Stranger Than Paradise (1984) and Jim Jarmusch

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One of the most revelatory aspects about becoming more familiar with Jim Jarmusch is how international his films are. At the very least, there’s this sense of them putting a lens to a broader cross-section of society.

He is unequivocally American, but whether it’s because he’s a cineaste or driven to a global perspective through music or other interests, he paints with a canvass broader than simply the American experience. He also seems to understand the American experience is framed and colored by those who come to us. In fact, we are a melting pot, as Alexis de Tocqueville once noted, made up of all nations.

As a storyteller, Jarmusch seems drawn to what I’ve heard termed the “mearcstapa” — the border walkers — people on the outskirts. They could be expatriates, foreigners, or people who simply conceive of the world in a different manner than you and me. Although the term is recontextualized from its Medieval connotations, it does take on renewed meaning. In the case of Stranger Than Paradise, it’s a visitor from Hungary.

But if any of this dialogue runs the risk of making the story sound too rarified, rest assured, it is far from that. It’s a picture content in the simplest of moments. The plot as it were is born out of a statement. Eddie (John Lurie) has a cousin arriving and visiting him from Hungary. That’s it right there.

He feels put upon having her stay with him. He doesn’t show her the town. He doesn’t give her food. He’s the most inhospitable person in the world. But then again look at his life. He subsists off TV dinners and beer.

His only friend is Eddie, a shifty-eyed, flighty fellow who’s half-witted in a lovable kind of way. They spend time watching football, playing cards, drinking beer, or going to the races. That’s just about all they ever do. And it hardly changes with the addition of Eva.

Still, what the movie exudes resolutely is a style and an aesthetic, forming something more substantial than the sum of its modest parts. Because it’s certainly humble, and the antithesis of flamboyant production values, and yet it manages to supersede the simple nature of what is happening onscreen.

Take, for instance, the sequence where Eva is walking down the streets with her suitcases in hand to the tune of “I Put a Spell on You.” Screamin’ Jay Hawkins rumbles across the pavement, and it’s oddly mesmerizing.

Pairing this with the black and white cinematography, dominating the film with a dreary, dilapidatedness leaves a startling impression. It’s both the prevailing sense of the world and somehow complementary to the budget and resources he’s working with.

I am reminded of the early films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder because there is the sense of almost two-dimensional space in many of the scenes — simple but purposefully done. In the case of Jarmusch, there are hardly any cuts, with the shots put end-to-end and void of any other type of true editing. It’s the simplest form, really, cut together by way of black inserted between the sequences.

You could point out Jarmusch is making a kind of glorified short film, and that’s how the narrative began sticking the footage together in three segments. But the black in-between the visuals also function as a kind of ellipsis.

Because pretty soon Willie and Eddy get up and go from Brooklyn and road trip it out to Cleveland. Why? Because Eva’s there. She is a fellow sojourner, and so they take to the road in order to catch up with her. In one of his typically dorky observations, Eddie tells his buddy, “Before I met your cousin, I didn’t know you were from Hungary or Budapest or any of those places. I thought you were an American.”

Pretty soon they’re staying with the Aunt and back to watching TV and playing card games. Shooting the bull and chewing the fat like they always do wherever they go. Even miles away in the icy tundra of the Midwest they realize, “You come someplace new and everything looks the same.” Restless for some meaningful experience, they head off to sun-soaked Florida to seek something else.

Finally, there’s some action, albeit off-screen and pretty much only alluded to. The boys lose all their dough at the dog races. In her own absurd turn of events, Eva winds up with a mother lode in drugs. That could be a whole rabbit hole all to its own. Instead, they take a trip to the airport to set up another adventure…undoubtedly just as absurd as the last.

It might not seem like much, but that’s the entire charm of Jarmusch’s movie; he’s so very comfortable bending away from Hollywood convention. Where location shooting becomes more of an in-joke than of a particular commodity and characters and story are more likely conduits of style. In fact, to this day, he’s made a career out of it.

Now, Stranger Than Paradise feels a bit like Richard Linklater’s Slacker. They played as important catalysts for subsequent generations of filmmakers because they were unique and of their own time with their own vision. And part of their merit is having done it first — using the world at their disposal and creating something that stays with us however mundane and unadorned.

Part of the paradoxical charm of Stranger Than Paradise is how you could conceivably make a movie like it, and yet you couldn’t ever match its essence because Jim Jarmusch made it just so — distinctly individual and measured to his own personal liking. That’s what it has going for it even to this day. It’s unmistakably him.

3.5/5 Stars

Paterson (2016): Poetry in Everyday Rhythms

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4.5/5 Stars

Slacker (1991): Richard Linklater’s Ultimate Independent Film

Slackerposter.jpgKudos must be extended to Richard Linklater for actually being proactive and going out to shoot the movie countless of us have doubtlessly tossed around in our mind’s eye. Taking our town — the places we know intimately — and building a portmanteau out of it with a group of friends.

There’s nothing flashy or that original about this universal concept per se, but it always strikes one as more than just a straightforward story. There is a bit of artistry to its execution, while still functioning on the most shoestring of budgets.

Even one of my favorite bands in high school, Reliant K made their own rendition involving a soccer ball. But again, Linklater has time and history on his side, because he was the one who actually got it made. Few others would have the wherewithal to get it off the drawing board.

What’s more, Slacker actually has some genuine life to it by capturing a very specific subculture and locale like a time capsule of 1990s Austin, Texas. It takes pieces of the world he knows and promotes them to a wider audience, which is one of the cool perks of cinema. It’s able to take a localized image and globalize it, despite how humble the reach might have been, to begin with.

Better yet, the up-and-coming director dares to open the picture with his own monologue, musing about his dreams and alternate realities to his uninterested taxi driver. He teases a hypothetical scenario where he was invited into a beautiful girl’s hotel room just for standing at the bus stop. He matter-of-factly curses to himself that he should have stayed behind, before picking up his bags to go, effectively choosing a different fate.

From thenceforward, the camera is on the move as well. Because this isolated sequence is only one among a whole bunch of other asides helping to predict the conversing integral to The Before Trilogy or even a more communal vision like Dazed and Confused. Though the characters nor the dialogue builds that same type of rapport with the audience, one could easily argue they are not supposed to.

This is a near stream-of-consciousness exercise with the camera following its whims, roving around, and taking an almost bipolar interest in everything. You get the sense Linklater knew full-well what he wanted to capture; still, he makes it look organic. There’s this constant mixture of intellectualization and socializing going on.

A mother is run over by a car. A husker sings his tune on a street corner. People run into each other serendipitously. Handheld walk-and-talk scenarios make the action simple and fast.

Some of the characters are definitely “whack,” but that’s all part of the fun. The dialogue grabs hold of any weird quirk or a bit of oddness it can from conspiracy theories, aliens, television, the JFK assassination, anarchy, literally anything at all.

This one is an important landmark of indie filmmaking right up there with Cassavetes works or Soderbergh’s Sex, Lies, and Videotape (1989), paving the way for everything from Clerks to the wave of indies that came to fruition in the mid-90s and early 2000s.

While I don’t find it quite compelling in this given era, there’s no way to underplay what it means for movies. Many are indebted to Linklater, and the beauty is that the director is still churning out quality work, both personal and commercial.

In fact, I’m a little in awe of him, because it seems like he’s constantly managing to make the projects he wants. He will not give up on his own artistic aspirations. In the age of the blockbuster, those are admirable motivations.

3/5 Stars

The Florida Project (2017): The Antithesis of Hollywood Escapism

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When we run in different circles it’s easy to have a conveniently jaundiced view of our society. On a personal scale, I’m talking about our neighborhoods, our towns, our community institutions. We turn a blind eye to those things that do not concern us — maybe they’re below our station in life — and so we live unclouded by the hardships around us.

We form tribes and often do our best to stay separate whether it’s along social, ethnic, political, or religious lines. Though we have an innate desire to pair off and form communities, it can have detrimental side effects. At our very worst, we become polarized units totally at odds with one another. To a lesser extent, our enclaves remain insulated and never interact or acknowledge those outside our social bubble. Places like the Boys and Girls Club, Food Banks, and churches slog on without vibrant community support systems because heaven forbid we lower ourselves.

The Florida Project is a sobering portrait and an altogether necessary one because it offers an uncompromising glimpse at a lifestyle that’s easy enough to disregard. This is an issue needing recognition.

Because just down the road from Seven Dwarves Ln and Disney World, the purported “happiest place on earth,” there are signs of degradation and malevolent poverty. We are met with the garish purple and pinks of the low-rent hotels.

But there are two obvious camps. Tourists who are only passing through and the locals who have set up camp long-term living week to week on the money they scrounge up. Spend some time there, even during a seemingly carefree season like Summer Break, and you see the deleterious nature of the ecosystem. Such activities seem endemic.

Front and center are Mooney (Brooklynn Prince) and her band of friends. They’re like a merry band of precocious little terrors. If they were older we might call them hoodlums but now they have the pretense of being cute. Except they’re hardly innocent. Spitting on someone’s car from a second story for “fun” and getting in any type of conceivable mischief they possibly can. Like turning off the power in the throes of summer or panhandling.

They are the epitome of the cliche “idle hands are the devil’s workshop.” And yet their behavior is indicative of their parents (or lack thereof). Because a lot of what Mooney does feels reinforced and learned from her role models. It becomes equally evident her imagination is always vibrant out of necessity. It shields her from the world and her constant state of want. It is her only avenue to something better.

But we must ask where will the buck stop? Is it the social systems being flawed or non-existent? Halley (Bria Vinaite), Mooney’s young and disaffected mother, looks to sell perfume for a profit at a nearby resort just to eke by a day late on rent. She has trained her daughter up to scrounge for change to buy ice cream. Mooney always shows up at the back door to receive handouts of free waffles and extra maple syrup with a friend.

The kiddos go on a demolition rampage and when they’re bored of that they divert themselves by lighting a house on fire. Of course.

It grabs the attention of the entire neighborhood and necessitates the local fire department coming out to quell the flames. It’s like a block party the way the locals congregate, drinks in hand, whooping, and snapping pictures in front of the conflagration. The kids don’t seem to realize until after the fact, the effects of such a serious form of arson.

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Through all these ordeals, Willem Dafoe is the Most Valuable Player. Because as the local manager of the Magic Castle, Bobby, he provides some semblance of well-meaning humanity in an otherwise unfeeling and incredibly tense wasteland. Because the crusty exterior reveals a genuine concern for kids and even when he’s disgruntled his hard-working, good-natured spirit shines through. He extends the same care to a trio of inbound storks that he does the tenants who are constantly harrying him.

There so many hardships and yet the people resigned to this life have issues of their own. There is a pervasive disrespect shown to everyone and lifestyle choices are a bit dubious at times. The saddest aspect is impressionable children being subjected to so much that is objectionable at such a young age.

Halley has left her former career choice as a stripper behind, but she seems less than enthused about applying for new work. She also shows attitude toward anyone who will not immediately bend to her requests or even those who try and stay on their side. Her retaliation can be utterly malicious, at times, even as her sense of entitlement is trying.

Likewise, she teaches her daughter posing for hypersexualized selfies while her smoking, drinking, and male company with no sense of commitment, only prove detrimental to her daughter. These are the exterior issues that make themselves plainly apparent.

My only concern or minor reservation is the fact we never get much of the interior life of these adults. I would like to get to know Halley and Bobby better. But because this is very much Mooney’s story, grace can be extended. Her point of view is the most applicable to this narrative because it is not able to comprehend everything or even bring it to a succinct resolution. There are so many unresolved issues. It should not be on a child to have to solve them.

It’s the realization, in the end, Mooney is just a kid. She doesn’t know the situation her mom is in. She isn’t completely liable for all the behavior she perpetrates.  In many ways, she’s oblivious and yet all the negative influences affect her even implicitly. She cannot comprehend the nuances of her mom’s situation because to her it’s simply the way life is. There is no other example to match it with. It starts with the social environment around her.

In a final twist, Sean Baker deems to cap his film with a Disney ending with the girls running off from the dizzying world around them for some type of oasis. Make of it what you will. It’s a bit like running off to the movies because you want to escape life. But The Florida Project is not Hollywood escapism. It’s immersive, yes, but in a way that will make you reconsider the current cultural landscape. If it does not make us open our eyes and carry a dose of empathy for those residing in our own communities than few things will.

The Florida Project does not cast blame and yet it draws us inward to ask the honest questions. How is our society failing? What might we do to fix this? On the smallest, most personal scale, what can each of us do to promote human flourishing? Because one thing is for sure, even if the movies normally coming out of the industry reflect otherwise, this is not an isolated occurrence.

Our society is full of Mooneys and if we learn anything from this film it should be to appreciate their worth as human beings even as we grieve their unfortunate circumstances and life choices. If we are more fortunate than them, it is solely a gift and we were blessed so that we might be a blessing to others. To those who much has been given, much is expected. I’m saying this as much to myself as anyone else.

4.5/5 Stars

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 more so 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 wistfulness in acknowledging this irrefutable 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 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