depth, but it's also not just nice. I think The B-Side is Morris' most generous movie, and it's generous in a way that only friends can be to one another.
Review: The B-Side photo
There's something about Elsa
The B-Side is an atypical Errol Morris documentary. He doesn't use the Interrotron at all, his tool that allows interviewees to stare directly into the camera. Instead, the camera's just off to the side. The score is delicate...

NYFF Review: Abacus: Small Enough to Jail

Oct 04 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]220905:43129:0[/embed] Abacus: Small Enough to JailDirector: Steve JamesRelease Date: TBDRating: TBD  Thomas Sung seems like a model for the Asian-American immigrant experience. He helped found the Abacus Federal Savings Bank in Chinatown during the 80s to serve the local community. He knows his customers, he does right by them, and the bank has given his kids opportunities for success. His two eldest daughters, Vera and Jill, help run the bank and will eventually take over. Here's a healthy slice of promising Americana served in Chinatown. But then, Murphy's Law: a handful of Abacus employees commit loan fraud, and then the housing crisis strikes, and then the great recession. Rather than go after Chase, the Manhattan District Attorney's Office throws the book at Abacus. Even though Abacus cooperated fully with authorities for a loan fraud investigation and did everything ethically and by the books in the aftermath, they were considered easy prey. At the beginning of the documentary, Thomas and his wife, Hwei Lin, are watching Frank Capra's It's a Wonderful Life. James returns to that yuletide staple again and again, finding parallels between George Bailey's savings and loan and the Thomas Sung's Abacus. Similarly, the Sungs come across as Capraesque heroes--the set-upon optimists, the embattled idealists, everymen and everywomen always trying. This might be why the film doesn't feel like most other Frontline documentaries. Abacus is in many ways a character-driven film. I feel odd thinking about real people in documentaries as characters, but the Sung family is comprised of memorable personalities. James films them alone and in conversation with one another. The interactions can get nervy and uncomfortable, but they're all well-picked given how well they reveal the family dynamic. James offers another compelling thread in his exploration NYC's Chinese community. Chinatown residents (Abacus' primary clientele) tend to be tight-knit and insular, which goes back to the formation of family-based support groups. The representatives from the DA's office interviewed in the film are baffled by what goes on there. Jurors on the case similarly don't understand how Chinatown operates. I worried that this confusion from non-Chinese people would affect the case. There's such a fascinating contradiction at play. The closeness of the Chinese community gives them a collective strength that they wouldn't have otherwise as a minority group, but the foreign nature of these cultural practices and their minority status make the residents of Chinatown more vulnerable. I mentioned that a sense of Capraesque optimism pervades the film, and yet I couldn't help but read a larger brand of pessimism into the proceedings. The little guy can always get picked on. While it's nice to see the little guy fight, there's a knowledge that this won't be the last time it happens. What about the major banks, who really should have been held accountable somehow for what they've done? But the world isn't so kind to those that are easily trampled. And yet. This reminds me of one the great lines about disillusionment in film: "Forget it, Jake; it's Chinatown."
NYFF Review: Abacus photo
Mr. Capra Goes to Chinatown
Steve James may be incapable of directing a bad documentary. His films includes Hoop Dreams, The Interrupters, and Life Itself. With Abacus: Small Enough to Jail, James continues his record as one of America's most relia...

NYFF 2016: Our Most Anticipated Movies of the 54th New York Film Festival

Sep 28 // Hubert Vigilla
MoonlightDirector: Barry Jenkins This year's big festival darling, Moonlight looks like it could be one of the great, daring coming-of-age films this year. Writer/director Barry Jenkins explores aspects of masculinity, sexuality, identity, and passing in the black community, focusing on a bullied boy named Chiron who lives with his single mother in Miami. ElleDirector: Paul Verhoeven After 16 years away from Hollywood and a decade since his last proper film (Black Book), Paul Verhoeven's Elle looks like a provocative return-to-form. Some critics who caught the premiere at Cannes described it as an empowering rape comedy, a combination of words so antithetical I can't help but be intrigued. Starring Isabelle huppert, Elle is France's official selection for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. 13THDirector: Ava DuVernay In the 13TH, an original feature-length documentary for Netflix, Selma director Ava DuVernay focuses on the systemic racism and pervasive inequality of the United States prison system. The film's title refers to the 13th Amendment, which ostensibly abolished slavery. Interviewees in 13TH include Angela Davis, Senator Cory Booker, and, unexpectedly, former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich. Toni ErdmannDirector: Maren Ade The buzz around Toni Erdmann is that it's a masterful three-hour screwball drama-comedy about an estranged father and his daughter. Beyond the great reviews out of Cannes and Toronto, I'm going into the film blind but hopeful. It'll be my first exciting dip into the films of Maren Ade. Toni Erdmann is Gemany's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. PatersonDirector: Jim Jarmusch Jim Jarmusch is one of my favorite filmmakers, which means that my excitement for Paterson is a given. Getting away from the Detroit-based vampires of Only Lovers Left Alive, Jarmusch instead heads to Paterson, New Jersey where a bus driver (Adam Driver) named Paterson writes poems in private. There's obviously more to it than that, but the beauty is in the smaller things. Gimme DangerDirector: Jim Jarmusch Jim Jarmusch is one of a few people doing double-duty at this year's New York Film Festival. In addition to Paterson, he's also got a documentary on the birth and decline and resurgence of The Stooges. Their third album, Raw Power, is one of the best albums ever made. This is an indisputable fact. I wonder how a mellow guy like Jarmusch does with the raucous squalor of Iggy Pop. Personal ShopperDirector: Olivier Assayas Kristen Stewart is doing her best to break away from the Twilight films. She shook free of that sparkling albatross in Olivier Assays' 2014 drama Clouds of Sils Maria, and she re-teams with Assayas for this year's Personal Shopper. The film centers on Stewart's character (part high-powered personal shopper, part spiritual medium... just go with it) coming to terms with the death of her twin brother. Certain WomenDirector: Kelly Reichardt Another NYFF film starring Kristen Stewart, Certain Women looks like one of those quiet, ruminative character studies that can linger in your memory long after it's over. The three stories in the film (adapted from the work of Maile Meloy) are each propelled by the performances of Stewart, Laura Dern, Michelle Williams, and newcomer Lily Gladstone. Billy Lynn's Long Halftime WalkDirector: Ang Lee Here's your Kristen Stewart hat trick. Adapted from the novel by Ben Fountain, Ang Lee's latest is all about an Iraq War veteran dealing with a brief return home. The movie co-stars Joe Alwyn, Vin Diesel, Chris Tucker, and Steve Martin. Shot in 4K 3D in 120 frames per second, Billy Lynn should look and feel much different than anything else that's come before.  NerudaDirector: Pablo Larrain Pablo Larrain has had a busy last few years as a producer and filmmaker, and he's doing double-duty at the New York Film Festival this year. In Neruda, Larrain tells a semi-fictionalized account of the political exile of Pablo Neruda in Chile during the late 1940s. The poet is on the run from a shadowy Chilean agent played by Gael Garcia Bernal. JackieDirector: Pablo Larrain Just announced yesterday, Pablo Larrain's Jackie will have its US premiere at NYFF 54 at a special screening. His English-language debut is a biopic of Jackie Kennedy set around the time of the JFK assassination. Natalie Portman stars in the film, and she's apparently turned in a remarkable performance as the former First Lady. GraduationDirector: Cristian Mungiu Cristian Mungiu's films have a devastating power. Much of it comes from his control of long takes and what that does to the perception of a scene. In Graduation, Mungiu turns his attention to a father determined to have his daughter graduate and study abroad after she's been assaulted, no matter what compromises must be made. Graduation is Romania's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. Manchester by the SeaDirector: Kenneth Lonergan Kenneth Lonergan's Manchester by the Sea is a movie I've been wanting to watch all year thanks to major buzz at Sundance. The film follows Casey Affleck's character, who returns home to Massachusetts after the death of his brother. Lots of pain and carefully observed family drama ensues. JulietaDirector: Pedro Almodovar I never expected Pedro Almodovar to adapt Canadian literary fiction icon Alice Munro to the big screen, but here goes with Julieta. Taking stories from Munro's collection Runaway, Almodovar continues to do what he does best: explore the lives and relationships of fascinating women. Julieta is Spain's official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar. The B-Side: Elsa Dorfman's Portrait PhotographyDirector: Errol Morris There are certain things audiences expect from an Errol Morris documentary, but The B-Side looks like it'll throw fans for a loop. Morris puts away the Interrotron and instead spends quality time with a good friend. The friend in question is photographer Elsa Dorfman, best known for taking endearing, oversized 20x24 Polaroid portraits.
NYFF 54 Preview photo
Just a handful of major highlights
The 54th New York Film Festival kicks off on Friday, September 30th and runs until Sunday, October 16th. This year's slate looks generally solid, and several of the movies are going to be shoo-ins for best-of-the-year lists c...

NYFF 2016 photo
NYFF 2016

54th New York Film Festival starts Friday, runs September 30-October 16


Flixist coverage kicks off this week
Sep 27
// Hubert Vigilla
The 54th New York Film Festival kicks off this Friday, September 30th and runs until Sunday, October 16th. One of the biggest end-of-year film festivals, Flixist will be there checking out some of the most acclaimed anticipat...

Review: The Lobster

May 12 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219844:42633:0[/embed] The LobsterDirector: Yorgos LanthimosRating: n/aRelease Date: October 16, 2015 (UK); May 13, 2016 (USA)Country: UK, Greece, France  In the world of The Lobster, single people are social pariahs. After the death of a spouse or a divorce, a single person is forced to check into a hotel filled with other single people. They have forty-five days to pair up and get married, otherwise they are killed and have their consciousness transferred to an animal. Lots of people choose dogs, but throughout the movie we also see horses, pigs, and peacocks. Our hero David (Colin Ferrell, with a slight gut) chooses a lobster; he brings his brother (who is now a dog) with him to the hotel. You can earn extra time to prevent metempsychosis by hunting down single people in the woods with a tranquilizer gun. The hotel operates with business-like efficiency, providing scheduled social activities like some bad singles cruise from hell. To reinforce the importance of relationships, the hotel staff puts on skits: A single man pantomimes eating a meal alone, he chokes, he dies; a man and his wife pantomime eating a meal together, he chokes, she administers the Heimlich maneuver, he lives--applause. To determine whom you can pair up with, you're asked whether you're straight or homosexual (the latter sounds so much like business-ese in the context of the film). David asks if there's a bi-sexual option and is shot down--you can only choose one or the other, not both. Paper or plastic, soup or salad, efficiency, efficiency, efficiency. And it's blackly hilarious. The international cast adds to the oddball appeal of The Lobster, and they deliver their lines in an intentionally stilted manner. Olivia Colman's hotel manager strikes just the right balance between clinical, supportive, and fascistic to make her moments memorable. As for the guests, at times they seem like awkward pre-teens going through the early stages of adolescence. David befriends men played by John C. Reilly (with a slight lisp) and Ben Wishaw (with a slight limp), but they act like boys in the schoolyard. In some scenes the lines are bumbled or devoid of actual human emotion, like they're reading a script or they're pod people acting like humans are supposed to act. Flirtation is no longer about attraction or fun but learned behaviors about how people are supposed to flirt, or the desperation of a ticking clock scenario; relationships are a form of mutually beneficial transaction (i.e., we get to remain humans) that's not necessarily satisfying. Some of the best moments in The Lobster come from Lanthimos' exploration of the various forces that urge people to get into relationships against their will. The time limit might be taken as a biological imperative to have kids, or even just a desire to get married by a certain age; the pressures of the hotel staff are the different cultural, familial, and religious expectations attached to marriage and relationships. Any time your relatives have nagged you about dating, marriage, or kids, you have occupied a room in Lanthimos' hotel. Lanthimos also pokes fun at the arbitrary ways we sometimes choose who we want to be with. Limping Wishaw is looking for a woman who also has a limp, because something in common (no matter how arbitrary) might mean greater compatibility. Sometimes shared interests or traits are an arbitrary reason to get into a relationship. Does he or she really need to like your favorite band? Is a 99% match on OK Cupid really a guarantee of compatibility? A number is just a number like a limp is just a limp, and what people share together isn't a matter of arithmetic or mere reflection; there's a kind of private language and grammar that develops between people who are really fond of one another, and these things can't be forced or imposed from the outside. Since The Lobster is rooted in binaries, we also get to learn about the harshness of single-life out in the woods. In the wild and the damp, we meet the leader of The Loners played by Lea Seydoux, who's both a kind of political revolutionary and a radicalized kook. She asserts her own absurd will over The Loners that is in stark contrast to the rules of the hotel--instead of relationships, it's all about forceful solitude. And yet like the hotel, her rules are equally arbitrary, equally absurd, and also blackly hilarious. It's no longer a case of "paper or plastic" among The Loners, but rather "with us or against us." Lanthimos is equally suspicious of these denials of attraction and the repression of our desire to connect with someone else; it's another imposition on human nature and individual choice. In the woods, animals who were single people wander through shots. They're probably better off. For all the absurd and anarchic humor throughout The Lobster, the movie loses momentum before it comes to an end. It's as if Lanthimos exhausted the possibilities of his conceit and didn't figure out the final pivot his story could take. (I mentioned Barthelme earlier, and his best stories often have a sort of pivot near the end, revealing an additional train of thought that's been operating, parallel or hidden, all along.) The Lobster can feel a little one-note at times, but I suppose it's really one note that's played by two opposing sides, a kind of tyranny of logic. During the New York Film Festival press conference after the screening, Lanthimos said his screenplay was very logical. The comment drew some giggles from the press, yet it's true. The Lobster adheres to the logic of its conceit, and maybe too much. But there's still enough to love.
Review: The Lobster photo
Love is strange (so is loneliness)
I still haven't gotten around to seeing Yorgos Lanthimos' Dogtooth, though I intend to. The blackly surreal 2009 film was nominated for a Best Foreign Film Oscar and drew favorable comparisons to the work of Luis Bunuel ...

Review: Where to Invade Next

Feb 11 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219845:42640:0[/embed] Where to Invade NextDirector: Michael MooreRating: RRelease Date: December 23, 2015 (NY/LA); February 12, 2016 (wide) We start the invasion in Italy. Moore sits down with a couple in their living room to discuss what their paid vacation situation is like in the country. They get more than a month off, not including national and local holidays, and any unused vacation time rolls over into the next year. Moore's mouth is agog most of the time--he was genuinely learning all of this for the first time. But there's more. The wages tend to be better, the lunches are longer, and employees tend to be more productive on the job because they are so relaxed. Moore's invasion continues through Europe, with stops in France, Germany, Finland, Slovenia, Norway, and Portugal, continuing over the Mediterranean to Tunisia, then across the sea to Iceland. Each time, there's a novel innovation, and each time Moore seems surprised and inspired. He focuses on one thing each country seems to be doing right. In Slovenia, for instance, all college is free, even for students who've come from abroad. In Finland, they've abolished homework. Moore admits that these countries have their own problems and he's mostly accentuating the positive. My job is picking the flowers and not the weeds, he says. He's also picking cherries, but that's not the biggest problem with Where to Invade Next, which, when it works, offers a fine rebuke of the "Fuck you, I got mine" mentality that pervades much of American culture. Moore's generally at his best when he's a deadpan observer rather than a fiery polemicist. Roger and Me is still his finest film (even though he did fudge the timeline of events) since it's mostly Moore as a citizen journalist documenting others. While framed around Moore trying to get an audience with General Motors CEO Roger Smith, the movie is driven by people who get to tell their own stories about the painful decline of Flint, Michigan. As Moore's clout grew, he became a more prominent figure in his films, and in turn his movies were more about Michael Moore's opinions on a subject rather than the subject itself. Moore develops a feel-good thesis in Where to Invade Next. These innovations in other countries could make America a better place, and they all have a shared origin. But Moore oversteps his skills as a documentary essayist through sloppy thinking and oversimplification. He walks past part of an old section of the Berlin Wall with a friend, and they reminisce about being there as it came down. Hammering and chiseling--the solution was so simple, they say. Well, no. History doesn't work that way. The Berlin Wall didn't come down just because some people in West Germany began chipping away at it for a few nights. There were decades of global history that culminated in that moment, and none of it was easy. While Moore smartly identifies the systemic racism underlying the US drug war, he dumbs down cause and effect in other parts of the film to suggest that the catalyst for change is something really simple. By that logic, the Arab Spring was easy as pie: all it took was for someone to self-immolate. No problemo. The systems themselves are simple and elegant, and yet the implementation of these solutions--free college, prison reform, education reform, greater gender representation in government--would have to be accomplished through legislative action and, even more difficult, a fundamental ideological shift in American attitudes regarding the bullshit of global capitalism and antiquated gender roles. These aren't so simple, they'll take time. But they're worth fighting for, which is why there's an oddly ennobling aspect to Where to Invade Next even for its flaws. In my head during each slip up, all I could think was, "Your argument is facile, but yeah, I agree, Michael." Moore's rhetorical missteps in Where to Invade Next come from a genuine place of concern. It's like a bad college essay. The larger point is good, but it's articulated and argued inartfully, whether through selective anecdotes rather than facts, or through emotional appeals rather than reason. The pat close of the movie is mushy and inspirational at the same time. Moore references a well-known fairy tale that takes place in the Midwest, and in the process made me think of another work (a book by Thomas Frank) about the contradictory relationship between political ideology and voting against your best interests in the Midwest. When film critic Stephen Whitty reviewed Fahrenheit 9/11 back in 2004, he wrote that Moore tends to worry liberals about as much as he infuriates conservatives. "They're people who agree with what Michael Moore says--but refuse to defend to the death the way he insists on saying it," he wrote. Some things don't change.
Review: Where to Invade photo
A feel good movie (but oversimplified)
Michael Moore and Donald Trump have something in common. No, seriously. They want to make America great again. In Where to Invade Next, Moore pretends he's been sent by the Pentagon to invade other countries. His mission: to ...

Review: Steve Jobs

Oct 23 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219839:42637:0[/embed] Steve JobsDirector: Danny BoyleRating: RRelease Date: October 9, 2015 (limited); October 23, 2015 (wide) Even though he was an ideal public persona for Apple products, Steve Jobs was not a good person behind the scenes. There are numerous examples of Steve Jobs being a giant jerk, and the Steve Jobs of the film played by Michael Fassbender is superbly unrepentant. Before the launch of the original Macintosh computer, Steve throws tantrums. He's abusive to his staff, and he continues to avoid his financial and personal responsibilities to his daughter Lisa and her mother. (He's only 94.1% likely to be Lisa's father, he keeps pointing out.) Steve Jobs was a self-centered prick, a long-view Machiavellian entrenched in the tech industry, and there are times in this film that he verges on pure supervillainy. But he was also a savvy businessman. Based on this performance, you know who would make a great Lex Luthor? Michael Fassbender. (Also, Steve Jobs.) With some historical figures, we ponder the link between madness and genius. With Steve Jobs it's maybe more a question of morality and genius. The big conversation that the film wants to provoke is whether Steve Jobs could have been successful if he weren't such a raging douchebag. There's a pivotal argument in the third act with Steve Wozniak (Seth Rogen), who calls Jobs out for all of his persistent moral shortcomings. Fassbender plays Steve Jobs as this ethically challenged, emotionally unmoored figure, and the rest of the cast helps make this work by playing moral counterpoint for the wretch. Picture people holding down a hot air balloon with rope. The task is to keep this thing grounded as much as possible. Rogen's Wozniak is one of these people, and he's mainly seeking recognition for his hard work. There's also steady and loyal Andy Hertzfeld played by Michael Stuhlbarg, and a warmly paternal Jeff Daniels as former Pepsi and Apple CEO John Sculley. The most set upon moral figure in the film, though, is Joanna Hoffman (Kate Winslet). She's portrayed as a kind of power-personal assistant to Steve Jobs, though her marketing roles at Apple and NeXT were probably far different. Ditto her overall career trajectory. Hoffman apparently retired in 1995, years before the iMac launch, though she's at Jobs' side in the film in each act. This deviation makes sense for the sake of the screenplay, which requires a character as morally resolute as Jobs is morally aloof. In real life, Hoffman was considered the person who was best able to stand up to Jobs, and that kind of figure--the immovable moral object to Steve Job's unstoppable narcissistic force--is necessary in this particular type of story. Winslet disappears into the role. I didn't even realize it was her until the second act of Steve Jobs. Many of the best scenes involve Winslet verbally grappling with Fassbender. There are Sorkin-isms throughout the briskly paced Steve Jobs (e.g., the walk-and-talks, the trivia, the impeccable ripostes), and Boyle does a good job of differentiating the look and feel of each section of the film. The world of 1984 is shot in a grainy 16mm, for instance. The film's acts were shot independently, which allowed the actors to tailor their performances to each year before reconsidering their character for the next. Certain gags or lines or ticks in a performance call back to others. As strong as Steve Jobs is for its first two-thirds, it gets a little soft by 1998. I don't know if it's the Hollywood aspect (or Danny Boyle) shining through at this point, but the movie begins making these overtures of Steve Jobs' redemption, all with a heavy dose of crowd-pleasing schmaltz. I didn't buy any of it. A cringeworthy cutesiness also creeps into the iMac section of the movie. Here and there, Steve critiques the limitations of 1990s technology and hints at 21st century Apple products, as if we're watching a winky retroactive commercial. The lines are clunkers when they come, and one of them is a total eyeroller. It doesn't help that I'd been rolling my eyes at the triumphalism that the movie takes on in the final act even as elements of the script do its best to keep the man and the story on the ground. The argument between Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak I mentioned earlier offers a great encapsulation of the film's underlying concerns. And sure, while the story chronicles one man's ability to overcome years of failure, Steve Jobs does this mostly by screwing over other people. During the NeXT section of the film, Jobs calls it "playing the orchestra." In real life, most people call it "being a dick." In A Christmas Carol, Ebenezer Scrooge has his three visions, wakes up in the morning, and reforms. In Steve Jobs, there are three products and a hint of a better Steve Jobs in the future. Bah humbug. In real life, Steve Jobs woke up after the iMac was released and was still Steve Jobs.
Review: Steve Jobs photo
A better way to do a biopic about a jerk
I was texting a friend about Steve Jobs over the weekend, the new biopic written by Aaron Sorkin and directed by Danny Boyle. Sorkin thankfully avoided the birth-to-death biopic that we've all seen and grown tired of by now. ...

Review: Experimenter

Oct 16 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219963:42636:0[/embed] ExperimenterDirector: Michael AlmereydaRating: PG-13Release Date:  October 16, 2015 In my review of Steve Jobs, I mentioned how Aaron Sorkin avoided the trap of the traditional biopic by creating a three-act structure. With Experimenter, writer/director Michael Almereyda also avoids the traditional biopic, in this case by treating his film like a kind of posthumous memoir. Milgram (Peter Sarsgaard) goes about his life, but he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the camera with some commentary. Milgram also provides narration throughout the film, a kind of guided tour through his own life, or maybe through a fictional journal he kept in the afterlife. Though not identical, Experimenter reminded me at times of the Harvey Pekar movie American Splendor. The Milgram of the movie even gets to see a fictionalized version of himself on a TV shoot. Experimenter has moments of visual whimsy as well. When noting the links between his shock experiments and the rise of Nazism, an elephant stalks behind him in the hall. Backgrounds are sometimes projected onto a screen, which give a few moments the chintzy feel of a made-for-TV movie as well as a theatrical flair. A lot of Experimenter feels as if it could have been done on stage. I'm still note sure if the whimsy is justified--justifying whimsy makes me sound like a killjoy--but it keeps Experimenter visually interesting even if whimsy is just some play with the biopic form. The idea of deception is key in the ethical discussions about Milgram's shock experiments, so that may also be a loose justification for all the meta material and artifice. Since his breakthrough in Boys Don't Cry, Sarsgaard has been one of America's most reliably good and yet underrated actors. Even when the role isn't that great, Sarsgaard has a knack for at least making it work. As Milgram, Sarsgaard provides a sense of scientific remove. The delivery is clinical yet ruminative, as if every few lines should be followed by a curious hum. Winona Ryder plays his wife, Sasha, and though never given a lot to do in the film, she's solid with what she's given. The same could be said of the rest of the cast, which is filled with other recognizable character actors and that-guy/that-gal performers, like comedian Jim Gaffigan, Dennis Haysbert, Taryn Manning, Anthony Edwards, and John Leguizamo. The first third of Experimenter is centered on the shock experiments and meeting Sasha, and the eventual fallout of the experiments in terms of Milgram's career. His methods are questioned since they are dependent on an ethical breech, but the film's concern isn't just the moral issue of the experiment or the ethical conundrums of Milgram's methods. It branches outward, showing Milgram's other work as a social psychologist and contributions to his area of study and pop culture. One of Milgram's other experiments, briefly depicted, involved how we're all roughly six degrees of separation from one another--it's from Milgram that we got that phrase. If Experimenter falters, it's because it loses focus and a sense of momentum after the shock experiments are over, which might mirror the public interest in Milgram's post-shock work. We follow Milgram as he grows facial hair and as fashions change, but there's not necessarily an underlying thesis to latch onto, or a neatly shaped narrative to this take on Milgram's life. At a certain point, I was watching mostly for Sarsgaard, who held my interest like he usually does. Maybe Experimenter is a little too clinical and too removed from the urgent human stuff. There's an overarching sense about moral obligations to help others, and a fundamental interconnectedness about humanity that should make us feel less alone in the world. And yet instead of feeling moved emotionally, I was swayed intellectually. It's the sensation of hearing someone say something intelligent and showing assent with a hum.
Review: Experimenter photo
Stanley Milgram's noble experiment
If you've taken an Intro to Psychology class, you've heard about Stanley Milgram. His most famous experiments involved obedience and how normal people succumb to the effects of authority. The set up: Subject A is asked to tes...

Review: Bridge of Spies

Oct 15 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219841:42639:0[/embed] Bridge of SpiesDirector: Steven SpielbergRating: PG-13Release Date: October 16, 2015 Based on a true story, Bridge of Spies centers on James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a lawyer in Brooklyn who's asked to defend Colonel Abel (Mark Rylance). Abel is a suspected Russian spy, and the film opens on him as he goes about his daily routine. He's a good artist, though he uses his talents as subterfuge in order to get around the city and receive messages from his superiors. The opening minutes of the film are without dialogue, and showcase some nice bits of spycraft. Rylance remains stonefaced but vigilant. Donovan's expected to deliver a mere token defense for Abel. He's a speed bump en route to a commie's execution. Donovan's a principled litigator, however, and he wants to extend Constitutional protections to the captured spy. Donovan even urges the judge to avoid the death penalty. A spy of Abel's caliber--Donovan constantly refers to him as "a good soldier"--would be a worthwhile bargaining chip if the US ever had to negotiate with the Soviets. Donovan's neighbors and colleagues begin to turn on him for taking a stand. Casting Tom Hanks as Donovan is a given. There's an innate trustworthiness about Hanks' screen presence, and he exudes the kind of everyman likability you'd expect out of your favorite friend or neighbor. At a party, people may ask when Tom's showing up. Since the early 90s, Hanks has become the go-to common-man good-guy in the mold of Jimmy Stewart; if Bridge of Spies were made decades ago, Stewart would probably play Donovan. (Okay, maybe not. If it were made decades ago the entire crew would be blacklisted and seated before a HUAC hearing.) Then there's Mark Rylance as Colonel Abel. His performance is all about the poker face. Colonel Abel's low-key and could pass as a plain old man, but to the intelligence community, they know what's up. He plays so dumb that he's obviously got a lot secrets. There's a lot to read into Hanks' and Rylance's performances when they share the screen together--what's being said and not said, what they're saying with looks--but there's also a kind of mutual respect; not just something lawyer-client based but an admiration for such staunch resoluteness. Bridge of Spies switches from a courtroom drama to small-scale espionage movie for the last half or two-thirds. US government sends Donovan to negotiate the release of a US soldier named Francis Gary Powers (Austin Stowell) who's being held by the Soviets. Good thing Donovan fought so hard to keep his chip from the chair. And so we go from Brooklyn to Berlin, where the wall has just gone up and a clash between Soviet and East German interests might complicate the deal that Donovan has been sent to broker. Bridge of Spies tries to braid in two additional threads of narrative over the Donovan-driven and Abel-driven dramas. It's here that some seams become visible--it's easy to spot seams in an otherwise handsome film. Powers' mission helps get across the amount of spying going on between the US and Russia, and it culminates in a daring set piece involving a spy plane, but it doesn't quite flow with the legal drama unfolding on the ground. At least it has some creative smash cuts and cross cuts. The film gets much clunkier as we introduce the other thread involving an economics student named Frederic Pryor (Will Rogers), who's suspected of being an American spy in East Germany. It's introduced and dropped as a narrative expedient--a story for the main story but not a story on its own. It's almost like a stray movie lost in the bigger one, and some of the brief drama involving Pryor and his girlfriend are never touched on again. Even with the seams and loose threads, Bridge of Spies is steadily carried by Hanks' amiability and Spielberg and his craft. Once we're back with Donovan, the film regains its footing (and handsomeness). I sense some audiences might be put off by the film's high-mindedness. Conservatives in particular may take issue with Donovan's heroic idealism even if it's so earnestly American. There's one speech Donovan makes before the Supreme Court that's Capraesque bordering on cloying. Even if taken directly from a transcript, the speech seems like it's directed at a contemporary audience rather than the Justices of the 1950s. Donovan speaks about the heart of the country and the fundaments of the Constitution and how it ought to be applied even to America's enemies. The contemporary read is not about Soviets but soldiers from Afghanistan and Iraq who are detained in Guantanamo. Spielberg even seems to offer an indictment of prisoner abuse by contrasting Powers in a Soviet prison with Abel in an American one. The appeal is clear and you don't even have to look that hard--we're Americans, and we should be good even to our enemies. This kind of black-and-white appeal to good old-fashioned American decency works in movies since it's about an abstraction of Jimmy Stewart America or Gregory Peck America--a kind of aspirational Platonic form of what people in America can strive to be. (Ronald Reagan's America is probably more pervasive. Make of that what you will.) In that way, Bridge of Spies shares some Constitutional connective tissue with Amistad and Lincoln, while also being a kind of post-war counterpart to Saving Private Ryan--it's a mission to bring our boys home. It's hokey, but the takeaway is to be the best the country has to offer, or at least to try. If that corny idealism isn't good old-fashioned American decency, I don't know what is.
Review: Bridge of Spies photo
When Spielbergian goes Capraesque
Watching Bridge of Spies, I realized almost immediately the difference between a beautiful film and a handsome film. Steven Spielberg's latest movie is handsome. It's cleanly shot, polished, glossy, with impeccable acting in ...

Review: The Forbidden Room

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219842:42634:0[/embed] The Forbidden RoomDirectors: Guy Maddin and Evan JohnsonRating: NRRelease Date: October 7, 2015 (limited)Country: Canada  The Forbidden Room is a movie parody made of multiple movies tossed together, all in the form of an out-of-control lucid dream. There's a submarine thriller in which doomed seamen are running out of air and must figure out how to surface without blowing up. (They're hauling explosive jelly, you see.) One of the crewmen, coming out from a portal in the sub, is also a woodsman from another movie who's on a hypermasculine quest to save a woman from a group of rough and tumble feral group of cave dwellers. (Goofy feats of strength ensue.) But then we're on an island with an active volcano, and then we're experiencing the dream of a dying man's mustache, and then we're in a nightclub talking about Filipino vampires, and then we back and the sub, and then we're on a train, and then we're on a farm; and then, and then, and then. The breathless way an excited child tells a story--always, and then. Oh, also the poet John Ashbery shows up periodically in The Forbidden Room for a quirky educational film on how you're supposed to take a bath. "Hoo boy. Who's the wiseguy who put all the peyote buttons in the mulligan stew?" With so much talk of "the molten dream" in the film, it's as if we're experiencing the dream of the volcano, or that the lava from this volcano is comprised of all these stories joined together from the stuff that comprises the ground; a mingling of film history and the collective unconscious. ("Hey! Who's the mook that put the metaphorical lava in the mulligan stew?") We may simply be walking through a series of half-formed ideas in Maddin's head. Moments of The Forbidden Room reminded me of listening to friends describe their dreams, and admittedly there were times in the film where inattention set in--sometimes a dream goes on too long that's unengaging--but I would be snapped back into the molten dream by a shift in the narrative. It's as if the adult mind is at odds with the child mind of the movie. In the former, the need to explore an idea to its deeper intellectual and aesthetic ends. In the latter, the rush of the enthused conjunction "and then" until the end of the story arrives. Both, however, wind up being discursive, and the further we get from the sub and its confined spaces and singular focus, the stranger and better things get. (Did I mention the doomed submarine crew eats flapjacks for oxygen because of the air pockets?) Maddin's films tend to have a hand-made, analog quality to them, like My Winnipeg or Brand Upon the Brain. As sumptuous as the colors are in The Forbidden Room, it often doesn't feel handmade or old-timey. That due to the digital cinematography and color manipulation. The grainy "silent film look" was done in post, and it can be inconsistent, even from shot to shot in the same segment. The distortions on the images similarly have a digital sheen, as one image morphs into the next; there are even digital snowflakes at one point, and I never realized how much I longed for the fake stuff shaken out of a box from above the frame. While I don't mind digital cameras, there's something about the look of the film that took me out of its attempt at creating a vivid and continuous dream made of old movies. I also sensed a certain lack of distinction from certain movies to the next, which may have been a result of the digital shooting. The Ashbery educational film certainly look different from the sub movie, but at times the side movies seem to meld into each other--flavors blending together in the pot, multiple rocks now just a single lava flow. In some instances it's fine since characters, actors, and flapjacks crisscross through the different subfilms of the main film. One of my favorite stretches of The Forbidden Room involved a murder and the dream of a mustache and the diary of a madman since the sections were so distinctly severed. Then again, this bit was neatly nested rather than molten, and I wonder if that says more about my taste than anything else. For Maddin's fans, The Forbidden Room should feel comfy and maddening at once, and there's a lot to pick apart in this bowl of mulligan stew. Newcomers to Maddin might want to start with My Winnipeg and move on from there. Best to start in shallow and warm waters before jumping into an active volcano.
The Forbidden Room review photo
Dreaming the winding, molten dream
Guy Maddin's The Forbidden Room has been described as a series of nested movies, but I don't think that description is accurate. "Nested" seems more about neat structure to me, the way that Matryoshka dolls fit neatly (or nea...

Review: Junun

Oct 09 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219966:42655:0[/embed] JununDirector: Paul Thomas AndersonRating: NRRelease Date: October 9, 2015 (MUBI) Junun is all about the music being made, so much so that the filmmaking seems a secondary concern. While multiple angles are covered during the recording sessions, we still see cameras suddenly picked up and repositioned, and get views of the ornately designed ceilings of the fort in the process. It sets the viewer down among the musicians as they perform or just outside the room looking in. There are a few humorous moments, like when a pesky pigeon winds up in the room, and there are moments of downtime when the musicians wait for rolling blackouts to pass. Occasionally Anderson offers a sublime cinematic flourish, like a drone shot of dozens of falcons swirling around the top of the fort as a man tosses them bits of meat. In the sunset and sunrise, Rajasthan looks gorgeous--gold skies, and many of the buildings an inviting blue--and a few times in Junun there are excursions into the bustle of the city itself. Anderson returns continually to the music--and more so the members of the Rajasthan Express and Tzur than Greenwood--blanketing the film in the songs from end to end. The collaborative compositions are mesmerizing, structured on galloping percussion, repetition and variation, and virtuosic touches. It might be a testament to the music that it elevates many of the images that would seem otherwise too much like home movie fare. The falcon shot might be the best marriage of sound and vision, though the music also invigorates plain moments walking the streets or shooting the people of Rajasthan from a tuk-tuk. I caught Junun in the Walter Reade Theater. The music resounded through the space and the seats. It made me wonder how different my experience would have been if I watched it via the VOD service MUBI. Something visceral might be lost from the big screen to the laptop, and unless you've got a really good sound system, it might fail to have the same impact. But Junun is worth a watch, or even just worth a listen, and not because it's a new Paul Thomas Anderson movie. It's more like a Paul Thomas Anderson music recommendation--check these guys out. It might be the first of his movies you can just play in the background.
Review: Junun photo
It's about the music (film is secondary)
How do you review a home movie with a great soundtrack? In a lot of ways that's precisely what Paul Thomas Anderson's Junun is. Anderson shot the footage earlier this year, chronicling a month-long recording session between R...

Review: The Walk

Oct 08 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219838:42632:0[/embed] The WalkDirector: Robert ZemeckisRated: PGRelease Date: September 30, 2015 (IMAX); October 9, 2015 (wide) Throughout The Walk, Philippe Petit (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) and his associates speak of artists as anarchists. Artists shake things up, cause people to reconsider the world around them, do things because they are beautiful and new. Yet these statements about the anarchic qualities of artists and their art feel like a form of unintentional self-indictment. The Walk is so painfully conventional, a shiny Hollywood product that wants to inspire its audience to dream big while simultaneously suffering from a deficit of imagination. The biopic cliches are everywhere. While the events in France may be true to Petit's life, Zemeckis and co-writer Christopher Browne make them feel like part of a screenplay checklist: tightrope origin story (check), disowned by parents (check), finds begrudging mentor (check, Sir Ben Kingsley), finds love interest (check, Charlotte Le Bon), establish flaw(s) to be overcome in film's third act (check), fails first attempt at vocation (check) only to triumph immediately after (check), mentor becomes father figure (check). Because these moments feel so perfunctory and familiar rather than lived-in, the first half of The Walk drags. The meet-cute between Philippe and Annie is particularly embarrassing—there's mime involved, and also rain (check). They go from adversaries to lovers bathed in candlelight (check) over the course of an afternoon. But Annie isn't given much to do throughout the rest of the film. She's just there to be Philippe's girlfriend. In another act of unintentional self-indictment, Annie tells Philippe that she's here to help him realize his dream, but she ultimately has to find a dream of her own. The film's finale is 110 stories in the air, but The Walk can't even get over the low hurdle of the Bechdel test. Yet this isn't just Annie's plight. Most of the side characters in the film are generally devoid of personality; they are Philippe's props. Philippe comes across as an angry narcissistic madman in The Walk rather than a charismatic madman, and it's unclear why anyone would want to work with him the way he's written in this film. Once The Walk winds up in New York, the movie picks up the pace and finally becomes enjoyable. Rather than a schlocky, inspirational biopic, the film goes into heist-movie mode. The plan starts to come together, and rhythm becomes brisk, and the movie has an enjoyable breeziness to it. Heist-mode is brief, but it's a welcome reprieve from the biopic stuff, and it sets up the big walk along the World Trade Center. Unfortunately, there are moments of heightened artificial drama (e.g., one of Philippe's friends is extremeley acrophobic). The walk itself is good as a set piece but not all that great. For all the hype about the use of 3D, Zemeckis never exploits image depth to its fullest ability. Staring down from the towers in 3D creates an illusion of height, that's true, but it felt to me like 20 feet (maybe) rather than 1,350 feet. There's little sense of weight or gravity to this world; it's all just lightness. It doesn't help that the towers, the sky, and the city below all feel like CG. Actual photos taken of Petit's walk show a New York that's cool and gray-toned, muted, in the dawn. Zemeckis instead bathes the towers and the digital cityscape in gold and pink hues. The eye notices; the real world is not a Thomas Kinkade painting. The coda to The Walk is a series of uncomfortable allusions to 9/11 that feel cheap and exploitative, even borderline offensive. At one point someone praises Philippe for giving the buildings a soul and making people love The Twin Towers, and they look up longingly into the night sky. It's a cringeworthy attempt to earn your tears. Gordon-Levitt's narration throughout the film doesn't help matters. He speaks French like Inspector Clouseau, situated atop the torch of The Statute of Liberty with the World Trade Center visible in the skyline behind him. It's CG, it's garish, it's surprisingly chintzy, though the worst case of bathos may be a certain moment in the movie that involves a CG bird. In real life there's no actual film footage of Philippe Petit's walk along The Twin Towers. This was likely the impetus for The Walk. It's admirable that Zemeckis would want to re-create a singular event, but I can't help but feel like this is also the reason the event shouldn't be recreated on film. In Man on Wire, Marsh shows stills of the moment accompanied by the quiet, melancholy beauty of Erik Satie's "Gymnopedie No. 1." (In The Walk, we hear Beethoven's "Fur Elise," which has never sounded more cliched.) In Let the Great World Spin, McCann recreates the New York of 1974 from different characters and perspectives. Using Petit's singular act, Marsh and McCann invite their viewers/readers to co-create the event in their minds—to be up with Petit, or below watching a dot in the sky from the ground. At no point during The Walk's major set piece did I think, "It feels like I'm there" or "I wish I was there." Zemeckis doesn't give any room for the audience's imagination or co-authorship. There is more danger and beauty in a still photo of Petit on a wire than the whole of The Walk's recreation of the moment. That might speak to the power of Petit's actual work of art.
Review: The Walk photo
A collection of weightless cliches
It's impossible to watch The Walk without thinking about James Marsh's 2008 film Man on Wire. The Academy Award-winning documentary chronicled French tightrope walker Philippe Petit's high-wire act between the towers of the W...

NYFF Review: Microbe & Gasoline

Oct 01 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]219843:42635:0[/embed] Microbe and Gasoline (Microbe et Gasoil)Director: Michel GondryRated: n/aRelease Date: TBDCountry: France Daniel (Ange Dargent) is an introverted budding artist with an eye for portraits as well as the crude porno pics he hides under his bed. He's small and looks younger than 14, which is why everyone calls him "Microbe." Worse, most people mistake him for a girl. There's the new kid, Theo (Theophile Baquet), who has a penchant for swagger, Michael Jackson leather jackets, and tinkering with machines. He's poor and there's grease under his fingernails, so they call him "Gasoline." The outsiders bond over a sound board that Gasoline has attached to his bike handles. It's a movie, and they're loners who represent divergent social classes and upbringings. So of course they become friends. It's the logic of the misfit buddy movie, and I don't object to it. Misfits attract misfits, but like magnets, the bond between cinematic misfits is between opposite poles rather than like ones. That might be why so many misfit kid movies often feature groups comprised of individual specialists--the tough one, the scientific one, the artsy one, the charismatic one, the one who knows Spanish--rather than people who are identical. Besides, who wants to hang out with someone who's exactly the same? How boring. Microbe and Gasoline are both 14, which is that point when kids want to be (or seem) more adult but don't quite know how that works. They act like they think adults should act, which is mostly learned from movies and TV rather than life. At a costume party, the boys are dressed like old men, and they loaf on the couch, world weary and judgmental, though Microbe looks on longingly at a girl from class. As Microbe obsesses over his crush, Gasoline offers advice as if he's had a decades-long history of loves and losses. There are limits to maturity, no matter how precocious a teenager is, and most of the comedy is rooted in this teenage worldview. It pervades the whole film, but it really takes charge in the second half of Microbe and Gasoline. With school out for the summer, the boys build a mobile home and go out on the road together. Many of Michel Gondry's films have an adorably ramshackle, handmade look about them, like the sweded movies in Be Kind Rewind or the hand-drawn animation from his Noam Chomsky documentary Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy? The boys' mobile home--part tiny house, part go-kart--is such a Gondry-looking contraption; wood, nuts, bolts, inventive gimmickry. You feel the splinters and rust, same goes for the gas fumes. From here the film embarks on an odyssey through Gondryland, and the teenage point of view takes over completely. The danger of being a runaway is relatively low. There's just freedom. Some might find the shift from a grounded world to Gondryland jarring. Picture riffs on fairy tales by way of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend and you get some inkling of what happens. But I felt this change was a charming way to invoke the youthful promise of summer. It also shows just how out of their element the boys are. The parents have no sway over the kids, so the kids have to find their own way. (Microbe's mom is played by Audrey Tautou of Amelie fame, though she's a bit of a non-presence in the film even before summer begins.) Plus, it's all pretty funny. Earlier I mentioned the idea of sameness and difference when it comes to the people we hang out with. This become an important component of Microbe and Gasoline's friendship, and maybe most friendships. Our teenage years are about trying to figure out what adulthood is like, sure, but they're really about trying to define ourselves. Microbe is worried he's too much of a blank slate, and he's anxious that other people are doing the work of defining him, including Gasoline. And we do wind up mimicking our friends to a certain degree just like, earlier in life, we mimicked our parents/guardians and siblings. It's the inescapable fact of interaction. This is all a roundabout way of saying that the friends we love--the ones that matter and that we think of even years later after losing touch--are people who changed us in some way. We take on some of their qualities, they take on some of ours, and in this synthesis of personalities there's something new that's brought out in ourselves and sometimes into the world. An inside joke, maybe, or an experience of some kind that wouldn't have existed without that other person. Gondry captures the way these kinds of friendships can change us, and why they're so important when we're young works-in-progress. Even when Microbe and Gasoline leaves grounded reality, it's all tethered to that genuine, warm feeling we get whenever we meet and befriend someone who really gets us. The boys made a sweet ride, but not a saccharine one.
Review: Microbe & Gasolin photo
Friendship is magic
When Michel Gondry writes his own films, I've noticed that his protagonists have a tendency to act like quirky, whimsical teenagers. The misfit oddballs of The Science of Sleep and Be Kind Rewind probably found a Zoltar machi...

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NYFF 2015

The 2015 New York Film Festival kicks off this weekend


You better believe Flixist will be there
Sep 25
// Hubert Vigilla
The 53rd New York Film Festival gets underway this weekend, and Flixist is going to be there checking out many of the notable films that are screening. The festival runs from September 25 to October 11. (Technically the festi...

Review: Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)

Oct 16 // Alec Kubas-Meyer
[embed]218139:41726:0[/embed] Birdman or (The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance)Director: Alejandro González IñárrituRelease Date: October 17, 2014 (Limited)Rating: R  Let’s get something out of the way: Birdman is not a gimmick. You may have heard about its technical trick on other sites (I will discuss it as vaguely as possible here but at great length in the Companion) and while I would concede that it is a kind of “trick” (it would be literally impossible to do naturally), I will fight anyone who says it’s not executed to near perfection. In practice, this idea doesn’t feel like something to show off; it’s a logical extension of the narrative. In fact, the narrative as presented couldn’t have been as powerfully presented without it. And that’s important, because Birdman is really like nothing else that’s ever been done before. There are films that do something like it, but not at this scale. Not even close. But being of a larger scale means that there are all the more places for it to have gone wrong. Alejandro Iñárritu and cinematographer Emmanuel Lubeski (most recently of Gravity fame) worked hard to keep everything grounded even while being fantastical, and it just works. And that is an incredible achievement in and of itself. Nothing I can say about the film can take away from the fact that it succeeds in doing something amazing. And while that something becomes apparent pretty quickly and you never really forget about (and that Lubezki shot this exposes him as something of a hypocrite), none of that adversely affects your enjoyment of the film. If anything, it enhances it. (Even the hypocrisy.) The only thing I’ll explicitly say about the camerawork here is that in any given moment, it’s unexpected. There are dozens of times where I expected it to do one thing and I was absolutely delighted by how wrong I often was. Slight digression: Last year, I saw Claire Denis’s not-very-good film Bastards, and at a press conference following the screening someone in the audience asked about the camerawork specifically saying something to the effect of, “I think of the camera like my eye, and I see it as a character. I was wondering what character I was looking through.” Denis’s response shut that entire premise down immediately, and her apparent disdain for the other people in the theater mirrored my own. (Press conferences are often full of bullshit like that. The press conference following Birdman was as well, though that’s a whole other thing.) But as legitimately stupid as the phrasing of the question was, it does raise a point worth considering, which is the role of the camera in a film. Sometimes the camera is just a camera, but other times it really is another character in the story, even if it’s not an actual, physical entity within the narrative’s world. Lubeski’s camera has a mind of its own, and it follows whatever is most interesting at the time. Oftentimes that’s Michael Keaton’s Thomson, but sometimes it’s Edward Norton or Emma Stone. Other times it goes and looks at other things entirely. (During a particularly interesting moment in the narrative, the camera goes away and sits in an empty hallway for at least ten seconds waiting for something to happen.) But enough about that. Let’s talk about Birdman. Birdman is Batman. Michael Keaton may not be playing “Michael Keaton” (apparently the character is more modeled after Iñárritu himself) but the decision to cast him as Riggan Thomson inextricably links his own exploits to his onscreen persona. (The fact that there are two references that are explicitly Batman references only further cements this fact.) Birdman is a superhero character that Thomson played in the 80s and 90s. He eventually hung up his wings after the 1992 release of Batman Returns Birdman 3 and has been in the shadow of his character ever since. He is known as Birdman, not Thomson, and he wants to change that. Cue Broadway. A lot of Hollywood actors have turned to Broadway recently, and Emma Stone (who plays Thomson’s daughter in the film) will actually be hitting the stage herself very soon, and sometimes it feels like they’re doing it just because they’re famous, and not necessarily because they earned that part. (The ludicrously high ticket prices seem to bear that out, though many performances by film actors on stage have demonstrated otherwise, including the late Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s spectacular turn as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman). Certainly that is the case with Thomson’s adaptation of Raymond Carver’s short story “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love.” Thomson wrote the adaptation, directed it, and took the starring role for himself. It’s his big attempt to prove himself, and if it fails he will be ruined. (Or perhaps be forced to don the Birdman suit once again, assuming anyone would want him back.) But things start to go horribly wrong, as they so often do, and as Thomson is forced to wrestle with making this play a success, he also has to keep his superhero demon at bay. And that internal struggle is where Birdman is most successful. This character is tortured by his past, something that I think pretty much anybody can understand, and it makes watching him writhe all the more heartbreaking. At the press conference following the screening, Edward Norton mentioned that some of the film had been screened the day before at New York Comic Con, and that he considered that to be one of the biggest bait-and-switches ever done. Although its protagonist was once a superhero, Birdman is not a superhero film, nor is it a blockbuster of any kind. It’s as introspective as it is funny (side note: it’s very funny), and it is certainly not the kind of film that would sell to the stereotypical Comic Con audience. (I mean, it’s about a man who never wants to put on a rubber suit again. How does that get sold to the tens of thousands of people proudly donning their rubber suits?) But even if it doesn’t sell to that audience, that audience will appreciate what it does, because it is literally impossible not to. And if someone ever says to me, “Birdman? Meh. Not impressed,” I will never trust a thing they say again, because they are a lying liar who lies. What Birdman accomplishes is truly incredible, both from a technical perspective and a narrative one, and it absolutely deserves to be seen by anyone and everyone. There is nothing in the history of cinema that is quite like it, and I don’t think there ever will be again. 
Birdman Review photo
Standing ovation
You should see Birdman. In fact, you need to see Birdman. Alejandro González Iñárritu’s film is something truly special, and were it not for the fact that Boyhood finally saw its release, it would u...

NYFF 52 photo
It starts tonight!
Hello everyone. It's festival time again! The 52nd New York Film Festival kicks off tonight with the world premiere of David Fincher's Gone Girl, and continues through October 12th, closing with Alejandro González I&nt...

NYFF Review: Alan Partridge

Oct 07 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216434:40752:0[/embed] Alan Partridge (Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa)Director: Declan LowneyRating: TBDCountry: UKRelease Date:  August 7th, 2013 (UK) When characters are taken from the small screen to the big screen, one of the challenges is finding the right kind of story to contain such a small personality. Most television characters, especially in sitcoms, are defined by a limited shtick, and it's important to find a movie that plays to that limited shtick by building a larger cinematic framework for the character without it feeling like a rehash of old gags. (Maybe the best of example of this is Borat: Cultural Learnings of America for Make Benefit Glorious Nation of Kazakhstan.) Alan Partridge winds up finding the right vessel for Alan Partridge by doing something that feels like an episode of a show blown up for the big screen. The radio station that Alan has worked for over the last couple years -- he used to be a television presenter, but his career took a slide -- has been bought by a hip young conglomerate that's phasing out old talent for new kids. Pat, one of Alan's long-time colleagues played by the always-reliable Colm Meaney, gets sacked and decides to do the only rational thing: he walks into the radio station with a shotgun and takes it hostage. Hilarity ensues. I imagine that when Alan Partridge gets released in the United States, there'll be a couple of think pieces about gun violence and hostage situations as a source of comedy, with the writers of said think pieces forgetting just how funny Dog Day Afternoon was in spots and that black comedy can be hysterical. Coogan and his co-writers didn't forget, and the resulting film is a mix of slapstick and well-observed social awkwardness. Pat makes a gun-rest with duct tape around another DJ's head, a bunch of crass personalities are stuck together in a room, and Alan sees the hostage situation as a possible way to up his slumping profile as a media celebrity. There's also mangina. Alan Partridge is a gag-a-minute, rapid-fire sort of comedy, and the laughs come in different ways, so even though I've listed a few gags, there are plenty more. There's the giggle from the line that describes Feetwood Mac as "soft rock cocaine enthusiasts" -- funny cuz it's true -- and there's a cringeworthy moment that involves Alan's backwards idea of gender roles. Several, actually. He's not what you'd call progressive about those sorts of things. Alpha Papa is a movie full of quotable lines as well, so many quotable lines that a second or third watch is necessary to catch them all. Since I've never been to England and I'm not much of an anglophile, I know I'm missing at least a third of the jokes that are UK-centric. Maybe the most surprising thing about Alan Partridge is that Coogan doesn't seem sick of the character. Alan Partridge made his first appearance more than 20 years ago on BBC Radio, and in Alpha Papa, it seems as if everyone invested in seeing where this goofy twit winds up. It's a game of comic limbo, maybe: how low can Partridge go? Coogan's gone on to have a successful career outside of Partridge, much of it thanks to his work with Michael Winterbottom, so it'd be easy to resent his attachment to a single part of his career. I can't say he necessarily embraces Alan Partridge, but he doesn't seem to be pushing it away, and that's refreshing in a way that Ricky Gervais' return to David Brent isn't. Alan Partridge as a character has always been a cult thing stateside -- I didn't even get into Partridge stuff until seeing 24 Hour Party People in college and wanting to know more about Coogan -- and I think Alpha Papa will similarly play to a niche audience of people who love those UK nitwits. Watching it can be a bit exhausting since there are so many jokes and, let's face it, about an hour with Partridge is a strong enough dose for most people, and yet it's worthwhile. I don't think Alan Partridge will win that many new fans to the character, but it'll make the fans happy, which is what Alan would want if he were real. [Alan Partridge will screen at Alice Tully Hall on October 7th. For tickets and more information, click here.]
Alan Partridge Review photo
If you like Alan Partridge, you'll like Alan Partridge
British comedy has a fine tradition of endlessly watchable twits. Off the top of my head, some of my favorites are Basil Fawlty of Fawlty Towers, Arnold Rimmer of Red Dwarf, David Brent of The Office, and Alan Partridge of wa...

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Trailer: Like Father, Like Son


Oct 01
// Liz Rugg
Like Father, Like Son is an intense-looking family drama from Japanese director Hirokazu Koreeda. The story centers on a young family who realize that their son was accidentally switched at birth with another boy, and the fo...

NYFF Review: Like Father, Like Son

Sep 25 // Hubert Vigilla
[embed]216435:40699:0[/embed] Like Father, Like Son (Soshite Chichi ni Naru | そして父になる)Director: Hirokazu KoreedaRating: TBDCountry: JapanRelease Date: September 23, 2013 (Japan) The question of nature vs. nurture is an unanswerable existential riddle, but it seems like most people reduce it to the stuff of Psych 101. Our genes and our upbringing share in defining our personalities, but the split is never 50/50. This is the set up for Like Father, Like Son. Two couples learn that their children were switched at birth six years ago. One couple is well-off and lives in a sterile high-rise, the other is working/lower class and lives in the space above their small knickknack and fix-it shop. The heartbroken parents have to decide what to do about their kids and what this decision will mean for the rest of their lives. At the center of film is Ryota, a workaholic architect played by Masaharu Fukuyama. The revelation that Keita (Keita Ninomiya) is not his own flesh and blood hits him hard. Even though he's struck by this, he attempts to react to this news rationally, as if he's tamping down his emotions in order to think of matters purely in biological terms. His wife Midori (Machiko Ono) is much more conflicted. She's a stay-at-home mom with deep ties to Keita, and there's an added tenderness to the way she strokes Keita's hair when she learns that this is really not her own. By contrast, the working class couple played by Lily Frankly and Yoko Maki seem to take this news in stride. There's a kind of "Que Sera, Sera" outlook to their tight-knit household. It's the overly familiar motto of the happy lower class film character: we may not have much, but we have each other, and we can make things work with what we have. It's a bit cliche, but Frankly and Maki make their characters feel like actual people trying to stay positive rather than just bubbly caricatures meant to mirror their affluent counterparts. The vitality of the working class against the Vulcan-like affluent is just one of many juxtapositions Koreeda uses to highlight the idea of nature and nurture. Parents, elders, friends, and colleagues work their way into the story to emphasize this opposition, as do different skill sets and types of knowledge. Koreeda's especially good at what he's doing within the frame and how composition highlights the film's deeper concerns. Sometimes he's foregrounding information to get at some of Ryota and Midori's inner lives, other times he's playing with lighting and movement to enhance the delicate melancholy and little joys in this story. Like Father, Like Son is an elegant film that's intimately staged for most of its duration. Each shot is so well balanced, and most of the visual cues that evoke the nature/nurture divide are pretty subtle, including the requisite double helix structure that comes early on. This close observation also pays off in the performances, which are quiet and restrained. I Wish was filled with such naturalism by the children in that movie, and it carries over in Like Father, Like Son with child actors Ninomiya and Shogen Hwang. Their characters soldier through the adult turmoil surrounding them with innocent determination. There's a memorably bittersweet scene in Like Father, Like Son that involves Keita playing the piano. It's embarrassing, it's a great set-up to a joke, and it also highlights the opposing forces in Ryota's character. Here's a person who is successful and an exemplar of upper-class values, and he's become hypercritical of Keita's every shortcoming and hyper-aware of how superior he feels to Keita's biological parents. When the film is at its best, it's about the way people wrestle with their conflicting emotions regarding their perceived place in the world and how this affects the allegiance to the families they create and their own flesh and blood. How much is fixed like our genetic makeup? How much is in flux from life experience and circumstances beyond our control? At a certain point, Like Father, Like Son veers away from the complexities of human relationships and starts to move toward simplification and convenient answers. It's as if Koreeda felt obliged to explain the root of Ryota in too much detail, like the mental cause-and-effect in adult minds is so simple to unpack and then so easily resolved once the issue is identified. That pop psychology just undercuts the film's movement toward depth. It's also during this last half hour that the imagery and ideas meant to highlight the nature/nurture divide become too apparent. One brief scene involving cicadas feels shoved in rather than organic, like a sudden disruption in the story. Another moment that involves parallel footpaths is too on the nose. Everything closes on a note that makes sense as an arc for these two families, but it also feels artificial and ultimately predictable. We've moved from the complexities of human love and family relations to a world that only exists in stories and relies on feel-good verities. I still admire Like Father, Like Son for its general elegance of execution even if it moves toward treacle and sentimentality. It's so humane and delicate for much of its run time and so nicely controlled even as it closes. Koreeda is able to find those beautiful similarities between sets of opposites, and also finds the necessary beauty of their differences. [Like Father, Like Son will screen at Alice Tully Hall on Monday, September 30th and at the Francesca Beale Theater on Wednesday, October 2nd. For tickets and more information, click here.]
Like Father Review photo
Nature, nurture, and social class
The film Still Walking by Japanese filmmaker Hirokazu Koreeda has been on my to-watch list for a little while. It's supposed to be one of the better films from Japan in the last few years, examining how a family commemorates ...


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