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The Dead Don’t Die (2019)

If you’re a Jim Jarmusch fan, you can probably stop reading now. I encourage you to continue but I don’t know if anything will be of help for you from here on out because, frankly, I don’t understand you. Jarmusch is a longtime staple of indie film and I’ve watched three of his films (Only Lovers Left Alive, Broken Flowers, Ghost Dog) and disliked all three to varying degrees, and that’s fine. There are plenty of hallowed names in filmmaking that are just beyond me, like Terrence Malick and Nicolas Refn, but I can at least partially understand what the fans of those auteurs value, an immersive visual, sensory experience at the sacrifice of narrative and coherency. When it comes to Jarmusch, I just don’t understand the appeal whatsoever. This is a man who found a way to make vampires crushingly boring, and now he finds a way to do the same with zombies. The Dead Don’t Die is the widest release of his career and it might be the worst movie I’ve seen in a theater all this year. It certainly feels like the longest.

In a sleepy small Ohio town, the police force consists of Chief Robertson (Bill Murray), Ronnie (Adam Driver), and Mindy (Chloe Sevigny). They’re going about their typical day, warning Hermit Bob (Tom Waits), listening to the alarmist worries of Farmer Frank (Steve Buscemi), and picking up supplies at the hardware store run by Hank (Danny Glover) and Bobby (Caleb Landry Jones). There’s a traveling group of students, lead by Zoe (Selena Gomez), as well as a group of kids in a juvenile detention center. Then the dead come back and small-town life will never be the same.

Anyone walking in expecting a zany comedy from the premise and cast, not to mention marketing materials, will be sorely disappointed, because what The Dead Don’t Die better resembles are the humorless anti-comedies of late-night Adult Swim blocs. It’s not so much that there are jokes, it’s more the absence of jokes, and somehow that might be the joke? The humor is stuck in one mode throughout the film. A character will slowly say something understated or obvious (Example: “That’s not good”) and then the reaction of others will be delayed, and then after that nobody will say anything for several painful seconds later. That’s about it, folks. It’s hard to find humor with that. The deadpan jokes are too obvious and too uniform to really strike any potent comedy targets. The consumer “satire” is brittle to the point of breaking. Various zombies will shamble around and say one-word items of whatever was important to them, ranging from “Coffee,” to, “Fashion,” to, “Chardonnay.” It’s like the one-word utterances are the entire joke (Hey, this dead guy liked fishing, isn’t that a riot?). It’s not satire and it’s not funny. How about the characters of Rosie Perez and Tilda Swinton being named Posie Juarez and Zelda Winston? Is that the kind of humor that sounds appealing? How about Tilda Swinton flexing a samurai sword to slice and dice the undead. Is that supposed to be cool? Is it supposed to be funny? Is it supposed to be funny that it’s trying to be “cool”? What is anything?

Later, the film inserts a new comedy element with meta asides where people seem to know they’re in a movie, and yet again the jokes are obvious and uniform, except now it’s even lazier, relying upon the meta recognition to simply stand in the place of a joke. If anything can happen in the small town, especially toward its crazy end, then why do these things have to happen? Or better yet why don’t better things happen? Because of the deadly pacing it makes every attempted bad joke feel that much more unbearable.

This movie is only 105 minutes but it felt so much longer. the pacing not just as a whole but scene-to-scene and even line-to-line from conversations is deadly still. Every moment feels stretched out but it doesn’t ever feel like you’re going anywhere. Characters will be introduced and given meet-cute moments and little indicators they might be significant players later, and then we’ll just find them dead. Other characters will be introduced and then never leave their locations, having no bearing on the larger story. It’s rare that I could honestly say there are entire supporting swaths of this movie that could be cut completely and not impact the story at all. It makes the many storylines we hopscotch across feel like they don’t matter and are generally wasting our valuable time.

Then there’s the ending where Jarmusch just instructs Tom Waits to unleash a torrent of narration bemoaning how society deserves whatever downfall it incurs and that we’re all just zombies anyway. It’s so clumsy and overbearing and unearned after an entire movie where the cultural criticism amounted to a racist saying he doesn’t like his coffee black and then pointedly staring at the only black man in the movie. Even if we got more moments like that I might say some of the ending vitriol is justified, but the commentary gets muted in the middle until Waits has to finally tell us what the point is. There are scant political and environmental references but they feel like tossed asides themselves.

I don’t blame the cast for any of this although I can’t say what on the page must have seemed attractive. Murray is always going to be an amiable screen presence and Driver is a fun partner, slipping into a skillful deadpan and straining to find humor where there is precious little. Everyone feels wasted on screen because even if you’ve never seen these actors before you know, instantly and instinctively, that they have been far better.

The Dead Don’t Die is further proof that I am not a Jim Jarmusch fan. I can’t fathom how someone can actually be a fan of this writer/director. I was tempted to walk out at several points but I held in there. The jokes are too obvious and barely jokes, the pacing is awfully slack, and the whole movie is reprehensibly boring. Even when it has moments of weirdness it finds ways to make it boring. The structure does little to nothing with a large ensemble of very good actors. The movie and premise had potential. The idea of a zombie outbreak in a small town where everybody knows everybody is ripe for comedy and tragedy. Ultimately The Dead Don’t Die feels like one egregiously long in-joke that the audience isn’t privy to. The joke’s on us, folks.

Nate’s Grade: D

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BlackkKlansman (2018)/ Sorry to Bother You (2018)

Two African-American filmmakers, one making his debut and another in his fourth decade of popular storytelling, have produced two of the most uncompromising, entertaining, provocative, and exacting and relevant movies of this year. Boots Riley’s absurdly comic indie Sorry to Bother You was a festival smash, and Spike Lee’s BlackkKlansman is being positioned as a summer breakout. Audiences have often looked to the movies as an escape from the woes of our world, and when the news is non-stop catastrophic woe, that’s even more apparent. However, both of these movies, while enormously entertaining and charged with fresh relevancy, are a reminder of the very social ills many may actively try to avoid. Both films, and their respective filmmakers, make cases why ignorance is a privilege we cannot afford. Also, did I mention that the movies are outstanding, daring, and hilarious?

It’s the early 1970s, and Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) is the first black officer on the Colorado Springs police force. He wants to be a detective and taken seriously, and one day he calls the leader of the local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan pretending to be a white nationalist. He builds a relationship over the phone with the Klan but he can’t meet them in person. Enter fellow officer Flip Zimmerman (Adam Driver) who stands in as the public Ron Stallworth, avowed white supremacist. Problem is Flip is Jewish, a group the Klan isn’t much more favorable with. The two officers must work together to gather enough actionable evidence to stop the Klan before they kill.

This is Lee’s best film since 2000’s Bamboozled and he feels jolted awake by the material. He doesn’t shy away from the film’s relevance and potent power but also knows how to faithfully execute the suspense sequences and police procedural aspects of the story by Charlie Wachtel, David Rabinowitz, Kevin Willmott, and Lee himself, based upon Stallworth’s book. The story alone is the film’s greatest selling point. It feels like a bizarre recreation of that Dave Chapelle sketch about the blind, and black, Klansman. It’s a story inviting irony and bafflement, and it’s ribald and funny for long stretches, buoyed by Washington’s charismatic and forceful performance (close your eyes and he sounds just like his dad, Denzel). The story is so fascinating that you just want to see where it goes. Stallworth is fighting for respect in a still-racist police force, and he’s pushing Zimmerman to feel more invested in their operation from his own maligned status. “I never thought much about being Jewish,” he shares with Ron, “But I’ve been thinking a lot about it recently.” Theirs is a partnership we root for, and each new accomplishment bonds them together and increases their credibility with a wary police chief. It’s a movie that has a steady supply of payoffs and complications, leaving you satisfied by the end but also more than a bit rattled at the uneasy connections to contemporary news.

This is a character-driven suspense film that does so much so well, drawing in thrills and laughs without making either feel cheaper by their inclusion. This is an undercover operation so every scene with the Klan has the electric uncertainty of whether or not Flip will be caught and our heroes doomed. Because you have two Ron Stallworths, we already have a complicated ruse to keep up (though why Flip couldn’t simply also be the voice on the phone is likely just how it happened in real life). Each new piece of information, each new meeting, takes our characters deeper into the Klan infrastructure, including a guided visit from none other than Grand Wizard (a.k.a. head honcho) David Duke (Topher Grace in an outstanding performance). The risk escalates from being caught to thwarting a planned bombing that could kill innocent minority protestors. The movie does a great job of finding new ways to remind you what is at stake, and while the Klansman are set up to be laughed at and ridiculed, they are still seen as dangerous. They still have the direct intent to physically harm others, not just harass and intimidate.

Because of the undercover operation, you’d be right to assume that Stallworth’s personal life and blossoming romance with a collegiate activist, Patrice (Laura Harrier), would be the least interesting part of the movie. It’s not poorly written or acted by any means. She serves as a reminder of Stallworth’s split loyalties, working for the police, which many in his community see as a tool of oppression from racists with a badge (and we too see this in action). He is always hiding some part of himself, be it his racial identity, his personal affiliation, or even what he really feels about his corrupt colleagues. Even with her, he cannot relax completely. It shows the more personal side of the Stallworth character and provides something real for him to lose, especially once the local Klan targets Patrice. I understand the role she serves in the larger story but I’d lying if I wasn’t eager to get out of every one of her scenes and back into the action. That’s the problem when you have one superior storyline; the others begin to feel like filler you’d rather leave behind to get back to the good stuff.

BlackkKlansman also can’t help itself with the political parallels to our troublesome 45th president, but I loved every one of them. A superior officer warns Stallworth about his dealings with Duke, specifically that he might make good on the promise to retire as Grand Wizard and go for political office. “Come on, America would never elect a man like David Duke as president,” he says with thinly veiled incredulity. The characters might as well turn and wink to the camera and say, “We’re talking about Trump,” but I laughed all the same. At one Klan dinner, the participants chant, “America first,” which is a Trumpian campaign slogan, if you didn’t know dear reader, derived from the Klan (Trump’s own father was arrested attending a 1927 Klan rally). These parallels are destined to turn off some viewers, though I think the subject matter and Lee’s name should be enough to know exactly what kind of movie you’re electing to watch. Nobody goes to a Lars von Trier film expecting to be uplifted about the state of humanity.

It’s at its very end where the film reminds you just how sadly relevant it still is today (minor spoilers but I don’t think they will ruin anything for you). While Stallworth has bested the local chapter of the KKK, there’s another late night with a sudden alarming noise, Stallworth on his guard, and a cross is burning out in the distance. Just because our characters have foiled a band of racists doesn’t mean racism has been eradicated. Instead, as the film suggests, it evolves, and Lee concludes with an impactful montage of news footage of the Charlottesville white supremacist rally and President Trump contorting to find fault on “both sides” when clearly one side was murderous and racist. You even see real-life David Duke on the premises spewing his re-branded style of hate. The evolution of white supremacy demagoguery has become political, and it has found cover under the guise of a president eager to stoke racial resentments and divisions to his advantage. He’s normalized the abhorrent behavior and given it mainstream cover. It’s a powerful and lasting conclusion (much in the same way as the montage of Hollywood’s harmful depiction of black people in Bamboozled — including the Klan hero worship in Birth of a Nation, also featured here prominently) that should remind people that the threats of racism and Nazis and the KKK are not a thing of the past. It is very much a staple of the present, and how much it is allowed to remain a staple is up to the moral outrage of voters.

Sorry to Bother You is also sharply cutting and topical about being black in America. In present-day Oakland, Cassius “Cash” Green (Lakeith Stanfield) is struggling to make ends meet, move out of his uncle’s garage, and do right by his girlfriend and performance artist, Detroit (Tessa Thompson). He gets a job at a telemarketer and discovers a new talent when he turns on his “white voice” (voiced by David Cross) and becomes a power caller, crushing his competition. He moves his way up the chain, losing touch with his base of working-class friends looking to strike to unionize. Once at the top, Cash draws the attention of the CEO, Steve Lift (Armie Hammer), who has big plans for a man with Cash’s gifts and seeming flexibility when it comes to corporate moral relativism.

Sorry to Bother You is a wild, hilarious movie bursting with things to say with its shotgun approach to satire, or as my pal Ben Bailey termed, a blunderbuss approach, messy and all over the place and, sometimes, maybe missing its intended mark. I thought the movie was simply going to be about the modern-day struggles of being black and poor in America, and the movie covers those aspects with aplomb. It’s also sized up ample room to satirize consumer culture, labor exploitation and worker rights, male and female relationships, art and media, cultural appropriation, and even memes. Because of all the topics, the movie could run the danger of feeling unfocused, but thanks to the remarkably assured vision and handling of writer/director Boots Riley, it all feels connected by its unique voice operating at a risky but exhilarating level.

There are a lot of bizarre dips into the absurd that had me howling and on the edge of my seat wondering where we would go next. The most popular TV show is just watching a person get the stuffing beaten out of them, and it adopts a pretty simplistic name to go along with this transparency. A very Google or Amazon-esque company is offering “lifetime jobs” for employees to live in their factories and have all their cares taken for by a corporate slaver, I mean kindly overlord. There’s an art show that consists of hurling cell phones at a woman’s body. There’s a corporate video with a female caveman narrator where she is, 1) stop-motion animated, and, 2) topless the entire time, complete with animated swinging breasts. There’s an ongoing thread that seems to trace the life cycle of a meme. A woman throws a Coke can at Cash in protest. She gets plucked form obscurity, gains a talk show, gets an endorsement from Coke and her own video complete with dramatic re-enactment and chirpy jingle, and Cash getting hit becomes its own Halloween costume for white people. There are throwaway lines in this movie that any other major comedy would die for. This is a movie that is impossible to fall asleep to because every moment could be different and you won’t want to miss one of them.

There are moments that strike beyond the immediacy of the onscreen absurdity. One of those moments was when Cash was invited to join the big corporate after party. He’s out of his element, surrounded by rich, relatively young privileged white people. They assume, being black, that Cash will instinctively know how to rap, and they insist that he perform a free-style rap for the assorted group. This ignorant assumption is just the start for Riley, because Cash gets up there and struggles to perform, barely able to scrap together the most elementary of rhyme, and the illusion has become dashed with the crowd. He notices they’re losing their interest with him, so in a desperate ploy, he just shouts two words over and over into the microphone with enthusiasm: the N-word and a profanity. He does this for like a minute, and the crowd of privileged white people shouts it back at him, seemingly lying in wait for some tacit permission by “popular music” for them to likewise use the N-word. It was an indictment that went beyond that scene. Another is ultimately what happens to the big bad corporation by the film’s end. It literally made me guffaw because it felt completely in place with the tone of the movie.

All of this zany and funny stuff would feel passing if there weren’t at least some characters worth our time. Cash is an engaging young man trying to get his life on track. He discovers he has a gift when it comes to coding, to blending into a white-majority community in a comfortable and acceptable manner. It’s a survival technique many African-Americans have had to perfect on a daily basis, and soon to be featured in the upcoming adaptation of the best-selling YA novel, The Hate U Give. Even amidst its more bizarre moments and asides, the movie is about a black man trying to get by with limited opportunities in a society that too often devalues him.

Stanfield (Get Out) has been a strong acting presence for some time, first in the remarkably powerful Short Term 12 and most recently on Donald Glover’s Atlanta. He grabs your attention and Stanfield has a gift for comedy, particularly a nervous energy that draws you closer rather than pushing you away. His character goes on the rise-and-fall path, so we still need to be pulling for him to turn away from his newfound egotism, and Stanfield keeps us rooted. Thompson (Thor: Ragnarok) is Cash’s conscience and her wardrobe and accessories are amazing, from her declarative “The Future is Female Ejaculation” T-shirt to her large earring messages. Hammer (Call Me By Your Name) is confidently smooth and sleazy as a coked-out, venal CEO that is so blasé about his wrongdoing that it doesn’t even register for him as wrong. I appreciated that even with all the wackiness of this cracked-mirror version of our universe, Riley puts in the time and effort to make the characters count rather than be expendable to the satirical aims.

Now, there is a significant turn in the third act that veers the movie into territory that will test how far audiences are willing to go along with Riley’s raucous ride. I won’t spoil what happens but for several of my friends it was simply a bridge too far. For a select few, they even said this turn ruined the movie for them. It worked for me because it felt like an escalation in the dastardly labor practices of the corporation and was finally a visceral reminder of their cruelty. Beforehand, Cash has been making moral compromises to keep his ascending career, excusing the after effects of his success even when it’s selling weapons to foreign countries. That stuff is over the phone, part of his coded performance, and easier to keep out of mind. This escalation finally is too much to pretend to ignore. It’s too much to excuse his own culpability working for the enemy. It’s what pushes Cash back to his circle of friends he had left behind for the corporate ladder, it’s the thing that politically activates him, and it’s what pushes him to make a difference. I can understand, given the somewhat goofy nature of the plot turn, that several viewers will feel like Riley gave up his artistic high ground to self-indulgence. However, I would counter that the line between self-indulgence and an assured vision can be tenuous. The movie is so alive, so vibrant, and so weird, so having another weird detour felt agreeable.

BlackkKlansman and Sorry to Bother You are each unique and fun but with larger messages to say about the black experience and other fissures within our volatile society. You’ll be thoroughly entertained by either film and you’ll walk away with something to ponder and discuss with friends and family and maybe that one racist uncle at Thanksgiving, the one who uses the term “false flag operation” a little too liberally. BlackkKlansman tells a fascinating, comic, and thrilling story about racism of the past, drawing parallels to the trials of today, in particular under the era of Trump. Sorry to Bother You has many targets, many points, and much to say, exploding with thoughts and cracked comedy. Riley is holding up a mirror to the shortcomings and inanities of our own society and the ease we can all feel to turn a blind eye to the difficult realities of systemic racism, capitalism, and worker rights. Lee is a known firebrand and his polemic doesn’t shy from its political relevancy, but it tells a highly engaging story first and foremost, with top acting performances from its cast. In a summer of studios afraid to take chances, here are two excellent movies that take crazy chances and provide bountiful rewards.

Nate’s Grades:

BlackkKlansman: A-

Sorry to Bother You: A-

Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017)

As I stated in my review of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, “The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many.” Mission accomplished, mostly, though the biggest criticism for J.J. Abrams’ resurgent sequel was how all too closely it hewed to the original plot beats of its own past. It was an overcorrection, a swing too far in the other direction and turned a reboot into “a loving homage that approaches facsimile.” I enjoyed the new characters, the next generation of Star Wars heroes, and wanted to see what would happen to them next. I just hoped the franchise could steer a course of its own. Having a talent as unique as Rian Johnson (Brick, Looper) as the writer/director of Episode VIII certainly portends to that. The Last Jedi is a better movie, structurally and even emotionally than Force Awakens, but it’s flawed and definitely less fun and is driving so many fans to the dark side.

The First Order is crushing the last vestiges of the puny Resistance. General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) is chasing the last ships of General Leia (Carrie Fisher) through the galaxy. Finn (John Boyega) is looking for Rey (Daisy Ridley) who is missing. He is teamed up with Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), a plucky mechanic, to find a master code breaker to thwart the First Order’s tracking system so everyone can safely escape. Meanwhile, Rey has sought out the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil), who agrees to train her just to teach her why the Jedi are wrong and he will not help the Resistance. She’s also been psychically linked to Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is still struggling with his own identity as a pupil of the dark side. Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis) has lost his faith in Kylo, who he feels is too weak to embrace his darkest impulses. Kylo believes he can convince Rey to join him, and Rey believes that Kylo can be saved and turned into an ally. The Resistance is looking to survive another day and rebuild their rebellion in the hearts and minds of the downtrodden.

I was hopeful Johnson would be able to tread safely away from the undertow that is the pull of Star Wars nostalgia, and he did so, both to the movie’s great benefit and oddly to its peril at different points. Episode VIII is not a repeat of the plot beats of Empire Strikes Back, though there are some thematic similarities that go along with a middle chapter in a trilogy, like separating the heroes, experiencing losses, etc. Clearly, once Johnson received the handover from Abrams, there were certain Star Wars storylines setup in Force Awakens that he had no interest in continuing. I won’t specify what they are for the sake of spoilers but Johnson definitely undercuts the expectations of extraordinary developments with ordinary, mildly indifferent responses. Certain characters fans may have thought would be more important are gone. It’s as if Johnson is saying to the audience, “Did that thing really matter to you? Who cares?” It’s not Johnson’s fault the fanbase spun off intense theories. He undercuts your expectations throughout. The characters are allowed to fail. The reported saviors don’t want the responsibility. By upsetting the balance of the force, if you will, Johnson has injected a sense of uncertainty into the Star Wars mix, a badly missing element ever since the original trilogy. When a major character looks ready to sacrifice his or herself, you start to believe that this genuinely may happen. When the characters finally fulfill their mission and track down their special contact, they’re denied their goal. You can tell Johnson is having fun with misdirection and, as one character says, “letting the past die.”

However, that same sense can also get Johnson into trouble. From a narrative standpoint, we’re not much further by the end then where we began. From an emotional standpoint, I don’t know if we’re that much farther either. There are elements you can clearly tell that excited Johnson, namely the Rey/Luke/Kylo moments. That relationship, dynamic, and hidden history is easily the best part of The Last Jedi. The decision to psychically link Rey and Kylo seems cheesy at first but works out beautifully, synching up the two force wunderkinds forces them closer and each one looks at the other as a potential kindred spirit. They each think they can save the other, and so it becomes a far more concrete battle over the soul of our characters rather than just a philosophical exercise. It opens up more of a literal dialogue between these opposites and deepens their chemistry. Luke might be following a typical hero’s journey/acceptance of the call, but it’s still an interesting path because he’s bitter and lost his faith in the moral primacy of the Jedi.

On the flip side, there are also elements where you can clearly tell Johnson had less excitement. The middle section involves a side mission onto an alien casino, and it feels like filler, especially with where it eventually goes and what it opens up about the world. I think it’s meant to showcase the exploitation of the underclass, the rich getting richer off war profiteering and the subjugation of civilizations. It doesn’t land and detracts from the other, more interesting storylines. The cutsey comic relief characters inserted to sell toys are not overpowering but they clearly feel like a studio requirement. At least I’m giving Johnson the benefit of the doubt that he didn’t decide that his Star Wars movie needed winged, big-eyed guinea pig creatures. The concluding half hour also could have been eliminated considering the second act break feels like a more climactic ending. The premise of an elongated chase through space that exhausts fuel supplies and where an enemy ship can track light speed jumps is oddly reminiscent of the first episode in the Battlestar Galactica reboot series (maybe Johnson was a fan). There are things the Force is able to do that we’ve never seen before. It begs questions over what exactly are the parameters of this invisible made-up zen power. Also, if you just solve things by saying “new Force powers” then it becomes a Star Wars cheat. There are also nobodies that could have been, and should have been, replaced by other higher-profile characters. There’s a moment of pure unchecked badassery that should have been someone else taking the sacrifice. By cramming in all of this other material, Johnson is trying to find things for his various characters and storylines to do, and not everything is on the same plane. Finn and Poe (Oscar Isaac) recede into the background all too easily. This is the longest Star Wars movie in franchise history and it could have easily been cut down by 20 minutes.

Fortunately for us, Johnson’s eye for striking visuals and strong, punctuated character moments is still alive and well, and The Last Jedi has moments that left me awed. There are a handful of visuals that are burned into my memory. A multi-dimensional shot of action that pans over to a frantic eyeball. A blast of light that cuts through space like a razor, with the sound dropping out for that extra degree of awe. Speeding ships kicking up red plumes. A slow-motion team-up that all but dares you not to pump your fist. Johnson’s unique sense of visual composition is still present an accounted for. He also reveals a strong handle over the coordination of action sequences, an unknown quantity for him until he landed on this biggest stage. The opening sequence is a great showcase for Johnson with multiple points of action both macro and micro. The X-wing fights are snazzy but the simple struggle of pilot trying to reach a detonator is terrific tension. Abrams, and now Johnson, have brought the feel of Star Wars back, where the alien settings are real and not just a green screen warehouse like the prequels. The light saber battles (all two of them) are given personal stakes. The fights matter. Unlike the prequels, we have people that behave and fight like human beings and not cartoons that leap off walls, do thirty flips in the air, and take leaps off 100-foot canopies. The characters and their conflicts don’t get lost among all the special effects wizardry and explosions.

The characters with the best material are also the ones who give the best performances. Hamil (Sushi Girl) is fantastic as the old curmudgeon, the bitter man who’s lost his faith. There are later moments where all of his acting is performed through his eyes and little twitches over his face, and he communicates so many emotions. Ridley (Murder on the Orient Express) continues her flinty determination while being somebody who isn’t as instantly adept at every new challenge. Her one-on-one sessions with Luke and Kylo are made better from her charisma. She’s a star. Driver (Logan Lucky) is still compelling as a villain struggling with being a villain. I enjoy having a bad guy who is sloppy, tempestuous, and not fully immersed in the dark side. It makes scene-to-scene more interesting and it plays better to the film’s theme of trying to save one’s soul from the power of influence. Driver has less “woe is me” moments than Force Awakens and feels more committed to his character’s ultimate journey. Kelly Marie Tran (XOXO) is the newest edition and makes quite a favorable impression as the crafty, thoughtful Rose. She’s got some key emotional moments and Tran nails them. She’s also an eager fan of the heroes of the Resistance, namely Finn, and when the reality doesn’t quite match her fantasy, she mimics the Star Wars fandom in her dejection. While the movie doesn’t find the most useful places for her inclusion, I was happy to watch Rose make her case as a new and valuable addition to the franchise. The actor I felt worst for is Gleeson (Goodbye, Christopher Robin). His character is simply an officious weasel we’re not really meant to take seriously, and this is further accomplished by Gleeson’s screeching voice. I worried the man was going to give himself an aneurysm.

This is also the last time we’ll see Carrie Fisher in the Star Wars universe, barring the misbegotten CGI version of her that resembled a chalky blow-up doll in Rogue One. Fisher died almost a year ago and that knowledge hangs over every one of her scenes. You wonder if there will be any sense of closure with her character in this universe. Johnson provides a scene between Luke and Leia that is so poignant and shot so tenderly that it feels like the perfect sendoff for Fisher. He even kisses her forehead before slowly departing, feeling the urge to stay, while a burst of light halos her face. If you were going to cry at any point in The Last Jedi it will probably be this moment to remind you of Fisher’s passing. Leia does have a couple other appearances after this moment but it’s really this scene that serves as her effective curtain call from this massive franchise.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi is an exciting transitional chapter, and this movement seems to be chaffing many fans, bringing forth the question of whether the fanbase will allow there to be a different Star Wars. This is a movie that discards storylines and characters with the wave of a hand, that subverts expectations and plays with misdirection. This is Rian Johnson’s response to nostalgia in place of genuine emotional responses. As Kylo Ren says, “Let the past die.” It’s not the movie’s fault that people devoted countess hours to speculating about possible film theories that were deemed relatively inconsequential. Johnson refocuses on the characters that matter most, Rey and Kylo, by pairing them up as twin forces. While The Force Awakens definitely has more of a brash sense of fun, I find Last Jedi to be the better movie. It’s not quite up to par with the original trilogy. Johnson gets a little overburdened by trying to add too many things, including a casino subplot that feels like a unsatisfactory side mission in a video game. The new Star Wars films have lacked the bold unpredictability of the original trilogy. There’s nothing quite as seismic as Darth Vader being revealed as Luke’s father or even Han Solo captured and locked in carbonite. Even the major deaths in the new films feel anticipated, like in Episode VII, or less momentous, like in Episode VIII. There are some fake-outs with major deaths that many will deem cheap gambits, and I won’t disagree. I was entertained throughout The Last Jedi. I enjoyed the new characters. I enjoyed the action sequences. I even enjoyed the porgs. This is a movie that is looking for balance between the light and dark, and Johnson establishes a Star Wars that resets the table in exciting and frustrating ways. With J.J. Abrams now onboard of Episode IX, we’ll see how he brings home the characters that he brought into the universe a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. I imagine the fans grousing this new direction might be more forgiving of nostalgia.

Nate’s Grade: B

Silence (2016)

cx3zloiucaedlkj-jpg-largeA nearly three-hour movie about Portuguese Jesuit priests facing persecution in 17th century Japan and struggling with the personal demands and costs of their faith sounds like a hard sell for your casual moviegoer. It may seem even stranger coming from the likes of director Martin Scorsese. This is a deeply personal film and perhaps the greatest movie about the nature of spiritual faith, both good and bad, I’ve seen. Two priests (Andrew Garfield, Adam Driver) sail to Japan in 1635 to find their mentor after hearing he has renounced his ties to Christianity and taken up a Japanese wife. Christianity has been outlawed and those caught practicing the religion can be turned in for 100 pieces of silver, and a priest for 300 pieces. The repression forces Christian converts to make difficult choices, especially when their refusal to recant their faith causes suffering for others. The Inquisitor (Issei Ogata) is a fascinating figure who argues that these misplaced missionaries never understood Japanese culture and that this foreign religion simply cannot flourish. The meaning of individual faith is explored beautifully with existential highs and lows. When the priests come across a village of secretly practicing Christians, it’s a powerful example of the goodness of faith, as these people are nourished body and soul, empowered. They can also finally confess their sins and garner a clean slate. However, much of the film is about the internal struggle to retain one’s faith in the seeming absence of confirmation. The priests are eventually caught and ordered to apostate, and their ongoing refusals are met with harder and harder challenges to bear. It’s an ongoing process for many people to square the concepts of a loving God and the horrors and general torment that do not merit said God’s intervention. At one point one of our priests, shaken by his experiences, asks if he is merely praying to silence. In some regard, I think the movie is about coming to terms with the fact that faith is often a relationship with a silent partner. Silence may be the greatest spiritual epic about doubt. It feels like a thriller at times and also the most Christian movie at other times. It puts the simplistic tripe starring the likes of Kirk Cameron to shame. Scorsese’s camera is unmistakably his and the movie is often dazzling to just experience. The pacing is very much a slow burn but the historical context felt increasingly intriguing for my tastes. Ogata is the real star of the movie, embellishing his antagonist with a magnetic power. Every time he was off screen I wished for his return. Silence is not going to be a movie for everyone or for many. It’s too long and airless, but it’s a deeply serious, deeply meditative, and deeply searching film about the power of belief and the price we pay to hold on.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Midnight Special (2016)

midnight-special-poster-600x889Jeff Nichols should already be a household name after Mud and Take Shelter, and with his new movie Midnight Special, the man has done nothing to break his incredible record of success with making deeply personal, ruminative, thrilling, and brilliant films. Midnight Special is a better and more earnest love letter to the cinema of Spielberg than Super 8 was. A young boy exhibits strange and supernatural powers. The religious compound he came from looks at him as a prophet. The government thinks he might be a weapon. Two different groups are on the hunt for this boy, and that’s where Nichols drops us right into the middle of, respecting the intelligence of his audience to catch up and figure things as they develop. In some ways it reminds me of Mad Max: Fury Road, an expert chase film that establishes its characters naturally as it barrels onward. The acting is wonderful all around and Nichols does a great job of finding small character moments that speak volumes, giving everyone time in the spotlight. The various twists and turns can be surprising, heartwarming, funny, but they stay true to the direction of the story he’s telling and grounded in the simple, unyielding anxiety and love of parents for their child. Michael Shannon (Nichols go-to collaborator) is directly affecting as a humble but determined father risking everything for the well-being of his son. The concluding act left me awed and felt something akin to what I think Brad Bird may have been going for with Tomorrowland. This is a thoughtful science fiction movie that allows its characters space to emote, its plot room to breathe, and yet still thrills and awes on a fraction of a Hollywood budget. It shouldn’t be long before some studio finally taps Nichols to jump to the big leagues of a franchise film, but if he wanted to keep making these small, character-driven indies on his own terms, I’d die happy.

Nate’s Grade: A

Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015)

latestMay 19,1999 is a day that lives in infamy for legions of Star Wars fans. The day hoped died. I remember trying to convince myself that The Phantom Menace was good but a second viewing confirmed my earlier fears. These movies were not going to be the same as the original trilogy, and George Lucas confirmed that with each successive release. I’ve had debates with teenagers who swear that the prequels are better films. They aren’t. This isn’t a matter of opinion; this is fact. After Revenge of the Sith was released in 2005, you could sense that Lucas was burned out and had no desire to further awaken the ire of the fandom. Then in 2012 he surprised everyone by selling the Star Wars empire, along with other properties like Indiana Jones, to Disney for four billion dollars. Immediately Disney let it be known that they wanted to get new Star Wars movies into production ASAP. They tapped J.J. Abrams to spearhead the first steps in a new direction. No other movie has felt the weight of hype and expectation like Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Fans don’t want to be hurt once more by someone they loved. For millions of fans that grew up on the original trilogy, The Force Awakens will be the Star Wars movie they have long been waiting for. It erases the bad feelings of the prequels and re-calibrates the franchise. However, it is also flawed and seems too indebted to nostalgia. It’s certainly good but I cannot put away my nagging reservations (far, far less than what I felt with the prequels).

Thirty years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the First Order has risen in place of the evil Empire. The First Order is lead by General Hux (Domhnall Gleeson) and aspiring sith lord Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). They’re searching for the droid BB-8 and its owner, Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac). The droid has a map that leads to the whereabouts of the last known Jedi – Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamil). A Stormtrooper who adopts the name of Finn (John Boyega) runs away from his mission and joins forces with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a scavenger waiting for her family to return to her world. The duo finds BB-8 and seeks to return the droid to the Resistance. They run into Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Chewbacca (Peter Mayhew) and a few other familiar faces on their journey to the Resistance base and to escape the reach of the First Order.

11875118_1007880092596925_2204135516599208531_oAbrams has captured the essential magic of what made the original trilogy so enjoyable and timeless. The prequels carried the burden of setting up characters we had come to love, and so as we watched younger versions of them or characters integral to their development, it was hard to ignore just how little we cared. It didn’t feel like Lucas himself cared that much, more content to direct his green screens than his actors. The special effects had improved but for much of the three prequels it felt like watching disinterested actors recite poorly written lines while they run around fake environments with no semblance of reality. The details that Lucas emphasized were ones that were unnecessary, like treaties and trade tariffs and the notorious midichlorians, which made the force into a blood disorder. The prequels harmed the legacy of the franchise. It takes only seconds for you to feel like you’re in better hands when you read the opening text crawl. No trade disputes. No galactic senate. It sets up its central chase and the important players in three brief paragraphs. And then we’re off and the movie rarely lets up.

We pass the torch to a new generation of characters and it’s here that Force Awakens is able to leave the large shadow of the original trilogy. The characters are great. Finn gives the viewer an entry point into a world we’ve never explored onscreen in any real depth, the life of a Stormtrooper, the cannon fodder of the series. He has moral crises and goes AWOL from the duties he has been raised to do. He doesn’t want to be a mindless killing-machine and forges his own destiny. Watching him embrace a sense of individuality is entertaining. He’s charming and excitable but also fearful of what may catch up to him. Then there’s the hero’s journey with Rey, a plucky heroine who comes of age over the course of the movie’s 135 minutes. Ridley has the presence and poise reminiscent of Keira Knightley, and the screen just adores her. It also helps when her character is easy to root for. Boyega (Attack the Block) and Ridley are terrific and even better paired together. They have a great chemistry and much of the humor is born from the characters rather than lame visual gags like in the prequels. It’s fun to hear characters verbally spar with actual good dialogue. Driver was the first actor hired and it’s easy to see why. If you’ve been watching the man on HBO’s Girls, you’ll know that he has a magnetic presence that separates him from the herd. He plays a villain that so badly wants to follow in Vader’s footsteps but the thing that holds him back is the “temptation of the light.” In one moment, a badass and imposing villain with super force powers had now also become an interesting character wrestling with his influences. Isaac (Ex Machina) is suave and cocksure as an ace pilot. His affection for the other characters is touching, particularly the robot BB-8. This little guy is going to be the toy that every child on Earth demands for the holidays. BB-8 is adorable from its first moment on screen and made me forget about R2D2. The big worry with Force Awakens was that its new characters would be compelling on their own. After one movie I’m looking forward to more adventures with the new kids on the block.

the-force-awakensAbrams has restored the sense of fun and awe that resonated from the original trilogy and the biggest compliment is that Episode VII feels like a Star Wars movie (more on which below). The action sequences are quick and filled with great visuals and shot arrangements. For those worried about Abrams’ penchant for lens flairs in the Star Trek reboots, they are completely absent in Force Awakens (Fun fact: for Star Trek Into Darkness, computer effects had to go in and take out lens flairs because Abrams later admitted he had gone a bit overboard). There are some beautifully orchestrated shots and sequences all around here. The first 40-minutes is the best part of the movie, before the older stars come back for their due. The rest of the film is enjoyable, no doubt, but I was more pleased with the original material. The technical expertise has never been higher. Like Mad Max: Fury Road, there’s a joy with watching characters interact with a real world of practical effects. Watching the characters run around real environments and real sets rather than immense green screens just makes it feel more real and vital. I enjoyed how worn and weathered the technology in this world comes across. The special effects are judiciously utilized and are excellent as anticipated. It’s easy to sense the reverence that Abrams and others have for the series as well as their determination to not repeat the mistakes of the prequels. The first mission for Episode VII is to reset the course, to wash away the bad taste of the prequels that haunt many. Abrams has gone back to what works with these movies and recreated the playbook. It’s a movie that will satisfy the hardcore fans and reawaken their love for the series.

And yet it almost feels like Force Awakens is a swing too far in the other direction, an overcorrection to the prequels that turns a reboot into a loving homage that approaches facsimile. I was amazed at just how closely Episode VII follows the plot beats of A New Hope (mild spoilers to follow – for real, if you don’t want to be spoiled in the slightest, and I’m no monster and won’t dare include anything that would substantially deter your viewing, skip to the spoiler safe area). Here goes: once again we start with an escape from an evil starfleet ship, only to land on a desert planet. The hunt is for a droid with valuable information. Our dispirit band of characters collect on the desert planet and flee, only to be eventually pulled back to the evil base of operations, which once again is a giant floating orb that specializes in planet destruction and this orb seems to have the same pesky design flaw that plagued Death Star 1.0 and 2.0. How does this one design flaw still exist? Are there not backups and redundancies? It would be like Titanic 3.0 going down by hitting another iceberg. There are more parallels involving the characters and personal revelations that mirror Episode IV but I won’t go into detail on those (end of spoilers). Suffice to say, it felt like I was watching a cover act remind me how much I enjoyed the first Star Wars release. Perhaps Abrams felt his rabid audience needed to go backwards before going forward, pay homage to what had been built by practically reliving its plot in a galaxy not so long ago as it once was (it still is likely the same distance: far far away). It’s a movie that cannot escape the nostalgia of its predecessors, and so it indulges it instead. In deferring to fan demands, Force Awakens has moments that waver into the dangerous territory of fan service. This will harm its overall staying power once the glow wears off from audiences overcome with relief.

HT_star_wars_force_awakens_trailer_05_jef_150416_16x9_992Thankfully, the new main characters are compelling and I’ll be happy to follow their continuing adventures with Episodes VIII and IX and who knows. Abrams and company have set up the next generation of fan favorites that have the chance to grow out of the sizable shadow of the original cast. However, not all elements are given that same nurturing care. The Force Awakens is so briskly paced that it rarely has time to establish the new history of its universe. We get character relationships and reunions but I couldn’t help but feel that the larger plot they inhabited felt rushed. The First Order seems rather vague and their rise to power needed at least some explanation. Instead we’re dropped right into a timeline with an Empire knockoff. It’s just easy fascism placeholder. Why are the Republic and the Resistance two separate entities? The villains with the exception of Kylo Ren are pretty one-note and also callbacks to the bad guy types from Episode IV. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) is in the movie for a lousy three minutes. I’m also not a fan of either of the two motion-capture performances courtesy of Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) and mo-cap pioneer Andy Serkis (Rise of the Planet of the Apes). I hated Nyong’o’s character and her performance. The character design for both of these creatures is rather weak and weirdly unimaginative. There’s also a habit of characters being naturals at things that would ordinarily require expertise. The worlds we visit and the creatures we encounter are all a bit too similar to earlier sources and distinctly unmemorable. We don’t learn much via our locations and geography and so it feels a tad interchangeable and meaningless, which is a shame.

The Force Awakens is a mostly exciting return to the rich world of Star Wars with characters we care about, old and new, lively action that feels substantial and real, and a sense of fun that isn’t at the expense of your full brainpower. Abrams had two missions: 1) eliminate the disappointment over the prequels, and 2) set up new characters and stories for future installments. Both have been accomplished. Abrams may have been the perfect candidate to restart the Star Wars series as he has a history of making films as loving homage to his cinematic influences. Super 8 was Abrams’ homage to Spielberg, and Episode VII is very much homage to Episode IV. The well-trod story allows for the series to reset comfortably while setting up its new characters to take a greater storytelling burden from here on out. I hope future installments give us more development to make the worlds and the history matter just as much as Rey, Finn, Kylo, Poe, and BB-8. This may be an unpopular opinion but I feel that Abrams’ rollicking 2009 Star Trek reboot is a better Star Wars movie than The Force Awakens. Abrams and company prove you can make a new and good Star Wars movie. Now my own new hope is that writer/director Rian Johnson (Looper) will be able to steer the franchise into a fresher direction with Episode VIII. In the meantime, fans can sleep well once again.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Inside Llewyn Davis (2013)

inside_llewyn_davis_ver2“There’s no success like failure. And failure’s no success at all,” Bob Dylan wrote. He could have been talking about any number of characters in the oeuvre of master filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. Losers and has-beens and could-have-beens fascinate the brothers, and their newest film certainly follows this model. Llewyn Davis (Oscar Isaac) is a struggling musician in the 1961 Greenwich Village, New York folk scene. He rotates crashing with various friends, unable to scrounge up enough money to ever pay his own way. His musical partner recently killed himself and Llewyn has been trying to get traction with his first solo record. His world gets even more complicated when Jean (Carey Mulligan) reveals that she’s pregnant; the baby’s father may be Llewyn or Jean’s husband and fellow performer, Jim (Justin Timberlake). Llewyn can’t catch a break.

Inside Llewyn Davis is a classic Coen creation, a character study of a misanthropic loser trying to find direction in a comical universe of indifference. I greatly look forward to every Coen picture and that’s because nobody writes characters like they do. There are no throwaway characters in a Coen universe. Even minor characters like the elevator Attendant or Manager’s Secretary are given sparks of personality, each fully formed figure creating a richer canvas. There is great pleasure in just listening to their characters speak, in natural cadences yet elevated with grace. Inside Llewyn Davis is no exception. Their storytelling is always rife with wonderful comic surprises and pit stops. The Coens are such brilliant technical craftsmen, that every shot is gorgeously composed, even without longtime cinematographer Roger Deakens (to give you an idea how old this movie was, Deakens was busy filming Skyfall). The music, supervised by O Brother maestro T. Bone Burnett, is impeccably performed and quite lovely to the ear, if you’re into folk music arrangements. If you’re not, well, it’s going to be a long movie experience.

ART_INSIDE_LLEWYN_DAVIS_-001-676x450But here’s the problem with Inside Llewyn Davis: the film will likely turn off most people. It’s not a comforting movie by any means. We’re stuck following a self-destructive struggling musician bounce around couch-to-couch, chasing dreams that will never seem in reach. And Llewyn is a tough character to love. He’s surly, careless, selfish, egotistical, and also jaded. And he’s just about the only character in the movie. Most of the other famous faces are fleeting supporting players. Only Mulligan (The Great Gatsby) is given a plurality of scenes to expand her perturbed character, and even those may not be enough. Much like Llewyn’s musical direction, this is a one-man show, and he’s not cuddly. But an unlikable protagonist is not uncommon. The Coens tease so many different directions for Llewyn to go that it’s likely that audiences will feel some degree of disappointment where the film does end up. It’s a circuitous path, proving Llewyn is the architect of his own fate, but at that point audiences may not care. They may just be happy to watch Llewyn punched in the face. The plot is pretty light, running into a series of various self-contained scenes, and there isn’t much in the way of closure. I’ve watched the film twice and while I appreciate it more I’m certain that Llewyn Davis will leave a majority of people feeling cold, more so than even A Serious Man.

Unlike former Coen creations, notably in A Serious Man and Barton Fink, our titular character  is the architect of his own misery. He is a musician that identifies with an older class of folk artists, something that strikes him as genuine and touching the soul. He cannot stand artistic compromise. He won’t even accept a winter coat from his music manager. He wants no handouts. He chastises Jean about her and Jim’s attitudes toward the business, calling them “careerist” and “a little bit square.” To Llewyn, to sell out is the worst crime. Jean says that they’re just doing what they can to raise up the musical ranks, and maybe the songs aren’t top-notch, like a catchy but instantly dated novelty song about the Space Race (the sure-to-be Oscar-nominated “Please Mr. Kennedy”), but they’re commercial, they’re finding an audience, they’re making inroads, partially as a husband/wife act and partially due to their own physically attractive appearances, and it frustrates Llewyn greatly. A great example is early in the film a young Army vet on leave performs a wonderfully pure song with a beautiful voice. Llewyn scoffs at the mawkish nature of the tune. “He’s a great performer,” Jim advises. Llewyn takes umbrage at the distinction; a performer is not the same as a musician. The people getting ahead are the performers, the sellouts. One of Jean and Jim’s rising hits, “500 Miles,” lyrically suggests it was an old slave song that has been repackaged and homogenized for safe consumption. Llewyn is going to stick to his guns and make it on his own terms, with expected results. Late in the movie, after Llewyn performs before a record exec (F. Murray Abraham), so aching and affecting as he puts it all into the song, the exec simply responds: “I don’t see a lot of money here.” However, the exec offers Llewyn a chance to be in a trio he’s putting together, if he cleans up and knows how to keep to the background. It’s a real opportunity. Just not for Llewyn.

It all comes down to legacy and Llewyn contemplating what his will be. His singing partner is now defined by his death, finding cruel irony in their song, “If I Had Wings.” His father is known for his long dedication to the Navy, but now he sits alone in a nursing home, a prisoner to his own infirmary and defeated mind. A road trip partner, the pompous jazz musician Roland Turner (a royally hilarious John Goodman), seems like a Ghost of Christmas Future visit from a possible future Llewyn, the artist who’s an iconoclast only in his own mind. Throughout the film, Llewyn is beset with choices, different options he could take, one in particular stemming from a revelation involving an old girlfriend. And yet, much like the thematic nature of folks songs, we’re told, Llewyn looks for something new with something old, be they routines, goals, or occupations. The folk music scene is on the cusp of change with a more commercialized pendulum swing, as evidenced by a surprise new performer at the Gaslight in the closing minutes. Llewyn is contemplating his life beyond the world of show business and where he goes next.

insidellewyndavis_620_012413And if there is a sad aspect to the Coens’ tale, it’s that Llewyn really is a talented musician. This is a breakout role for Isaac (Drive, Robin Hood) especially when you consider that he did all his own singing and guitar playing. It’s one of the most astonishing musical performances by an actor I’ve ever seen in a movie. The level of craft at command, the different slivers of passion he carefully puts into the performances, the trembling emotion, the merging of himself with the song. There’s a reason the Coens open the movie with Isaac performing the full rendition of “Hang Me, Oh Hang Me.” It crystallizes right away where the man’s talent level is, both the character and the actor. We’re left to then wonder why he hasn’t found his place in the industry, and the rest of the film is the explanation. This is the first film since perhaps 2007’s Once where full-length performances of songs really do move the story forward (I’m obviously excluding traditional musicals). Some have labeled the heavy use of song as lazy, distracting from an undercooked narrative, but I can literally go through every song in the film and justify its existence. Each tune, and the performance and performers, gives insight to character, plot, and state of mind.

Inside Llewyn Davis is an easy movie to admire but a harder one to love, unless you’re a fan of the Coen brothers or folk music in general. The protagonist is unlikable, his struggles his own doing either by hubris or integrity, the plot is rather loose with scattered supporting characters, and the film ends on a somewhat lackluster note that feels inconclusive. But then I keep going back to the richness of this world, the pop of the characters, the lyrical beauty to the unvarnished songs, and the concept of folk music as its own sense of purgatory (here me out, folk fans), the idea that we seek something new with something old, and so we follow in circles, like Llewyn’s onscreen journey. Isaac gives such a strong performance that you almost wish his character could catch a break. Almost. This is another technical marvel from the Coens, filled with their dark humor and their sense of cosmic melancholy, but Inside Llewyn Davis may ultimately find some strange sense of uplift as Llewyn continues to hold to his ambitions even as the world around him is changing, losing sight of artists like him. As long as we have the Coens, the Llewyn Davis’s of this world will get their due in one form or another.

Nate’s Grade: A-

Frances Ha (2013)

1980Noah Baumbach is a filmmaker I generally don’t care for. I quite enjoyed his first feature, the college comedy Kicking and Screaming, and his co-authorship of Wes Anderson’s Fantastic Mr. Fox was a worthy venture. But I normally associate such unrepentant misery with this guy’s movies, chiefly because they’re generally about miserable people being miserable (The Squid and the Whale, Margot at the Wedding, Greenberg). I was surprised then when his new movie Frances Ha got ringing endorsements from several of my trusted female friends, the kind who would not cotton to Baumbach’s usual pedigree of filmmaking. I took the plunge and was captivated by the shrewd, funny, and surprisingly affectionate portrayal of a twenty-something woman finding herself late (ish) in life.

Frances (Greta Gerwig) is an apprentice for a dance company in New York City waiting her turn at much in life. She’s waiting for her post-college life to fall into place; however, her world gets shaken up when her roommate and best friend since college, Sophie (Mickey Sumner), moves out. The distance grows beyond physical proximity and Frances feels like she’s drifting away from her closest friend. In the meantime, she sputters trying to become an adult herself, swapping roommates and living conditions, and getting into trouble with guys, money, and Sophie.

130510_MOV_FrancesHa.jpg.CROP.rectangle3-largeWhile a bit freeform in its plot momentum, Frances Ha is a perceptive and ultimately poignant film exploring female friendship dynamics and the perils of growing up. Frances is something of an adorable mess but she’s been treading water for some time, bouncing around, but her window for avoiding the adult world is coming to a close and she knows it, which is why she feels the anxiety that she does. There’s something completely relatable about the anxiety of entering into the “adult world,” and yet it’s a transition we must all endure. Frances, now 27, has put it off as long as she could but even her “other half,” Sophie, is making the transition, and with it growing apart from her BFF. Frances may be living in New York City but she hasn’t had a charmed existence, the kind of hipster nouveau rich experience we see detailed in Lena Dunham’s Girls (a show I genuinely enjoy, though the second season was a bit iffy). When Frances is out on a date, an event she engineered because she just got her tax return, she discovers she has to pay in cash. She then runs several blocks looking for an ATM. When she finds one she stands in great deliberation at the screen. She’ll incur a $3 fee for withdrawing. When she returns, she apologizes to her date, saying, “I’m sorry. I’m not a real person yet.” Despite these economic bearings, she makes impulsive decisions but pays for them. A spontaneous weekend getaway to Paris, which she spends most of it sleeping or moping, results in Frances working back at her alma mater in a menial fashion.

There’s also Baumbach’s signature dark humor that follows Frances like a dark cloud, her life regularly a series of more downs than ups. However, Baumbach’s caustic sensibilities have been sanded down, perhaps thanks to co-writer/girlfriend Gerwig’s involvement, and the movie adopts a tone less scabrous and more knowing. It doesn’t position us to laugh at Frances as a self-involved moron who makes poor decisions; we’re laughing from the standpoint of perspective. I noticed little judgment (when she says “my friends make fun of me because I can’t explain where my bruises come from,” I thought of a few female friends in my life who could relate). Not much goes right for Frances through the duration of the movie, but by the end she appears to have come out the stronger. She’s got the beginnings of her entrance into the adult world and the movie leaves the impression that she’s going to be okay. I appreciated that she didn’t abandon her passion with dance as if becoming a grown-up meant stepping away from what you care about. That concluding uplift provides a reward for the audience and Frances after so many missteps and struggles. There’s a tenderness here that’s refreshing for Baumbach.

I also thought Frances Ha was a very insightful and interesting look at female dynamics, something that rarely gets such a thoughtful and high profile examination. Friendships, especially those between women, can function like romantic relationships when it comes to intimacy, minus the sex. Frances and Sophie comment that their relationship is like an old lesbian couple that has stopped having sex. They are each other’s other half, attuned perfectly to one another’s peculiar sensibilities. When Frances tries to recreate these sensibilities with another woman, she responds in annoyance. At the very beginning, Frances gets into a fight and breaks up with her boyfriend all because he wanted her to move in with him and thus away from Sophie. We feel her grief then when this important person, this long-standing friend that Frances has defined her own sense of identity with, is moving on and moving out. We’ve all had those people in our lives whose personal successes force us to reflect upon our own life trajectories, and we may grimace. It’s an unavoidable part of growing up but our relationships will alter and the people important in our lives will fluctuate, many times through no fault to either party. Frances and Sophie are at that crossroads as Sophie settles down with a career and an emerging and serious relationship, while Frances is sputtering and trying to hold onto the past. The end even borrows a literal nod from 2011 Bridesmaids, one of my favorite films of that year. Frances yearns for a love that is so powerful so transcendent, that all it needs is a look, a silent nod of communication that both parties share, invisible to all others. It doesn’t take a genius to infer that this look will be between Frances and Sophie by film’s end.

Frances-HaGerwig (Arthur, To Rome with Love) has been an up-and-coming It Girl for some time in Hollywood, rising in the ranks of mumblecore cinema and becoming a muse for Baumbach. Frances Ha is tailor-made to her amiable strengths; the woman is easy to fall in love with. Watch her skip and dance through the streets of New York, set to David Bowie’s “Modern Love,” and try not to smile. Gerwig has a natural, easy-going charisma and a screen presence that grabs you. Her cheerful, unmannered dorkiness grounds Frances’ vanity, making her far more relatable and worthy of our rooting. France sis no mere Manic Pixie Dream Girl sketch of a woman; here is a three-dimensional figure for the taking. Gerwig also has fantastic chemistry with Sumner (TV’s The Borgias), daughter of Sting. You instantly get a feel for the history these two have shared with their relaxed interactions. And speaking of HBO’s Girls, Adam Driver, a.k.a. Adam, has a substantial supporting role and another Frances Ha actor, Michael Zegen (TV’s Boardwalk Empire), will appear in season 3. Small world.

Frances Ha owes as much to the French New Wave as it does to the observational mumblecore movies of Gerwig’s early roots. Here is a film that’s perceptive, dryly funny, poignant, and relatively lovely in its quieter moments of everyday life and relationships, rich with feeling. It’s angst and ennui without overpowering self-absorption. Your ultimate judgment is going to rest on your opinion of Gerwig and the Frances character, but I found both to be charming and easy to relate with. We want this woman to land on her feet, find her place in the world so to speak, but the movie refrains from casting condescension. Frances isn’t stupid; she’s a bit naïve and a bit impulsive and oblivious, but this woman is also hopeful, passionate, persistent, and a good person at heart. Losing her closest female friend is akin to the worst breakup of her life. She’s sputtering to redefine herself, to find traction with the adult world she knows she cannot hold off any longer. In that sense, Frances Ha is also a winning look at late-bloomers. It’s Baumbach’s best film since Kicking and Screaming and one of the best films of 2013 thus far.

Nate’s Grade: A-

J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar has all the qualities you’d want in a high profile, awards-friendly movie. It charts the life of legendary FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, it stars Leonardo DiCaprio in its title role, and it has Oscar-winner attached as screenwriter (Dustin Lance Black) and director (Clint Eastwood). The only way this movie could be bigger awards bait was if Hoover personally challenged Adolf Hitler to a duel. At a running time of 137 minutes, J. Edgar misses out on explaining why this complex man was who he was, a difficult prospect but I would have at least appreciated some effort.

J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was, at his height, said to be the second most powerful man in the United States. The first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations served under eight presidents and for over 50 years. The man rose to power fighting against radicals and Bolshevik terrorists in 1919. Hoover successfully arranged for America to deport foreigners with “suspected radical leanings.” He was appointed to head the, then, Bureau of Investigations, where Hoover remade the agency in the image he desired. His agents were going to be clean-cut, college-educated, physically fit, and God help you if you had facial hair. Hoover also fought to bring modern forensic science into investigations and trials, proposing a centralized catalogue of fingerprints, which at the time was dismissed by many as a “speculative science.” Hoover also amassed an extensive system of confidential files on thousands of American citizens he felt were potential threats or if he just didn’t like them. Hoover wasn’t afraid to bully presidents with this secret catalogue. On a personal level, Hoover was admittedly without any friends or interests outside the agency he felt responsible for. His life was defined by three close personal relationships: his mother (Judi Dench), whom Hoover lived with until the day she died; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary and confidant of 40 years; and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), an FBI agent that Hoover shared a decades-long unrequited romance with. Upon Hoover’s death in 1972, Tolson was given Hoover’s burial flag, and Tolson’s own grave is a mere couple plots away from J. Edgar’s.

The movie feels trapped in a closet alongside Hoover. The guy was rather enigmatic and hard to nail down, but I would have appreciated Eastwood and Black at least trying to figure the guy out. They treat the subject with such fragility, such sympathetic stateliness about his more salient personality points. It feels like Eastwood doesn’t want to get his hands too dirty, so the provocative material, like the gay stuff, is kept to very period appropriate acts of discretion. A handholding in the backseat of a car is practically scandalous given the treatment on the gay material. The oft rumored cross-dressing aspect is hinted at but explained, in context of the scene, as Hoover’s way of mourning the loss of his mother. With Hoover, there was only his public persona of a moral crusader, a face that he never removed even in his private moments. The guy could never embrace happiness, only duty. It feels like Eastwood couldn’t decide on what stance to take, and thus the film settles on a bloodless examination that won’t upset any of the, presumably, delicate sensibilities of the older audience members. A towering figure of moral certainty, extreme paranoia, righteous conviction, a vindictive streak against his mounting collection of enemies, and a shaky hold on the truth, all in the name of protection against America’s many real and imagined enemies – I feel like the blueprint has been established for the eventual Dick Cheney biopic. It’ll just be slightly less gay.

Let’s talk more about the gay factor. It feels like this area is where Eastwood definitely could have pushed much further, but the old school director seems to be of the opinion that a biopic need not pry nor speculate. Excuse me, but you’re telling me about a man’s life, the least you could do is dig deeper. A domineering mother, who said she’d rather have a dead son than one of those “daffodils,” and the moral restraints of the time, are easy enough to identify why Hoover was a repressed homosexual. That doesn’t separate him from probably a far majority of homosexual men in the first half of the twenty-first century. What makes Hoover, a repressed homosexual, tick? This is no Brokeback Mountain style whirlwind of untamable emotion. Eastwood keeps things chaste, choosing to view Hoover as a celibate man. Hoover and Clyde becomes inseparable “companions,” eating every dinner together, going away on trips, and enjoying the pleasure of one another’s company – the life of the lifelong “bachelor.” But that’s as far as the movie is willing to go (remember the scandalous handholding?). There are hints about how socially awkward Hoover can be, a guy who seems downright asexual at times. He proposed to Helen on a first date where his attempts to charm included showing off his card catalogue system at the Library of Congress (“I bet you show this to all the girls…”). You get the impression he’s not comfortable with this necessary area of human biology. That’s fine room to start, but J. Edgar doesn’t do anything but start its characterization ideas. It gives you ideas to toy with and then moves along. The relationship with Clyde hits a breaking point when Hoover discusses, during one of their weekend getaways, the prospect of finally choosing a “Mrs. Hoover.” Naturally Clyde does not react well to this development, and the two engage in a brawl that ends in a shared bloody kiss. This is about as passionate as Eastwood’s movie ever dares to get.

I expected more from the Oscar-winning writer of Milk. Black’s lumpy script can often be confusing, lacking a direct narrative through line. Some leaps in time can just be confusing, like when J. Edgar is asking his junior agent typist what figure was most important in the 20th century thus far. The agent answers, “Joe McCarthy,” and then we have a new agent sitting there, and Hoover asks again. Finally we have another agent who responds with Hoover’s desired answer, “Charles Lindbergh.” I suppose we’re left to assume that Hoover fired his typists until he found one who mirrored his own thoughts. There is also far too much time spent over the Lindbergh baby case. I understand it’s the so-called Crime of the Century and, as Black sets up, a situation for Hoover to prove his bureau’s value when it comes to modern criminal science. It just goes on for so long and rarely offers insight into Hoover. Sans Clyde, the majority of the supporting characters offer little insight as well. Hoover’s mother never goes beyond the domineering matrimonial figure. Helen seems like a cipher, rarely giving any explanation for her decades of loyalty despite clear objections to certain choices. She’s too often just a “secretary” there to move the plot along by introducing more characters of minimal impact. With Hoover being such an enigmatic and closeted figure, the supporting characters could have been the areas we found the most insight into the man. Nope.

The entire plot structure feels like a mistake. Hoover is dictating his memoirs so we primarily flash from the 1930s, when Hoover was making a name for himself, to the 1960s, when Hoover is fighting a secret war against, of all things, the Civil Rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. (he was convinced King was tied to communists). The back-and-forth nature of the story can lead to some confusion over facts and timelines, but the concept of Hoover dictating his memoirs means that the movie becomes a greatest hits compilation, a showcase of Hoover’s finest hours in an attempt to win public support back. He can explain his obsessions and justify his overreaches. That’s why Hoover’s entire catalogue of secret files on thousands of American citizens, including presidents, is given such short shrift. Why would he want to discuss his own subversive tactics hunting subversive elements? The only time the screenplay discusses this secret catalogue is when Hoover and Clyde want to have a good laugh over Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian paramour (irony?). Richard Nixon covets these files, so Helen swears that upon the death of her boss that she will shred every page before Tricky Dick can get his hands on them (J. Edgar is rated R for “brief strong language,” and they are all provided by potty-mouthed Nixon). Black attempts something of an Atonement-styled ending with an unreliable narrator, but the effects are slight and only superficial and too late.

At this point it’s probably going to be rare for DiCaprio (Inception, Revolutionary Road) to give a dud performance. The actor isn’t the first name you’d think of for a Hoover biography. Regardless, the guy does a great job especially with the emotional handicaps given to him by Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction. Given all the emotional reserve, it’s amazing that DiCaprio is able to make his character resonate as much as he can, finding small nuances to work with. Hoover’s clipped speaking style, likely the most readily recognizable feature of the man, is here but DiCaprio does not stoop to impression. He’s coated in what looks like 800 pounds of makeup to portray Hoover in the 1960s. The old age makeup looks good on DiCaprio, though the same cannot be said for his inner circle. Older Clyde looks like he is suffocating behind a gummy Halloween mask; the man looks like he is mummified in his own liver-spotted skin. Older Helen just looks like they powdered her face and added some gray to her hair.

The movie seems to take its emotional cues from its subject; far too much of J. Edgar is reserved, hands-off, and afraid to assert judgment on what was a highly judgmental man of history. What makes Hoover compelling is his array of contradictions. He’s defined by three personal relationships (mother, Clyde, Helen), all of whom he could never have. That’s got to mean something. Instead of exploring these contradictions in any meaningful psychological depth, Eastwood seems to take his hand off the wheel and the film just casually drifts along, steered by the self-aggrandizing of Hoover himself, given so much room to explain detestable behavior in the name of protecting America. J. Edgar is a handsomely mounted biopic with some strong acting, but from Eastwood’s impassive direction (his piano-trinkle score isn’t too good either) and Black’s lumpy script, the finished work feels too closed off and arid for such a controversial subject worthy of closer inspection.

Nate’s Grade: B-

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