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

The Edge of Seventeen (2016)

The_Edge_of_Seventeen_2016_film_poster.jpgThere’s a moment in Kelly Fremon Craig’s The Edge of Seventeen where Nadine (Hailee Steinfeld) suffers the ultimate humiliation third wheeling with her older brother Darian (Blake Jenner) and her (former) best friend Krista (Haley Lu Richardson). Needless to say, the evening is less than stellar but it gets worse after Nadine feels like she’s been totally betrayed. She’s been hating her brother recently and her best friend is dead to her now. The fact that she sets up an ultimatum doesn’t make things any better.

It only gets worse when a fellow partygoer notes Nadine’s sibling relationship reminds her a little bit of the movie Twins — if Nadine was Danny Devito and Darian was Arnold Schwarzenegger. It’s a perfect illustration of how she feels.

Growing up is never easy for anyone and it’s little different for Nadine. Mean girls at school. No friends. Until the fateful day when she got one but by the time high school hits everyone’s doomed. Hailee Steinfeld manages the tall order of portraying this maladjusted, histrionic, neurotic teen with a pitch-perfect pout.

She’s simultaneously our Lloyd Dobler and our Molly Ringwald in any of the John Hughes vehicles and yet none of those things because she’s come out of a different millennium. She must put voice to every thought and emotion that comes ricocheting through her head as much as she constantly yearns for the not so pretty boy on campus to notice her existence.

Her family life is little better. The death of her father still lingers with hurt. Her brother is the devil’s incarnate (at least to her) and her mom (Kyra Sedgwick) is a little ridiculous–not to be taken seriously in the least. Did we mention that her best friend is hooking up with her brother?

What the film grasps so impeccably is that the teenage years are often defined by one word: Awkwardness. This film is the creme de la creme of awkward and for a coming-of-age film that’s very much a compliment.

There so many awkward conversations to be had. Steinfeld and Woody Harrelson share some of the best because she comes like a hurricane of emotion and he gives her nothing — only the driest retorts as her smart-aleck history teacher. Equally enjoyable is the budding friendship between Nadine and fellow classmate Erwin Kim (Hayden Szeto) who makes no attempt to hide his crush on her.

It’s easy to quickly assume Erwin is in the tradition of Long Duk Dong from Sixteen Candles but a particular Ferris Wheel conversation throws all those conventions out the window for good with a few self-aware lines of dialogue. It’s a pleasant surprise that this relationship is rife with laughs but not at the expense of the characters. Only in the sense that we have the age-old conundrum of the friend zone, still fretted about by teens to this day.

She thinks he’s nice but isn’t attracted. He thinks she’s the greatest girl in the world and dreams of making it into something. He takes all her signals to heart. She doesn’t. The Edge of Seventeen feels very genuine in these respects and the beauty of these themes are their universal quality. This isn’t just about a girl and a guy–one Caucasian the other Asian–they are two people just like us. It’s the universal unifier. We’re all human.

That’s one of the relationships modeled by Nadine in the film. But there’s another one that is far more unpleasant. The one involving her own crush on Nick a seemingly unextraordinary teen male that Nadine for some inexplicable reasons seems batty over. So much so she wants to get with him and sends him the longest, most explicit, and regrettable text message of her life. Still, it gets her some results–a ride in his car with some extra-curricular activities. Whether it’s exactly what she wanted is another thing entirely.

It’s sad really. Our culture is so saturated by sexual images teenagers think there is a need to play into those expectations, to use those same methods to get others to like them and be with them. When, in reality, that’s not right at all and the funny thing is that isn’t even what we want. It’s fairly clear Nadine finds this out firsthand. She doesn’t want just the sex in the first five minutes. She wants more. Conversation. Relationship. Intimacy. To be known. Anything would be nice. And that’s what we all want to some degree but we have an inherent ability to chase after the imposters and the imitations. They seem so nice and yet leave us with nothing.

We’ve been taught we need to lead with what’s on the outside — it’s our body that matters — as our hearts slowly die on the insides because we feel like no one understands us. Our family is made up of psychos and we have no friends. That’s part of what makes this film so revealing. But also the very fact Nadine, despite all her teenage drama, certainly has her moments.

Speaking into her mom’s life with certain candor at least on one occasion and actually opening up to Darian in a way she’s never been willing to do before. It’s the fact that she and Mr. Bruner can joust and yet by the film’s end you know full well they genuinely enjoy each other. It’s true that the acrimonious relationships with teachers somehow are the ones we remember and ultimately invest in most deeply. It’s those interactions that redeem Nadine and help her figure her life out, even if it’s only a little bit.

My only reservation is that although we greatly enjoy their characters, because of their economical amounts of screen time, it feels a little bit like Nadine’s dad and her best friend were used solely for the sake of the plot.

Still, the film’s ending makes no attempt to suddenly discover the meaning of life in some lightning rod of an epiphany. Instead, it contents itself in concluding its story not so much with endings but with the hint of new beginnings and that is oftentimes so much more rewarding. Can I simply end by saying Erwin’s quite the filmmaker?

4/5 Stars

The Big Sick (2017)

The_Big_Sick.jpgIn his opening introduction, Kumail (comedian Kumail Nanjiani playing a cinematic version of himself) explains what it was like to grow up in Pakistan with cricket and praying and arranged marriages. All those fun Pakistani traditions. There’s a bit of a matter-of-fact flippancy to how he recounts it all. Truthfully, it’s in stark contrast to much of what we’re used to. As he so rightfully points out, it also meant they got episodes of Knight Rider a lot later than everyone else. That’s before his parents made the decision to move to the States with their two sons.

America has always been a melting pot since the day of Alexis De Tocqueville and that’s part of what this film celebrates while never completely denigrating Kumail’s Pakistani roots. It so refreshingly provides a story told from a different point of view — one that we have not seen all that often — which is all illustrated so exquisitely in the opening moments.

But The Big Sick is also resonant in part because of the conflict of cultures that dwells at its core. A differing perspective usually causes chafing and it’s no different in this case. Still, at first, it must start out as a love story and it is or at least it evolves into one. This particular romance feels invariably relevant to the current world we find ourselves in. It’s a picture informed by a 21st-century worldview.

Kumail is making a go of it as a stand-up comedian in the Windy City and he makes ends meet with a bit of Uber driving. He meets a girl named Emily (Zoey Kazan) at his comedy club, a local grad student with aspirations to be a therapist. They go on a date and wouldn’t you know it, they sleep together. That is the culture after all as much as Uber, ethnic diversity, profanity, and irreligiousness.

Perhaps it’s more precisely put by Kumail who so candidly admits he hasn’t prayed for years because he does not know what he believes. That is the world that this movie occurs in, our world right here and now. They have their rounds of playful patter and time spent together watching Kumail’s favorite horror movies (he proudly has a poster of Shaun of the Dead up on his wall like any unabashed nerd). Still, they are equally noncommittal in how they never want to get too serious about relationships.

It makes sense that romances are about relationship but often those very things are also so closely tied to family. Both sets of parents play a significant role in the picture and certainly, none of them are perfect — exhibiting a wide range of idiosyncrasies — and yet the key seems to be that they are more than a pair of punch lines. It’s those very relationships too that seem to add even a greater depth and heighten the stakes. Because parental commitment more often than not is for the long haul even when their kids’ relationships don’t seem to be.

In case the title didn’t tip you off already, I’ll save you the trouble and let you know that Emily winds up sick in the hospitable. The people by her side are her mom (Holly Hunter), her dad (Ray Romano), and Kumail who feels bad even as their relationship was all but finished.

As we get to know them as people though, it really feels as if we are getting a better understanding of Emily and the same goes for Kumail. In the same way that Kumail feared telling his family that he was dating a white girl, we see another culture clash in her parent’s who fell in love years ago despite coming from two very different backgrounds, one a stiff New Yorker the other a southern belle in a football-loving family.

Kumail begins to gain a certain modicum of courage to stand up to his own parents, in particular, a mother who is always trying to set him up with a nice Pakistani girl like she did with his older brother. He’s weathered a long list of resumes and “drop-bys” by the most eligible Pakistani ladies. We sense the need for personal integrity. He needs to learn how to exercise it not only in dealing with Emily but his parents as well.

You can still be an American and embrace other cultures and that’s one of the keys to this story because navigating that can be utterly trying. Our differences far from encumbering us should bless us with life more abundant and humanity still proves that love can be a universal language that crosses many divides, cultural or otherwise.

Furthermore, could it be that this film too succumbs to that character trope formerly in vogue as the manic pixie dream girl? It’s a stretch since this is based on real events but it falls apart further still as we watch the film progress to its full conclusion. Because if you remember this fantasy character is meant to bring something out of the male character and cause a change in them. That does happen to Kumail to an extent.

The crucial development for the sake of Zoe Kazan’s character is the fact that she is allowed more growth than simply being the cause of Kumail’s growth. Thankfully she is more than a mere plot device. She is given the dignity of an actual human being meaning that she’s able to acknowledge that maybe she hasn’t changed as much as him — she’s not ready to just go back to the way things were before — and that’s okay because that feels authentic.

That’s not to say there can’t be a happy ending but as many of the greatest modern romantic comedies have managed this one leans into ambiguity and makes that a strength far more than a weakness. Kumail has gone onto to pursue his stand-up career. Emily no doubt continues her aspirations to become a therapist. Still, there’s such a thing as a fairy tale and this might be a good time to point out again that this is semi-autobiographical. Real life fairytale romances are possible. They just usually happen to be a lot messier than we’ve read about in books. A lot like this story.

3.5/5 Stars

Update: On September 16th, 2017 a man named Nabeel Qureshi passed away. And I bring up his extraordinary life because it was difficult for me not to see the parallels to this film.

Like Kumail, Nabeel was Pakistani-American. Like Kumail, Nabeel also faced the challenges of going against the wishes of his parents when it came to core aspects of his life. Like Kumail, Nabeel and his wife faced the malevolent onslaught of sickness. But in Nabeel’s case, the sickness struck him and he did not recover.

It sounds like a very sad tragedy and it is bittersweet but I reference it because Nabeel was a man who had tremendous joy and hope and he left such a lasting impact on his fellow man. It is a life worth sharing about. I enjoyed the Big Sick but even in the last few months and weeks, I have been inspired by Nabeel Qureshi’s life even more.

20th Century Women (2016)

20th_Century_Women.pngIn his noted Crisis of Confidence Speech, incumbent president Jimmy Carter urged America that they were at a turning point in history: The path that leads to fragmentation and self-interest, down that road lies a mistaken idea of freedom. It is a certain route to failure.

This also serves as a viable entry point into Mike Mills’ intimate, pensive eulogy, 20th Century Women. This is a film on the verge of so many things. It frames its story in the context of the time and the people that existed in one particular moment. Mills floods his canvas with natural light but also paints it with bold colors and plants us in this world that’s somehow tangible and present while still only being a memory to look back on.

It’s 1979. Nixon is slowly fading. Reagan is coming with his conservative boon. You have the Talking Heads. You have hardcore punk. Feminist novels and the woman’s movement. Skateboarding down the empty Santa Barbara roadways. It feels less like a time of change and more of a moment on the brink of something new.

But this very self-awareness in the era is provided by the characters who live within that context because this is their life, these are their memories, and they connect them together delving into the past and soaring forward to all that is yet to come. They recount the world they know through matter-of-fact voice-over to match the images that undoubtedly play in their own heads. This is for them. Namely a son and his mom, Dorthea and Jamie. There’s is a generational difference but not so much a divide.

Dorthea (Annette Bening) is an eccentric, dynamic, empathetic woman who cares deeply about life and others. She believes in each individual person’s rights and volition–you might even say she’s progressive in some ways. But she’s also a mom and a woman bred in a different age. Her son Jamie (Lucas Jade Zumann) makes a point of the fact that she’s from the Depression.

Giveaways include her chain smoking habit, a penchant for Bogart, and a predilection for show tunes. She was an aviator and draftswoman in a male-dominated world. But She came out of a time where the community was expected to look after everyone and she searches out the same framework for her son because he’s of a certain age.

If you were pressed to pick out the story’s inciting incident it might be the moment where Dorothea gathers the instrumental women in Jamie’s life around her kitchen table to enlist their help. Because the men around him either don’t resonate (Billy Crudup as William) or they only make their presence known on birthdays (namely Jamie’s father).

She takes a near death experience to mean he’s going through his adolescent phase and she doesn’t believe she can be all things for him anymore. As she notes later, they are better suited for the role because they get to see him in the world as a person. She will never get that. Oh, the heartaches of parenthood–being so invested–while simultaneously trying to be hands-off.

And so in some sense, her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig) and their teenage neighbor Julie (Elle Fanning) make a concerted effort to press into his life. Julie is the one who sneaks up through his window sometimes, not to sleep with him, though they often share the same bed, for mere companionship, someone to feel safe around and to talk to. Because he’s someone she knows can be trusted amid the fray of highschoolers.

In one particular sequence, Elle sits on the bed her eyes looking sullenly at Jamie as she tries to talk through their relationship. She concludes, “I think I’m too close to you to have sex with you.” In one sense, it’s touching because it shows that their connection goes beyond this physical act that all the kids are doing, she holds too much respect for him, but it also points to the sorry state of affairs when something like sex is seen as dirty and degraded. That’s part of what she is wrestling with. That and the fact that her therapist mother tries to conveniently label her every action.

Elle Fanning leaves a startling impression casting herself in this film in a light that in one sense is the prototypical edgy, angsty teenager but there is also an undeniable vulnerability and genuine caring quality there that steeps her in unknown depth. That top layer is nothing new but that latter aspect is a testament to Mills’ characters.

Meanwhile, Gerwig provides her exorbitant supply of charismatic energy and panache that allows her to hold some of the most memorable scenes in the film in comedic terms and yet she also proves that there still is a certain tenderness in the red-haired, photography-loving, punk listening, new age modern woman, Abbie.

At the behest of Dorthea she tries to invest some of her artistic spirit into Jamie’s life, showing off the punk scene, introducing him to seminal feminist texts, and helping him to be comfortable around women but, of course, he’s more comfortable than most which is a sign of a certain amount of maturity. In fact, he impacts these women as much as they speak to him and that’s a testament to everyone involved, all flaws aside.

Even if Jamie is, in truth, our main character, perhaps a stand- in for Mills or for us, this film succeeds in crafting stalwart female characters with actual contours that are worth dissecting and with inherent worth denoted by their actions and what they care about.

I don’t know a great deal about Mike Mills but watching a film like 20th Century Women I feel like I know him better–not all of him certainly–but there are pieces here that are no doubt personal and give us a slight view into his experiences.

It’s intimate and there’s an unquestionable amount of vulnerability in his story that must be admired for its sheer honesty. It comes off as purely genuine and real. Because the bottom line is the fact that it never runs on agenda. It never tries to overtly get us to think something or feel something else. If it comes to any overarching conclusions at all it’s that life can be hard and confusing and the same goes for people.

Each one of us can come off as a complex enigma. Even the ones we know and love. It’s possible that we will never know and love them as much as we wish we could. It’s possible we cannot help them or guide them as much as we would like. Still, that’s okay.

For some, this will be a maddening, rudderless picture but to each his own. However, if I may be so bold, 20th Century Women is the kind of film I would want to make–a film wrapped up in its cultural moment in a way that feels so authentic–where the events playing out even if they’ve been made cinematic have real resonance for me as a human being.

Yes, it’s the kind of effort that won’t be received by everyone but a film so very personal rarely is. A film like this you don’t necessarily make for other people anyway. You make it for yourself and the ones you love and leave it at that. This is a love letter.

3.5/5 Stars

Blue Jay (2016)

Blue_Jay_film_poster.jpgAre you leaving room for Jesus?~Amanda

You know it. Catholic school forever.~Jim

Is it true that nostalgia always feels like it should be in black and white? If that sentiment is true there’s a rooted purpose in Blue Jay’s muted black and white tones that run deep. So often we consider it as a gimmick in the modern film spectrum but here it works.

This is a story of boy meets girl again. Now they are both 20 years older no longer naive high school sweethearts and he’s lost his mother and she’s now married to a man many years her senior. They’ve moved on you might say as is customary with those living life. But this day they run into each other at the local market. The stage is set for a fulfilling reunion.

However, in the opening interludes, we don’t know anything about either of them. Jim (Mark Duplass) with his scruffy ensemble and Amanda (Sarah Paulson) with her knit cap. For us, both of them have a clean slate but for the two of them meeting again is a mixed bag of emotions.

In these moments, it seems like all parties involved with the film are trying to make everything as unbearably awkward as possible. Is this the way movies work? A script must always acknowledge the sheer awkwardness of it all, creating certain pretenses, and piddling around with what characters are actually thinking. Is it simply a mean trick of a screenwriter to try and pull us into his story, in this case, Mark Duplass, or is there actually some truth to it all?

Are people actually this awkward in real life? Heaven forbid we actually act like this when we’re together or worse yet with someone we have a crush on. I can answer that rhetorical question almost instantly as a multitude of cringe-worthy moments surge to the fore. So yes, there’s probably some truth here and yes, Duplass is drawing us in. Of course, the final joke is that the film utilized no script at all only simple character arcs to arrive at its conclusions.

Still, these moments are only the setup. It’s not Blue Jay at its best. The film comes into its own as time progresses and the contours of the two characters become more evident with every memory they manage to conjure up and every little thing they do together that takes them through their old routines. They stop at the local liquor store and the proprietor (Clu Gulager) with his cowboy hat welcomes them in like old times. Whether or not they know his unassuming roots in western television lore is another thing altogether.

Then, they make the rounds of Jim’s old family home, the house of his deceased mother which is left pretty as it was when he was still a teenager. Piled high with treasures, clothing, trinkets, romance novels, and other artifacts from that long bygone era known as the 1990s.

They let the nostalgia waft over them as they reminisce together, playing their admittedly dorky version of “House” as Mr. and Mrs. Henderson and exhibiting the funkiest ’90s dancing as two of the whitest kids you know. But they accept their quirks and how dorky they are. That’s the fun part as they remember their younger days.

It’s in these wistful and yet still somehow carefree moments that the film recalls one of my favorite lyrics,

Here’s to the twilight
here’s to the memories
these are my souvenirs
my mental pictures of everything
Here’s to the late nights
here’s to the firelight
these are my souvenirs
my souvenirs

I close my eyes and go back in time
I can see you’re smiling, you’re so alive
we were so young, we had no fear
we were so young, we had no idea
that life was just happening
life was just happening

In the final stretch there some big reveals, there’s some of the drama we were expecting, some of the histrionics that we were wary of from a film such as this. After all, they’re in a confined space together with so many emotions still dwelling inside. You wonder about the old dichotomy that men and woman can either be married or unmarried. They’re never just friends because the boundaries become too difficult to maintain. The self-restraint too difficult to manage even in the most self-controlled of us all. After all, metaphorically speaking, a man can’t scoop burning coals into his lap without burning himself.

But we’ve come to care about the characters enough that’s there no sense that this is some shallow attempt to play with our emotions and get a rise out of us. Somehow it feels like a less flawed iteration of Your Sister’s Sister because it’s frank but never purposely crass and more than its predecessor Blue Jay feels true blue and sincere. It’s a more intimate even heartfelt drama that wins its audience over.

These characters deservedly earn our respect and even in the modicum amount of time they do well to build a rapport with their audience. They do the heavy lifting by opening up and we are called to respond accordingly. The tears and the laughter are intermingled. The regrets with the reality. The way we perceived things would look farther down the road and how they look now. I guess you could say that it’s the blue jay way–reflected precisely by the path this film takes.

It’s the memories and the dashed hopes it starts to pull out of the closets back out into the open. It’s joy. It’s laughter. It’s pain. It’s heartbreak. And as is usually the case with life the ending is unwritten. That’s why they’re still making films like this, now until the end of time.

3.5/5 Stars