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Rocketman (2019)

It seems like Bohemian Rhapsody was a trial run for actor-turned-director Dexter Fletcher. He had previously directed an inspirational sports movie (2015’s Eddie the Eagle) amongst other smaller films but he really came to attention when he filled in for the final weeks of Rhapsody after the original director Bryan Singer was removed. Fletcher helped steer the movie to its finish, and what a finish it had, collecting $700 million worldwide and four Oscars. Now Fletcher is a lone credited director of another musical biopic, Rocketman, chronicling the highs and lows of Elton John’s personal and professional career. Does it soar?

Elton John (Taron Egerton), nee Reggie Dwight, struts into rehab and tells his life story, from his humble days in England with distant, unsupportive parents, Sheila (Bryce Dallas Howard) and Stanley Dwight (Steven Mackintosh), meeting lyricist Bernie Taupin (Jamie Bell) and forming an instant connection, signing a record deal and traveling to America, blowing up immediately in popularity, his on-again-off-again relationship with his manager John Reid (Richard Madden), and all the drugs, parties, and excesses of rock and roll that Elton turned to in order to feel better about his own crippling loneliness.

I wish more musician biopics took the approach of Rocketman, blending real-life with glitzy, dreamy fantasy sequences to create a musical fantasia. It just makes running through the typical tropes of biopics that much more entertaining. I appreciate the fluid nature of being able to dip into the fantastical at a moment’s notice, opening to a world of dance and delights, which keeps things lively and serves as a better integration of the artist’s songs. Take for instance last year’s Bohemian Rhapsody, which showed the formation of some of Queen’s most famous songs in comically abbreviated, almost impossibly easy creative sessions. They go from clapping to cutting away to a completed “We Will Rock You.” That movie became a series of sequences demonstrating how the band made its songs. With Rocketman, the songs are more designed as vehicles to the emotional journey of Elton John. When he thinks back to his childhood, we blast “The Bitch is Back,” and when he’s talking about his first performance experiences in his town’s pubs, we get “Saturday Night’s Alright (For Fighting).” When Elton’s family is at a breaking point, each member sings a section of “I Want Love.” When Elton feels alone in a giant party, and nursing his unrequited feelings for his writing partner, he warbles “Tiny Dancer.” When he’s caught up in his attraction to his manager, they duet, “Don’t Go Breaking My Heart.” By going this route, the filmmakers have opened their movie to more narrative and emotional potential.

The steps into fantasy also communicate Elton’s emotional state, especially as he starts spiraling into more drugs and loneliness. His elation translates into feeling like he and the audience are floating on air in one scene. His sense of succumbing to addictions and urges is demonstrating by a darker rendition of “Bennie and the Jets” where he crowd surfs into a sweaty orgy of flesh, people pulling at him, wanton desires obscuring anything else. It also plays into Elton’s fraying mental state. After a fantasy number, he says, “Where am I?” We too don’t know where he is. We too don’t know how much time has passed. It’s a clever conceit to get the audience to feel the protagonist’s distaff confusion about what is real and what is drug-addled. This approach also allows for some obvious visual metaphors that seem more palatable. When Elton literally hugs the child version of himself, and thus is allowing himself to finally be loved by himself, in a literal physical act, you mostly buy into it as catharsis because of the flights of fancy.

The use of songs comes into play in three shapes: 1) breaking out into song as a fantasy sequence meant to communicate the inner emotional state of the characters, 2) Elton or others performing songs as diagetic musical performances happening in real life, and 3) the musical score built upon other Elton John tracks. It pretty much means the film is wall-to-wall Elton John, which works especially well considering it is the man’s biopic, but it also creates a world of sound that belongs to this man. Even the musical score adopts his signature tunes, which provides a nice undercurrent since he is telling his own story, so why wouldn’t he rely upon his own music score to provide that extra oomph?

There is a notable downside to the interwoven fantasy angle and that’s instilling a sense of added skepticism with the audience. Every biopic is going to make fictional inventions for the sake of storytelling, be it combing characters, making the internal external, or reordering scenes for maximum drama. It’s when a biopic goes overboard with the deviations from the truth that it can alienate the audience (though this didn’t bother the $700 million gross for Rhapsody). By Rocketman choosing to amp its fantasy elements, this is going to test the believability of scenes. I’m not talking about whether or not the crowd at L.A.’s Troubadour actually floated for Elton’s first U.S. live performance. Obviously that’s an exaggeration. But it calls into question moments like Elton and Bernie Taupin meeting by coincidence, Elton storming off from Madison Square Garden straight to rehab, and in particular his relationship with his parents. There’s a phone call where an adult Elton comes out to his mother, and she responds that she always knew her son was gay. It’s at this moment where the audience may be thinking, “Oh, that’s a sweet little moment to bring out her humanity.” Then in the next breath she castigates him for “choosing” a lifestyle that will condemn him to never knowing love. Yikes. It’s such an outlandish statement that I questioned whether this scene actually happened or was dramatic license to further sock it to Elton (apparently Howard had the same concern and it’s legit). The downside of asking an audience to accept the unbelievable additions is that they may be in search of them too.

The movie hinges upon its star and Egerton delivers. He previously sang Elton John (Sing) and previously saved the real Elton John (Kingsman: The Golden Circle), so it seems like his career has been destined for this role. Egerton is great at capturing the magnetic presence Elton had as a performer. He’s sprightly, larger than life, and fully inhabits the manic stage presence that became a force to reckon with. He also does a great job of communicating the insecurities, doubts, and yearning of a person who has been fighting for acceptance and affection and feels he is incapable of either. Being in the closet is only one aspect to Elton’s self-loathing (he did come out as bisexual in 1973). The character’s biggest emotional hurdle is loving himself, which might sound corny but is given genuine pathos by Egerton, who rages for that fleeting feeling. Egerton has been a charismatic performer from the first moment I saw him, and he feels like a natural fit for this role, ably handling all his own singing to boot. Not even Oscar-winner Rami Malek did that.

The other actors do fine with their smaller roles. The problem is that the supporting cast is kept in tidy boxes of one-note requirements. Taupin is supportive. Reid is manipulative. Sheila is self-absorbed. Stanley is detached and non-approving. Each serves a very distinct purpose, and their underwritten natures would be more of a hindrance if the film weren’t entirely predicated upon Elton John’s personal experiences and interpretations of those events. I will say I was surprised that Sheila was played by Howard (Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom). I kept thinking to myself, “I need to look up this actress.” I didn’t recognize her with the weight gain and, later, the dodgy older age makeup.

With all these wild visuals and extravagant consumes, the strangest thing to me about this whole movie is the role of Elton’s primary lover and manager, John Reid. This person makes another appearance in another musical biopic — Bohemian Rhapsody. This same character was played by Aiden Gillan (Game of Thrones) and he got Queen to new heights before seeming to glom onto Freddie Mercury and convince him to leave the band for a solo venture. He’s portrayed as a conniving villain in Rhapsody, and he’s portrayed as another conniving user in Rocketman, and two different actors who were both on Game of Thrones play both versions. Where’s this guy’s biopic?

Fletcher has found a clever and playful approach that accentuates his story and provides insights into a clever and playful musician. I was routinely smiling throughout Rocketman, which knowingly takes elements that would be campy and corny and says, “So what?” It’s also an R-rated movie that doesn’t shy away from John’s sexuality in a safe manner, at least “safe” for a Hollywood studio film aimed at mass appeal. I enjoyed myself throughout Rocketman as it floated by on its sense of whimsy and heartache, anchored beautifully by Egerton, a compelling and charismatic young lead who gives it his all. Rocketman is what more movie biopics should aspire to be like, sequins and everything.

Nate’s Grade: B+

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A Star is Born (2018)

There have been four official renditions of A Star is Born. I say “official” because other storytellers have imitated the famous formula countless times (2011’s Best Picture-winner The Artist is essentially the same tale). The original 1937 version starred Janet Gaymor and Frederick March and was about a Hollywood acting starlet. The 1954 version starred Judy Garland and James Mason and was nearly three hours. The 1976 version swapped Hollywood for the music industry, starring Barbara Streisand and Kris Kristofferson (a generation asks, that guy from Blade?). Now Bradley Cooper has taken to reviving this old favorite, much like a singer re-imagining a classic song. As a character says in the film, there are only 12 notes within each octave, and it’s up to the individual artists to take those same 12 notes and spin them in meaningful ways; it’s the singer, not the song. Cooper and his company have refashioned A Star is Born for 2018 audiences, and it’s an emotionally satisfying showcase for its booming stars.

Jack (Cooper) is a popular singer-songwriter with a long career of hits stretching back decades. Ally (Lady Gaga a.k.a. Stefani Germanotta) is a waitress with big dreams of stardom. She writes her own songs but is afraid to perform them because of her looks. One night Jack stumbles onto her performance in a drag club, and from there he’s smitten. He invites her onstage at one of his concerts and the duo sing Ally’s song she wrote. From there they’re inseparable and Ally’s career explodes. She transitions to a solo pop act thanks to a thinly veiled villainous British manager (Rafi Gavron). Jack’s addictions and maladies seem to be getting worse as the relationship continues and Ally must choose between her blossoming career and being the caretaker for the self-destructive man she loves.

This is Bradley Cooper’s debut as a director, as well as a screenwriter, and he knows that the formula of A Star is Born is universal and requires little tinkering. The real draw will be in the characters and the performances, and that’s where A Star is Born 2018 shines. Cooper’s character is a talented mess and we’re introduced to both aspects early. The film opens with him playing onstage and it’s full of vigor, swagger, and all shot in a long take to keep the electric feeling alive, also highlighting Cooper doing his own strumming. This is a rock star that knows what he’s doing, we immediately sense. Then in the car ride as he desperately looks for a source of alcohol, we see how cavalier he is about his own addictions and self-destruction. He’s also suffering from tinnitus and refuses to wear hearing aids because he feels it will make it harder for him to be in the moment, thus taking away something from the authenticity of his performance. That’s a key word when it comes to Jack. He is obsessed with authenticity and using the spotlight to say something meaningful. This ethos will cause friction in his relationship with Ally as she gets molded into a pre-fabricated pop star with lyrics about butts in jeans. Jack knows deep down that his time in waning, both commercially and physically, and he is driven to make the most of it before the spotlight dissipates. In some ways, Ally is a reclamation project for his career and his person. It’s not manipulative. He genuinely wants to do right by her and give her the opportunities that he thinks she deserves. I never doubted Jack’s fidelity to Ally, especially as we learn piece-by-piece his troubled back-story with a troubled father. Jack has two significant relationships in his life, Ally and his older brother and tour manager, Bobby (Sam Elliot). He pushes them away while needing to draw them closer and that conflict drives the character more so than his musical legacy.

Cooper the actor does a suitably good job losing himself in the character, alternating charm and warmth and rage and stubbornness. His singing vocals are pretty solid and add to the overall impression of Jack as a character rather than an acting vehicle for a director who wanted to show off. As a director, Cooper follows the instincts of his character and has a very practical, no-frills sense of style, sticking to longer takes and pinning the camera to his performers to get every nuance of emotion across their tear-stricken faces. His camera instincts are on verisimilitude and trust in his actors, and they deliver for him. I liked the little moments that Cooper finds to let his characters stretch and for his film to breathe. The initial courtship between Ally and Jack over the course of one long night sets the tone for the rest of the movie. We can tell early on there’s something special between these two. There’s also some fine moments between Cooper and Elliot (The Hero) expressing the hardships of two hard-headed brothers tired of dealing with the scars of their alcoholic father. It’s a delicate balance so the soapier elements don’t overwhelm the pivotal sense of realism that Cooper is after. The fact that he finds that right balance throughout a 135-minute movie is an accomplishment in and of itself, let alone for a novice director, although the pacing is a bit sluggish at points.

This is rightfully Gaga’s show and she dazzles on stage and on screen. It’s tailor-made to be a showcase for Gaga and her sensational singing, so she’s got many supports from Cooper and company to succeed. Cooper is good but she is unquestionably great. It’s her movie and just as Ally becomes a star so too does Gaga. It’s not just the musical performances too, which are uniformly outstanding while still being able to be done through the lens of her character. Her performance of “La vie en Rose” is slinky, brimming with assurance, and magnetic to watch, giving the audience a sense to what Ally is capable of. You can easily see why Jack would become enchanted with her immediately. Her big moment singing her original song to a stadium of thousands is the highlight of the film. Cooper’s camera stays trained on Ally on the sidelines as she goes through a myriad of emotions, working up the courage to saunter onstage at the right time to belt out her original tune. It’s a thrilling and emotionally rousing moment that feels literally star making. You see her nerves melt away as she lets go and immerses herself in the music. The dramatic moments are just as nicely delivered, though there are the occasional bump or two. Gaga has a feisty sense of self that pushes her to push back, but she can also be achingly vulnerable and lovesick as her character falls head over heels for a troubled man. She’s present in every scene and has a strong rapport with Cooper. I fully expect her to earn an Oscar nomination for her performance and likely one for an original song.

With all that being said, A Star is Born 2018 also strangely relegates Ally’s character. Walking away, I began thinking over the movie and its characterization and I realized that Cooper and his team of screenwriters have given the rising star the least amount of material. She’s got the most screen time and her character arc is evidently clear, the rags-to-riches ascent, the naiveté giving way to hard-won wisdom and heartache. She has big dreams and gets more confident as the film continues and her career comes alive. All of that is clear, but dig deeper and you’ll discover less than you remember. Ally doesn’t even follow the track where as her notoriety increases so does her ego. She’s pretty much the same caring, humble, ambitious human being as a waitress and as a Grammy award-winning musician. I suppose her static status says something about how solidified her own sense of self is even after her dreams come true. She’s not one for the temptations of the recording industry and grater fame and fortune. I don’t think she even has a flaw; perhaps a mild lack of confidence in her performance abilities thanks to shallow male executives that equate physical looks with commercial mass appeal (Gaga herself has spoken about the negative feedback she received for years because of her looks). But a lack of confidence is a pretty weak and easily resolved flaw in a narrative. I think her big character flaw is actually her devotion to her self-destructive relationship with Jack. In order to go into more detail, I’ll be spoiling portions of the movie (if you haven’t seen any of the other versions) so please skip the next paragraph to remain absolutely pure.

Inherent with every rendition of A Star is Born is one performer on the rise and one performer on the decline. This goes with the territory, as does the falling star having some kind of crippling addiction that only gets worse. Cooper is too devoted to bringing a sense of realism to his film to merely add a happy ending. The romantic relationship between Ally and Jack is the heart of this movie but I began questioning whether it was actually a good relationship, not good in a sense of the quality of writing but good in a sense of whether it was ultimately healthy for Ally. He’s an alcoholic, a pill-popper, and he’s pushing himself too hard in a race against his irreversible hearing loss. He’s spiraling and figuratively drowning (literally in the 1954 version) and looking for a lifeline, and that’s Ally. She becomes a primary caregiver for his benders. She’s willing to sacrifice her career for him, and that level of devotion alarms even Jack, pushing him into making a fatal decision in the guise of helping her. That’s right, it’s a movie that portrays suicide not just as a tragedy but also as a misplaced gift (2016’s Lights Out did something similar to resolve its supernatural dilemma). It’s hard to tell what Cooper’s view of this decision is, whether it’s romantic or wrong-headed and cruel. Their relationship is self-destructive and Ally’s insistence on sticking it out, with a man who doesn’t trust his own will power to stay sober, comes across as a questionable asset. Should I not be hoping that she leaves and finds happiness with someone who is healthier for her?

A fun thing I noticed was the ongoing appearance of alums from the TV series Alias. The show aired from 2001-2006 and was some of the best network TV, especially its first two rollicking seasons of spy hijinks. Cooper was a supporting character on that show and he does right to his co-stars by using his own increasing leverage in Hollywood (three Oscar nominations, repeated bankabaility) to give them high-profile work. Greg Grunberg, J.J. Abrams’ lucky charm, plays Jack’s understanding and put upon personal driver. Ron Rifkin plays an addiction counselor that offers hard wisdom to Jack. I was hoping that Victor Garber and Jennifer Garner might be around the corner but alas it was not to be.

A Star is Born 2018 is a worthy and emotionally involving addition to the oft-repeated formula. It’s more emotionally grounded, eschewing sensational melodrama for something authentic and resonating after it’s long over. This is a familiar story but it’s been made relevant to a modern audience and given an emotional clarity that is richly affecting. It’s a big Old School sort of movie with big feelings but Cooper maintains a sense of integrity throughout, treating his characters as flesh-and-blood human beings. Gaga is the sensational standout but every actor does good to great work here. I wish the script gave her character more dimension and opportunity to flash even more complex impulses, but I’ll be happy with what I got. A Star is Born 2018 may be the best version yet, and that’s saying something for a story that’s been kicked around since FDR. It’s the singer, not the song, and this movie is sweet music to your ears.

Nate’s Grade: B+

Raw (2017)

Justine (Garance Marilliier, looking like a Gallic Rooney Mara) comes from a family of vegetarians and veterinarians. She’s entering a famed veterinary college as a legacy and her big sister, Alexia (Ella Rumpf), is already established among the school hierarchy. The incoming students are mercilessly hazed and Justine is forced to eat meat against her will. This moment unlocks a secret craving within her that consumes her. She starts looking at her fellow students less as dinner dates and more as dinner.

For the first half of Raw I thought I was watching a French nouveau version of Carrie. The first half of the movie is dominated by the pressures, and in particular, the cruel hazing from the upperclassmen at the college. The hazing is extreme, rampant, and omnipresent, with every older classmate throwing around his or her sense of privilege and bullying the freshmen candidates. It’s the kind of harassment and abuse we’ve seen in other stories relating to fraternities and sororities where institutions of power abuse others because they were abused and so on and so on, normalizing the cruelty. However, those are organizations that are elective and enclaves among a larger campus. With Raw, it appears that every upperclassman is part of this system of hazing, meaning there is no escape if the young candidates want to continue their education. The professors seem complicit in their negligence, and Justine even has one professor who hilariously criticizes her for doing too well in class. He says her good scores are depressing the other students, possibly making them become worse doctors. The overall impression of this scholarly environment is one of sickness and exploitation. There’s even a culminating “class picture” where they are bathed in buckets of (pig?) blood. With this sort of build-up, I was anticipating that when Justine got her crazy cravings that the movie was going to set up some tasty just desserts for these sadistic upperclassmen. I was looking forward to these mean people getting killed and eaten to service Justine. Perhaps that’s the American version of what this movie would become, or my own preferred version with the established first half, but that’s not the movie Raw ends up becoming.

Stuck somewhere between body horror and weird compulsion, Raw falters trying to stake its own territory. It’s definitely structured like a coming-of-age/sexual awakening story except said awakening is connected with cannibalism. That’s an excellent starting point for some cringe horror but Raw gets too lost in its dreamlike atmospherics. We explore rave-like revelries, hedonistic escapades, and the allure of the unknown. The best part of the film is the deterioration of Justine’s inhibitions as she gives in to her inner carnivore. There’s an obvious carnality metaphor here (college is a time for experimentation) and there’s a clear entertainment factor in watching a meek character assert herself. Her character gets lost in the oblique mystery that leaves a lot of unanswered questions and unclear motivations. One minute our heroine is rejecting the pressure of her peers and the next she’s nibbling on a severed finger. Her downward spiral doesn’t feel adequately developed as she’s immediately caught in the swirl of campus hazing. The progression feels phony. Outrageous things happen without a tonal grounding, and so it feels more like David Lynch dream logic. I could better accept this drifting quality if the movie had more plot to offer. At the halfway mark, once big sis makes her major personal reveal, the movie generally stalls. The plot doesn’t advance, the characters don’t really deepen, and we’re getting variations on the same things from before. The body horror elements don’t fully feel integrated as well. Justine has breakouts of hives and rashes, presumably from eating meat, though this comes and goes. She doesn’t ever seem too fraught over what she may be becoming, but maybe that’s just being French.

Writer/director Julia Ducournau certainly has talent and a natural way of handling her actors, but her film debut is just trying too hard. The constant crimson color scheme is heavy-handed to convey the protagonist’s frayed state of mind. The symbolism is also just as obvious. The suppression of darker, more animalistic desires is an intriguing concept, except several of the jumps in character development, or debasement, happen while Justine is unconscious. This provides a “what did we do last night?” air of mystery but it also hinders the character growth on screen. It’s like the movie is trying to have Justine sleep through her character development. It’s too bad because there are fascinating pieces and ideas that emerge like flotsam in the wake of Ducournau’s tale. The second half has the potential to become a bizarre sisterly bonding story. How far is each sister willing to go to help the other and to cover up for her actions? Will there be a rivalry when they target the same man? These kinds of questions could have further explored their relationship, but alas it was not to be. You’ll never know how the sisters are supposed to feel for one another throughout the movie. The characters are pretty thin to begin with and then Ducournau introduces a new element to provide added dimension and then lets it slip away. Back to shock value and obvious metaphors.

Here’s an example how Raw gets too caught up in the sensations of the moment, the allure of its images, which admittedly are a key part to horror. There’s a scene where Justine is dancing in front of a mirror. She’s wearing her sister’s clubbing dress, an article of clothing she had earlier been disdainful over. Now she sways to the beats of a rap song and applies lipstick to her pert lips. She then gazes lustfully at her reflection and leans into the mirror, kissing it and herself. And then she does this for another minute, going in for like four more kisses, as if one wasn’t sufficient. We get the idea pretty early, about Justine’s emerging new self, her carnal cravings, and yet Ducournau keeps going, convinced that redundancy is required to satisfactorily convey obsession.

Raw is also somewhat notorious on the festival circuit for its shock value. Reportedly people were fainting or leaving in droves from the content of the movie. I think this hyperbolic response is overblown. There is a fair bit of gore in the movie but it’s almost all animal related. If you’re an animal lover, watching corpse after corpse might be too much. I certainly averted my eyes more than once during a dog carcass autopsy. The human gore is surprisingly minimal though bloody. By far the most squirm-inducing part of Raw didn’t involve cannibalism at all but a homemade Brazilian wax that gets a little too close for comfort for all involved. At least I now know what my tolerance level will be like for the eventual European coming-of-age horror film set at a waxing station.

While watching Raw with my friend Ben Bailey, we would occasionally turn to each other after a shocking or gratuitously exploitative scene and say, “It is a French movie.” When characters strip for casual nudity, or start chowing down on human remains, or frolic in blood-soaked clothing, we’d say, “It is a French movie.” This turned into a game, ultimately with us imagining a climax involving a cannibalistic ménage à trios. “That,” we remarked, “would be the ultimate French movie.” Raw is a seductive and intriguing movie that has enough surface-level pleasures for devoted horror hounds. Unfortunately, it feels like the least interesting version of this story and premise. There are interesting pieces here to be certain. I just wish someone else had assembled them.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Colossal (2017)

Gloria (Anne Hathaway) has a monster of a problem. She’s lost her job, her boyfriend (Dan Stevens), and is forced to move back home to her parents’ empty house. She gets a job at her childhood friend Oscar’s (Jason Sudeikis) bar. Then one night the news is filled with a 100-foot tall lizard monster magically appearing in Seoul, South Korea. This lizard only seems to appear at a certain hour, and Gloria realizes that she is somehow connected to this giant beast and responsible for its movements. What’s a working girl to do?

Colossal is a different kind of monster movie, that’s for certain. It’s got a dynamite premise that allows for plenty of different tones. There’s an inherent wackiness in a party girl discovering that her actions have a very extreme set of consequences. For a while it’s a slice-of-life picture about coming home and readjusting to the rigors of adult life, something Gloria has been putting on hold while soaking up the pleasures of New York City and the patience of her live-in boyfriend. She’s picking up the pieces of her life and sometimes an acquisition of furniture like a futon can feel like a small triumph. There’s a simple rhythm to these early scenes and writer/director Nacho Vigilondo (Time Crimes) slowly reveals more and more about character histories and relationships, remarkably free of ungainly exposition. There is a remarkably accomplished and sly sense of discovery with the movie, first with the implications and abilities of Gloria’s monster avatar and with the movie itself. There’s a cheeky sense of fun watching Gloria discover her connections to the monster and the special effects are pretty good for such an odd indie film. What are the monster’s intentions? Where does it come from? Why is this patch of land and Gloria so special? Fortunately Vigilondo doesn’t stop there. From a rules standpoint, there’s only so much to learn through trial and error, but it gets even more complicated when Gloria decides to tell her buddies the news. Now it’s about keeping her secret and making sure these often drunk, often-misbehaving guys don’t cause an international incident.

Hathaway (The Intern) is at turns hilarious and heartbreaking and she completely owns the movie, which she filmed while in her second trimester of pregnancy (explains the omnipresence of heavy coats). She has to play a woman who has self-absorbed and self-destructive qualities while not shutting out audience empathy. Hathaway brings out multiple dimensions in her flawed character. She can be cowed easily through guilt and intimidation, failing to meet up to her own standards she holds for herself, but she can also derive a quiet strength that pushes her to take a stand and make a change. Hathaway is apt at the blending of comedy and drama and she’s a star with genuine acting chops. Despite her struggles and setbacks, we want her to succeed and she feels all too human.

It’s midway through where Colossal makes a sharp turn into territory I didn’t see coming and reveals its true intentions, which are much darker and uncomfortable. Fair warning to readers, I’m going to try and avoid specific spoilers but even talking about the second half of the film serves as a spoiler in itself, so keep reading if you so choose. Beforehand, the movie has presented itself as a fun, slightly whimsical take on a down-on-her-luck party girl discovering a weird power. The monster serves as metaphor and I thought it was going to be a relatively obvious metaphor for alcoholism, something she had to work through and get her life back together, putting away childish things and integrating back to the world of responsible adults she’s been avoiding. Then the turn happens and you realize that the monster isn’t a metaphor for alcoholism but for abusive relationships. As you can imagine, this is more or less when the comedy slowly comes to a halt.

It backdoors you into reconsidering everything that’s come before and ingeniously plays the charms of its actors against your preconceived notions. It’s a movie about abuse and manipulation and the capitulation to that abuse. Whether the source of that abuse is derived from alcoholism is up for debate, but I insist it’s a complicated mixture of substance abuse, unchecked entitlement, and toxic masculinity. Oscar becomes our villain, and it may feel like a sudden shift to many viewers, especially those who were expecting him and Gloria to end up romantically linked by film’s end. Colossal can be seen following a more familiar rom-com formula of the girl who goes home, reconnects with old friends, and becomes romantically linked, and the movie uses your expectations against you. Because of that, you may excuse Oscar’s behavior, downplay it, and rationalize that he, like Gloria, is trying to gather his bearings and grow up. That’s not the case. That’s not the case at all, and the movie explores this notion by giving a serial abuser new unfettered power to endanger a multitude of human lives, people who are invisible to his angry outbursts and thus made even more expendable in his mind.

This tonal turn dominates the second half and I can imagine many people will be put off and disappointed by how heavy and uncomfortable a giant monster movie has become. An emotionally abusive person will stop at any manipulation to keep people within his or her orbit so they constantly have targets for abuse. We get several scenes that examine this dynamic as Oscar tears apart his friends one veiled menacing monologue after another, pushing their insecurities and influencing control over them. He’s the “nice guy” who thinks the world owes him more than he’s ever gotten, but a choice reoccurring flashback reveals he’s always been this way. Oscar didn’t turn into a jerk, he was this way from the start, and he’s just gotten better at hiding his darker intentions, and he’ll likely always be this way without redemption. Sudeikis (We’re the Millers) digs into his character’s misanthropy without going overboard, which makes him a far more realistic depiction of an abuser taking advantage of other people’s good graces and chances.

Colossal transformed into one of the more unexpected and surprisingly emotionally involving stories I’ve seen recently. I was set to enjoy the silly monster movie shenanigans being turned on their head with oblivious Americans unknowingly wrecking havoc on the Eastern world. Instead of global consumer commentary I got something much more personal and unexpected. I never knew where the movie was going to go next and found myself more and more intrigued by every scene. If the filmmakers could upend my expectations and keep me on the edge of my seat, then they did their jobs. The finale is magnificently executed as it employs just about all the rules we’ve learned concerning the monsters, space-time, and the sour relationship between Oscar and Gloria. It feels like a true culmination of events that is dramatically and emotionally cathartic.

Much more than advertised, Colossal is an exciting movie for how different it ends up becoming, and yet it’s still everything as advertised. Hathaway is highly enjoyable during her character’s various highs and lows trying to make sense of her life. Vigilondo shapes an unpredictable narrative that subverts and overcomes formula expectations and audience sympathies. It’s an involving and personal tale given an expansive scope and feel. Monster as metaphor is not a new concept. It’s an externalization of our fears and labors and an expression of their cataclysmic destructive power. It also provides a focal point for a hero to overcome, and Colossal feels like somebody took a slice-of-life indie mumblecore observational character piece and gave it a dash of fantastical genre elements. I want to watch it again to see if I can catch nuances I missed, especially relating to characterization and performance. If you can hang on after the movie makes its midway shift, I think Colossal is a unique filmgoing experience that sees its vision to the end.

Nate’s Grade: B+

The Girl on the Train (2016)

girlontrainposterConsider it Gone Girl lite. The adaptation of the mega best-selling thriller The Girl on the Train seems to be on a runaway collision course with irony-free, amped-up melodrama and sundry “adult” sensuality reminiscent of the 90s boon of erotic thrillers like Jade and Sliver. The book by Paula Hawkins had three strong female lead characters each telling their own miserable worldview of trying to live up to social standards of motherhood and marriage. The movie seems to have shorn most of the focus on character and included every twist and turn, no matter how absurd. Take for instance just how insular this world is: Rachel (Emily Blunt) is the ex-wife to Tom (Justin Theroux) who left her for Anna (Rebecca Ferguson) who has a nubile nanny Megan (Haley Bennett) who is unhappy with her controlling husband Scott (Luke Evans), who happens to be the couple that Rachel voyeuristically observes and fantasizes domestic bliss. Megan goes missing and Rachel cannot account for her whereabouts because she has become a blackout drunk to kill her self-loathing and sense of internalized failure. The whodunit aspects of this movie can come across as rather hokey and overblown, but lacking the nasty nuance and subversive gender politics of the far superior Gone Girl. Every single person in the film has to come across like a suspect (Megan’s husband, Megan’s therapist, some guy in the road?) and talks in a curiously oblique style. The attempts at sexy lack heat but more than that they lack conviction. Director Tate Taylor (The Help) seems to think he’s directing a Hitchcockian thriller one minute and a tawdry art film the next. The screenplay is also unhelpfully nonlinear, frivolously jumping around in time and point of view and muddling the overall timeline. Anna and Megan are drastically underwritten; Megan is a sex kitten with a dark secret that’s trying too hard to be provocative, and Anna is an even more thankless role as the stand-in for Rachel’s swirling antipathy. The concluding moment of girl power feels unearned, and the answers to the mysteries leave a lot more lingering questions about train platform-sized plot gaps. The best thing this Girl has going for it is Emily Blunt, who delivers a better performance than the film deserves. She’s unrestrained, red-eyed, sloshing, and disturbing as a drunk. She’s wounded and lashing out ferociously at the world, at her self, and it’s fascinating and heartrending to watch. I bet it would be even better to read.

Nate’s Grade: C+

Men, Women, and Children (2014)

MV5BMTAwMzc2OTgwOTZeQTJeQWpwZ15BbWU4MDg2ODA4NjIx._V1_SX640_SY720_Jason Reitman was a director on the hottest of hot streaks with Hollywood. His first three films (Thank You for Smoking, Juno, Up in the Air) were hits but also an ushering of a new creative voice that felt mature, engaging, and immediate. His 2011 film Young Adult was divisive but I loved its nihilistic narcissism and satire. It looked like this guy couldn’t miss. Then in the span of less than a year, Reitman released Labor Day and Men, Women, and Children, two surprisingly misguided movies. Men, Women, and Children aims to be a Crash-style mosaic of modern-life in the digital age, but what it really feels like is a twenty-first century Reefer Madness.

The movie feels like it was made in the 1990s, like it should be a companion piece to the equally over-the-top and alarmist Sandra Bullock thriller, The Net. The movie’s thesis statement amounts to “the Internet is dangerous,” but this is a statement that everyone already acknowledges. The ensuing evidence from Reitman is so scattershot, so melodramatic, and so cliché-ridden, that it feels like an inauthentic lecture that is already past its prime. Firstly, did you know there is porn on the Internet? I hope you weren’t standing up when I dropped that bombshell. The film posits that because pornography is widely available with a few keystrokes, it has desensitized (primarily) male sexuality. It presents a slippery slop scenario, where the user more or less forms an addiction to online porn and has to keep going to more extreme places to chase that new high. This leads to their inability to accept their imaginations for pleasure or actual flesh-and-blood females. It’s not like Men, Women, and Children is a case study but this feels like the same alarmist rhetoric that’s been hashed since the 1970s. The characters are allowed to have their lives ruined by their pornography addictions, but the storytelling feels particularly disingenuous when it’s squared with the film’s heavy-handed message. men-women-and-childrenThat core message is about the inability to communicate with the people around us thanks to modern technology meant to connect us 24/7 (oh, the unexplored irony). The message of the movie isn’t anything new or profound but it’s cranked up to such a comically over-the-top measure. I have no doubt the filmmakers were well-intentioned but their heavy-handed and tin-earned approach is a wild miscalculation that makes the film, and its dire message, more unintentionally funny than meditative.

It also hurts the film’s overall thesis/message when there are so many characters and storylines vying for attention. Reitman attempts to cover just about every aspect of Internet ills as if there is a mental checklist. We’ve got the porn addiction (check), there’s also a faltering marriage where both parties seek out online affairs (check), an fixation with online role-playing games (check), exploitation of teenagers for personal gain (check), stilted communication via social media (check), harmful communities encouraging body shaming (check), cyber bullying (check), and let’s just throw in general malaise (check). The plot is stretched too thin by the multitude of storylines, many of which fail to be interesting or find some shred of truth. There are two mother characters in this film that simply do not exist in real-life, at least the “regular” social milieu the film wants to portray. Jennifer Garner’s character is so obsessed with her daughter’s online life that she literally goes through every text, every tweet, every online post, and is also secretly recording her keystrokes. This militantly paranoid mother is such a broad and farcical caricature of parental concern. At the other end of the spectrum is Judy Greer’s mother, a failed actress trying to vicariously live through her teenage daughter. She’s photographing her daughter in provocative poses and outfits with the intent to jumpstart a modeling career, but it sure comes across like jailbait child pornography. There’s little chance a character could be this naïve and self-deluded to justify running a pervy website to market her underage daughter. Both of these characters are so removed from relatability that they become the two opposite poles of the film’s cautionary message.

I think Reitman was looking for something along the lines of American Beauty, but that movie had a group of characters that were fleshed out and given careful attention. The characters in Men, Women, and Children rarely break away from their one-sentence summations. That may be the biggest disappointment. Reitman has been exceptionally skilled at developing characters. However, the people that populate the world of Men, Women, and Children are really just slaves to the film’s message, plot points that rarely break away from their overtaxed duties. The teenage characters come across as the better half, especially a budding relationship between the ex-football star (Ansel Elgort, Fault in Our Stars) and Garner’s daughter (Kaitlyn Dever, Short Term 12). While their story is still underdeveloped, the actors work toward something that approximates reality, which is sorely missing throughout the movie. Sure, Dever gets to say clunky lines like, “I have a secret Tumblr account. It’s the only place where I can be who I am,” but at least this storyline goes beyond the obvious. The anorexic teen storyline has a lot of potential, even if she follows the same steps as every disappointing and disillusioned deflowering tale since Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Even the cheating spouses storyline goes slack, taking on the malaise of Adam Sandler’s character. The greater irony is that both parties use the same online service, Ashley Madison, to cheat on one another, though only Sandler pays for the service. I’ll give you one sense to how poorly developed these characters are. Sandler and Rosemarie Dewitt play Words with Friends in bed. She plays “gaze” (insight: she’s feeling undesired), and he responds with the word “sag” (insight: he’s feeling a deficit in passion). thumbnail_19264-1

To make matters worse, the entire film is taken to new pretentious levels of ludicrousness thanks to the entirely superfluous narration of Emma Thompson. She’s a disembodied god commenting on the foibles of these lowly mortals stumbling around, and the narration constantly cuts back and forth to the Voyager satellite and its trek through the outer reaches of our solar system. Huh? Is any of this necessary to tell this story? It creates a larger context that the movie just cannot rise to the occasion. Thompson’s narration provides a further sense of sledgehammer irony, with Thompson’s detached narration giving added weight to describing things like pornographic titles. The movie keeps going back to this floating metaphor as if it means something significant, rather than just feeling like another element that doesn’t belong muddying the narrative and its impact.

The biggest positive the film has going for it is the acting by the deep ensemble. Nobody gives a bad performance, though Sandler does come across a bit sleepy. The problem for the actors is that a good half of the movie is watching characters read or text. Reitman at least gooses up his visuals by superimposing Facebook screens and online texts, but the fact remains that we’re watching people type or scroll through the Internet. It’s not quite cinematic and feels better suited for a written medium (the film is based on a book by Chad Kultgen). You haven’t lived until you watch actors texting for two hours.

At this point in his career, I’m getting worried about the direction Reitman is headed. He started off with four very different but excellent movies, two in collaboration with Diablo Cody. Each was elevated by its careful concentration on character and by its darkly comic worldviews. With Labor Day, Reitman took a sharp left turn into a Douglas Sirk-styled domestic melodrama. It was misguided and corny and could be written off as a momentary misstep. Now with Men, Women, and Children, Reitman has delivered two miscalculated and soapy melodramas that lack any of the acuity and creative voice of his earlier films. Men, Women, and Children especially feels like an alarmist and heavy-handed message about the evils of technology and how it’s warping modern communication; if the film was better written, had fewer characters, had more relatable characters, ditched the pretentious narration, and focused its scattershot message into something more nuanced or definable, then there might be something of merit here. It’s not that the commentary is entirely devoid of merit, but Reitman’s overblown approach does him no service. Men, Women, and Children plays out like a hysterical and outdated warning that is too feeble to be effective and too thin to be entertaining.

Nate’s Grade: C

Selma (2014)/ Black or White (2014)

selma-movie-poster_1421369437_342x511There’s a reason that race is regarded as the “third rail” when it comes to American politics. A half-century after the marches and protests, chief among them the influence of Martin Luther King Jr., the world feels just as fractious as ever when it comes to race relations. The inauguration of America’s first black president was seen as a significant touchstone, but optimism has faded and recent headline-grabbing criminal cases, and the absence of indictments, have prompted thousands to voice their protest from assembly to street corner. Race relations are one of the thorniest issues today and will be for some time. Two recent films take two very different approaches to discussing race relations, and they’re clearly made for two very different audiences. Selma is an invigorating, moving, and exceptional film showcasing bravery and dignity. Where Selma is complex, Black or White is a simplified and misguided sitcom writ large.

In 1965, Alabama was the epicenter for the Civil Rights movement. Martin Luther King Jr. (David Oyelowo) has his sights set on organizing a march from Selma to the sate capital in Montgomery. His wife, Coretta (Carmen Ejogo), is worried about the safety of their children, as death threats are sadly common for MLK. He needs to turn the tide of public perception to light a fire under President Lyndon Johnson (Tom Wilkinson) to get him to prioritize legislation that would protect every citizen’s right to vote.

Selma-1Without question, Selma is one of the finest films of 2014. It is powerful, resonant, nuanced, political, immediate, and generally excellent on all fronts. It’s a rarity in Hollywood, namely a movie about the Civil Rights movement without a prominent white savior. This is a film about the ordinary and famous black faces on the ground fighting in the trenches for their freedoms. There are compassionate white people who heed the call, don’t get me wrong, but this is a movie told from the black perspective. I suspect the portrayal of President Johnson had something to do with Selma’s poor showing with the Oscars, though I can’t fully comprehend why. Yes, Johnson is portrayed as a man who has to be won over, but he’s on MLK’s side from the beginning. He is not opposed to legislation to protect voting rights; he’s just hesitant about the timing. Johnson says, “You got one issue, I got 100,” and the pragmatic reality of pushing forward legislation through a divided Congress was real. Johnson was not opposed to MLK’s wishes; he just wanted him to wait until the political process would be easier. In fact, in my eyes, Johnson comes across as compassionate, politically savvy, and he clearly makes his stakes on which side of history he’s going to be associated when he has a sit-down with the obstinate Alabama governor, George Wallace (Tim Roth). Like the rest of the varied characters in Selma, it’s a nuanced portrayal of a man in the moment.

The march in Selma is a moment that seems like an afterthought in the narrative of the Civil Rights movement, dwarfed by the Montgomery bus boycott and the March on Washington. The movie does a great job of re-examining why this moment in history is as significant, an eye-opening moment for the nation to the brutal reality of oppression. The opposition is entrenched, thanks to a stagnant system that wants to hold onto its “way of life.” It just so happens that way of life meant very different things for black people. The movie is politically sharp, with dissenting perspectives arguing over the next course of action in Selma and the national stage. Selma is another in the current crop of biopics eschewing the standard cradle-to-grave approach to highlight a significant moment that highlights exactly who their central figure is (Lincoln, Invictus). With Selma, we get a battleground that allows us to explore in both micro and macro MLK, the man. The courage of ordinary citizens in the face of violent beatdowns and police bullying is effortlessly moving and often heartbreaking. There is a moment when an elderly man, reflecting upon a recent family tragedy, cannot find words to express his grief, and my heart just ached right then and there. I teared up at several points, I don’t mind saying.

Selma+Movie+(2)There isn’t a moment where I didn’t feel that director Anna DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere) was taking the easy road or pulling her punches. The screenplay respects the intelligence of the audience to sift through the politics and the arguments, to recognize when MLK is igniting a spark, and just how complicated and fragile the Selma situation was back then. Here’s a movie ostensibly about MLK but spends much of its time on the lesser known individuals like James Bevel and Congressman John Lewis, who walked alongside the man, taking time to flesh them out as people rather than plot points. MLK’s wife is also given an important part to play and she’s much more than just being the Wife of Great Man. DuVernay’s direction is impeccable; you feel like she has command over every frame. The sun-dappled cinematography by Bradford Young (A Most Violent Year) makes great use of shadows, often bathing its subjects in low-light settings. The score is rousing without being overpowering, just like every other technical aspect. This is a prime example of Hollywood filmmaking with vision and drive.

With respect to the Academy, it’s hard for me to imagine there being five better performances than the one Oyelowo (Lee Daniels’ The Butler) delivers as the indomitable Martin Luther King Jr. It is rare to see an actor inhabit his or her character so completely, and Oyelowo just sinks into the skin of this man. You never feel like you’re watching an actor but the living embodiment of history made flesh. This is a complex performance that shows refreshing degrees of humanity for a figure sanctified. He was a man first and foremost, and one prone to doubts and weaknesses as well. An excellent scene with top-notch tension and peak emotion involves MLK and Coretta listening to a supposed tape of Martin’s infidelity. In the ensuing tense conversation, both parties acknowledge the reality of his affairs. It’s a scene that’s underplayed, letting the audience know she knows, and he knows she knows, but not having to rely upon large histrionics and confrontations. It’s the behind-the-scenes moments with King that brought him to life for me, watching him coordinate and plan where to go with the movement. Oyelowo perfectly captures his fiery inspirational side, knocking out every single speech with ease. It’s a performance of great nuance and grace, where you see the fear in the man’s eyes as he steps forward, hoping he’s making the best decision possible for those in desperation.

There isn’t one bad performance in the entire film, and this is a deep supporting cast including Wendell Pierce (HBO’s The Wire), Tessa Thompson (Dear White People), Common, Giovanni Ribisi, Dylan Baker, Lorraine Toussaint (Netflix’s Orange is the New Black), Stephen Root, Cuba Gooding Jr, Jeremy Strong, and Oprah Winfrey.

It’s been weeks now since I watched Selma but there are still many moments that I can recall that still have a tremendous power on me even in mere recollection. The opening sequence of the Birmingham bombing, a moment of horror frozen in chaos and debris, is a gut punch of a way to begin a movie about human beings fighting for equality. The sheer brutality of the response from the Selma police force and associates is horrifying, and a true pivot point for the movement in the eyes of the public. More so than anything else, Selma brilliantly and beautifully recreates the suffocating reality of injustice that was so prevalent for many African-American citizens, especially in the South. This is an era where people are being lynched with impunity just for being “uppity.” There was a supreme danger in simply standing up for equal rights, and many suffered as a result. The movie recreates this mood, this permeating feeling of dread and outrage and sorrow, so expertly and so artfully. From an early scene with a middle-aged black woman jumping through hoop after arbitrary hoop just to register to vote, you quickly realize that this vehemently hostile environment was never going to settle things on their “own time,” as apologists are prone to citing in lieu of federal intervention. Selma makes it abundantly clear why MLK felt the movement just could not wait, as Johnson requested. People are senselessly dying and being beaten all for the right to fairly vote. You feel the same sense of urgency with every scene, whether it’s cold-blooded murder, noxious intimidation, or reciprocation that goes above and beyond any sense of responsibility, you understand exactly the terror it was to be black in the South during this time period.

selma-marchAnother potent point of acclaim for Selma is how relevant it is to our own world today. While 12 Years a Slave was an often stirring and very professionally made biopic that exposed the ugly reality of slavery, it was not a film that screamed “immediacy.” Slavery ended in this country over 150 years ago, and while we’re still dealing with the repercussions of treating other human beings as property, it’s an easy film to dismiss in a backhanded, “Well, that was so long ago, and we’ve come so far” manner. The actions of Selma and MLK are still being felt to this day. We live in a world where many feel the justice system has its own separate-but-equal division, and the recent controversial grand jury decisions in the cases of Michael Brown and Eric Garner cannot be ignored. The reality for many black men in this country is statistically far more dangerous than others, fueled by a culture of entrenched racial bias that assumes the worst at first. The transit officer who executed Oscar Grant (detailed in the harrowing 2013 film Fruitvale Station) served eleven months in prison for a crime that had scads of witnesses. Garner’s death is captured on video, and yet even the Staten Island coroner’s report of “homicide” wasn’t enough to convince a grand jury that there was sufficient cause to at least go to trial. It’s been noted that prosecutors could get a grand jury to “indict a ham sandwich.” According to the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics, of the 30,000 cases that were not prosecuted in this country, only 11 were because a grand jury did not return an indictment (.0004%). However, grand juries rarely indict when a police officer is accused (In Dallas between 2008 and 2012, there were 81 grand jury investigations of officer shootings and only one actual indictment). It’s hard not to feel like these things don’t add up.

Then there’s the all-important struggle of voting, central to Selma and the plight of African-Americans in the South. You would think with Johnson’s passage of the Voting Rights Act that we wouldn’t be litigating the same issues of the past, but the Supreme Court determined that this country is far different then it was in the 1960s and there was no need for the Voting Rights Act today. Within hours of striking it down, scads of new legislation appeared in the (primarily Southern) states that had been limited beforehand because of their past history of discrimination. The right to vote is just as relevant as it was during MLK’s time and there are forces trying to stifle that right, to throw up new obstacles, new hoops, new challenges, all in the name of “polling security,” never mind that the cases of in-person voter fraud are so rare as to be one in every 15 million voters. It’s a solution without a cause, and it’s why many see it as a disingenuous political ploy. It’s the twentieth-century, and yet the struggle for equality frustratingly repeats too many of the same battles. It’s this historical and contemporary context that gives Selma its extra surge of relevancy, reminding how far we still have to go, reminding the world that MLK’s work is by no means complete and that it is up to the rest of the populace to fight for the kind of country that he spoke of in his “I Have a Dream” speech.

MV5BMTYyMzE2NTE5MV5BMl5BanBnXkFtZTgwNDI3ODI2MzE@._V1_SX214_AL_It is this complex, complicated, and dire reality that hobbles another movie that tackles modern-day race relations, Mike Binder’s imprudent Black or White. The plot of the film, inspired by a true story reportedly, centers on Kevin Costner as Elliot Anderson, a rich lawyer who has custody over his biracial granddaughter Eloise (the angelically adorable Jillian Estell). Now that Elliot has lost his wife, Eloise’s other grandmother, Rowena Jeffers (Octavia Spencer), wants joint custody so Eloise can spend time around “her own people.” The two of them push and pull and lock horns over what’s best for their grandchild, which gets more complicated when her biological father (Andre Holland, who is actually in Selma as well) comes back into the picture.

Right away you can tell very early on that there will not be anything approaching subtlety in the world of Black or White, its own title serving as the first clue. The characters are sketched broad and the premise feels like a weird mishmash of Archie Bunker appearing in a court drama. It’s a preachy movie that doesn’t have a deft hand when it comes to crafting a message that rises above easy observations disguised as something deeper. Eloise’s father, Reggie, is so poorly underwritten that he feels like he stepped off the set of some after school special. He’s addicted to crack, a lifelong screw-up, and a general disappointment that has never been present for his daughter’s life. He even smokes crack out in the open on the front porch across the street from where his mother lives. At one point, Anthony Mackie’s character berates Reggie for being a walking stereotype. Just because Binder calls attention to it doesn’t excuse it. But he’s not alone, because Spencer’s sassy black matriarch character and Costner’s gruff and frequently soused character are right there with him. The frequent arguments feel like they should be punctuated by studio audience hoots and applause, that is, if you could hear them over Terrence Blanchard’s relentlessly overpowering musical score instructing the audience exactly how to feel with every clunky moment.

-1In a way, the overbearing musical score gets at the major problem of Black or White, which is that a complicated case is being told from the safest point of view. Elliot is more akin to Clint Eastwood’s character from Gran Torino then, say, Archie Bunker. He’s irritable and prejudiced and old-fashioned and wary but balks if you call him a bigot. I mean he’s polite to his Hispanic housekeeper. The more you examine the character the more you realize this is a movie designed to coddle an older generation (my tiny theater was packed with patrons over 60). The movie doesn’t challenge anybody and actually rewards Costner’s character and his outdated viewpoints. The opening conflict over his refusal to share custody with Rowena makes no sense. She’s an excellent grandmother, caring, nurturing, a fine role model as well for her perseverance and starting several small businesses out of her home. Not only that but Rowena is surrounded by a large family of relatives that adore Eloise. It’s contrived that these two could not agree on shared custody when they both have much to offer the girl. The only way any of this works is if Reggie is somehow responsible for the death of Eloise’s mom. Perhaps he introduced her to crack and she overdosed. Unfortunately, it’s never explained in the slightest, and so Elliot’s hostility for the entire Jeffers clan seems petulant, especially with the happiness of his granddaughter in the balance. Without better context, his rampant anger seems to be guilt-by-association overkill. To his credit, Rowena has a major and annoying blind spot when it comes to Reggie’s stability as a parent. In fact he’s so obviously still on drugs that her ongoing refusal to accept reality harms her character irreparably.

-2In the end, Black or White isn’t so much a film that about race relations as it is about privilege. Costner’s would-be bigot doesn’t have a problem with black people, just as long as those black people abide by his rules of conduct and expectation. It’s the same kind of qualification he’s never had to consider for himself, and one the intended audience will likewise miss. He comes from a wealthy position and Rowena and her family are likely lower middle class at best. He has a world of class privilege at his disposal that the loving Jeffers family does not, and because of that he feels they are less suited to raising little Eloise. Perhaps he’s worried about Reggie re-entering her life, but what animates Elliot Anderson is spite. He’s consumed with the overriding assumption that he must be right in all things. While the film draws many heavy-handed parallels between Reggie’s drug abuse and Elliot’s alcoholism, it clearly presents the both of them on completely different planes of judgment. One of them is ultimately redeemable and the other less so. Elliot’s perspective is essentially he can provide more and therefore more has to be better, but his definition of more is a private school, a housekeeper, a tutor who is treated as a caricature of initiative. Rowena provides a large and loving support system, but apparently they are less valued in the eyes of Elliot. And if you needed any more of a clue that Elliot and his sense of privilege are the unbeknownst star of the movie, he gets to deliver the big speech at the end that Says Something Meaningful. It feels a bit odd that the one character that uses the N-word in the film (albeit there is context) is the one telling lower-class black families how to live.

I don’t doubt the sincerity of writer/director Mike Binder (The Upside of Anger); I don’t think he purposely made a film to make older, primarily white Americans feel better about thinking what they do about these troublesome times. It’s not a nefarious movie but it is misguided and will provide cover for a certain selection of audience members who wonder why nobody is asking the old white guys their opinions on modern race relations. Even overlooking this charge, Black or White is just overblown melodrama that has to constantly explain everything to you at all times and guide you through every strained point. Selma and Black or White are both aiming at hearts and minds, looking to add to the conversation on contemporary race relations, but only one of them works as both an eye-opening message of empathy and as an exceptionally made film itself.

Nate’s Grades:

Selma: A

Black or White: C

Nymphomaniac volumes I & II (2014)

113648_galWhen Danish film director Lars von Trier said he wanted his next movie to be “porn” he wasn’t kidding. The controversial filmmaker wanted to explore the world of a woman addicted to sex, following her history of varied experiences over the course of two movies/volumes. Actors lined up for the notoriously demanding filmmaker. During the sex scenes, computer effects magic married the actors’ faces and upper bodies with the lower parts of porn stars. Upper half, Charlotte Gainsbourg, lower half, some pornographic double, all spliced together into one onscreen human being. Think about that little special effects ground-breaker, putting Hollywood faces into hardcore sex scenes. Knowing von Trier’s pessimistic tendencies, and his penchant for heaping abuse upon his female leads to the point of uncomfortable exploitation, you may rightly cringe about the prospect of a von Trier “erotic” movie. That’s the funny thing about Nymphomaniac; it’s all about sex, sometimes graphically so, but it’s never erotic. It’s an intriguing, sometimes maddening look at human sexuality and our inhibitions and frailties, until a horrible ending spoils it. In the end, von Trier just couldn’t help himself.

The story boils down to this: Joe (Gainsbourg as an adult, Stacy Martin as the younger version) is found beaten and unconscious in an alley. The kindly, monk-like Seligman (Stellan Skarsgard) finds her, brings her back to his home, and tends to her wounds. Joe says she brought all of her pain upon herself. Seligman finds this hard to believe. She uncorks a lengthy series of tales about her sexual awakening and desires.

112010_galIn many ways, Lars von Trier is the best and worst candidate to present a four-hour opus on the life and times of an avowed nymphomaniac. The man approaches the idea of sex addiction in practically the most clinical way possible while still being cinematic. You can practically envision Seligman as a stand-in for von Trier, countering Joe’s sense of shame with a broader, scientific perspective. Really, this is the tale of a woman spilling her guts about all her dirty little secrets and a man nodding along, asking questions, and dismissing her self-loathing with his reason and empathy. It’s sort of like being inside a therapist’s office. I can’t say whether or not I find all the analogous asides to be interesting or simply insufferable pretension. While Joe is detailing her behavior, Seligman will stop her and provide further context, often bringing in such subjects as fly fishing, the mating habits of fish, the Fibonacci sequence, Eastern Orthodoxy, and classical music. It’s almost absurd how encouraging Seligman is, dismissing every action of Joe’s sordid past through an example. After a while, it almost becomes a humorous game all its own, as we know Seligman will use every story as a stepping off point to some weird outside connection. Every item in Seligman’s bare bedroom inspires a story from Joe, which leads to a suspicion that she is something of a salacious Keyser Soze, piecing together her story on the spot; some of the coincidences with Jerome (Shia LaBeouf) seems just a bit too much. Seligman’s enlightened and intellectual asides force the audience to consider deeper meaning with Joe’s actions. Is she irredeemable, does she have control over what she’s doing, is she doing anything even bad? Over the four hours of psychological examination, the doctor is out. Nymphomaniac, especially in Volume Two, is the best film yet on sex addiction. It doesn’t demonize the behavior, it doesn’t treat it as sensationalistic, and it doesn’t overtly judge its lead characters and the choices they make, nor does it spare them the devastating consequences.

The graphic nature of the film is getting all the headlines but Nymphomaniac treats its heroine as an addict trying to get a hold of herself. We begin with young Joe innocently discovering her sexuality, especially discovering the pull she can have over an almost endless parade of weak-willed men who will follow her every whim. If that was the only plot, then there would be little separating von Trier’s film from any late-night cable erotic series (“Oh, let me tell you the time I met this man and we did this…” –Repeat). Over the two movies, we get a stronger sense of how utterly trapped she is by her urges, by her addiction. When she’s dealing with the undignified death of her father, Joe finds whatever solace she can with a willing bedmate. She places herself in precarious situations chasing after that orgiastic high, which disappears at the conclusion of Volume One. The cliffhanger separating the two volumes is that Joe loses her ability to feel sexual pleasure, which is rather problematic for a nymphomaniac. And so in Volume Two, Joe desperately searches for a means to get her groove back, at one point abandoning her own child so that she can pursue her kink. Joe goes to counseling, joins a sex addict group (she bristles at the term and prefers “nymphomaniac”), and tries to detox, at one point removing everything vaguely sexual from her apartment, including anything knob-shaped.

nymphomaniacThe film is structured as a series of vignettes and anecdotes, broken up with von Trier’s tried-and-true onscreen chapter system. As expected for a film based around anecdotes, some stories are more interesting or revealing or simply entertaining than others. The stories are a little more whimsical in Volume One but by the time we get to Volume Two, they become more punishing and sad. It’s one thing to bet your promiscuous gal pal who will have sex with the most people on one train ride home, or on a prank to stick a restaurants dining utensil up your vagina, but it’s another when an adult woman, night after night, leaves her toddler at home so she MAY have the opportunity to have her behind whipped. The young Joe stories are easier to shake off as youthful experimentation and thrill seeking, which Seligman rationalizes as well. However, they set up just exactly the path that the adult Joe was destined for. The tales in Volume Two have to ratchet up the stakes, given Joe’s absent mojo, so what was once titillating can become downright disturbing. von Trier’s four hours offer plenty of feel-bad feel-good opportunities along the human sexuality sphere. Adult Joe thinks introducing a language barrier could be enticing, so she asks an African immigrant if he’ll have sex with her. He agrees, but brings his brother along. The two men bicker in a different language, while Joe sits there, head slumped against her hand, comically waiting for these two naked men, their penises wagging in the foreground of the camera, to get to business. It’s quite a funny and ludicrous turn of events.

One story in Volume One stands out for its raw emotional power. Joe has a whole schedule of lovers visiting her door. Well one such older man wanted to have Joe all to himself but her price was high: he had to leave his wife, “Mrs. H.” Surprise, he does, and Joe is already uncertain if this new arrangement is what she wanted; her offer was better in the theoretical sense that he would never cross that line. Well the misses (played with chomping disgust by Uma Thurman) comes for a visit and she brings her kids along. She wants her children to see what their daddy traded them away for. At first, the wife acts civil with some stinging passive-aggression, but the uncomfortable incident is dragged out, and the emotions reach a fever pitch, with crying all around. It’s so uncomfortable, so potent, and so memorable, forcing Joe, and the audience, to think of the ripples of consequences from simple sexual dalliances. While Joe is having her fun, unbeknownst to her, there are far-ranging consequences that she, and by extension the audience, choose to ignore because all those pesky details would get in the way of our fun.

The most troublesome storyline is also one of the longest, with Joe having her backside swatted by a no-nonsense sadist played by Jamie Bell (Man on a Ledge). This guy insists there will be no penetration and his rules are to be followed strictly. It starts out intriguing to get a sense of who this guy is and what his practices will be. Joe has to sit with other women between the hours of 2-4 AM, and maybe she’ll get picked. Night after night, she goes through this setup, so desperate to feel the spark of desire again. This situation feels like it goes on forever. There is no easy climax. Rather it sets up the darker turn for Joe’s character, as she gives up being a mother and a wife. To make ends meet she becomes a debt collector, using her knowledge of men, particularly heir weaknesses, to coax them back into paying. There’s one disarming moment when she takes great pity on a pedophile that will surprise you, and it’s the only incident that causes Seligman to disapprove. Her boss (Willem Dafoe) advises her to think of an eventual replacement she can groom, and his method is singling out a young girl with no support, becoming her world, and slowly manipulating her to do your every wish. In a von Trier film, that is what a retirement 401k package looks like. This whole storyline, including her young mark (Mia Goth) romantically falling for her would-be maternal figure, just feels misplaced, like von Trier doesn’t know how to bring his four-hour opus to a close.

Prelude-to-a-Wholesome-EveningThat’s because he doesn’t! This paragraph is going to delve into the conclusion of Nymphomaniac, so be warned that there will be major spoilers being discussed. If you wish to remain pure, skip to the next paragraph. During Volume One, I had the unmistakable feeling that all of this had to be leading somewhere. It wasn’t just going to be one woman distilling her life stories over the course of one night. I also figured there had to be a reason for why Seligman would rationalize every one of Joe’s actions, shifting blame away from herself. And there’s truth to what he says, namely that the world judges Joe far more harshly for her actions because she happens to be a woman committing them. If a man was performing the same stunts, or left his family, he would not be seen as damningly. Then early on in Volume Two, Seligman reveals himself as asexual, a man born without any sexual desire. He argues he’s the perfect person to hear out Joe’s tales of woe, as he can objectively analyze them free from lust and desire and titillation. Then, by the end of volume Two, Joe as decided to change her ways. She wants to be someone different, someone better. She’s turned the corner. What, a glimmer of well earned hope emerging at the end of a von Trier film? That’s impossible. This natural ending is destroyed thanks to von Trier’s nihilistic perspective; he just can’t help himself. And so, though it makes no narrative sense and seems completely out of character, Seligman comes back to Joe, tries to rape her, and is then shot dead. That’s the end. Every man is a deviant. It just completely undoes Seligman’s entire perspective, as von Trier abandons whatever gains he’s made over four hours for what amounts to a groan-worthy joke. It is without question one of the worst, most misguided endings I’ve seen in a film. It makes the previous four hours feel like a lousy setup for a lousier joke.

It’s a shame because Gainsbourg gives a terrific performance as the older Joe. The actress is no stranger to von Trier and his sadomasochist ways, having also starred in Antichrist and Melancholia. You get a sense of her character’s desperation, the thrills of her youth now gone. She’s also grappling with her own fallibility, the anger that comes from that, her antipathy with others, and the regrets and jealousy that penetrate her hard exterior (no pun intended). She’s trying to act above society, an operator who plays by a different set of rules, but it’s fascinating when the emotions reveal themselves from the sensations. And Gainsbourg puts all of herself into this role, submitting to her character’s many mental and physical tortures. Even if she has a body double pasted in, it’s still representational of her and Joe. Gainsbourg manages to draw us in, not wanting our sympathy but eventually earning it. Martin, as young Joe, gets just as much screen time as Gainsbourg, but there’s a vacancy there to her acting, a certain passivity that makes young Joe feel more like a spectator than a participant in her life. Skarsgard (Thor: the Dark World) is an appealing foil for Joe, almost comical in how accepting he is and how excited he can get with his digressive connections. The only other actor of note in the large ensemble is LaBeouf (Transformers) who affects a strange accent but sticks with it. We’ll see if his self-imposed exile from Hollywood and acting sticks as well.

112003_galI’ve spent this entire review talking about everything else rather than detailing the nature of the graphic sex, the point that earned Nymphomaniac much of its curiosity with the general public. That’s because the explicit nature of the sex is inconsequential. I understand that that may sound odd for a movie literally called Nymphomaniac, but that’s because von Trier’s movie is less interested in the salacious and tawdry acts and more about deconstructing a life lived and the increasingly fraught rationale for her choices. Much like Blue is the Warmest Color, the graphic sex is the headliner, and it is occasionally graphic and unsimulated, with more than a few vaginal close-ups. The sex is incidental, a symptom of the human condition, and von Trier’s less-than-sensational look at such a sensational topic grounds the movie intellectually. With Nymphomaniac, von Trier is posing questions, pushing his audience to question our own views on sexuality and concepts of normalcy and what is and isn’t in good taste. We’re prurient creatures lapping up all the dirty details and copious amounts of nudity, but the introspection is what sticks, and it’s an incisive character study that opens up in many beguiling, illuminating, and surprisingly relatable ways…. Until the end. There’s no way to account for Nymphomaniac and just forget the ending. Four hours and for what? I cannot fathom what von Trier was going for rather than a return to his M.O. of humanity resorting to casual cruelty. If you can bear it, Nymphomaniac is a fitfully entertaining film, provocative to the end, and then it all slips away thanks to cinema’s worst practical joker.

Volume 1: B-

Volume 2: C+

The Ending: F

Nate’s Grade Overall: B

Saving Mr. Banks (2013)

105207_galSeemingly sure-fire Oscar bait, Saving Mr. Banks left enough Academy voters cold and it’s easy to see why. First off, the behind-the-scenes sparring to adapt Mary Poppins is the movie we want to see, watching crotchety author P.L. Travers (Emma Thompson) butt heads with head honcho Walt Disney (Tom Hanks). The movie is at its best when these two share the screen, with Walt’s genial strong-arming finding little traction with Travers stern refusals (no Dick van Dyke, no animation, no mustaches). What I wasn’t expecting was a parallel storyline detailing Travers childhood in Australia dealing with an unstable home life thanks to a drunken father (Colin Farrell). It literally takes up half the movie, and while there are a few interesting juxtapositions, the screenplay just trades off scenes; one in 1961, then one in 1906, then back again, etc. The issue is that the flashbacks are never very revelatory and have no business dominating the running time. All of the information gleaned from these flashbacks could have been corralled into one late flashback, or even mentioned in a speech. Saving Mr. Banks gives you two movies running parallel, but most people will only be interested in the one. It’s a pleasant film, benefiting from strong performances by Thompson and Hanks (perfectly cast), but one can’t shake the feeling of Disney P.R. pervading the film’s retelling. It comes from the perspective that Disney is always right and that Travers was always wrong, having to work through her personal issues before relenting, even tearing up at the final product. In real life, Travers never forgave Disney and never allowed another of her Poppins books to be adapted into a film, though not for want of trying by the studios. It feels unfair to portray an author’s artistic integrity as an obstacle that needs to be defeated, but there it is, and Disney’s Mary Poppins, while beloved, resembles much of what Travers feared. Who defends the cranky authors of the world when they have a point? Saving Mr. Banks is an entertaining film, charming and likeable, until you begin to look beyond the fairy dust and realize the revisionism before your eyes.

Nate’s Grade: B-

Thanks for Sharing (2013)

thanks_for_sharing“Isn’t sex addiction one of those things guys make up when they’re caught cheating?” asks a character in Thanks for Sharing. This movie treats the topic of sex addiction very seriously, rattling off plenty of adverse side effects rather than just a wandering eye. Director and co-writer Stuart Blumberg (The Kids Are All Right) is certainly empathetic to his characters on screen. I just wish the movie knew what it wanted to be.

We follow three sex addicts in one therapy group, all at different points of recovery. Mike (Tim Robbins) is the paternal figure of the group. He’s long been married to his high school sweetheart. Adam (Mark Ruffalo) is five years sober and being prodded by Mike to start seriously dating again. He meets Phoebe (Gwyneth Paltrow), a cancer survivor, and hides his addiction from her. Worst of all is Neil (Josh Gad), a doctor who has been mandated to attend sex addict group therapy after “bumping” into people on the subway and recording an upskirt video of his boss. He doesn’t believe he has a problem, but, under the guidance of Adam and Mike, comes to the conclusion that the only person who can fix his impulses is himself.

Thanks For Sharing (2013) Mark Ruffalo and Gwyneth PaltrowThanks for Sharing is an admittedly entertaining movie, at turns, but it’s a movie with one debilitating identity crises. What kind of movie does it want to be tonally? We get raunchy sex gags, and then the film transitions into rom-com fluff, and then the film transitions into hard-hitting addict drama, and then it’s all back again. All of these elements could have been carefully threaded into one movie, but Blumberg and co-writer Matt Winston cannot nail down a consistent tone. In fact many of the changes can be quite jarring. One minute people are engaged in wacky sex hijinks, and the next they’re lamenting all the horrible life choices they’ve made in tears. When there isn’t a clear tone, or clear transitions, then the comedy undercuts the drama and vice versa. Therefore, certain elements can be appreciated or be found engaging, but the movie cannot become more than the sum of its parts. And let me get into whether sex addiction is really a topic that can work in the realm of romantic comedy. With the right finesse anything can be presented in a comedic light that still maintains the humanity and dignity of its flawed characters. However, is something as easily misunderstood as sex addiction, whose particulars can be quite appalling to many, the right fit for a genre that is predicated on whimsical coupling? I don’t think so. Thanks for Sharing doesn’t change my mind.

About that rom-com part, notably the relationship between Adam and Phoebe, it’s easily the least interesting part of the film. Both of these characters are fairly bland. Adam’s the sober guy trying to keep things going, except that we never really feel like he’s challenged. We don’t feel the threat that he’s going to relapse. And we don’t really get to know much else about the guy. He vaguely works for some sort of environmental firm. As a character, he is defined by Phoebe, herself a collection of quirks that doesn’t coalesce to form a human being. The film weirdly keeps harping on the fact that Phoebe likes her food to not touch, as if this minor peculiarity is some harbinger of a greater OCD complex (she’s into physical fitness!). The fact that other characters have to jump in on this makes it even more transparently reaching. Worse than all this, the couple’s interactions, and much of their budding relationship, feels overwhelmingly artificial. The dialogue should be sparking, charming, but you get no real sense of why either of these people would fall for the other, excluding the obvious physical attributes of each. The rom-com convention of the Big Secret (Adam’s addiction) is left dangling until, surprise, it’s defused early. I’d expect the movie to push further since there is a wealth of drama to be had about the trust levels of dating a sex addict, but instead it just forces them apart all too easy. Then there’s the fact that the movie covers perhaps a month of time and their relationship seems to move ridiculously fast, mostly because Blumberg is impatient for his couple to get to a more physically intimate stage.

Thanks for Sharing works far better as a darker drama, and as a movie, when it focuses on the roles of Mike and Neil. The film smartly connects sex addiction with other impulse control issues; for Mike he’s been sober from booze for 15 years, and for Neill he has weight control issues. These are the characters we see struggle, these are the characters at the more interesting points. Neill especially is a doctor whose hit rock bottom and can’t get away from the felonious things his addiction tempts him to do. Mike has a surrogate family with his support group. Now that his prodigal son (Patrick Fugit) returns, that adds tension to his family dynamic, both at home and in group. I would have preferred Thanks for Sharing to be told chiefly from the perspective of these characters, eliminating Adam and Phoebe altogether. But even these good storylines find themselves wading into all-too familiar plot devices. Mike’s arc involves reconnecting with his son, which will lead to a misunderstanding, a conflict, and ultimately forgiveness, and you see every step coming. Neill’s journey gets an unexpected boost when he takes initiative to help Dede (Pink a.k.a. Alecia Moore), one of the only ladies in group. Of course it takes a pretty girl to push Neill out of his selfishness and self-loathing, but he does progress, and it’s the most emotionally rewarding moment in the film. The problem is that Neill’s storyline is tied up in a platonic head-scratcher. Dede takes Neill to a dance hall where they are just there to… dance, but the kind of dancing that hipsters do. It all seems like something for people on drugs, but whatever reason, Neill shaking his groove thing, and coming to an understanding that he will not be touching Dede, makes his character better. I was surprised that Blumberg was able to end the movie on something of a downbeat, falling back to the central message of one day at a time, vigilance.

screen-shot-2013-06-27-at-9-52-13-am-pngThere is one standout scene that really gets to the scariness of sex addiction succinctly. Once Adam falls off the wagon, which shouldn’t be much of a spoiler people, he regroups with Becky (Emily Meade) a gal he had a one-night stand with. Their flirtation is quick, settling into their attraction, and then she engages in behavior that, meant to be alluring, is rather insightful. She has a daddy fixation and wants to be punished as a “bad girl” with Adam pretending to be her stern father. That could be a red flag, but Adam carries on. Then she asks him to slap her. Adam refuses. So she does it herself, beating herself, eventually descending into a mess of tears, screaming. Adam tries to console her, stupidly deciding to try and make contact with her after she keeps screaming, “Don’t touch me!” She locks herself in the bathroom and threatens to harm herself. This one moment in the film gets at the damage of sex addiction like nothing else. It points to possible abuse, but really it all falls apart so rapidly that your head is spinning. The conclusion is pat and anticlimactic, but the lead-up is fantastic. If the rest of the movie had been thematically closer to this scene, Thanks for Sharing would be worth sharing.

From an acting standpoint, the cast does a fine job portraying their characters and his or her respective foibles. Ruffalo (The Avengers) is a bit too even keeled for his character. Gad (Jobs, The Internship) is the film’s comedic spark but also its greatest source of internal drama, which Gad handles well, showcasing the desperation of Neill. The real surprise is actually pop singer Pink in her first real acting performance (Charlie’s Angels: Full Throttle counts under no circumstances). Her introductory monologue, which she nails, makes you take notice that Pink has some genuine acting muscles.

Thanks for Sharing is an uneven mishmash of genres and ideas, rarely settling down into something worthy of the talent at work here. The comedy works against the drama, the drama works against the comedy, the clichéd character developments don’t serve anyone, and the overall artificial nature of the central rom-com coupling drags the enjoyment level further down. There is good work here, good acting and some memorable scenes and offhand laughs, but all Thanks for Sharing can amount to is a series of scant moments, passing encounters of entertainment. I didn’t find many of the characters to be as nearly compelling as the filmmakers did, and some of their hasty resolutions and developments feel far too simple for an addiction this complicated. The potential of the film is never fully realized. While I’m doubtful rom-com is a good fit for a serious exploration on sex addiction (wasn’t Shame hilarious?), it does lend itself to a bevy of juicy setups and possibilities. We get little of these. It’s as if the film wanted to present a case for the legitimacy of sex addiction, front-loaded with stats and horror stories and characters to open our eyes, and the notion of telling a laudable story was secondary to the educational efforts. Congrats. Now give me a story to care about.

Nate’s Grade: C+

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