Eighth Grade (2018)

Eighth_Grade.pngIt’s not exactly The Godfather but in its opening monologue, using the awkward tween, like-laden mouthpiece of Kayla, Bo Burnham re-exerts his creative voice on the media landscape. What is more, in a world becoming continually more obsessed with relevance, shareability, and trends, Eighth Grade promises something of actual substance.

Because it dares to do what few films have done (or done well), which is enter the perilous trenches of middle school plagued by all the anxiety, bodily changes, and nervous stuttering that goes with such turbulent territory.

Looking into Kayla’s face for as long as we do — every painful tick and averted gaze — we realize this message to “Be Yourself” on her channel is as much of a rallying cry for her than for anyone else. But that’s precisely the point, isn’t it? We live life for affirmation and to know we are not alone.

I can still recall when I was in middle school (10 years ago now), which must feel like eons for middle schoolers right now. But the big new gizmo was the iPhone. MySpace was just becoming a thing of the past as the Facebook storm began to creep in. By the time of my final year in high school, Instagram was on the scene.

Now people (even me) don’t really use Facebook. We’ve moved onto Instagram, Snap Chat, and new uncharted frontiers. In the social media age proliferating with Instagram stories, Youtube vlogs, podcasts, snap stories and whatever else that is new and novel, there is a hyper-awareness of technology, surpassing anything we have yet to see.

Our daily brand — how we showcase ourselves to the public — is so important as is second-guessing every text and emoji to make sure they make us come off in the right light. In fact, even by the movie’s conclusion, we feel saturated. But the truly sobering aspect is seeing how it so directly overlaps with my own life and the lives of friends as we navigate this age. It’s not too far removed from us.

Eighth Grade is also a film that greatens my resolve to go on a technology detox in some shape or form. Kayla, constantly scrolling, plugged in with earbuds, is not so much a bygone figure but a mild reflection of many of us — even those of us who are older.

But on the Middle School front, there are also instantly recognizable vignettes from rubber bands on braces to health class and superlatives within the student body. It is these relatable elements causing Eighth Grade to mirror Boyhood in how it capably recalls a certain time and place.

And like Edge of Seventeen, there’s a fascination in the bad boy who by any subjective standard is arguably the most uninteresting specimen of the opposite gender in the entire pack. It’s the way our adolescent brains function causing us to channel people through a very specific filter.

Initially, the movie feels more low key and less edgy than aspects of middle school I remember around the fringes. However, there also manages to be ample truth. Though everyone has diverse experiences, there are other elements proving themselves universal.

There’s the invitation to the pool party which is in itself ripe with so many potential humiliations. The over the shoulder slow track as Kayla plods along tentatively is one of Burnham’s favorite tricks to get inside her character — epitomizing just how much of an unconfident, introvert she is among her peers.

It turns out to be a bit like a three-ringed circus but not in some outrageous way — in the everyday idiosyncratic, cringe-worthy way we no doubt experienced in our own lives. We are allowed to observe the silly flirting rituals of the genders. How a girl’s mother invites her 50 “best friends” to the party thereby netting a veritable lode of presents.

Then we are reminded of how fledgling teenagers coexist (or don’t) with their parents. What follow are the well-established angsty, taciturn evasion tactics. It’s one of the strange mysteries of the universe. Everyone else’s parents are fine but the moment we hit a certain age our own parents find a way of wheedling under our skins and our own issues and insecurities meets head-on with these people who love us and often try our patience.

In the darkness, in front of a glowing screen — not only the circadian rhythms are thrown out of whack — but with technology literally when we wake up (phones as alarm clocks) and web surfing before bed, there’s room for concern. There is little space left over for quiet. We are never alone. Never allotted time to simply exist, undistracted.

In one moment Kayla utters the cutest prayer about the first day of her high school “audition.” If we were to take it seriously, her prayer is answered in the form of Olivia, a bubbly high schooler, who instantly puts her shadow at ease. But while Olivia is easy and kind and inclusive, her friends are a shoddy bunch.

Between them, we have the confrontation of this idea of micro generations — how quickly things change now — and how we are “wired differently” based on when we grew up. Middle schoolers versus high schoolers, then college students, and now an old fogey like me out of college.

An awkward interaction becomes progressively creepier in the darkened back seat of a car when she is getting driven home by a boy. In fact, it turns into a traumatic experience. No young woman should have to deal with something like that in an already harrowing world. It breaks the heart because we know there is a truth to it.

Kayla gratefully finds another worthy friend in Gabe — who is the dork to trump all dorks — but he’s also a person of quality because he’s never destructive or narcissistic. There is an authentic warmth to him which makes him worth having in your corner. When he asks Kayla if she believes in God, munching on fries and chicken nuggets it’s matter-of-fact, if not candid.

The conversation feels so forced and awkward but they are both on equal footing, worrying and concerned and so it makes every weird observation or odd behavior part of the new, accepted status quo. None of it matters. They are friends.

These moments trigger brief wisps of memories where I wish I could go back to those days armed with a few of the things I learned now. Being content in my own skin enough to take leaps of faith, being bold, and making an idiot of myself more often. It works when you have people in your circle who aren’t trying to play a superficial popularity contest with you. They’re the definition of what a friend actually is if you look it up in the dictionary, instead of a convenient social conception.

In the end, I couldn’t help wishing Eighth Grade was a television program instead of a film. I’m not sure if this is a negative conclusion to come true. All I can consider are my warm memories for The Wonder Years and then Freaks and Geeks, which both gave us such meaningful articulations of a certain time in life. Kevin Arnold’s voiceovers as his adult self are a thing of legend. And Kayla gives us a similar entry point through her vlog. But it doesn’t feel as visually cinematic as it does episodic.

Burnham’s finest scene is probably the pool party because like other films before it, he’s able to use that arena to give us something about our main character. To some degree though, the film is full of astute and highly personal insights, there is something tiring about montage, vacuous pop music paired with voiceover.

Then again, if there was anyone qualified to look at this material in this manner, it probably is Burnham who himself began as a YouTube personality. There is an instantaneous bit of truth he can inject into the movie and even if this was all it was, there is something to it. If it connects with some kid on a meaningful level, I would consider it to be an unequivocal success.

Elsie Fisher is a name I recall from Despicable Me but in this live-action performance, she brings the crucial unassuming charm to push the role into a believable world. A connection is made thanks to her and when the credits roll we want Kayla to be herself knowing full well how special she is. Mr. Rogers isn’t in vogue with middle schoolers or high schoolers and yet there is such lasting veracity in one of his most famous affirmations.

“You make each day a special day. You know how? By just your being you. There’s only one person in this whole world like you. And that’s you. And people can like you exactly as you are.”

I think we could all use more words like these in our lives. Replacing Twitter feuds with uplifting words of praise seems like a worthwhile tradeoff. It only takes one voice to start a movement.

4/5 Stars

 

Leave No Trace (2018)

Leave_No_Trace.pngLeave No Trace instantly reminded me of two distinct reference points. The first relates to a man named Richard Proenneke who lived in the Alaskan wilderness for 30 years building his own cabin and raising his own food in a life of tranquil solitude.

Then, the other comes from a book I read when I was a kid called My Side of a Mountain, written by Jean Craighead George, following a young man who literally goes out into a forest, builds himself a home hewn out of a tree, and subsists off the land. The common themes running through these narratives are already quite obvious.

If you’re like me, especially in this technology-saturated world of ours, sometimes it seems like we’re pretty helpless and ever plugged into our devices. But some of us look at such stories and see a sense of romanticism. It seems like a nice idea — like a picnic or going camping — out communing with nature. Except it only goes so far. We love to read about it and live vicariously through others but we stop short of getting involved ourselves.

The pair existing in Leave No Trace is actually up to the challenge of living this life on the move, out in an Oregon nature reserve, surviving off the land, and in so many ways remaining self-sufficient. They are far closer than many of us can probably ever comprehend. Because everything they do has near life and death consequences. You don’t live as they do without getting close and forming a bond. There is no other way to exist aside from constant symbiosis.

The father, Will (Ben Foster), a former member of the military, has passed down so many practical skills to his daughter, training her up to survive out in the wild. It’s like an extreme version of homeschooling. Tom’s (Thomasin Mackenzie) social skills are lacking but if you stacked her up against anyone her age she’s probably more resourceful and capable than any of them. Because her brain has not been programmed by technology nor is it awash in a world of a vacuous glut of constant stimuli. Their total immersion in nature is refreshing as is their independence and very stripped down lifestyle.

But this journey is particularly worthwhile because it is still set in our world and so these two very unique individuals are forced to brush up against society and the norms in place. Technically, they are trespassing and so in a way they take on the mantle of fugitives constantly on the run as nomads dodging the authorities. You can only hide and break camp and get away so long. Even for people as attuned and regimented as them, there’s always a slip-up.

Now there are good folks in the world — social workers and then common, ordinary people who try and give them a leg up. There are ways to get Tom and her dad back into society without completing severing their ties with the naturalism that is most comfortable for them.

It is a story about a relationship, a very close-knit relationship between a father and daughter. But it becomes a story of maturation as well. Tom realizes her dad is hardwired a certain way. Whether it is restless feet, the demons of post-traumatic stress, or some unnamed specter, he’s constantly dodging, or simply discontent with modern society. He is never capable of settling down.

Meanwhile, she is willing to make allowances and sculpts each place they find together into a new home. Still, it never feels like she’s selling out completely. True, she’s enamored with a new bicycle and mentions in passing how having a phone would make it easier to communicate and yet the core aspects of her character do not waver. Tom still maintains her immense inquisitiveness and affection for all flora and fauna in the great outdoors. She loves dogs, makes friends over rabbits and honeybees. These are the places she is truly in her element.

However, she is also a willing participant, ready to enmesh herself in an ecosystem of people. She gets comfortable around the relationships she makes and yearns to set roots down somewhere. The great revelation comes when she realizes her father can never be that. Instead of always following his lead, she becomes more and more of her own person, making her own decisions. It has nothing to do with a split or not loving him anymore. This is about being mature enough to let other people go and being okay with the realization.

Read only as words on the page, Leave No Trace could be chock full of high drama but it wins its victories through the subtility of its leads and the more nuanced touches to fill in around the naturalism and bevy of sojourning survival tactics. Debra Granik directs the movie with an eye attuned to relationships and while generally unadorned, the movie is full of wonderment in the world’s natural beauty.

It exhibits the lush greenery quintessential to the rainy, fresh imagery that the Oregon coast conjures up. There is arguably no better film that I’ve seen to capture this environ in all its verdant glory. While a completely different sort of film, I could not but for a moment recall one of the greenest films to ever be on the silver screen, The Quiet Man. Because whether romantic or familial there’s no question the milieu of a film is so crucial in fashioning how we perceive a cinematic experience. Like its predecessor, Leave No Trace is a roaring success channeled through tranquil trails of its own creation. Sometimes those trails must break off and lead toward different destinations. Being content in moving on is key.

4/5 Stars

Madeline’s Madeline (2018)

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Madeline’ Madeline takes the very individualistic nature of its title and boldly realizes it through POV and metaphor to begin digging around in the perplexing head-space of a teenager. The first words we hear are as follows, “The emotions you are having are not your own, they are someone else’s. You are not the cat. You are inside the cat.” We are in a hospital and then within a feline pawing and purring, followed by a turtle sliding its way out to the ocean into the depths of the sea.

In the midst of the movie, I had an epiphany that I would have difficulty being an actor if the part strayed away from human qualities. Because when I look at animals there is wonderment there but I never feel like I could bring anything to them. I cannot understand or comprehend them.

Likewise, it would be difficult for me to invest in the perspective of a turtle and a cat, not that they are not important but they do not seem to operate, think, and act in the same way that we do as human beings. Because Madeline (Helena Howard) is a character who is playing a part and the metaphor is extended across this entire film. One could say she is playing a version of herself — the version that she perceives and wants to exist as — while others have another version of her that they want.

In playing her part, she willingly sheds her skin and puts on the guise of other creatures and gives herself over to them completely. One of the inherent fascinations in the showing Howard gives is the meta nature of playing the role of someone else playing a role.

So, in theory, we have the layers and the complexities of this whole patchwork of theater people and normal everyday humans playing their parts both real and fabricated based on the world around them. A certain ubiquitous Shakespeare quote is overwrought I know but it is also quite pertinent. “All the world is a stage and the people merely players.” We can break this film down to these more basic components as well.

Madeline’s involvement in her theater troupe not only facilitates this layering of a part on top of a part but it creates a visual dichotomy between the two women in her life who carry weight over her adolescent years. Her nervously concerned mother Regina (Miranda July) is always worried about her behavior, if she’s eating, taking her medicine, being safe about sex — all sorts of things. Her high-strung nature is a result of a daughter she deems to be unpredictable.

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Then, there’s Evangeline (Molly Parker) the drama director and empowering free spirit who continually encourages Madeline in her physical expression and touts her in the devotion she gives to the stage. In this carefree communal environment, the girl feels truly herself and at ease with the beings existing around her.

They do some of the familiar improv, turning the story of an incarcerated man into literal expression. They do photo shoots and costume runs with giant pig heads and garish ensembles. When they sit in a circle together sharing their emotions and insights I could not help but feel the portrait epitomized the stereotypical acting experiences seen in a show such as Community. Needless to say, someone like me repressed and stunted as I am, looks on such a showing with a skeptical eye.

In one solitary scene, Evangeline even sits down with Madeline and starts expounding upon the philosophy of Jung. All is chaos in the cosmos. In the disorder, there is an order and the pendulum perpetually swings between sense and nonsense. While not necessarily reassuring, perhaps these words allow us to piece together a certain perspective to see the world. Maybe…

It becomes increasingly apparent — certainly beginning with the opening shot — this is meant to be a very intimate film. The camera hugs Madeline’s face and really provides close-ups for just about everyone while simultaneously blurring the screen artistically with exposure techniques to allow light to constantly seep into the frame. That’s when we’re not literally inside the camera’s viewpoint. Audio is often being funneled to us with dulled or hazed effects as if we are seeing the world through interference and distractions like others do.

At one point the stage performance is about prison and then it is a metaphor and then it morphs against into a piece on mental illness until Evangeline literally turns into a performance of Madeline’s most intimate details thinking they are all part of a character named Zia. Of course, the mask is only Madeline. She becomes a daughter regurgitating the words of her mother — imprinted on her brain — in a very public forum and it becomes a bit too real.

Then, Madeline winds up seeing a different side of Evangeline, not unlike her own mother, and once more we have drolling adults communicating on an altogether different wavelength than the teenagers.

The inevitable happens and Madeline and her troupe create a near funhouse of performance art all overtaken by an idea and rebelling against the forms their fearless leader imparted to them.

There is a unique voice and a vision that is unlike most anything else. But I’m not sure it even knows what it is striving for. There’s not necessarily an issue with this and yet it does lack what we would ascertain to be a central conceit for the rest of the film to orbit around.

If I had not just If I had not just recently seen A Bread Factory I would say this movie existed in a stratosphere totally its own. Regardless, it boasts a wholly original perspective from director Josephine Decker coupled with a mesmerizing performance by Helena Howard.

Whether we know what to make of it or not is up for contention. I still haven’t decided if this point is really worth dwelling on. The onus should not always be on a film to provide answers and if that is the case Madeline’s Madeline is a success because it arguably offers something more valuable — food for thought. For now, I am content ruminating over my multitude of questions.

3.5/5 Stars

Hearts Beat Loud (2018)

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“When life hands you conundrums you turn it into art” – Nick Offerman as Frank Fisher

The opening introduction of our character is nothing short of fantastic. He lights up a cigarette absent-mindedly, headphones plugged in to Tweedy only for his reverie to be broken by a patron telling him he can’t smoke inside. He responds bluntly, “I’ll put it out if you buy something.”

We know him instantly to be a man who doesn’t play popularity contests even when it would benefit him and his record shop. This is what the following piece of superfluous dialogue is implying as this offended customer says he just bought an album on Amazon instead.

Without hardly knowing anything about him, somehow we like this man behind the counter and simultaneously feel sorry for him. Surely, he can see the writing on the wall. The record shop, the trendy bastion of a bygone era, even in a neighborhood like Red Hook in Brooklyn, is probably on the way out. It is an endangered species and we as the populous have killed it.

This is not High Fidelity (2000). The record shop is no longer a place for buddy comedy with your ragtag band of musical connoisseurs quibbling over personal tastes and nonexistent romance. The niche begins to feel smaller and smaller. It has become even moreso a thing of the past. I recently watched the documentary on the rapid decline of Tower Records, fittingly entitled All Things Must Pass. There is a certain wistulness in acknowledging this irrefutible reality.

Like most indies of this day and age, Heart Beats Loud uses the same formula with quirky supporting characters who have their charms. The mother is a ditsy kleptomaniac who once had a career as a songstress. It feels like a blink and you miss it turn for the Blythe Danner.

There’s Toni Collette, the local landlord who rents Frank his space. They have a relationship that’s hard to pinpoint. Their kids are grown. They’re friends and they can talk to one another. Still, there’s something unspoken between them; it supplies some unnecessary romantic tension.

Surprise, suprise, there’s Ted Danson who (wink, wink) runs the local bar and plays the ever-present available listening ear for our hero to commiserate with. We all need that friend.  Frank’s daughter Sam has such a confidante too even as she tries to figure out her life and love in the context of adolescence. Fortuitously, while I like these folks, they hold nothing compared to the people at the center. Seeing as we spend the most time with the two Fishers it’s probably for the best.

The age-old inversion is also present. The adult seems to be acting out like a child even as his kid makes up the difference by acting mature beyond her years. In one particularly indicative scene, Frank bugs his daughter in her attempts to study so they can have a father-daughter jam sesh together. Because this is the summer before she will head across the country to UCLA. They are on the cusp of a new period of life. He hasn’t accepted it yet.

The story beats are nothing strange or sensational just as the music is catchy but not altogether supernal pop. However, the familiarity is actually quite nice and because we like these people and the places feel warm and welcoming, we want to spend time there. There need not be more.

Together their jam sessions bleed into the synthesis of songs from the heart. It’s how they bond and find a way to communicate when there is no other available wavelength open.  Movies like these allow those of us who adore music and cannot play or sing a lick, live vicariously through some else’s experience. It’s the best way I can describe it. The last film to carry me away on the sound waves with this much relish was Sing Street (2016).

It won’t win any awards and it will be dismissed by so many more and yet there will be a niche market for it — just like vinyl itself. I am thankful we still have actors like Nick Offerman, willing to make unassuming, passionate projects like this one.

In the end, a seemingly inconsequential decision winds up stirring up some notice as the song they cut together actually has some mild success under their moniker We Are Not a Band. There’s the giddy delight registering on Frank’s face upon hearing the song he made in his living room with his daughter playing in a local coffee shop. He’s as proud and as flabbergasted as can be even though no one else seems to understand his elation.

This is purely That Thing You Do! or The Commitments grade musicianship. It’s good but not virtuoso or magnified enough to get a large following. Nevertheless, it’s tantalizing. What could have been? Because even as the shop is having its final day and Sam gets ready to head out west, they get another opportunity.

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Someone is interested to monetize their band and tour it into something with legs. There is a moment where Frank genuinely wants this until he realizes it’s indicative of another issue. He needs a catharsis — a healthy, meaningful way to say goodbye to not only his shop but his daughter — and he gets it.

What more fitting way than a Last Waltz in the record store, except they’ve never even performed before. Still, they do it for the first and last time (maybe) and give it all they have for an audience of record hunters. The accolades and circulation were never important anyway.

They are in the pantheon surrounded by a hall of heroes. Some forgotten. Some not. I see Peter Frampton. Marvin Gaye. Lana Del Ray. The Beach Boys. Aretha. Bob Marley. Tom Waits. They’re all smiling down on these two people who love music. The personified joy is what it’s all about.

The message is succinct and we’ve heard it so many times before. Hearing it in the context of these people’s lives somehow gives it renewed resonance. Because it’s the message they need to hear and who knows, maybe some of us do as well.

Contentment is key. All change is not bad just as things of the past should not necessarily be ditched entirely for the new. Somewhere in between them all, between the record albums and the Spotify playlists, we should be able to find a happy medium. At the end of the day, the point of the music doesn’t change. It’s meant to bring us together.

3.5/5 Stars

 

Review: Lost in Translation (2003)

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30 minutes into Lost in Translation our two traveling misanthropes finally meet in the hotel lobby at the bar sharing a friendly exchange. They are two people who share one striking similarity — they are Americans in a foreign land — and they’re looking for a friend.

It’s a very pertinent film for places I’ve gone as an American who has traveled to Japan of my own volition but still as a bit of an outsider. Not because I am rejected or an outcast but for the very fact that there are obvious cultural and linguistic barriers in my way. I resonate with this film not so much because it takes on the point of view of the Japanese and empathizes with them but on the contrary, it focuses on those on the outside looking in. Like Bob & Charlotte and you and me in our manifold cultural illiteracies.

Bob is a big shot movie star. Probably not unlike Bill Murray. Big in the 70s and 80s but now his popularity is slowly waning as the years begin to catch up with him and he’s demoted to cameos. In fact, maybe Murray has fared better. Bob’s in Tokyo promoting Suntory Whiskey in their latest ad campaign. It’s good money but certainly not what he wants to be doing with his career.

He’s Suntory Time’s latest spokesperson. It’s the epitome of culture becoming completely muddled along language lines. My Japanese admittedly leaves much to be desired, but the Japanese director’s stage directions are full of passionate vision of what this scene will be, a shot out of Casablanca, full of emotion and heartache. The translation Bob gets is simply “He wants you to turn and look to the camera.” He feels like he’s missing something. Just as each reference that’s tossed haphazardly his way is never fully understood.

The Rat Pack, Bogart, Sinatra, Roger Moore, even Johnny Carson. Each of these names comes with so much more. But the context has been ripped away from them and appropriated and transplanted to different settings. It’s nothing to be up in arms about it’s simply the reality of our internationalized culture and it’s utterly befuddling to Bob. He can’t navigate it at all.

Charlotte (Scarlett Johannson) is a recently married philosophy graduate who looks hardly a day over 20. Friends back home seem too preoccupied to listen as she calls them up over the phone. Meanwhile, her dweeby husband with a particularly whiny voice (sorry Giovani Ribisi) is consumed with his own career as a photographer and distracted by old acquaintances ( namely Anna Faris). He says he loves his wife but he certainly doesn’t spend much time with Charlotte. Her loneliness shows. She’s even hit the bottom of the barrel listening to CDs to discover the purpose of her soul.

Bill Murray’s characteristic deadpan cheekiness feels entirely at odds with the culture that he is thrown into where you’re forced to cook your own food (Shabu Shabu) and he dwarfs the national average in terms of height. Bob is the prototypical American movie star making his press junket of Tokyo but at the same time, he’s also oblivious that he forgot his son’s birthday again until he receives a reminder.

In fact, Murray never feels like he could be anyone’s best friend because he’d either be a flake or he’d never open up to you because he’s too busy making jokes in lieu of actual conversation. Still, maybe there’s a grain of hope.

Bob and Charlotte are totally adrift in the city. Lost in the sea of Tokyo and it’s really no fault of the city despite its astronomical population and unfamiliar customs. It only serves to magnify the real problem — a small-scale parallel to what is going on in their lives. Their problem doesn’t start with Tokyo. It starts with the person who looks back at them in the mirror. Though they come from two very different stations of life, their current state of affairs is all but analogous. Bob and Charlotte are in the midst of personal crises — the biggest ones imaginable — what’s life really about?

That’s why when they break out in conversation it means something. Of course, he leads with an extended joke, “I‘m trying to organize a prison break. I’m looking for, like, an accomplice. We have to first get out of this bar, then the hotel, then the city, and then the country. Are you in or you out?”

Their meeting in the hotel lobby is a lifeline that they both willingly grab hold of and it leads them out into the world around them. They frequent the video game parlors, traverse Shibuya crosswalks, perform in late night Karaoke joints, and sit up talking with Japanese surfers as Tokyo’s bright lights illuminate the night air. Coppola even drops a nod to her significant other with Phoenix’s “Too Young” exemplifying the vibe around town.

The film hints at infidelity at times and Bob’s marriage is a flimsy one at best but the beauty of his relationship with Charlotte is that first and foremost it is a friendship and by the time they must part ways it’s heartbreaking. They’ve grown so close. But a hug can be as meaningful as any sexual relationship might have been. They genuinely care about each other. It turns out Bill Murray can be a good friend and one with wisdom and grace no less.

In its fleeting moments, Lost in Translation, captures just how horrible goodbyes can be. There’s so much you want to be able to say and nothing you can begin to say. In fact, Bob cannot leave it there and so he goes after her, tracks her down, and shares one final embrace and one last word. Both of them go their separate ways but there’s no doubt that Bob and Charlotte have grown and helped each other to a better place. It’s still a work in progress but that’s part of what life is about right? Living and growing alongside other people.

We can scour YouTube to come up with the latest and greatest, definitive enhanced audio video to tell us exactly what Bob leaves her with, although each one undoubtedly claims something different, or we can bask in that ambiguity which while so maddening in some way feels satisfying for the very same reason. Floating through Tokyo has never been so wistfully affecting.

4.5/5 Stars

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Fruitvale Station (2013)

Fruitvale_Station_poster.jpgRyan Coogler is from Oakland, California. He was attending USC Film School in 2009 when Oscar Grant III was shot near the BART station. From those experiences were born his first project. He envisioned Michael B. Jordan in the lead role. Thankfully his vision and the casting came to fruition.

I appreciate smalltime gems like Fruitvale and Short Term 12 (which both came to by attention at the same time). Maybe they are very intentionally crafted into these intensified dramas with heightened bits of reality but there’s also something meaningful in how they are able to tell smaller scale stories in an economical way. That in itself is an art just like making a cohesive blockbuster is an art.

The allure of the picture comes in putting us in the moment. Coogler works in capturing the final hours of Oscar Grant’s life which would seem mundane and unextraordinary if it weren’t for how they were capped off. It’s a film that breeds a certain amount of empathy because the camera is always over the shoulder, at the hip, or in the most intimate spaces putting a lens on what is happening.

But when the picture turns tragic there’s this undeniable sense of immersive drama while still crafting a story that connects to all of us. It feels as if all facets of Oscar’s character are put up to the light.

Because if you put up the magnifying glass to each of us you soon realize that we don’t always act the same way around everyone. When you see Oscar in his different interactions each person brings out something else in him. And he is very much a people pleaser.

What the story offers up are these perfectly manufactured moments (some better than others) to capture the contours of a single individual. None is fake per se — a facade if you will — but oftentimes various interactions bring out a certain side of someone. The lady attempting to have a fish fry and struggling miserably appreciates Oscar’s genial nature to call up his grandma and get her help. There’s the entrepreneur who has created his own web design business who thanks Oscar for finding a bathroom for his pregnant wife. Even the dude who comes to Oscar to pick up his smokes.

They are hardly central characters but each interaction serves the purpose of the story. However, this is not solely a film for the African-American community though it was an important story to tell.

Coogler in the way he purposefully draws up the narrative seems to be suggesting that it is for all of us. It’s not about color as cut and dry as black or white. It’s not even about good versus evil. It’s about issues of race and violence and injustice still clearly visible in our world. But not in a way that makes one party out to be the hero and completely demonizes another.

We connect with Oscar no doubt but we see his flaws as much as his humanity. He’s gone through a long stint in prison. His temper smolders dangerously as much as his spirit is generous to his friends. He rather immaturely covers up his troubles at work. But he’s 22 years old. In fact, maybe its just that. His flaws are his humanity.

And with the law enforcement we see the brutality but what is just as prevalent is fear and confusion. In the heat of that moment I’m not sure what I would do. All I can do at this point is give the benefit of the doubt and mourn the loss of a human being taken from this earth far too quickly in the worst circumstances possible.

Its true the fateful moments — seen in real cell phone footage at the beginning and reenacted later on — are full of chaotic tumult that we can’t quite understand. What’s even more haunting is the fact that Coogler got permission to shoot in the very locations where Grant was fatally injured. In that specific sense, the film couldn’t be more authentic.

One of the sequences that resonated was the communal prayer in the hospital corridors. It’s true you can read someone’s character in the times of pandemonium but also immediately following. It’s in the turbulence where Octavia Spencer takes charge in the best way she knows how and probably in the most effective way. Because there’s a helplessness in the air. This is one way to keep things together.

It’s one of the films most unifying moments for me because amid the torrent of understandable anger and apprehension it establishes a singular instance of calm in the wake of such emotion.

The film ends much as it begins with footage of the real because that’s what this is in a sense. Reconstructed, undoubtedly stylized and put back together with inevitable human biases as it may be, I appreciate its efforts. The intentions seem candid and the results speak in such a way that though calling out this brutality is more concerned with making Oscar into a version of a human being not just another thug or a victim to be pitied in order to rally a cause.

Didactic films get tiresome but Fruitvale Station rarely feels like that. Its platform undoubtedly is a social one and yet the director quite adeptly makes sure his narrative resonates on an individual less austere level.

Of course, to form a truly robust, well-informed opinion of the events more accounts would be necessary but as a film there is definite quality in this production. I still hold that Ryan Coogler and Michael B. Jordan have one of the best collaborations going on in movies right now. Here’s to hoping they don’t let up anytime soon. I’m eager for more stories from them. I think many other people are thirsty for them too.

4/5 Stars

Get Out (2017)

Teaser_poster_for_2017_film_Get_Out.pngGet Out seems like a simple enough premise. Ridiculously simple even. We’ve seen it millions of times in rom-coms or other fare. It’s the fateful day when the significant other is being taken to meet the parents. Whether they pass this test will have irreversible repercussions on the entire probability of the relationship’s success. Maybe that’s a tad over the top but anyways you get the idea as Rose (Allison Williams) drives her boyfriend Chris (Daniel Kaluuya) to meet her parents.

But if anything Get Out is the Anti-Guess Whose’s Coming to Dinner and I say that for a number of reasons. That picture was groundbreaking in its day because Stanley Kramer made an issue-driven film about an interracial couple coming to meet the parents in the age of Loving v. Virginia  (1967) still being on the recent record books. Miscegenation was still outlawed in numerous states across the country. Granted, it was set in California, that open-minded oasis in the West, but that doesn’t mean parents weren’t still skeptical about the union. It’s easy to be a champion of racial equality and quite another to have your daughter marry a man of a different race. At least in 1967. Now it shouldn’t be an issue at all. We are an enlightened people, after all, informed by a 21st-century worldview…

Yet Get Out works because it shows the flip side of the coin. You have that same forward thinking, liberal idealism that’s reflected on the surface for all to see. It’s a bit of the Hepburn and Tracy characters from the earlier picture that we see in these parents (Bradley Whitford and Catherine Keener).

Except here they’re not who they seem to be and their enlightened qualities only mask the ugliness that is hiding inside of them. Perhaps they are more nefarious and wily than the outright bigots because they hide their prejudice proclivities so well. Their racism is systematic and acceptable in the framework of modern society.

It’s nodded at and laughed off at cocktail parties because they are the folks who would have voted for Obama for a third term and their favorite golfer, of course, is Tiger Woods. He plays their civilized game and before his downfall, he played it well. As such, they can accept them without much hesitation because it’s these men who have seemingly conformed to their way of life.

A few other obvious cinematic touchstones to appreciate Get Out are The Shining (1980) because there’s an inscrutable nature to the horror that’s  underlined by dread more than fear in the accepted sense. It makes for an unsettling final act that lingers for a long time. Meanwhile, the entire conspiracy that’s going on under the surface brings to mind Rosemary’s Baby (1968), simultaneously unnerving and darkly comic to its final moments much like Get Out.

This is by no means a pop out at you horror movie which I admittedly don’t hold much taste for. Jordan Peele’s effort is far more than that. Slowly crawling under your skin insidiously looking at some unnamed problems of our society in the domain of race and it does it in such a way that’s perturbing and ultimately brings up some powerful questions on the front of a social commentary.

This is a movie that upends expectations starting out as one thing which we assume will be offered in the package of a horror picture and it morphs into something far more interesting that has the compelling power to stay with audiences long after the momentary shock value might dissipate in a typical film with few lofty aspirations.

If nothing else, it confirms that there is still so much progress that needs to be made in our nation and Peele positions himself as far more than a comedian but a fascinating creative mind behind the camera. Get Out is a shining reaffirmation that creatively potent and timely films are still being made today. It is not meant for everyone but there’s no question it has something new to offer.

4/5 Stars

Columbus (2017)

ColumbusPosterI wrote an article quite a few years back where I considered what it would be like if and when an Asian made the leap toward a true leading role in Hollywood. The performers I put up for consideration were John Cho and Ken Jeong. Back then I thought they deserved a platform to go beyond the Star Trek and The Hangover franchises.

While Columbus was not exactly the picture I was considering at the time, it’s more than I could have hoped for. I finally got my wish in this moving character study that looks for pulchritude in the midst of life’s incessant turbulence. It’s an unassuming even meandering story. A version of it could exist in real life and that’s a glimmer of the allure.

The narrative plants us in Columbus, Indiana (not Ohio) that Mecca of modernist architecture and not much else. A Korean-American translator named Jin (Cho) comes back home from Korea to call on his estranged father who is currently bedridden in a coma. It’s difficult to discern what is more tragic. That he is dying or that his son could care less.

Then there’s Casey (Haley Lu Richardson) a young college-aged woman who has foregone the typical trajectory of a person her age with her intelligence to stay behind with her mom, a recovering addict with a serial poor choice in men. While her mother tries to keep a menial job, Casey all but cares for her, spending her days working at the local library and the nights preparing their meals.

The proposed dynamic is obvious but nevertheless satiating when it comes to fruition. Where two people who seem so diametrically opposed in their life stage and social circles somehow form an immense bond in a world so often hampered by superficial surface level interaction.

In this facet alone, John Cho, a man waiting so long for such a time as this has confirmed what many of us have long known. He deserves to anchor a film and Columbus proves he is more than up to the task. While relative newcomer Richardson (Edge of Seventeen) provides him a fascinating talking partner and friend who deals in terms that are simultaneously candid and profound.

Especially in the film’s opening moments, there is a brazenness to Kogonada’s staging and often stationary camera because it creates this so perfectly symmetrical, oftentimes cavernous space. It’s the height of art and overtly so. In such moments where a color pops in a composition so obviously or he dares to linger on an immaculately staged frame, I see the touches of Ozu. Whether that was done consciously or not is hardly up for contention. It’s too close to be mere coincidence.

The framing of shots. How doorways are used as an entry point for seeing an entire sequence. The fearlessness in using what other people would deem establishing shots to tell a story through the building of an environment in front of us.

It strikes me that often shot length corresponds with the confidence a filmmaker seems to put in their work. Because if you constantly splice and dice every second or two there’s no precision necessary. It will go all but unnoticed on the cutting room floor but to be brave enough to put a sequence up to scrutiny for seconds on end — sometimes even achingly so — that is something that has become a forgotten practice.

Where it is alright to linger and watch faces and to catch the nuances of reactions rather than a constant barrage of over-articulated actions and histrionics. Sure, we have a few of those moments here that feel like they are the rhythms of a film drama trying too hard to be a version of reality. The character Jin even remarking in one needlessly self-reflexive moment, “This isn’t a movie.”

Whereas Lost in Translation was built around a city full of energy and cultural clout in Tokyo with its bright lights and cutting edge society, where there’s so much to do and a lot of stimuli, Columbus is the antithesis of that.

In fact, an issue might be that it tries to derive so many of its conclusions not through actions but the mining of personal struggles and familial strife. Those are vital areas and yet in the same sense, it’s when the film tries to unwind this exposition that we feel like we are indeed watching a movie. Still, when it intentionally digs into conversation and moments and feelings, it’s done with tact and an undisputed transparency that is refreshing even in its heightened realism.

Each character has their alternative foils that cast a light into their lives. Certainly, they have each other and they have their parent’s who have no doubt made them who they are while also influencing the direction of their lives. But when we look at Jin there’s Eleanor (Parker Posey) his father’s assistant and though she’s married now, Jin’s long harbored feelings for her since they first met.

Meanwhile, Casey’s coworker (Rory Culkin) is her continuous companion in the vast hall of the library they work at. He is a doctoral student serving as both a friend and someone to assist her in considering her future endeavors. But there’s no doubting that he likes her even as she casually dodges his well-meaning advances.

But Columbus is also bathed in a Midwest malaise. Those terms I put together rather tentatively. In fact maybe like Lost in Translation before it, this is less about the location and more about the people who find their paths crossing. I think that might be it.

Richardson appeals to us because there’s something so chill about her. She ambles through life like one of those people who doesn’t take things too seriously, at least on the surface, because you can easily imagine if she didn’t manage to go with the flow her hardships might tear her apart limb by limb. In fact, they almost do.

But I think I only recall one character who ever had the same sense of wonderment and affection for something like the architecture in Columbus. It came in another artistically-minded and entrancing movie, Museum Hours, where the bright-eyed security guard watches over the art in his stead with the same degree of relish. He loves being surrounded by such sights.

Yes, she says that most people could care less about these relics and yet that’s not everyone. She rattles off facts like a seasoned tour guide but that’s not what does it for her. It’s the memories that are elicited from certain places. It’s the feelings. The undeniable monuments of magnificence found in her humble corner of the world.

There’s a mood wafting over the film’s canvas that can either be interpreted as melancholy or serenity. Because beautiful things often manage to raise our spirits while also burrowing into our distinct places of hurt. That’s how we manage to cope and ultimately come to terms with them. That’s much of what is being done here.

So Columbus is a picture that comes like a whisper, looking austere and aloof, but rip away the walls, the exteriors of some phenomenal architectural marvels, and you will come to find a beating heart that is well worth its weight. No doubt this picture will be glossed over by many. But that makes its discovery all the sweeter.

4/5 Stars

Manchester by the Sea (2016)

Manchester_by_the_SeaIn Manchester by the Sea, you can distinctly see Kenneth Lonergan once more translating some of his skills as a playwright and stage director into his film. There’s a very inherent understanding of two-dimensional space and how images can be framed in a very linear way as they would be seen by an audience taking in a stage production. But even more noteworthy than that is his dialogue which functions in remarkably realistic ways. Some will easily write this film off as the sheer doldrums because it’s fairly fearless in its pacing.

But that very structure and the things it spends time on slowly reveal more and more about the characters as if the curtain is slowly being torn away and their guts are being spilled out in front of us, in the most labored way possible.

It’s true that a great deal of the acting is an exhibition in non-emotive near anti-acting. It goes against the normal penchant for histrionics and gut-busting displays of emotion. Those crop up here and there understandably for a story that deals with such heart-wrenching topics. However, this particular study finds the majority of its most illuminating revelations in the minor moments, quiet asides, and soft tears rather than more overt outbreaks.

Sometimes it’s those very dramatic moments that catch our attention but most of the film — most of the instances that we actually come to learn a great deal about these seemingly unextraordinary individuals happens in the moments that initially appear far more mundane.

Crucial to this whole narrative is Casey Affleck as Lee Chandler. His performance is painful to watch because he himself looks so uncomfortable, despondent, and forlorn in every frame. There’s no relief for him. He never gives it to himself and he never accepts it from others. The fact that his elder brother has passed away suddenly is the inciting action that only aggravates his status quo but it’s not the main cause for his current state of being.

Because, of course, the question becomes what happened to him to make him such a misanthrope? That’s one issue because the past informs his present and stoke the flames of his continual discontentment.

The latest revelation is that he is made the legal guardian of his teenage nephew and this among all his other personal demons is the situation he must grapple with. Their dynamic stays front and center.

Together they must navigate all the responsibilities that come after Joe’s death whether it’s signing off on his belongings or setting up his burial with this insurmountable amount of grief still hanging over them. Lee willfully takes his nephew to school and band practice at one of his girlfriends.

But he’s not good at showing affection. He’s difficult and in such a contentious moment of pain they both lash out at each other more than once. But there’s still an underlying sense that they care for each other. Lee wants to protect his nephew but he doesn’t quite know how–he does not know if he will be able to bear the responsibility.

Still, others of note also crop up and play a part in the story including Lee’s ex-wife Randi (Michelle Williams) who has moved forward with her life but still feels tortured for the very way that she treated Lee when they were married. There’s so much hurt there and Lee buries that too.

His now deceased brother (Kyle Chandler) who we begin to meet through flashback is not developed quite as much but he does stand as a symbol of family and how deeply the loss of loved ones is earth-shattering. Because often these are the people who are a perpetual part of your life. You come to love them and accept that they will always but there. Even when your own life is going down the drain at least they remain. Except in an instant, their flames can be cruelly snuffed out.

The story’s visuals not surprisingly cast a vision of a tranquil seaside locale that nevertheless can be a place of bitter cold and blue-collar mediocrity. Lee would be the poster boy of this lifestyle as he spends his days as an isolated handyman janitor grinding away at life. But as with any life, we can never make preconceptions. We need to get to know someone before we judge their character. That’s what a film such as Manchester by the Sea makes us realize as human beings.

Everybody has a story. We all make mistakes. Our flaws are many. No one knows how to cope with guilt and it hurts like a slug in the face sometimes. Even if it is a taxing film and a difficult film to traverse with its share of profanity, Lonergan’s piece is still a nuanced look at what that process is like. Perhaps you haven’t experienced the death of a loved one yet but most definitely you have and you know the pain and the helplessness and the messiness therein.

If any of that resonates with places you’ve been before then Manchester by the Sea might easily speak to you because it understands some of the unassuming power in the human experience and its innumerable complexities. Unsatisfying in the end, yes, but alas that is life so often. People constantly struggling with trials, tribulations, and dissatisfaction til the end of days.

It’s after one particular scene where a very special guest star makes an appearance a man that Patrick notes is “Pretty Christian” while Lee responds that “we’re Christian too. Catholics are Christian.” And he’s perfectly correct. It’s in this passing moment that the film teases on something interesting that it, unfortunately, doesn’t wrestle with more. Spirituality and faith in a God in the midst of suffering. Maybe the characters still need time to get there and that’s okay. But Manchester by the Sea does make us empathize with other people and come to understand their stories. That is crucial if we’re ever going to live together in this world of ours. For that reason alone this story has something to offer us.

4/5 Stars

 

Black Girl (1966)

LaNoiredeDVDWhat’s fascinating about this film is how it manages to give voice to those who are normally silenced and even in her subservience this narrative powerfully lends agency to a young Senegalese woman’s perspective. Because even when she is silent and words are not coming out of her mouth and her status ultimately makes her powerless, the very fact that her mind is constantly thinking, her eyes observing and so on mean something. Inherently there’s a great empowerment found there even if it’s only known by her and seen by the outside observer peering into her life. That’s part of her. We are given a view into what she sees. We can begin to understand her helplessness and isolation. Where she came from and the life she left behind. Giving up the master narrative of the entitled and shown the flip side of the world for once.

And the fact that this viewpoint comes from an African filmmaker casts the film in an even more profound light because just as this character is from one of the marginalized castes, the same could be said for the director Sembane Ousmane. My knowledge of African filmmaking is admittedly poor and that’s precisely the point. For me, this film is an entry point, a representation, a portrait of a lineage that I know very little about and that makes Black Girl extremely exciting. Because if this picture found its way to me, there’s a chance that it can represent something to others as well–namely the import that African cinema can have on the world at large if given half a chance.

With this picture, Ousmane makes a visual statement using the medium of film to offer yet another, broader perspective to the patchwork of world cinema that can be decidedly bland and monochromatic at times. Here is a story that even in its simplicity guarantees that more voices will be heard and at the very least more perspectives will be empathized with.

Diouanna is at best a servant and exotic sideshow attraction for party guests and at worst a prisoner who gets her job as a live-in nanny and de facto housekeeper rather like a slave off an auction block. Sadly, it doesn’t feel that much different. There’s a little more free will involved but that’s what humble circumstances can do. She has a choice but not much of one.

She looks at France as an extravagant promise land and a job is a gift of providence that she will gladly take. Still, once she arrives on the Riviera she soon becomes disillusioned. It’s hard not to blame her given the circumstances. She no longer is able to mind kids as she knows best and rarely is allowed to explore the beautiful country she lives in–if at all.

She doesn’t want the husband’s money or the patronizing kindness of the wife which demands every amount of deference and even most of her freedoms. It’s the high position that takes on the role of savior and expects a certain response whether it is fully deserved or not. That is what hangs in the balance of Black Gir signified by the ceremonial mask that Diouanna gifts her benefactors at the outset of her employment.

First relinquished as a gift and taken as an exotic souvenir exhibited on the wall for all to see–a symbol of charity, generosity, and simultaneously colonialism. But soon, as Diouana grows discontent she realizes she doesn’t want this. She will willingly give up this “lavish lifestyle” and whatever perks come with it to retain her identity. That’s too great a price to pay as she realizes and this job isn’t worth the toll. Her cultural identity and the identity represented by this film are vitally important. Because they represent yet another member of humanity.

4/5 Stars