Midnight Special (2016): A Story of Parenthood

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“These are words of the Lord…or the federal government.”

Derek Webb has a song called “Spirit.” For anyone with a religious upbringing, it might conjure up the “Holy Ghost” — the Helper meant to fill up Christian faithful as they worship God in their sanctuaries.

Webb is banking on these presuppositions when he turns the tables. Because of course, he’s talking about alcohol, and the gathering — the sanctuary he’s worshipping in — is a bar.

Watching Jef Nichols Midnight Special relates to this example for one very simple reason. It has the environment, even the rhetoric or liturgy many might recall from Sunday church services, and yet it’s been given an entirely new context. It suggests what a nefarious and deceptive thing cults and other dubious institutions might be by taking something so familiar and giving it their own tilt.

In this case, “The Ranch” is such a consortium of people; they feel like Luddites or Amish but given a bad name. Their head minister is Sam Shepard. His presence alone brings with it a bevy of connotations and previous traditions. Of course, he was famously featured in Terrence Malick’s naturalistic masterwork Days of Heaven. Shepard also helped conceive of Wim Wenders’s Paris, Texas, another catalyzing portrait of the near-mystical American mythos.

At least for me, there’s this implicit hope Midnight Special might be out to do much the same, having received the torch from its predecessors and then preparing to pass it on. Also because Jeff Nichols feels like one of the modern chroniclers of Middle America steeped in these same deep traditions of the past.

After all, we open in a roadside hotel room with an amber alert playing on the television. A little boy has been kidnapped and taken by two fugitives. Nichols uses these talking heads throughout the movie to do much of the expositional heavy lifting for him. Just about everything else he leaves oblique, and he seems satisfied with the overall vagueness.

In fact, the plot keeps the details purposefully obscured. Whether they are too obscured might be up for contention. All we know is this boy is being sought by a myriad of parties. He is in the care of a pair of fugitives with a conscience; it provides an inkling of who is really on the side of virtue in this muddled world.

Their names are Roy (Michael Shannon) and his faithful buddy Lucas (Joel Egerton). They can be characterized by their slow-walking, slow-talking demeanors — almost painfully so, but, again, maybe that’s the point. It’s excruciating to watch them.

They’re the ones being tracked by not only all manner of government agencies but members of the same cult that they used to be associated with. Their young charge is the prized possession of “The Ranch,” functioning as their presumed Messiah. March 6th is when they believe Judgment will come once and for all, and the day is fast approaching.

Meanwhile, the FBI swoops in on one of the religious commune’s meetings, only to clear the premises entirely. They conduct their own investigations of this extraordinary young boy, Alton, who seems to have transmitted government secrets. The NSA joins them in their search represented by a nerdy numbers-cruncher Paul Sevier (Adam Driver).

As played by Driver, he feels like a surprisingly average guy and if we are to understand anything about tropes, this is what makes him the key to the story. Because everyone else is clouded by protocol, rules, and regulations. The fact he is brilliant but also a lot like you and me, gives him the tools to understand other people and connect with them.

In some ways, they play on analogous themes to Arrival — simply wanting to understand those who are different than us. Leading with curiosity instead of fear. But he’s also a character who seems to function outside of everyone else in society. Rather like Truffaut in Close Encounters. It  almost feels like he has a higher calling altogether superseding convention.

To go with these other themes is a central idea of parenthood reminiscent of other stories bursting with all sorts of religious archetypes in their own right. Abraham loving his son dearly and yet being willing to give him up. Mary realizing her son was made for something far more than a temporal world. Even the Christian God who is acknowledged as giving up his only son for the sake of the entire world.

Roy is just a simple sort of fellow but he’s devoted to this boy believing his son has a purpose if only he can be protected. As Lucas muses, “Good people die every day believing in things.” Kirsten Dunst is the mentally exhausted mother who has been starved of the opportunity to love her son. It’s telling to watch her get him back only to struggle with the impending conclusion of the arc.

These elements are the most provocative of what the film has to offer, although they feel slightly underexplored in favor of a far more conventional Spielbergian homage. These are the tried and true even overfamiliar rhythms of sci-fi seen through the lens of Nichols. From the child-like perspective down to the government involvement, it’s a tale fit to the scale of an E.T. or Close Encounters.

Even as the performances of Midnight Special feel head and shoulders above Super 8, the other film somehow captures a bit more of the nostalgia and, dare I say, the childhood wonder of the Spielberg films — at least until Midnight Special‘s very last moments. Here it exterts itself as a bleak, bare-boned reimagination of the genre.

At the end of the day, maybe Jeff Nichols wasn’t entirely interested in any of these things. If anything, they all serve as part of his meditation on parenthood. Because when you take away all the dressings — the religious undertones and layerings of science fiction — what you’re left with is a fairly straightforward narrative.

It’s about knowing your child is special and wanting to protect them and hold on while slowly coming to grips with reality. You cannot always be there. You cannot always keep them from being hurt. And sometimes you have to let them go. Sometimes that’s the most loving thing you can do.

I’m still trying to decide if Midnight Special does an adequate job articulating all its things or if it’s merely me projecting my thoughts and feelings onto it. They might be one and the same. Regardless, I wasn’t fully satiated by Midnight Special, but does that really matter? Perhaps it is a litmus test of whether or not we have the true perspective to appreciate it. Who’s to say I’m not already too jaded to latch onto what it has to offer. I’ll let you be the judge.

3.5/5 Stars

BlacKkKlansman (2018) and Historical Dissonance

BlacKkKlansman

Spike Lee is an incredibly intelligent and perceptive director so he probably knew what he was doing. However, when I see Alec Baldwin playing a virulent racist, spewing out slurs, there’s this odd contradiction. Somehow it loses its import if that is what it was meant to have. Because I know the man behind the mask is an avowed progressive. However, this dissonance, thanks to the extratextual association, might be equally compelling for different reasons.

Our actual narrative is based on a true story, albeit delivered in Spike Lee’s own definitive way. We open at Colorado Springs Police Department. Confident and ambitious Ron Stalworth (John David Washington), with a fly Afro, is looking to make a name for himself as a detective. Even in a place like Colorado, it’s a fairly big deal as they’ve never had another African-American police officer.

He will be the precincts Jackie Robinson, and he doesn’t bear the responsibility lightly. Still, he has the youthful entergy to take to the opportunity quickly. For one thing, he’s not looking to be stuck behind the records counter his entire life. He wants action.

His first taste — and his first real assignment — is infiltrating the rally held at the local college for Kwame Ture in order to keep tabs on local “subversives.” These are the days of Angela Davis, mobilization of university movements, and certainly The Black Panther Party. As such, it places Stallworth at a consequential crossroads of history. He plays peacekeeper on the side of law and order, while also looking to change the world from the inside for his “Brothers” who are rebelling against “The Man.”

It strikes me that the conservatives look at something like this with fear. Nixon catalyzed this very same silent majority with his exhortations. But both sides aren’t altogether different — at least how Lee manages to capture them. It feels like Patrice Dumas (Laura Harrier) and other ardent activists, with all their yelling and the raising of their hands in black power salutes, ultimately comes out of a place of restlessness, even helplessness.

Because out on the freeway, they get pulled over, berated, and harassed in the most denigrating of ways. Where whites are given unchecked authority over blacks and thusly abuse their power and the frameworks of society. This is what Ron Stallworth is at war with.

Lee composes the scene in such a telling manner. Because it opens with a song — one I know well and love for its cool vocality — and it’s set against the soft hues of a California panorama only to quickly evolve into the roadside confrontation between white cops and black citizens. Once more the director is working in formalistic contrasts that only help to deepen the disparate ties of his story.

However, he’s also a consummate world builder and not merely in creating a fantastical space, but also by taking us back somewhere we feel like we formerly knew. Looking Glass’s “Brandy” underscores another scene where Ron and Patrice are having dinner together, continuing the vibes, and for me personally, helping to accentuate this sense we are being transported into the ’70s.

All this lays the groundwork for what is at the core of Blackklansman. This is the next phase: infiltration of a different sort. Ron Stallworth will get inside the Ku Klux Klan. Of course, there are a few logistical barriers. Namely, the fact he is very much a black man. It’s an easy enough solution.

He builds up a rapport with none other than the Grand Wizard, David Duke (Topher Grace), on the phone using his “white voice,” while one of his Caucasian colleagues (Adam Driver) plays a version of him in person.

Again, the wink-wink parallels between Donald Trump and David Duke are put right there in case anyone should absent-mindedly miss them. Duke too wants to make America great again. It is what it is.

Still, one of the film’s best dynamics is built between the trio of Washington, Driver, and Steve Buscemi because, in spite of their differences, it helps them drum up an electric camaraderie. Aided by Zimmerman (Driver), Ron goes deeper, gaining the confidence of the white supremacists’ gradually, even as incessantly mistrusting types like Felix (Jasper Paakonen) always seems to be testing not only his loyalty but his mettle. It has the seeds of tense drama.

Certainly compared to the timeless visceral nature of Do The Right Thing as a human, social, and political indictment, Blackkklansman is no match. But despite his reputation and political bent, Spike Lee does ponder the dichotomy here as well. You have those striving for militant black power. You have those trying to hold onto the egregious relics of white supremacy. There are the complacent who see the bigotry and fail to do anything about it, even within law enforcement.

Ron is easy to gravitate toward as a hero because he is an African-American man looking to revitalize the police force and their often tarnished reputation. But thanks to Washington, he’s a genuinely charismatic, mostly not-threatening lead. Meanwhile, Duke embodies the ideas of white supremacism going mainstream and somehow becoming palatable, which is a far scarier thought.

But this is equally a story about identity. How we as human beings can be so blinded and narrow-minded. We are a people devoted to rituals and heritage — the way things have been. Where passing as white is seen as a superior outcome and many of us, no matter our background, are juggling identities. For instance, how do you reconcile being African-American and a police officer? It’s just one of the many questions. 

One of Lee’s other evocative exhibitions in crosscutting starts with Harry Belafonte as an old man recounting the horrible lynching of his youth to a rapt audience of mortified onlookers. Then, on the other side of the spectrum, we have the KKK assembly where David Duke makes his grand entrance to install “Ron” as a Klansman.

It’s a visual clash once again between White Power and Black Power. As a caveat, D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is a movie I have avoided for so long out of sheer apprehension. Not that I would succumb to it, but rather that it would repulse me. Not because I’m some enlightened being; it might actually force me to contend with complicated history. Because Nation as well as Gone with The Wind reflect how cinema itself is so firmly enmeshed with the ignominious prejudices of our nation.

And as such a powerful medium, it can be used to propagate and promote all sorts of messages. I’m not naive enough to believe Spike Lee is the universal soothsayer, and yet I appreciate how he’s willing to confront the issues that run generations deep in the very medium he calls his own.

My mind instead drifts to the very poignant and purposeful inclusion of Belafonte. Here was a man who acted as a cornerstone of the civil rights movement. Here is the man who fought tirelessly for greater, more complex representation for African Americans in movies along with compatriots like Sidney Poitier and Ruby Dee.

Here is a man at the center of a controversy in the 1960s because, Petula Clark, a white woman caught up in the raptures of their duet, touched his arm on live television. What an unfathomable world we live in. Again, we must question: how can this be?

It galls me there could be people who equate Christianity and “Men of God” to purely a white faith. However, it’s imperative to differentiate that the themes are not solely about holding white people accountable for past sins but actually ousting evil for what it is, then and now. It’s so easy for early-onset complacency to set in. The film’s line in the sand between the then and now isn’t exactly perfect, even as the presence of the real David Duke in the present bids us to take heed and consider soberly.

Blackkklansman is the kind of film you have to consider in light of all the many hallmarks we can laud Spike Lee for. It’s dynamic, boasting its share of humor; at times it’s brutal and trenchant in all manner of ways, slicing and dicing through its material to present us a singular vision and with that an ensuing message.

The story itself makes a brilliant punchline. Imagine. A black cop infiltrating the KKK! The final images are all but a living nightmare.  What makes the film is the continuously startling juxtaposition on display. This is what Lee offers us.The heavy lifting must be done by the audience, working to reconcile and wrestle with the space in-between.

4/5 Stars

Paterson (2016): Poetry in Everyday Rhythms

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“Awesome. A bus driver who likes Emily Dickinson.”

This sincere pronouncement comes from a young girl — a fellow poet — as she leaves to go off with her mother and sister. She leaves behind Paterson (Adam Driver), a pensive bus driver, sitting on the brick wall, having gifted him one of her poems. Theirs is an instant connection. One of appreciation for observation, for words, for beauty.

Paterson is ripe with moments like this ambushing us with an understated resonance. Scenes of kindred spirits seeking each other out and finding some meaningful common denominator that they can relish together.

Jim Jarmusch feels like a man born of a different era — the last bastion of the old way. There are other directors who are older and more storied like Martin Scorsese or Clint Eastwood perhaps, but he is learned and the disciple of some of the great cinematic artists of the 20th century. We’re talking about titans as diverse as Robert Bresson, Nicholas Ray, and Sam Fuller.

He understands space and framing, how they define a composition. He’s not afraid of time or silence and how they can build into something revelatory. Normally, his creations might be defined as off-kilter and individual. He was very much at the epicenter of the indie film movement that revamped in the 80s. In fact, the true glory of Paterson is how pedestrian and how plain, how ordinary, and how pleasant it feels.

It’s actually not Emily Dickinson but William Carlos Williams who is Paterson’s favorite poet. There’s a self-reflexive nature to it. I know little about Williams work aside from the fact he has an epic poem called “Paterson.” And it’s true our story takes place in Paterson, New Jersey, where our main character acts as a stand-in for the town (and the poem) he shares a name with.

It’s an observational film just as Paterson is a man who watches the world passing by, existing all around him, as he drives his usual route. He is not someone the world normally esteems as an artist; he is a humble blue-collar poet. He fills up his days listening to conversations about Hurricane Carter or between a pair of high school anarchists (a nod to Wes Anderson’s youthful lovers in Moonrise Kingdom).

There’s not an antagonistic bone in the man’s body, and the movie happens to deliver a particularly warm portrait of marriage. As he spends his days working and nights tucked away writing or walking the dog, his wife (Golshifteh Farahani in a marvelous piece of casting) is swept up by dreams of cupcakes and country singing, even as she supports his writing. She is both the antithesis and the utter complement to Adam Driver.

Laura coaxes him to share his work and get it out so people can enjoy it as much as she does. Her palette and interior decorating are dominated by black and white, and she revels in her side hustles. Whether or not she becomes some great culinary or country music star seems immaterial. Paterson gently reciprocates the encouragement abounding in their household and what remains are modest joys.

The story is not beholden to typical structures of narrative. Although it does have something in common with the creation poetry of Genesis, working in the rhythms of the week in an unflustered, unhurried manner. There’s a tranquility to it all, displaying the innate power of habit and routine

Like clockwork, he goes out to walk the dog, a bothered bulldog named Marvin. We never ask to know why he does it. It’s become a kind of established fact. Just as the nightly stop at the bar to chew the fat happens. The conversations cover local heroes like Sam & Dave or Lou Costello. It feels inconsequential but somehow pertinent to the kind of syntax and meter the story is looking to evoke.

The poems read throughout the movie by Adam Driver in a deliberate, partially stunted diction are much the same, exhibiting this kind of straightforward, no-frills lucidity. He rehashes and molds them methodically before jotting them down in his hidden notebook. In fact, they are penned by Ron Padgett, a writer deeply admired by Jarmusch himself.

As someone who has dabbled in the art, you respect people who are brazen enough to become untethered from something so comforting as rhyme. Because rhyme gives you some sense that you are creating something beyond prose. It takes a braver, more audacious soul to strip it down and make it so closely reminiscent of normal everyday language and yet articulated and manipulated just enough that there is recourse but to call it poetry.

Likewise, the dialogue throughout the movie is not realistic in nature. The words feel specifically chosen — very particular — not always right or real but given to their own cadence. There’s something so refreshing and freeing about it because it allows us to live our lives and feel they have meaning and significance in their very ordinariness.

Akin to the security guard in Museum Hours, here is a man living for more than a paycheck, and they both seem to see beyond the normal things that distract us — to somehow come to terms with beauty in the most extraordinary of places. And by this, I actually mean the ordinary places where others fail to look or cannot see.

I realized halfway through, Paterson has no cell phone; it’s part of what plants him into an altogether different era and makes him feel like a man Jarmusch might admire and heartily identify with. He lives a simpler, some might say, purer life without white noise and distractions.

However implausible, the moment that feels like a climax truly does burn deep, speaking as someone who has devoted a lot of time to writing — much of it unseen by the external world. To lose your work is a horrifying thought, but it also serves as a reality check.

It’s not so much devoting time to writing but having enjoyed the process — being able to uncover and appreciate and put words to what you have been so privileged to experience as a living, breathing human being. If we write and create merely to be remembered, it will never satiate. How much more can we relish the process if we enjoy every rhythm?

Because it’s exactly that: a process. As another character who traverses a tough world of his own admits to Paterson, “The sun still rises every day and sets every evening. Always another day.” It’s inevitable and a bit of a final exhortation — to Paterson and to all of us.

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The final scene is the kind of cinematic loveliness you find in a certain brand of movie — the Museum Hours and the Columbuses of the world. Where there are interactions that are amicable, pensive, and beautiful.

They need not be rife with conflict or gargantuan stakes. They are found compelling for the mere fact they drink deeply of the wells of mankind and speak to who we are as people. Crossing cultures and borders and time and space to fuse human beings together.
It could be art, it could be architecture, it could simply be the need for human contact.

Here it’s poetry. A Japanese sojourner (Masatoshi Nagase) sits down at a bench with Paterson, and they share what can only be described as a moment — albeit a cinematic one — and it’s exquisite in all its unadorned subtleties.

We need one another and we can light the fire under others providing inspiration, hope, and subtle encouragement. Far from entertaining angels unawares, it might just as easily be that we can give a lift to a burgeoning artist or at the very least an unassuming one.

If nothing else, Paterson is a stirring reminder and a quiet call to appreciate and cultivate the beauty around us. We are in it together. Art need not always be a profession. Sometimes it fills the spaces in between bleeding out of people’s lives because they know no other way. They cook for sheer passion. They play music because they have to. They write out of some otherworldly compulsion.

This is art at its most elemental form, and we are all better for it. Paterson reminds us about the rhythms of life and how everyday ordinariness can be magnificent and more than worthy of our creative energies.

4.5/5 Stars

The Tale of Princess Kaguya (2013): Takahata’s Swan Song

The_Tale_of_the_Princess_Kaguya_(poster).jpgDuring the period of time I lived in Japan, I became acquainted with the works of Isao Takahata, and by that I mean I watched both Grave of The Fireflies (1988) and Only Yesterday (1991). This was all that was required because these two films on their own left a profound impact on me.

While Hayao Miyazaki is, rightfully so, the benevolent poster boy of Ghibli Studios, you might say Takahata was, in his own way, a visionary and the hidden engine behind the company. He was rarely as prolific as his counterpart, but the films he left behind are thoughtful masterpieces — even more pensive in nature — while arguably boasting headier themes. In fact, you might say the partnership between the two directors exerted an influence on Miyakazi’s films specifically.

While living in Tokyo, the news Miyazaki would come out retirement had the world in a tizzy of excitement. About a year later his colleague would pass away, and I’m not sure as many folks were aware, but those who’ve admired his films took note and quietly pondered the glorious oeuvre he left behind.

Today I can finally say Tale of Princess Kagura is more than worthy of joining the company of his best films, sharing his usual affinities while bursting forth with an altogether new leaf — a lifetime in the making. Whether it’s serendipity or not, it seems like an impeccable summation of the director’s work, still so vibrant and serenely mesmerizing at this, the tail end of his career.

In full transparency, as someone who knew next to nothing about The Tale of The Bamboo Cutter (this film’s ancient inspiration), it’s easy to come at the material a bit wary. But soon enough, this guardedness begins to fade away. Because like any of the great tales — Aesop’s Fables, The Brothers Grimm, The Odyssey, even Biblical parables — this story is equally built out of the archetypes of humanity. In some way, it speaks to universal themes we can imbibe on some deeper human level.

The initial jumping-off point is unfamiliar and yet it bears some resemblance to what we might know somewhere deep down in our being. Because on one auspicious day, the Woodcutter happens to cut down a bamboo shoot and when it breaks open, with radiant light, a tiny creature is birthed into the world; he christens her a princess sent from the heavens.

So he and his wife act accordingly, taking this small yet significant creature as their own to raise up so that she might one day earn a status far beyond their humble origins. It begins as a story about how Providence can smile down upon the most unremarkable of souls.

The Woodcutter is a doddering man even hilariously so, devoted as he is to his new daughter. Whereas his wife is more tranquil and a comforting maternal figure. As their new daughter is taken in, she rapidly grows by the moment, earning the name “Bamboo Shoot” from the local pack of children, although her father is adamant she’s a princess, and he resolves to do everything in his power to make this vision a reality.

It’s in these earliest interludes, set in the meadows and forests of God’s green earth, where we realize what a hallowed place nature will hold in this story as the words of a ubiquitous tune about “birds, bugs, beasts, trees, etc.” keeps on being repeated — a song that feels as old as time.

While The Tale of Princess Kagura is about so much and it’s lengthy, especially for a hand-drawn piece of animation, there’s something very primordial about it — again, going back to the base tenets of our very existence and our collective consciousness.

The child joins the company of a strapping woodsman named Sutemaru who is admired by all the youth, despite his own common origins. Our heroine shares their mutual affection for him.

Meanwhile, her father continually invests in the life he’s vowed to give her — sending her to the city, setting her up under the tutelage of an eminent woman of etiquette, and promoting her to all the surrounding nobles. Kagura is bestowed with the blessed new name, and her renown grows.

However, this is the juncture where her old life — one of humble means, communing with nature, and Sutemaru — ceases to exist as it formerly did. She must try and acclimate to a new life at first glorious, then constricting, and ultimately devastating.

She’s pursued by five prominent suitors, all vowing to bring her glorious treasures to consummate their love. Instead of taking their proposals subserviently, she boldly asks for them to prove not only their resolve but their true affections. There’s something utterly modern about this young woman navigating her way in a world dominated by men. Where she willfully challenges convention as dictated by traditional patriarchy with the ultimate symbol being the emperor, a man accustomed to getting whatever he so desires.

The story readily evokes numerous elements of Japanese culture, and they inform the folklore, whether unfurling scroll paintings, virtuoso koto-playing, and the antiquated customs of nobility. But Takahata’s film works on an even more basic level.

Beyond all else, at it’s very best, The Tale of Princess Kagura is blessed with breathtaking visuals, making full use of the format. Mystifying developments are brought to the screen with a matter-of-fact immediacy we come to accept. It’s the kind of film where you must let it happen to you. If you relinquish your doubts and come to accept everything generously, you stand to be rewarded. Only then are you allowed to revel in its intricacies, simplicities, and the marvels it puts forth in any number of ways.

The palette breaks with so much of what we’ve come to expect from animation, both the western status quo with the proliferation of computer-driven images and also Japan’s own distinct stylings. It’s the epitome of sartorial splendor and in an era where animation — both western and eastern — is easily earmarked and pigeon-holed,  it’s very rare to view something so singular. In fact, it’s an unassuming revelation in terms of harnessing the art form in an altogether definitive manner.

It’s bold in its willingness to be spare, recalling the impressionistic recollections featured in Only Yesterday. And yet the style readily evolves, waxing and waning amid the seasons, the changing plot points, and subsequent emotions that overtake our heroine.

The watercolor-like sensibilities and bursts of colors demand a fearlessness when it comes to using white space and minimalism. Because what it really does is continuously impress upon us a particular mood, a feeling, or sensation.

I am reminded of one scene that totally overtook me as the Princess zoomed off into the night as a blur of charcoal and color, the score hitting staccato notes to capture the pace in which she darts off into the night — grieved and agonized by the current world she’s being subjected too.

Then there’s the other moment amid the cherry blossoms that feels like swirling, whirling euphoria under the falling pink petals. For an instant, we get lost up in the moment with our heroine. And because this is a Takahata movie, there has to be an element of this mystical realism where the film’s world and the medium of animation afford this fusing of the every day with the supernatural. Sure enough, it comes with the same magical flourishes we would come to expect from Ghibli. We watch our protagonists soar through the air with a visceral abandon personifying their overflowing joy.

Later, we are caught up in the awe of an ethereal decension bringing the gods down to us on a cloud from the luminous moon above. This is what we come to expect from Ghibli — this swelling exhilaration — although each moment feels fresh as if seen with new eyes.

However, and this is no slight on Miyazaki whatsoever, it feels like Takahata has a greater stake in depicting both the somberness and the elation. He reminds us sometimes it takes one to bring out the other. But in the end, as he suggests time and time again in his story, it’s all part of this cycle. It’s the tale of nature and life — the birds, the bugs, and all the creatures. That includes us.

The film subtly evokes Buddhist, perhaps even some Shinto traditions — this inbred environmentalism — and the relationship between humanity and nature. Though we might see the same themes echoed in many slightly different forms. There is the Christian mandate to “Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground.”

There were later generations of Romanticists kicking against the goads of the Industrial Revolution, looking to salvage nature from the soot-filled pyres of modernity. Then the Transcendentalists who called for finding meaning in the solitude of nature while also finding a spiritual presence in all things. Even now there is the ever-current fight in the war against climate change, in spite of a sea of skeptics.

Thus, if we do this admittedly cursory run-through of history, it reminds us this is not really a matter of Eastern vs. Western thought at all. Surely, there are differences, but our struggles, questions, and hopes are not totally dissimilar. They are wrapped up right there in our elemental narratives. Isao Takahata gifted us with one final revelation executed with his usual care and thoughtfulness. It’s a delight to proclaim it good. It’s even better to say it’s not just for Anime aficionados. I want to believe it’s for everyone who will give it a chance.

4.5/5 Stars

Little Women (2019): Gerwig’s Spirited Adaptation of An American Classic

Little_Women_(2019_film)I once had the opportunity to tour Louisa May Alcott’s house on a family vacation. It’s one of those experiences I’m not sure you appreciate until you have the time and space to look back on it.

However, even then I think there was this innate understanding of how this beloved book was sewn into the very fabric of Alcott’s life and her family home in Concord, Massachusetts. You cannot begin to separate the two.

What’s so intriguing about Greta Gerwig’s adaptation is how it almost conducts an intertextual dialogue with the source material. It frames its story — the creation of a novel and its main character of Jo March (Saoirse Ronan) — in order to map out something of Alcott’s life too. Because, again, they are very much intertwined. 

From what little I know about her, she seemed an equally driven, independent, and brilliantly-minded individual. In her own life, she never got married (unlike her characters) and she also provided for her family.

The movie itself has a brazen free-flowing structure taking material some of us might know intimately (and others not quite so well) and finding renewed meaning. To explore plot feels inconsequential — and not just because it is so familiar — Little Women is, by its very nature, anecdotal. It’s about the passage of time as girls evolve into women without ever being totally beholden to any singular event. 

If I might make a wildly unsubstantiated reference it comes off a bit like Francois Truffaut’s Jules et Jim (1961), at least in form, where wild expanses of time are chopped up and compressed into these fluid increments. It feels like a young person’s version of an old person’s book. It courts the timelessness already present but, far from being stodgy, the movie burst with its own vigor, always lithe on its feet.

But this also funnels down to the staging and characterizations as well. Especially for the scenes set during their early years, it’s obvious the writer-director tries to capture the near-spontaneous, giddy energy that’s often the fuel of sisterhood. It can be an overwhelming force of nature full of emotion, affection, and contention in all the most meaningful of ways.

Even as someone with only a modicum amount of knowledge about Little Women (mostly from previous movie versions) Greta Gerwig shows such an immense appreciation for the material, she almost willfully carries us along with her. Even when we’re not quite sure what she’s doing or where she’s taking us, we learn to trust her decisions. If nothing else, she cares about these characters as much if not more than we do.

It’s true her version starts in what is normally considered the end of the narrative, as it slaloms back and forth from past to present with ease. All the moments, as far as I can recall, have antecedents in earlier versions, but as Gerwig stitches them together, it’s as if they are rejuvenated and given rebirth — a new context in which to be understood.

Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is how each sister in this newly minted construction is given their own definition and the ability to stand on their own two feet. Because, if you recall, Jo March has always been the undisputed star of these movies; she has provided the central protagonist and P.O.V. from which to understand these stories. If we are to believe Gerwig, Jo essentially wrote them after all.

There’s no denying Saoirse Ronan is our through-line in the narrative here as well amid all its undulations and purposeful digressions, and yet it feels like I get to appreciate the other March girls in ways I never have before. I don’t think it has much to do with star power — because traditionally there have been big names in most of the roles. Again, it is Gerwig who gives each a platform and her players graciously oblige.

Florence Pugh modulates wonderfully between moments of girlish cattiness and whining while simultaneously setting her eyes on mature ambitions, whether it be marriage as an advantageous business proposition or aspiring to be a great artist taken to Paris by Aunt March.

Far from simply capturing the past and the present of Amy, Pugh somehow makes the most complicated, even unlikable sister come out, in the end, gaining our deepest admirations (and sympathies). For those unaware of Pugh’s talent, it stands as yet another breakout performance.  

Emma Watson is able as the decent and contented Meg whose life still spills out of the mold of propriety she’s always been relegated to. There’s a bit more to her. Then Amy (Eliza Scanlen) remains the gifted musician and somehow the purest and most naive of them all. Her purpose is to fill the world with goodness and beauty. Some things never change.

Marmy (Laura Dern) — the family’s moral anchor — might come off an angelic goody two shoes quoting scripture judiciously (ie: “Don’t let the sun go down on your anger”). It could be a little much, that is until you realize her love is genuine, and she’s worked on it for an entire lifetime. Meryl Streep could probably play Aunt March in her sleep, and it’s not just a figure of speech; she does. Her performance is generally prickly and imperious while also belying a suspected soft underbelly. 

Laurie (Timothee Chalamet), as always, is found on the outside looking in at the March’s household. Their brand of enveloping community is so attractive you yearn to be a part of it, drawn into the fold as one of their kindred. After obliging with a token of his good-will, he quips “man is not made to live on books alone.”

In truth, I’ve never appreciated Chalamet more. There always seemed to be a pretentiousness drawn about him. Here there was something a bit different. It might have been the merit of Laurie teasing it out, but he felt slightly more animated and alive in a way that makes him likable. Although he is a man bred in affluent spheres, he nevertheless, hates their stuffiness.

He would rather dance a jig with Jo, and he calls out the March sisters when they falter into the general public’s pettiness because he knows the people they really are in the familiarity of their own home. In fact, he has tussles with nearly every sister, but never out of malice; there’s always such genuine care, even love, in its multifaceted forms. 

What I truly appreciate about Gerwig’s relationship with the text is how she openly courts contrasting ideas. Specifically, there are threads of feminism coursing through the narrative even as they extrapolate off ideas Alcott dealt with years ago.

And yet in the same instance, she does not shy away or completely dismiss romantic love or a more traditional desire for marriage. Case and point is Meg who is genuinely glad to be courted by a decent man she loves before raising a family together, in spite of their poverty. For Meg, this life fills her up with joy

So in some sense, Gerwig’s having her cake and eating it too paying deference to a timeless piece of American Literature while still perceiving it through her own personal creative lens.

You might say this even from a casting perspective with Ronan, Chalamet, and Tracy Letts all being holdovers from Lady Bird (2017). It might be the importance placed on female relationships, or the buoyancy frolicking with a sweeping passion through the storyline.

We get the happy ending if we so choose while also being allowed the space to consider an alternative. It doesn’t feel wishy-washy. Instead, it’s engaged with the enigma of Louis May Alcott herself even as it’s engaged with the process of creating art.

For me, it has the best of both worlds. Little Women has not been compromised and yet we have not been gipped of Gerwig’s own cinematic vivacity. While it’s not a perfect adaptation — not always intuitive to follow — it never scrimps on life-giving vitality.

You can note the humanity in profound new ways mined from a novel that’s been culled through and cherished for generations. I’ve never believed Little Women was a “women’s picture” or just for an American audience.  It is, in fact, universal. 

4/5 Stars

Parasite (2019): Bong Joon-ho’s Household Thriller

Parasite_(2019_film)

I heard in an interview director Bong Joon-ho had the idea for Parasite percolating in his mind for a long time, and it was born out of the most curious forms of inspiration. In college, he used to tutor English for the child of a rich family. From that point of disembarkation, he started asking “what if…” and all of a sudden his latest thriller was born.

Whether this story is completely true or not, it gets at what I relish about screenwriting and the inception of ideas in any form. Oftentimes they come straight out of real-life experiences only to be morphed and molded, burnished and extrapolated upon until they take on an existence entirely their own.

In some ways, Parasite feels very much related to the previous year’s Cannes darling Shoplifters, directed by Hirokazu Koreeda. In both cases, a story about an impoverished family becomes a handy jumping-off point for social commentary. But that’s just it. The premise provides a jumping-off point and there’s little else we can compare because the stories take drastically different turns simply adjudging from their creators.

Because the Kim family live crowded in a shoddy basement-dwelling leeching off the wi-fi of those who live around them, somewhat contented or at least resigned to their vagrant lifestyle. However, one day their teenage son, Ki-woo is enlisted by a friend to fill his position tutoring the daughter of a rich family.

His family helps him with the con using their skills of photoshop, composition, and dramaturgy to pull off the masquerade and ingratiate themselves. It helps that their mark is a simple-minded, trusting, and generally kind matriarch. There’s a touch of Luis Bunuel in the depiction of this rather naive and vacuous bourgeoisie family getting overrun by the lower classes.

And yet a distinction must be made here too because Bong does not altogether mock them. There is the inkling of affection for all his ensemble even as he teases them. This is one of the keys to the movie’s success. The message is not hammered home at the expense of the characters. 

One thing leads to another and the household vacancies begin filling up. First, an English tutor, then an art therapy instructor, next a new chauffeur, and finally a housekeeper. If the early dynamic is a tad like Shoplifters, as Parasite gears up, I couldn’t help but feel this same pervading unease experienced throughout Jordan Peele’s Get Out. While it might seem like a curious touchstone, what both films fashion are compelling thrillers carved out of the home.

The domicile and symbol of social capital, stability, even the family unit, is turned into this perturbing space that can be easily sabotaged and infested. It doesn’t matter if the main thematic element is race or class. They can both function in an insidious manner as a source of tension throughout the picture, seeping in through the cracks. Where you can live life from the heights of privilege or sunken in the subterranean void below. 

While the cat’s away the mice will play, and it’s at this point we ponder where we could possibly be headed. The Kims succeed in totally taking over the house and lounging in all its decadent luxuries. This could be the end of the story. Thankfully, we are in the hands of someone who knows full-well what they are looking to accomplish. 

Part of the ingenuity of the film comes in how form follows function in this very tangible way. Because the visual and environmental disparity trickles down through the story until it emphatically erupts. The metaphor takes on a very real and concrete form throughout the picture. But for the time being, it’s all about building the mounting suspense to a crescendo.

Bong is a disciple of Hitchcock, and thus he’s taken to heart the pervasive power of dramatic irony. He can both manipulate the audience while implicating us and making us totally invested in the charade at hand.

Though Parasite does have twists — one particularly harrowing in nature — it is built out of this maintained sense of dread and tension. It only works because the director has taken us into his confidence and we know something other characters do not.

The film is also built and developed out of not only its architecture but the sound design helping to create a distinct space and also a rhythm conducive to the action. A chaotic scramble to neutralize, not a gun, but a phone with social media capabilities is the centerpiece of one memorable scene full of struggling bodies, flailing arms, and the like, choreographed to perfection.

There are certain scenes like this one where they cease to be bits of exposition and dialogue, and they feel more and more like they’re verging on visual symphony as we watch images and actions flash by with a very particular cadence. They have the force to carry us away in the moment — cutting to the music — like many of the greats have done, from Hitchcock to Scorsese. 

When the Kim family is finally at their lowest point, sleeping on a gymnasium floor, their patriarch utters the film’s one line which feels like some kind of worldview tucked into a movie that otherwise functions only as a satire, if not an out-and-out black comedy. He says the best plan is no plan because nothing works out the way you mean for it to anyway. It doesn’t matter if you kill someone or commit treason. Nothing matters. Nihilism is alive and well.

Still, the beauty of this is even while Mr. Kim says these things, there is a director behind him — an artistic creator — who has more than a vision for where he will end up. There is a purpose to everything that is happening to him. 

If the majority of the movie is an exhibition in Hithcockian manipulation, then the ending is suitably macabre for someone totally versed in the Master of Suspense. Bong somehow manages to be playful, shocking, thrilling, and a tad somber all in the course of the final hour. The film is lengthy; we don’t always know where it will wind up, and yet it ends up in places that continually lead to further questions.  You cannot unsee it or quite forget about what we have witnessed. 

Parasite has an undisputed climax and still the story continues allowing itself to sink back into a newfound despondency and the original status quo. I still cannot decide if this suits everything we have been subjected too thus far.

Although another joy of screenwriting is narrative symmetry when we can take a movie back to where it began. Because so much has happened. We have weathered so much as an audience, watching and in some perverse way, rooting for this family, only for it to end up back the way it was, under very different circumstances.

All I know is that this is one of the most wickedly sharp and ingeniously pulse-pounding movies I’ve seen in quite some time. It irks me and yet in the same instance, I cannot quite turn away.

If there is any more fruit, broader still, it will come from the phenomenal press the film has received, and in an age where acclaim still guides public opinion, like Bong said himself, maybe this can be the film to help the general public conquer their fear of subtitles. Because if Parasite‘s any indication, it wields the power to open people up to expansive avenues of cinema. This is only the tip of the iceberg.

The joy of making the leap is the realization that you are not being pulled further away from what you know. More often than not, you’re getting closer — closer to the things that feel universal — the human predilections connecting us on an intimate scale. Both the parasitic and the hospitable, the good and the evil. 

Although they couldn’t be a more diverse company, you see it in Hitchcock (a Brit), Koreeda (a Japanese), Bunuel (a Spaniard), Bong (a South Korean), and many others. Go watch them if you have the chance. My hope is you will be glad you did. 

4.5/5 Stars

Transit (2018): Casablanca in The Modern Day

Transit_(2018_film)Ever since the days of his James Cain-infused Jerichow, it’s been apparent German writer-director Christian Petzold is indebted to the written word when it comes to his brand of filmmaking. However, this time around he takes an oddly unnerving stroke of brilliance by setting his usual period piece in a version of the present, or is it a version of the present trapped in the past? Regardless, outside police cars — sounding eerily similar to Gestapo automobiles — rush through the streets while a pair of men have a hushed conference at a bar.

The scenario could nearly be mistaken for a dystopia if it weren’t for the cold hard facts the story was adapted from Anna Seghers eponymous wartime novel from 1944. What drives it forward is this compelling simplicity in the manner Petzold always seems so capable of. It’s part of the reason it’s so easy to be drawn into his films once you’re accustomed to the cadence.

The men bandy about talk of a letter and papers giving the hush-hush feel of a Casablanca, but Transit has the same restraint as Barbara (2012) and the wartime malaise of Phoenix (2014), albeit without the inimitable Nina Hoss. Georg (an unadorned yet haunting Franz Rogowski) is our protagonist, and we surmise soon enough he is on the lam from the authorities. Like many others, he has experienced the unknowable horrors of mechanized oppression.

He lives in a constant state of police-fueled paranoia brought on by the occupation, the details of which are kept purposefully murky. What we note are the resulting factors. The hotels are crammed with displaced folks trying to get out of the country, clinging to the faint wisp of hope in escaping to some far off place: the port of Marsellaise then Mexico or maybe America.

He is one of the displaced even as he’s aided in fleeing by cattle car and has a wounded colleague huddled next to him. It gives rise to the kind of pulse-pounding life or death scenarios reliant on both ingenuity and bouts of good fortune. It’s also perturbing to watch them unfold in the present.

His flight leads him to an abandoned roadside where he’s nevertheless invited to play football (soccer) with a precocious neighborhood kid named Driss. They build an instant rapport and their connections run deeper still, as we soon find out.

Whenever Georg stays within the confines of the city limits, he’s subject to the related police raids casing each room. If you don’t have your papers, you’re unceremoniously dragged away. By now it’s a daily occurrence. What becomes apparent is the rising sense of shame among the onlookers who watch and do nothing. What power do they have in such a world?

Georg lends a reluctant ear to fellow sojourners telling him their stories. Everyone seems weighed down by worries and troubles brought on by the tribulations of the times. They’re surprisingly forthcoming or rather they seem vociferous compared to individuals in Petzold’s previous movies. Although another distinction must be made.

His hero is fairly guarded as are a couple of the other central figures. It is the supporting characters who gladly use them as sounding boards to cast their thoughts on in this restless age. Even the narrator — an uncommon device for Petzold’s brand of restrained observational filmmaking — has his own insights to bring to the events.

The key again is how those central characters carry a bit of this pervasive despondency — this enigmatic nature holding us off but not completely alienating us. On the contrary, we want to know more about them as viewers transfixed by the fateful decisions they make and the encounters that befall them.

To begin with, Georg falls into a bit of luck donning the identity of a deceased writer and with it, the coveted opportunity at transit out of the country. The deceased man’s wife (Paula Beer) is a woman who drifts uncannily through his life throwing him glances as she motors on about her dutiful pursuits. What they are we have no idea. Although, with time, it’s easy enough to imagine.

That’s just it. Petzold is always toying with the arcane both in plot and characters because it’s in the ambiguities where his stories seem to come alive. It could be the first glance of the smartly dressed young woman on the street who touches Georg’s shoulder when the whole rest of the passing world seems not to pay him any heed. He’s invisible. And yet for some inexplicable reason — some cinematic kismet — she reaches out to him.

True, for the majority of the picture, it feels like she spends the movie walking in and out of places to build this air of mystique. Is she more of an object than a person? It’s easy to cry foul if only for the comfort of Petzold’s earlier collaborations with Nina Hoss. A mystifying woman put front and center can still stump us. What’s more, in the final act Marie becomes a living, breathing human being of fears and passions that turn strikingly palpable.

After she lost contact with her husband, she never gave up hope checking the consulate every day for any sign of news. Along the road, she was given a kind turn by an altruistic physician (Godehard Giese), and in a bedeviling world, they looked to one another for some amount of solace.

Their Rick’s Cafe becomes a corner pizzeria. Georg would always eat a Margherita there and find Marie stopping by. Later it becomes a meeting place with Richard — so mundane and typical, and yet it fits the context of the story.

As we find out, noble decisions aren’t so cut and dry here; they’re not capable of making our heart swell in the same romantic manner of Casablanca. We are constantly left questioning. What if the matrimonial ties aren’t so strong and beholden to the Hays Codes? What if Ilsa or Laszlo decided to stay behind at the last minute, making a grand sacrificial act null and void. What if the plane crashed en route? After all, the very thing happened to Glenn Miller over the English channel in 1944…

Speaking of music, it’s been so very long since I’ve seen Phoenix. Aside from the Vertiginous thematic elements and this same lingering sense of malaise, it seems I remember very little. It’s the impression that lasts and one scene — the scene where Nina Hoss sings “Speak Low” to her husband — imbued with so much subtext and bewitching power.

Down the road, years from now, the same lapses might happen with Transit. But I will remember the mood, this very concrete Casablanca-like mentality, and then another song. In a similar manner, the normally delphic Georg has a breach in character and shares the lullaby his mother used to sing to him. Hearing it on the radio brings the memory flooding back.

Or perhaps I will recall the other moment when, impersonating another man, he tells the consulate officer he’s done writing after all he’s seen. He wrote too many essays in school about vacations, holidays, and experiences to totally quash and trivialize everything substantive about those times.

To write about the atrocities he faced would be akin to that same sin. He’s not about to write another school essay. Even as the lines are spoken under an assumed identity, the words once more ring with an underlying resonance to denote a shared world.

The chilling edge of Transit is how it brings these obvious markers of the Holocaust into this out of body representation of our certain present. They feel poles apart until that creeping voice whispers doubts in the back of our minds. This is what I will remember. This is what will stay with me.

4/5 Stars

Yesterday (2019): How I Longed for a Bit More

Yesterday_(2019_poster)The majority of movies have to fight to earn our allegiance. However, Yesterday really does have a foolproof premise because, from the outset, it can bank on a viewership who will already have memories crowded with the Beatles and as the Fab Four play a key role in the story, you already have a huge cross-section of humanity as a potential fanbase.

Then, for good measure, you have Ed Sheeran for any of the younger folks who might not be old enough to remember the good old days. If its goal was to come out a little better than even, it would almost be there before the movie began. Although this might be too cynical an outlook for such a delightfully sentimental endeavor like this, and Sheeran is actually quite likable having a go at playing himself.

Regardless, Yesterday is the definition of a high concept storyline. Imagine something like this. You woke up tomorrow, after a freak of nature, and you were the only person in the world who knew The Beatles. All credibility aside, it does tickle one’s fancy and Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis work accordingly during some of the movie’s best bits.

There are endless possibilities to explore including other pop cultural staples also getting disrupted in a similar vein. The film chooses a few that feel completely arbitrary but no less enjoyable: cigarettes, Coca Cola, Oasis, and you guessed it, Harry Potter.

The other component a Beatles saturated audience will appreciate is Jack Malik’s (Himesh Patel) daily struggles to drum up all the lyrics to tunes like “Eleanor Rigby.” Because, of course, he doesn’t have the safety net of the internet to help him recall “she was picking up rice in the church” or that “Father McKenzie was “darning his socks in a night where there’s nobody there.” He must go at it — quite comically — by trial and error.

In this way, Yesterday manages to touch the surface of its potential though it admittedly doesn’t feel complete — at least in a satisfying manner. Granted, I only feel an obligation to point this out since it proves such an agreeable film, directed by a veteran like Danny Boyle, that also happens to be bolstered by the catalog of the greatest band of all-time.

Richard Curtis remains the great British romantic, and we see this throughout the movie. It always seems to be his greatest asset and also his major undoing. In his favor, Patel and Lily James have an unadorned if altogether amiable chemistry. There’s little legwork to get us to like them, and so we can cheer for them unabashedly.

We can say much the same about their peanut gallery (including Sheeran), although there are a few misses. Their roadie Rocky ups the oddball quota as the dysfunctional sidekick while Kate McKinnon, a particularly irksome American road manager, feels like less of a much-needed antagonist and more of a pale imitation to lampoon a self-possessed music industry.

The core romance is a crucial piece, but it felt like it might have come off more substantially had there been more supplementary elements. I can think of a couple areas going beyond simply playing with the new reality more extensively. Themes of fame, art, and authorship in a generation drunk of social media, 15 minutes of fame, and remixes also come to mind. We start to see how it impacts Jack, but it never feels like it gets to its fully-realized potential.

The closest I can come to explaining it is the fact Yesterday never earns its Groundhog Day finale. Because, like Phill Connors, Jack is given an extraordinary power — in this case the Beatles’ catalog — but it never feels like he reaches the same depths of despair before he is granted his revelation and the love of his life.

It feels like Yesterday takes liberties or short cuts with its story, since it thinks we already understand, and instead of wanting it to go anywhere more challenging, we’re here for the music (which isn’t entirely false).

Whereas Jack is only one individual, what made the Beatles was the fact there were four of them. He sings the whole catalog and yet they belong to this group who rode the wave of Beatlemania, fame, critical success, and impending discontentment together.

Malik does get a brief moment with two people who at least share the same knowledge he has and yet in all other regards, he’s by himself as a singer-songwriter. We never really comprehend what one would imagine is the sheer debilitating weight of loneliness in its full force.

I am intrigued by Jack Barth’s original story and where it might have taken the conceit. Logistics or licensing aside, what it Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr actually did come out of the woodwork to oust the imposter (instead of merely being teased in the James Corden dream sequence).

What if the two Beatles fan who actually did still remember the old songs came not bearing olive branches in the form of a yellow submarine, but some malicious intent? It’s not much and yet would it have at least given Jack more hurtles to work past?

As is, a lot of the movie feels like clip shows featuring montages played to iconic tracks. It’s easy enough to get away with it because the songs are beautiful, Patel is charismatic and a fine vocalist and nothing else ever ruins the mood.

SPOILER ALERT: What could be better than bringing John Lennon back from the dead to share a bit of sage advice to the pilgriming stranger he doesn’t know? He feels like a wonderfully insignificant man of 78 living a peaceful life of contented solitude. It’s another agreeable invention.

And yet, if I’m honest, I’d rather listen to McCartney’s own remembrance “Here Today.” Then, instead of seeing Jack go gallivanting around Liverpool for inspiration or trying to fake to Ed how he was inspired to write “Hey Jude,” I’d rather see Paul return to his roots with James Corden in Car Pool Karaoke.

That’s it isn’t it? The Beatles are so much about context and what we bring to them. In one way, Yesterday works so well because even the titular track allows us to wax nostalgic by tapping into what we carry with us.

But it can’t quite get us over the hump, because it is an imitation; it is not the real thing, and part of what makes these songs great is where they come from and the lads who brought them into the world. Their fingerprints are all over every one and so history is not some plug-and-chug phenomenon where any four fellows could have been stuck together to become the Beatles.

Jack realizes something along these lines, which is part of the reason he makes the final decision he does — to crowdsource them, in a sense. But for the sake of the movie, there’s nothing to be done about it. We’ve spent the entire film listening to a stand-in, though the love story does leave us some breadcrumbs to pick up and feel warm and fuzzy about.

It was partially a joke when I told myself the end credits were the best part, but I got to listen to the real “Hey Jude” for seven glorious minutes. There’s nothing that can beat that. If you’re a Beatles fan with a generous streak Yesterday might very well be an unmitigated delight. There’s a lot to like. Whether it’s entirely greedy or not, I found myself wanting a bit more.

3/5 Stars

Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker (2019): An Adequate Force Awakens Sequel

Star_Wars_The_Rise_of_Skywalker_poster.jpgYou might say I turned up to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker out of respect for the dead. Because we’ve lost many of our beloved figures. Han. Luke. Carrie Fisher. Peter Mayhew. Kenny Baker. You get the idea. And from the rumblings I couldn’t avoid hearing, it felt like Star Wars might be dead on arrival too.

After seeing the final installment of Disney’s Star Wars trilogy, my reaction is hardly so dramatic, and you can judge whether that is a good or bad portent. In many ways, it succumbed to all the fears a myriad of voices had shouted out in years gone by. In others regards, it still managed to be entertaining, albeit with a host of caveats.

There’s a nagging conflict inside of me not unlike the dark or the light side of the force — this tug-of-war between Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). I want to enjoy Skywalker for all its delights and at the same time, it does feel like a bit of an out of body experience.

Because I look at this film, and it zooms by. There’s plenty of spectacle, likability, and adorableness to get us in the seats; it’s so easy to pass over the lapses (as it is with just about anything when its played against John Williams’ magnum opus).

Highlights include the return of Lando (Billy Dee Williams), another cameo worthy of a buzz of adulation. In this episode, C3PO (Anthony Daniels) has more license to jabber on (though R2D2, yet again, feels decidedly less important). There’s also a particularly hallowed place for Carrie Fisher within the film acting as a nice tribute.

The relationship between Rey and Keylo remains the most dynamic and intriguing element, carrying itself through the series as they maintain their intimate connection through the Force.

Daisy Ridley was positioned as the heartbeat of the franchise, and she more than proves her mettle navigating the last leg of the journey with an earnest conviction. Adam Driver is her near equal. Not perfect, but there’s something not entirely phoned in about him, an issue Poe (Oscar Issac) and Finn (John Boyega) sometimes fall prey to. Invariably, Rey and Keylo have it out in a turbulent lightsaber duel recalling some of the epic glories of old.

However, now that the third and final trilogy is done, it does feel a bit haphazard, like it was dashed off without giving immense thought to how all the pieces fit together. Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) feels all but cast aside, her place filled by two new strong female characters (Keri Russell and Naomie Acker) not without their charms, but really it’s too little too late. One questions why they showed up now and not in The Force Awakens.

A continuous trail of blatant MacGuffins and exposition along with a deus ex machina in the form of a giant convoy stuff the story end-to-end. To that point, the finale feels drawn out in a cavernous throne room high on mind-numbing spectacle but somehow empty of the genuine conflict I felt when Luke faced Darth Vader or when father saved son.

Did it all feel like a lie after what Rian Johnson’s film had suggested? Was it like a last-minute patch job to bring Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) back for an ending that looked eerily familiar, simply drawn out on a bloated scale? Somehow bigger explosions and darker interiors didn’t help the film’s case. It’s like anything. Bigger isn’t always better. Excess can make it lose its significance.

Because while Star Wars was always a broad galaxy, it remained grounded through characters and very personal stories we could relate to about family and friends. And whether it was entirely true or not, it always felt like George Lucas was some kind of marionette master who had at least an inkling of a plan for his world.

With Disney’s trilogy, we have been left wondering and as a result, there’s been a general lack of cohesion, which has been aggravated the further we’ve gone into this revamped franchise. Abrams feels like he’s making a sequel to The Force Awakens and thus if Rian Johnson’s movie didn’t exist, it might mesh better. But The Last Jedi does exist as is, and it deserved a finale worthy of the questions it dared to ask.

I’ll do something I’ve never done before by quoting myself from an earlier review. Because with The Last Jedi I said all of  Rian Johnson’s breaks with tradition would be worth it if the subsequent film could stick its landing:

I resolutely admire Rian Johnson for his choices because it seems like he’s made a Star Wars film that is hardly cookie cutter in nature and the fact that it will not please everyone is a marvel (no pun intended) given the usual reality that blockbusters are supposed to be easy on the eyes while hardly divisive. Though flawed, it’s a relatively bold movie in running time, in how it utilizes its characters, and ultimately how it chooses to depart from its longheld traditions.

The Rise of Skywalker falls back on what is, for the most part,  familiar. This partially comes down to giving J.J. Abrams the impossible task. Instead of saying this is the end of one trilogy, it’s implied this is supposed to be the thrilling summation of eight other films spanning over 42 years. That’s like catching force lightning in a thimble. Of course, he’s not going to be able to pull it off.

I very rarely cast dispersions on anyone, but I think it’s safe to direct our ire toward Disney if there is any blame to be had. Time has reminded us over and over again, Disney was more invested in their lucrative commercial investment than giving us the best story they could.

Marvel was the initial template, and we’ve seen films of wildly uneven quality with the worst functioning as soulless potboilers made to order on schedule. Star Wars is too dear for me to riddle it with such criticisms. It’s a fault and a bias to be sure, but I will say, out of any of the Star Wars films, Skywalker comes the closest to what I feared. I remember vividly my reactions to Rogue One in 2016, a film I modestly enjoyed for exploring New Hope nostalgia:

My loyalty towards the franchise (more so than DC or Marvel or Star Trek) makes me also fear the continued mechanization of this world into a continuing box office cash cow. With film after film, story after story, it’s indubitable that Star Wars too will lose its allure. It will be run into the ground or become besmirched by some egregious plot hole, discontinuity, or for some far worse fates…

Even as Rian Johnson boldly ran roughshod over Star Wars lore, it feels as if this final film has done it a major disservice by falling back on the status quo. It goes beyond plot points for me. The writing off of Snoke is easy enough, even the clarification on Rey’s parentage (Obi-Wan pulled a similar trick on Luke if you remember).

But it’s the fact that none of this film’s digressions carry more than an ounce of surprise or what we might term movie magic. There’s nothing to take our breath away or make the hair stand on end. Everything it has in terms of charm and charisma is pent up inside those characters — those protocol and astromech droids, that wookie, etc. — and I do love them as much as anyone else.

Still, I was ill at ease trying to appreciate the moments we’ve been granted and feeling, simultaneously, they’re not quite right. We deserved something better from Disney who has served us up a Ghost of Star Wars Past.

President Lyndon B. Johson famously said something to the effect that when he lost Walter Cronkite on the Vietnam issue, he had lost public opinion. There’s a related point here somewhere, and here it is.

While my older brother’s not quite Walter Cronkite, I consider him one of the most thoughtful, well-versed Star Wars fans out there. He pored over the books, played the card games, collected the collectibles, and will no doubt remain a resolute Star Wars fan for years.

However, his reaction to this latest film was lukewarm at best. If I didn’t make it clear already, he loves Star Wars. In my little pocket of the world and the manner in which I perceive this galaxy as a very real and personal entity we cherished, it feels like someone has lost.

If not the Rebels, or Disney (who will rake in more money than ever), then it’s the fans who had such a profound affection for this franchise they wanted something more than a purely wish-fulfilling imitation. It felt so close yet so far from a long time ago in a galaxy far far away. The movie emphatically proclaims “The Dead Speak!” Sometimes it’s best to let them rest in peace. Something I’m not sure Disney understands or is willing to do.

3.5/5 Stars

Marriage Story (2019) and Being Alive

MarriageStoryPoster.pngIn full transparency, I’ve often considered Noah Baumbach as heir apparent to Woody Allen and a lot of this attribution falls on their joint affinity for New York City. It is the hub of their life and therefore their creative work even as the broader art world often finds itself seduced by the decadent riches of Los Angeles.

Allen most famously set up the dichotomy between the two places in Anne Hall (1977), where Annie and Alvy ultimately part ways because the woman he liked decided she likes L.A.; he loathes it above all else.

It’s hard to get these elements out of my head even as this film features two former Allen collaborators in Scarlett Johansson and Alan Alda. And yet, to his credit, Baumbach has allowed for a more robust dialogue between two people. It’s not merely a humorous juxtaposition, it becomes indicative of so much more.

Audiences should be forewarned Marriage Story is about the messiness of divorce full of hurt, troubled communication, and explosive moments of lashing out. It also features some of the most substantive and sustained pieces of fearlessness you’re probably going to see this year in terms of acting.

Scene after scene is carried by one or two performers in tandem. In fact, with the extended takes, fluidity, and intimate interiors, the relationship between film and the stage is close, going so far as to break up sequences with curtain-like fade-outs.

Yes, this makes Marriage Story unwieldy as it ranges all over the place. It somehow strikes this agreeable adherence to Baumbach’s intuitions as both writer and director, while still relying wholeheartedly on what Adam Driver and Johannson bring to their respective roles.

Right at the center of it all are their soulful performances lithely running the gamut from devoted affection to bitter resentment. But it’s the notes in between which become so crucial. Because it goes beyond mere technical ardor; there’s another kind of palpable investment present.

Their story is set up exquisitely by the words they use to recount one another. Perfect trailer fodder in fact. What they provide are observational affirmations of each other’s characteristics. Nicole is an actress. She is a mother who plays. She’s brave, knows how to push her husband, and she’s competitive. Charlie is a theater director. He really likes being a dad. He’s driven, neat, and always energy conscious. He’s also very competitive.

However, they never get to share these words because now they currently sit in the therapist’s office drifting apart. It looks like they’re already too far gone to salvage the thing. What could have been the passionate musings of love letters exchanged in a bygone era, instead find them at the precipice of separation.

The point of no return is dropped in Charlie’s lap in an oddly hilarious scenario of dramatic irony — somehow worthy of a Hitchcockian time bomb — where Nicole enlists the help of her good-natured mother (Julie Haggerty) and sister (Merritt Weaver) to help her serve notice. As can be expected, it unfolds in the most cringe-worthy and somehow the most perfect manner to suit the story.

It’s one showcase among a plethora of long takes supplying a formidable framework for the script to rest on. As such, it relies so heavily on its stars to be up for the task and to any degree we might adjudge as an audience, they come at it with impeccable aplomb.

Soon what looked to be an amicable dialogue between two rational human beings is being overhauled with lawyers. We begin to see how what started as a riff, between two solitary individuals, soon becomes complicated by well-meaning legalese, fees and the aggravation incurred from the middleman now bargaining between the former couple.

It gets to the point the relationship feels so far removed from where it began. You begin to question if any of it was worth it. Words get twisted. Feelings get hurt. They’re doing things because their lawyers say to and they become suspicious of motives. I was reminded of how our language makes it so arguments are literally equated to a war. There are winners and there are losers as the two sides become further alienated. The void in the courtroom never felt greater.

Laura Dern has an impeccable pulse for the kind of cajoling attorney with business acumen and bedside manner to get what she wants. Namely, the best for her clients. She’s ruthless yes, but it’s all within the confines of the game. There’s still a person there who has a life outside the 9 to 5.

Ray Liotta seems equally built for this cutthroat business-minded artificiality. We despise him even as we realize — much like Charlie does — he’s very good at his job. If you want to get out with you’re shirt, you’ve got to put up and buy into the game.

Alan Alda gets a bit as a sagacious saint of a man who plays as the antithesis of a lawyer (or any of his rivals). His spot feels like a hallowed place in a film filled with other prominent names who probably get to do more. He gets to be warm and wise, reminding us why he is such a dear soul to us all.

I came into Marriage Story expecting callbacks to Kramer Vs. Kramer (1979). Certainly, this is a film about parents and divorce and how they must tiptoe around their issues for the sake of their kids. But this is a bit different than the Hoffman picture where Meryl Streep at times feels non-existent. At least I always remember it as a father-son film.

This rendition is meant to provide equal footing two both parents with the onus of victimhood and blame distributed. Because that’s just it. You can’t draw it up so easily. Everyone contributes to the problem in some way.

There are also no clean breaks because time has a curious way of working on the human psyche. When you’re used to spending time with someone, you know all their quirk, and it’s hard to let them go. They drive you up the wall, and they fill you with that electrifying energy sending your heart aflutter. Their family becomes your family. You can’t snap that wishbone without some residual effect. Try as you might, it’s impossible to totally obliterate the memory.

It feels as if Scarlett Johansson has laid herself bare, extending herself like never before, and we see the flaws coursing through Adam Driver to go with his finest everyman attributes. Their urgency and honesty become brutally transparent and that is the utmost of compliments.

I couldn’t stop thinking about Contempt (1963) — Jean-Luc Godard’s film about moviemaking that famously documents the dissolution of a marriage (between Brigitte Bardot and Michel Piccoli), taking place within their house in one extended scene. These are the lengths Baumbach reaches towards in his own way through blocking and the relationship between his stars and the camera.

In one climactic confrontation among so many corkers, Driver and Johansson have it out in a fully ballistic, double-edged assault unearthing every wound and targeting every sore spot imaginable. Hurting each other in ways only they know how because they’ve been so intimate for so long. It ends with them red-eyed and huddled together on the floor totally spent. This is never what they wanted nor what they expected.

Where is the ending exactly? Because the film is substantial; it covers so much territory and the themes are wide-ranging from parental devotion to lingering love under new parameters. But with everything the movie allows us to be privy to, it’s obvious there is no easy resolution. Thus, with so many disparate reference points thanks to 80s icons like Julie Haggerty, Wallace Shawn, and Laura Dern, why not mention something altogether different.

In Hirokazu Koreeda’s After The Storm (2012), you have a vagrant husband trying to win back the affections of his wife even as they figure out how to raise their kid. They’ve entered a new chapter of existence, and sometimes that’s hard to cope with. So when they walk off into the sunset it’s hopeful, but something’s inexplicably altered. There is reconciliation and yet they cannot undo everything. This movie, again, is also about moving forward from the most painful fission imaginable: between two human beings. It’s a work in progress.

To this point, I’m fascinated by the choice to have the movie called Marriage Story. Because if we wanted to, we could look at it purely from the point of view of divorce. After all, surely this is the all-important final outcome. How could we see it any other way? And yet it becomes so difficult to break two human beings apart from one another.

Interrelated is the impassioned statement made by Nora in one of her sole lapses in composure. Within an otherwise irreligious picture, she says the following:

“The basis of our Judeo-Christian whatever is Mary, mother of Jesus, and she’s perfect. She’s a virgin who gives birth, unwaveringly supports her child, and holds his dead body when he’s gone. And the dad isn’t there…God is the father, and God didn’t show up. So you have to be perfect, and Charlie can be an f—-up and it doesn’t matter.”

The misunderstandings in her statement feel immaterial, and I’m not invested in pulling them apart now. Instead, it teases some private hurt we cannot hope to know, but it also triggers ideas some might recall from the Judeo-Christian texts, which are pertinent to the conversation.

In discussing the union of marriage, it says, “A man leaves his father and mother and is united to his wife, and they become one flesh.” This is both mentally, spiritually, emotionally — in every way imaginable. People are meant to be together. But if Marriage Story is a reminder of anything, it’s that pride, pettiness, and imperfection get in the way of our joy.

For Charlie, for Nicole, for all of us. It also cannot completely quell the love we breed in our hearts. Yes, our love is imperfect; still, it can see us through a lot. It can be a beautiful even an extraordinary entity. It’s part of being alive.

4/5 Stars

 

Someone to hold me too close.
Someone to hurt me too deep.
Someone to sit in my chair,
And ruin my sleep,
And make me aware,
Of being alive.
Being alive.
Somebody needs me too much.
Somebody knows me too well.
Somebody pull me up short,
And put me through hell,
And give me support,
For being alive.
Make me alive.
Make me alive.
– Being Alive