It’s for the Kids
Gimmicks in horror movies are a dime-a-dozen. The sheer number of found footage films intending to recreate the success of The Blair Witch Project should be enough evidence of that. Saw and Final Destination have spawned a collective ten sequels based on their original stratagem. Even classic franchises have fallen victim to this trend. “Camp Crystal Lake isn’t cutting it anymore? Let’s put Jason in space. Wait, you mean that didn’t work? Okay, get Freddy in here.” The incessant need for creativity in the horror genre often reeks of desperation, so it’s natural to get nervous when new one-trick ponies come around.
That said, A Quiet Place is not your average pony. Sure, it’s all about being silent (there are maybe fifteen lines of dialogue in the whole movie), but there’s more to it than that. The film’s creative team is your first clue. Based on a story by the filmmaking duo of Scott Beck and Bryan Woods, the movie is also heavily influenced by actor, writer, and first-time director John Krasinski. The screenplay itself is well balanced between examining its post-apocalyptic world and the inner workings of its main characters. But Krasinski, who described this film as a love letter to his family in promotional interviews, has his fingerprints all over it as he molds a horror movie with the purpose of making you cry as many times as you scare.
The film’s direction is surprisingly masterful for the product of a first-timer. Echoing the attention to detail and character building that Jordan Peele built into his 2017 film debut, A Quiet Place doesn’t waste a single second of its 95 minute runtime. It sets up almost all of its major plot points well before they happen, simultaneously grounding everything into a reasonable reality. Examples include the nail that the laundry bag pulls up on the stairs, the waterfall scene explaining the logic of launching the fireworks, and the use of a cochlear implant to defeat a monster. Those are the obvious ones, but smaller details like the brief appearance of the oxygen tank, the bloody footprints left by the wife, and the boy playing with the truck’s controls all come back to influence the plot with subtle effectiveness.
Going back to the comparison with Get Out, John Krasinski’s film has two major legs up. One is that it is much more of a genre film, using tension and jump scares with precision. The other is the emotional pull of the characters in A Quiet Place. Take the first scenes of each movie. Instead of building the mystery of the antagonists, the way that Peele does with his “Run, Rabbit, Run” kidnapping, Krasinski chooses to set up the emotional arc for each character by killing the youngest member of the family. The effect is that, as an audience, we want to see the main characters live more than we want to see the villains die.
This point gets driven home late in the film, right around the time that the father sacrifices himself. The emotional arc of the relationship between him and his daughter is the backbone of this film, and it is redeemed beautifully in this scene and the final battle. For a genre horror movie with a gimmick, I really didn’t expect to feel as strongly as I did for its characters. In that, I consider this film to have pulled off a minor miracle. Then again, maybe I’m just getting soft.
In all, John Krasinksi wrote a love letter to his family and that letter definitely got delivered. This film scares, intrigues and conjures emotion in equal measures. The story is tight, the character performances are top notch and the sound design makes good on the gimmick that its premise promises. Now, if only all horror movies could actually make me feel for its protagonists. That’s a ruse I would actually like to see catch on.
Not Another Superhero Movie
by REGGIE WOLTZ
The Black Panther is not a movie so much as it is a statement. Released in the dead of Black History Month with mountains of hype and molehills of controversy, nothing surrounding it happened by coincidence. At a time when racial and political tensions have hit fever pitches, there are few occasions for synthesis between opposing mindsets as enjoyable as this film. Whether it will succeed in bringing people together is the only question.
If there are any serious issues with this movie, they are more endemic to its genre than anything. Up to this point in its cinematic universe, Marvel Studios has released 17 films. After so many origin stories and sequels, it would seem impossible for its eighteenth to present its viewers with anything they haven’t seen before. And while this film is essentially a retread of Hamlet’s plot, it executes its trajectory with enough style and substance to allow the audience to see past its predictability. In any case, I’d rather be introduced to a new character by a version of Hamlet and The Lion King over another Iron Man, Captain America, or Thor-style backstory.
The style that makes The Black Panther so striking is perhaps director Ryan Coogler’s most outstanding achievement. The soundtrack indicatively switches between vibrant streaks of African tribal music and American hip hop as its central characters rise to prominence; and even combines the two in the heat of their climactic battle.
As much as the auditory elements play into the story, the visual components are what truly stand out. Afrofuturism is on heavy display, from smaller artistic choices in costumes and sets to more easily apparent influences in the Vibranium technology and insanely detailed capital city of Wakanda. Certain scenes in the movie feel like small celebrations of African culture, and the blend between tribal ways of life and science fiction creates a feel for the movie that is wholly unique unto itself. The style ends up seeming like Blade Runner, but with more soul and less bleakness. Considering how Blade Runner set trends for the cyberpunk aesthetic, hopefully this movie inspires more Afrofuturism in subsequent films.
Beyond the style that Coogler sets out to create, The Black Panther also benefits from characterization that one wouldn’t expect from a Marvel movie. Aside from its stars, the supporting cast is deep and talented. Lupita Nyong’o, Danai Gurira, Letitia Wright, and Angela Bassett form a quartet of powerful women that give tinges of feminine triumph to the film. Forest Whitaker, Daniel Kaluuya, Winston Duke and Sterling K. Brown give quietly colorful performances as characters that are far more complex than their limited screen time lets on. Martin Freeman does well as the lost CIA agent, constantly getting one-upped by Wright’s character to humorous effect, and even gets us to care for his starkly contrasted character as he finds redemption in the final act. The most impactful supporting performance, however, belongs to Andy Serkis’s villain who is equal parts manic, threatening, and pure fun to watch.
This movie succeeds on so many levels, but the real heart of it is its leading actors, Chadwick Boseman and Michael B. Jordan. Boseman is unassuming as the eponymous Black Panther a.k.a. King T’Challa, feeling like someone who hasn’t truly found his identity after the death of his father. As the film goes on and T’Challa comes to grips with the reality that his isolationist nation and imperfect father has set upon him, this identity convincingly develops into that of a confident and beneficent ruler. The conflict within Wakanda’s king is one of the movie’s most fascinating subplots, creating a personal burden of both country and race that presents an impossible choice.
The character that represents the flip side to the noble king is Michael B. Jordan’s cocksure villain, Erik Killmonger. Very seldom do movies give true justifications for the actions of its villain, but The Black Panther instead revels in relaying such complexity at the center of its plot. In effect, Killmonger only seems like the bad guy to T’Challa’s good guy the way Malcom X is against Martin Luther King, Jr. The parallels are definite: Malcom X and Killmonger both seek to stand up and retaliate against their people’s oppression while King, Jr. and T’Challa prefer a more peaceful and patient approach. Nobody is actually right or wrong here. The wrongs have already been done and these two characters simply have different approaches to dealing with them.
If it isn’t what Killmonger represents that makes him such an important character and the Marvel Universe’s best villain, it’s what the movie itself illustrates. This isn’t a superhero movie. It’s a hypothetical situation regarding how an oppressed race could better itself if given the resources to do so. The protagonist takes the high road and the antagonist takes the same road that the ones who transgressed in the first place took. By creating this disparity and placing the binary star system that is Boseman and Jordan in the middle of it, The Black Panther transcends what a superhero movie, or even a film in general, can be and asks the audience this impossible question. That it looks like a superhero movie is only so that lots of people can watch it and have this question asked to them. The underlying reality exists after leaving the theater, even if the solution to it (still waiting on that Vibranium meteorite) does not.
The Black Panther certainly stands apart from rest the Marvel Universe, which is infused with attempts to fill our eyes while leaving our stomachs empty. The Black Panther gives us a balanced diet of eye candy and food for thought, enough to leave you satisfied well after your two-and-a-half hours in the theater are up. As a result, the only thing I want more than for Wakanda to actually exist is for future movies to follow suit and realize that pleasing the masses doesn’t have to be an exercise in killing brain cells.
by REGGIE WOLTZ
The term ‘bildungsroman’ refers to the novelization of a coming-of-age tale. This typically involves character change in a sensitive person over the events of the story. These novels are commonplace in literature and multitudes of movies have portrayed the same archetype. Call Me by Your Name, although building on the format in a few ways, is a bildungsroman at heart.
The major departure from the usual coming-of-age story within Call Me by Your Name is its focus on building its protagonist through a relationship, rather than some kind of physical or philosophical journey. Instead of being inherently focused on establishing an identity for its main character, this movie seeks to delve into his emotions and bring them to the surface. And, in this endeavor, the film accomplishes its goal spectacularly.
A major strength of the movie is its presentation of images. Set in and around the Italian city of Crema in the 1980s, the camera holds just long enough on the natural beauty of the scenery and the impressive architecture of the mansion to evoke a sense of longing for being in such a place. This orchestrated nostalgia is coupled with the trajectory of the story, following the slow build and quick death of love, to transport viewers back to a time when they experienced the joy and pain of love themselves. This emotional potency is maintained through much of the film and is aided by another point of excellence, its character performances.
While it does not exactly have an ensemble cast, Call Me by Your Name contains some quietly great performances. The film’s supporting ladies, Amira Casar as the protagonist’s mother and Esther Garrel as his initial love interest, make the most of their screen time despite their lack of importance in the movie. Michael Stuhlbarg, playing the protagonist’s father, stands out for his effervescence and his pivotal final scene gives more than a modicum of meaning to a movie that sorely needs it (more on that later). Armie Hammer does a wonderful job of playing Oliver, an aloof but conflicted man struggling for self-control–even if the film does not pay much attention to the complexity of his character (more on that later, as well).
The crown jewel of Call Me by Your Name is, of course, Timothee Chalamet. The self-confidence in the young Elio Perlman, is unlike the protagonists of many a bildungsroman. However, instead of feeling unnatural, this characterization is a breath of fresh air. The film revolves around Elio as we don’t spend so much as a scene without seeing his face. Chalamet is up to the challenge that this presents as he slowly unveils a deep curiosity and sensuality as a result of Oliver’s presence. By the end of the film, everyone in the audience is caught in a deep sympathy for Elio, having felt as if they were in his shoes the whole time. While his character is not at all complex, Chalamet’s depiction of a boy learning more about himself is so open and honest that it doesn’t feel like acting at all.
If all that this movie wanted to be was a singular character study, this is where my review would end. The movie could have also cut out at least thirty minutes of its two hour plus runtime if that were the case. But Call Me by Your Name aims to be more than that. As its name implies, this is a film about more than one person. It is meant to be a film about love and the extraordinary magnetism that two people can have with each other. And it is this end that it fails to meet.
From the jump, the viewer sees everything through Elio’s eyes. This often means that our interpretation of Oliver is not straightforward as Elio goes about making sense of the stranger living in his house. While many movies would try to eventually contextualize Oliver’s actions with a perspective of his own, Call Me by Your Name never gets around to that. That raises many questions about Oliver’s character (especially considering the movie’s final reveal that Oliver was in a heterosexual relationship the whole time) and the possibly predatory nature of his attraction towards Elio. Considering how Elio changes from beginning to end, it might help to understand the force that caused these changes. Call Me by Your Name does not help us in this understanding, despite going out of its way to explain so many other things in Elio’s father’s speech at the end.
The conversation between Mr. Perlman and his son is centered on the idea of love and its revelatory powers. The paradox of this is that it is telling us what we already know: this is about love. In effect, the film spends so much time giving us Elio’s viewpoint so that we can assume what he was thinking, only to tell us in the end what we were supposed to be making of it all along. And yet, it keeps the biggest blind spot, Oliver’s intentions, out of view – thus leaving itself incomplete. Another result of this is that the audience has spent an extraordinary amount of time looking at dragged out perspective shots only to be given short answers in the end. Despite the problems that using exposition to explain the story may already impose on an ending, the fact that it fails to answer the important questions is both ineffective and renders much of the early scenes a complete waste of time.
As a coming-of-age tale, Call Me by Your Name works brilliantly. The humanness of its protagonist is undeniable and his development makes the film worthwhile. Together with its incredible images and score, that would make it a complete piece. As it is, however, this is a movie about love. Being that, the film is strenuously lopsided and unable to justify many of its dragged out scenes by its exposition-filled finale. But hey, at least this it made apricots cool again!
The Shape of Water
by REGGIE WOLTZ
A Study in Teal
Movies can be used to tell all kinds of stories. From realist dramas to fantastical science fiction, the versatility of the medium is well-documented. Usually a certain genre prescribes a set of expectations to its plot. Romantic comedies have two people fall in and out of love, only to come back together in the end. Film noir sees its heroic detective tempted by a femme fatale in the midst of a tense investigation. Villains in horror movies kill the black guy first. Oftentimes, filmmakers can blend genres to create their own presence, separating themselves from any expectations the audience might have.
Guillermo del Toro’s films exist on an entirely different plane. His movies don’t just blend genres, they redefine them. The best descriptor for his movies that I can come up with is “fairy tale filmmaking.” Now, these aren’t original projects so much as they are a unique spin on classic stories about things that go bump in the night. The Devil’s Backbone and Crimson Peak are del Toro’s modern retellings of ghost stories, Pacific Rim is his idea of a monster flick, and Pan’s Labyrinth is basically Alice in Wonderland, just set during the Spanish Civil War. To the naked eye, these films may seem just like the dozens of horror and fantasy movies that come out every year. But, beyond that, there is a depth to del Toro’s work that other filmmakers seldom, if ever, are able to match.
So what is the element in these movies that separate them from their counterparts? Well, it’s actually two elements: aesthetic and heart. Horror movies can scare your pants off just fine. We watch them for the same reason that we ride roller coasters, to get the adrenaline pumping and feel a sense of controlled terror that we can’t get from our daily lives. Sure, del Toro can pull this off effectively, but he is ultimately interested in a more meaningful experience. He would rather draw us into a vibrant world with characters that are complex and worth rooting for, while delivering a moral for us to take home.
The Shape of Water is the epitome of these intentions. At its core, this movie is Beauty and the Beast with protagonists that can’t speak. However, the lush appearance of its setting, the personalities of its characters, and the incredible amount of heart behind it make the film so much more.
Just as Guillermo del Toro is an anomaly of a film maker, his characters in Shape of Water are also misfits. The magnetic Sally Hawkins plays Elisa Esposito, a mute janitor in a secret government lab, where she meets, falls in love with, and attempts to save a humanoid amphibian known only as “The Asset.” She is unable to connect with others to a large degree, making the relationships that she does have incredibly fascinating. Particularly her interactions with the Asset are little experiences of their own, culminating in a number of evocative scenes that are heartening and eye-catching in equal measures.
The dynamic between these two is an anomaly in its own right. Whereas most movies that center on a relationship will temper the beauty of love with the inevitable struggles that come with it, del Toro leaves his film’s romance pure and uncut. Rather than seeming unrealistic, this has the effect of allowing his film to remain emotionally potent throughout. Of course, if the two characters would have been able to talk, they would have broken up after three months of arguing over what kind of food to get for dinner. But that’s another story.
Hawkins is backed up by fantastic supporting performances from Richard Jenkins, Octavia Spencer, and Michael Stuhlbarg. These characters really drive home the point of misfits trying to make their way through life.
Jenkins portrays an aged gay man in the Cold War-era United States, when alternative sexuality wasn’t exactly an accepted concept. Spencer plays a coworker of Esposito’s that serves as her sign language translator and treats her as a therapist, constantly talking Elisa’s ear off about her loveless marriage. Stuhlbarg plays a scientist in the government lab who works as a secret operative for the Russians but whose true allegiances lay in trying to learn from and protect his pet project at a time when everything must be done for the good of his nation and not himself. These characters are all oddities, stuck in a time that does not support their unique ideals, and yet they come together to create a happy ending for Elisa.
The holistic dedication to this theme is the true core of this film and the emotional satisfaction that comes thanks to del Toro’s efforts is what will stick with you after leaving the theater. But that is not to say that sensory experience of the film is any less effective.
The combination of Baltimore and the Cold War as a setting is not one that brings to mind a gorgeous atmosphere. And yet, del Toro creates just that through his imaginative use of colors (you have never seen teal like this before) and camera work. In a film where words are at somewhat of a premium, The Shape of Water’s visually storytelling picks up the slack and then some. The audience is hypnotically drawn in and carried on the shoulders of its characters all the way from the underground laboratory to the docks of Baltimore’s harbor until we are baptized in the beauty of the film’s conclusion.
Despite the brilliance of Pan’s Labyrinth, Guillermo del Toro’s real magnum opus is The Shape of Water. It perfects what del Toro has been honing for years, telling a fantastical story with stunning visuals and enough heart to cause cardiac arrhythmia. Despite the predictability of its plot, you feel for its characters and are easily swept up in its visual splendor. It is a more beautiful and beastly Beauty and the Beast, and yet stands alone as utterly unique—just like the masterful filmmaker behind it.
The idea that art imitates life is a fairly simple concept. Artists seek to express themselves and their creativity, doing so comes as a reflection of their internal uniqueness and external environment. Whether it’s a love song, Shakespearean tragedy, or landscape painting, art is a peek at the world through the eyes of its maker.
Movies have enormous potential in their capability to imitate life. The experience, being both visual and auditory, allows the viewer to more completely immerse themselves in the world of the filmmaker. As a result, many films are made as an escape from our real lives into a new reality with different possibilities. The popularity of superhero franchises, space operas, and animated films is an open-armed acceptance of this. While the widespread propensity to spend more time escaping reality than examining it is slightly unsettling, these movies are still tethered to real life by having characters with human qualities, just with their limitations removed.
And then we have Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, whose intention isn’t to fly you to another universe, but rather to bring you back down to Earth so hard that you’ll end up in the planet’s core. The events of the film are essentially the continued aftermath of a rape and murder that has gone unsolved for six months. There’s no true conflict here, all villains are temporary, and the ending resolves to leave it all unresolved. In fact, the true journey of this film is the development of the characters as they live out their screen time.
Much of what makes this movie feel so genuine is its emotional impact. The character performances are beautifully entertaining and allow the movie to switch between equally effective streaks of comedy and tragedy. The tonal shifts between being light- and heavy-hearted were striking, culminating in certain scenes that hit like that of being thrown out of a second story window.
The remainder of Three Billboards’ effectiveness comes from the lives and personalities of its characters. Even extremely minor parts are given unique material from an outstanding script that also paints all of its leads in multiple dimensions. This film intentionally sacrifices having a tight focus with its themes to create the best portrayal of real life as it can. Reality is an open-ended flow of chaotic cause and effect, full of unique people experiencing joy and pain. That is also exactly what this movie is.
This point is perfectly exemplified in the film’s final moments. We get Frances McDormand’s Mildred and Sam Rockwell’s Dixon driving off to serve some sweet vigilante justice to a guy who definitely raped and murdered someone, although the crime was unrelated to what happened to Mildred’s daughter. The scene cuts after they admit their uncertainty about hurting someone and before any action is taken. The two characters are trying to give themselves a significant action to deal with their problems, but the real resolution is each of them finding someone to share those problems with.
Three Billboards is a great film because of how well it captures the essence of life. Everyone has their own pain and tribulations to go through. They come into conflict or harmony based on this, often in momentary interactions that transform each individual as time passes. The movie doesn’t seek to answer any deep questions up front, but does so between the lines. So, the ultimate question is: if art imitates life, what do we call something that virtually is life?
The Risen Place
When you have seen enough movies, it gets easier to tell the difference between gold and pyrite. Sure, the quality of a film is hard to define from the ground-up. Because of the bevy of base components that movies have to work with (from sensory elements like visuals and audio to more cerebral tools such as story complexity, character performance and development, and creative narrative devices), they do not always operate on the same plane. But there has to be a way to equalize these works despite their differences in material and style. One of the methods that I use to achieve this end is to judge the intentionality in the films that I watch.
Get Out is an incredibly intentional movie. It has a sense of being obsessively well thought out thanks to the ample servings of detail in each scene. The re-watchable factor is strong here; the twists in the story beg you to go back and analyze the characters in a new light that completely transforms entire portions of the film.
Perhaps the best focal point for the second time around is Allison Williams’ Rose Armitage. She is the physical embodiment of a plot twist, so all of her scenes in the first half of the film become inherently significant. One example is when she stops the policeman from looking at her boyfriend’s I.D.—she isn’t doing it to stick up for him, but rather so that there would be no trail of evidence. It is little scenes like this, with definable double meanings, that elevate the story beyond the linear and noncreative narratives of its counterparts.
The fact that this movie holds up to reexamination without creating plot holes is great, but Get Out doesn’t stop there. It doesn’t want to be watched just twice, but as many times as possible before you start to feel like you’ve entered the sunken place. What keeps you coming back for that third time is the real strength of this film, its allegorical focus and clarity.
Director Jordan Peele isn’t exactly subtle in his approach to tackling the issue of race. He sets his tone from the opening scene, in which he turns what would be an innocuous setting for many viewers, an affluent suburb, into an unsettling labyrinth where only white people are safe. It is also here that he sets up his most potent thematic element with the diegetic song, “Run Rabbit Run.”
With the overhanging discomfort that comes from the interaction between Chris (played by Daniel Kaluuya) and Rose’s family and friends, it could be hard to create an undercurrent that deals with the race more poignantly. And yet, Peele does exactly this by juxtaposing the idea that black people are nothing but wild game to the whites with Chris’s sense of guilt over his inaction with the death of his mother.
This interplay is evident in a number of scenes, the most obvious of them being when Chris empathizes with the dying deer, the surgery pre-op, and when Chris hits the family maid (Rose’s grandmother) with a car and then decides to save her. These scenes ground Chris in the reality that the Armitages see him as prey, which he then transcends by dealing with his internal problems and finding the resolve to both kill and save—proving he is more than an animal. As such, Get Out gives proper trajectories to both the theme and Chris’s character and allows itself to end with a more direct message than just “White people are f****** crazy!”
For any director, let alone a first-timer, what Peele has pulled off is remarkable. Cutting through all of the noise with a definitive point is something that few movies attempt and even fewer accomplish. Furthermore, there are so many Easter eggs and smaller motifs in the movie that a viewer will be able to pick up on new things even after having seen it three times.
I really can’t say enough about this movie. Get Out blends suspense, comedy, and horror like none other. Peele gives his actors and actresses plenty to work with and draws great performances from each of them. The story is tight and yet filled with enough detail to make you actually want to re-watch it. And while the film may not have done much to reconcile the complex relationship between blacks and whites in America, it still did the impossible: gave us a reason to like TSA agents.
The Most Demanding Men
Batman and Robin. Soda and popcorn. Traffic jams and raised middle fingers. There are a lot of iconic duos out there. In the world of filmmaking, working with familiar colleagues goes a long way towards ensuring quality. High profile pairings are bound to repeat and build further hype upon each successive project. Some of the best movies in recent years have come out of tried and true relationships, such as those between Scorcese and Dicaprio, Cuaron and Lubezky, and Fincher and Sorkin. After seeing Phantom Thread, I believe it is time to anoint a new Hollywood power couple: Paul Thomas Anderson and Daniel Day-Lewis.
Just in case you were living under a rock in 2007, Anderson and Day-Lewis had previously worked together on There Will Be Blood–one of the last decade’s best movies. Their experience and camaraderie are palpable over ten years later, albeit in a film that couldn’t be more of a departure from its predecessor. Trading the oil fields of California for the ballrooms of post-World War II London, Anderson shifts from following the journey of a disturbed tycoon to the romance of a prestigious tailor and his muse. The scope of Phantom Thread is also very narrow compared to the time-skipping saga that is There Will Be Blood, settling to show us the quiet evolution of a single relationship.
If there is one striking similarity between Anderson and Day-Lewis’s collaborations, it is the unflinching portrayals of their complex characters. Day-Lewis’s Reynolds Woodcock is at once a charismatic gentleman, tireless worker, and unsympathetic knave, depending on who he is presenting himself to. Day-Lewis is brilliant here, rotating between his character’s personalities with ease and delivering meaning with every word and facial expression. Anderson places his protagonist in situations that draw out every bit of the actor’s talents; most successfully in the scenes between Woodcock and the females in his life.
A decent amount of the entertainment value of Phantom Thread comes from watching woman after woman try and fail to earn Woodcock’s attention. Lesley Manville’s Cyril Woodcock is our guide to these interactions, constantly at her brother’s side whether in private or public. The “old so-and-so” is a fascinating character (Freud would have had a field day with the relationship between the siblings), so it is to the detriment of the film that her screen time is stifled in the film’s second half as Vicky Krieps’ Alma Elson rises to prominence. Krieps is wonderful, surprisingly matching Day-Lewis’s acting as they spend the majority of the film face-to-face.
At the outset, this film is a love story. From the first time that Elson meets Woodcock at the country café, to her experiences as his muse and protégé, and all the way down the rocky slopes of their romance, the protagonists play off of each other without sacrificing their individualities. The development of their relationship happens in abrupt moments of Woodcock’s unstoppable force meeting Elson’s immovable object. Considering that the movie is overwhelmingly concerned with two characters over its 130 minute runtime, the fact that these moments don’t feel repetitive or cumbersome is a testament to Anderson’s feel for a balanced story.
Despite the extensive interplay between the tailor and his lover, Phantom Thread is more exactly an examination of the balance between work and life in a man who is singularly driven by his vision. We are given a cross-section of Woodcock’s life before, during, and after the transition in his character that comes from having met his match. The term “phantom thread” is a reference to Victorian-era London, when seamstresses would work so arduously that they would come home after a long day and stitch clothes in their sleep. Similarly, Woodcock has no off-button—his life is so driven by his occupation that his idea of a relationship involves demanding every piece of his partner until they are the ultimate tool in his pursuits. Anderson plays with this concept subtly throughout the film until its climax redefines the theme and completes Woodcock’s character arc, all in one fell swoop.
Like the film’s main character, Phantom Thread is as demanding as it gets. Though minimalist in concept, the film is maximalist in depth. To understand the full breadth of its meaning, Paul Thomas Anderson asks the audience to pay close attention to every micro-expression and line of dialogue. Without the spectacular Daniel Day-Lewis, Vicky Krieps, and Lesley Manville, this would have made for a tedious and joyless love story. However, with its cast and director firing on all cylinders, the film is more delightful than a well buttered mushroom omelet.
Mrs. Streep Goes to Washington
by REGGIE WOLTZ
In this era of movie making, with expansive franchises and retreads running amok as studios increasingly prefer sure things over more risky investments, a crucial step in getting an original film greenlit is the opening pitch. How good does a movie sound when you boil it down to one sentence? Some of the most recent Hollywood favorites have excellent pitches. Want Emma Stone to sing and dance her way to the Oscar’s podium? Sounds good. Can I interest you in Jordan Peele directing a horror movie about a black guy visiting his white girlfriend’s family? Sure, why not. How about an animated film that follows the daily lives of those little pictograms that you use in texts? Sign me up!
The Post has an inarguably better pitch than any of those. It’s a Steven Spielberg-directed drama about the Washington Post’s printing of the Pentagon Papers. The timing couldn’t be better as it arrives while the country’s political and social climates are not all that dissimilar to those of the Nixon-era United States. Oh, and it stars Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep, the king and queen of Hollywood. It’s almost like this movie was created in a lab to dominate the film awards circuit.
The thing about The Post that stands out the most is its incredible ensemble cast. Yes, the film centers around its binary star system, but the orbiting planets shine in their own way as well. Bob Odenkirk nails his role as lead journalist Ben Bagdikian–at times seeming like he is the real protagonist of this story. Bruce Greenwood does a tremendous job of emulating Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara without vilifying his character or creating undue sympathy for the man that had as much to do with the Vietnam War as any of the Presidents that he served. Matthew Rhys, Sarah Paulson, Carrie Coons, Bradley Whitford, and Jesse Plemons give noticeable performances in their limited screen time. But the real unsung hero of the film, Michael Cyril Creighton, gives us the film’s best thirty seconds in his one scene as the junior reporter who gets several pages of the Pentagon Papers mysteriously dropped on his desk.
Tom Hanks and Meryl Streep earn their top billings in this one. They make the most of their massive portions of The Post’s runtime and the scenes they share buzz with the chemistry of two professionals at the top of their games. The problem is that they aren’t given much to work with.
Hanks’ Ben Bradlee isn’t a human so much as he is the imagining of what a pirate running a newspaper would be like. He bursts with personality and swagger but doesn’t appear in three dimensions. For being just as vital to the plot as Streep’s Kay Graham, Bradlee is never exposed or shown in his weak moments the way that she is. And boy, do we get a lot of weak moments from Graham.
Streep’s character is the thematic linchpin of the movie, drowning the audience in her internal conflict and cultivation of an authoritative presence. Many of her scenes amount to her pondering the same thing, over and over again. There are two concurrent conflicts in the movie, both having to do with Graham. The first is her questioning “Should I print the story even though it would hurt my relationship with McNamara?” The second is her questioning “Should I print the story even though it would possibly result in my newspaper dying and me going to jail?” If it seems like these are effectively the same question, it’s because they are. This makes it tedious for the movie to answer them one after another for the better part of two hours and makes Streep’s scenes frustrating to watch.
This weakness in storytelling is endemic to the true failure of The Post, its try-hard feminism. This movie was clearly designed to be a celebration of women, a distinction that it fails to earn the more the viewer thinks about it.
Spielberg is deft with the camera, using his frames efficiently, but the times that he does get fancy are used to accentuate the presence of a woman. Some examples include tracking shots that follow Bradlee’s daughter counting her lemonade stand proceeds, Graham moving past a picture of her father in the newsroom, and Graham moving through crowds of admiring women (one outside a room of the New York Stock Exchange, one outside the Supreme Court). Scenes centered on Streep hit us over the head with her point of view, which makes her unimpressive character all the more encumbering.
The story of The Post could be great, but the movie gets too caught up in trying to tell us that “Women are awesome!!” for that to actually happen. Instead of focusing on the courage of those who actually worked to bring the Pentagon Papers to light, it focuses on the courage of one person making a relatively easy decision. As such, it loses the dramatic appeal of having people sacrifice their lives in order to create an opportunity for the greater good to prevail (an appeal that Spotlight rode to win Best Picture at the Oscars just two years ago), in favor of telling the story of the woman who is only tasked with giving the okay to execute on that opportunity. This misappropriation not only engenders the aforementioned redundant double conflict that bogs the movie down, it creates a load of forced themes and hypocrisy.
Who is it that risked being convicted of treason to steal the original documents? Who called the shots for the team that was responsible for bringing the Pentagon Papers to light? Who did the digging in order to find the leak and gather the resources that allowed the news story to be printed? Who made the final call for all of their hard work to pay off?
I’m not saying that Kay Graham wasn’t brave in making her decision or that women don’t add much to this story. I just want to make it clear that it is a reach for a film about the printing of the Pentagon Papers to congratulate a woman as if she made it all happen. That is just not the truth of the reality and, as a result, The Post takes a great pitch and throws it in the dirt.
by REGGIE WOLTZ
Aaron Sorkin Goes All-In
Aaron Sorkin is a master of screenwriting. Even if you don’t know his name, you probably know his work. The Social Network, Moneyball, and Steve Jobs (the Michael Fassbender one) are just his last three films – the first two of which were nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Ever since his work on A Few Good Men and West Wing, Sorkin’s name has been synonymous with on-page prestige. As a result, it’s only natural that a movie with his name attached would be worth keeping an eye on.
In Molly’s Game, however, it’s not your eyes that matter. Sure, there are important visuals. From the opening moments, overlaid diagrams are used to aid the viewer’s comprehension. In the movie’s poker scenes, these diagrams are especially important to helping the viewer to understand the dramatic tension without having to know the game itself.
Jessica Chastain, as the titular character, characterizes Molly between two timelines that show her progression through an eventful career as a host of high roller poker games. The most striking difference between these two Mollies is how they are represented through outfits and make-up. Chastain’s performance itself is also very eye-catching, using facial micro-expressions and powerful body language to convey meaning in every scene.
For all that the editing and acting give you to look at, Molly’s Game is much more interested in making you listen. This is what Sorkin is good at. The cerebral and quickly paced dialogue is laid on impressively, particularly in the Word Olympics scenes that Chastain and Idris Elba share. The supporting actors and actresses in the movie are also at their best. Michael Cera’s Player X, Bill Camp’s Harlan, and Chris O’Dowd’s Douglas do well to help the movie along for the final half of the movie. From a dialogue and character performance perspective, this movie really showcases Sorkin’s skills.
Narration is present throughout the movie. The surprisingly consistent use of Molly’s internal voice felt like a guided tour through the halls of her memories. Chastain gave life to the movie from scene one, and along the way her narration tied together three timelines to tell us Molly’s story. That’s no minor feat, considering that narration in movies is usually a five minute introduction and rarely heard from again.
The style of the dialogue and the use of narration are major positives in their own right, but together they destroy the balance between sound and silence. It’s not like in another movie where rampant dialogue would be washed out by a musical transition or a change of pace. This counterpoint, instead, was narration. And all of that exposition causes a fair amount of mental fatigue by the end of the 140 minute runtime.
The cause of this seems obvious. Sorkin isn’t just writing this time, he’s directing. And whatever hold on Sorkin’s dialogue that a David Fincher, Bennett Miller, or Ridley Scott utilized to achieve a proper balance is gone. Leaving the preponderance of dialogue in a film up to Aaron Sorkin is like giving the green light to a kid in a candy store. You think that kid is going to take his time, carefully meditating on the most elegant sugar pairings before making an enlightened and refined selection? Nah, that kid’s gonna go straight for what he knows he wants and get as much of it as he can.
But there’s more. The gummi bear that broke the camel’s back comes at the end. Kevin Costner, Molly’s father whom we know by now is a psychologist with a background in Sigmund Freud’s theories, gives us “Three years of therapy in three minutes.” Not only is Sorkin interested in telling us the entire movie, he wants to go one step farther. We get the story of a vital experience from her early childhood (that manifested subconsciously because Freud) and a call back to her worst memory. As such, Aaron Sorkin has explained the movie as the ending to that movie. Aaron Sorkin just won a Triple Crown in exposition that I didn’t even know existed.
In a vacuum, the idea of a explaining everything, making literal the themes and plot of the movie, is a cool concept. It isn’t attempted very often and it definitely isn’t done well, hardly ever. But that’s because it’s a stretch, even in a movie that doesn’t use exposition as much as Molly’s Game does. Here, it feels contrived and slightly condescending. Sorkin doesn’t let the viewers figure anything out, which feels like an infringement on our rights.
All in all, Molly’s Game is still an impressive debut. Sorkin knew what he wanted to do and then executed, also getting great performances from his actors. The fault of the film is that what he wants to do is to test your hearing and attention span. This doesn’t necessarily come through upon first viewing – the material and style are great while everything is new. But on the second time around, the magic trick is over and the sleight of hand feels more like sleight of sledgehammer.
Star Wars: The Force Goes Back To Sleep
by REGGIE WOLTZ
* SPOILERS *
A short time ago in a galaxy very, very nearby…
The most divisive and controversial blockbuster in recent memory was released. Whether you are a Star Wars junkie or a casual moviegoer, chances are that you were looking forward to this one.
And why not be?
The Force Awakens was a perfect kick-off to the new trilogy — creating original characters and a bright future while rehashing enough of the 1977 original to get the bad taste of the prequels out of the fanbase’s collective mouth. In addition, 2016’s Rogue One was a gem of a standalone film and a benchmark in storytelling for the franchise.
This lineage, in addition to great critical reviews, beautiful promotional material, and having visionary director Rian Johnson (Looper, Breaking Bad) at the helm, built up a lot of hype for The Last Jedi. And while some lauded the movie and started making a case for it being the best Star Wars since Revenge of the Sith, there was a massive amount of backlash. Why exactly were so many viewers up in arms? Let’s break it down.
It is no accident that Star Wars has such a massive following. The original movie was a technical and creative achievement, capturing imaginations in a way that had never been done before. But The Last Jedi, instead of following in that tradition and continuing to push boundaries, takes the opportunities it was given and tosses them away like yesterday’s lightsaber.
Every major character that made it to the end of The Force Awakens had much to look forward to for the subsequent films. Rey and Kylo Ren, the tent poles of the new trilogy, provided new life to the tried and true Light vs Dark theme and promised to break the mold of the Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader archetypes.
Finn, the Stormtrooper-turned-reluctant-rebel, presented a characterization that hadn’t been seen before. Poe Dameron, ace pilot and all-around badass, added energy and a cool factor to every scene he was in. Snoke, General Hux, and Captain Phasma promised the same menace as the old Empire characters but with the possibility for even more devastating conquest. Even the old guard, Leia and Luke Skywalker, had more stories to tell in episodes seven through nine that would deepen the complexity and richness of their iconic characters.
So what did we get from all of that potential?
Well, let’s just say that a certain Supreme Leader would be very disappointed if The Last Jedi was his apprentice. While Rey and Kylo Ren provide the most intrigue and deliver on at least some of their promise, every other character falls short in a major way. Finn is reduced to a joke machine that gets stuck in easily the worst subplot of the film and a forced romance with an unnecessary new character. Poe has his moments early on but then gets caught in a tedious collection of scenes (with yet another awful new character) that is supposed to convey development but ends up feeling like empty screen time. Snoke is downright menacing for much of the movie before being inexplicably killed off; Hux is reduced to a sniveling child; and Phasma is completely wasted after being one of the most interesting characters in The Force Awakens.
But where this film really starts losing fans is with Luke and Leia.
Luke is the most renowned ‘good guy’ in the series, and perhaps even in film history. But this incarnation sees him turn from hero of the rebellion to salty space hermit, all because his former student happened to be leaning to the dark side (which shouldn’t be a surprise considering the kid’s grandfather is Darth Vader). He spends much of his screen time going from rebuking his past life to cracking jokes with shifts in tone that are questionable at best and discombobulating at worst. Betraying an audience that is well acquainted with Luke, this movie implies massive character development but only follows it up with a handful of flashbacks and a quick turnaround in its climax. This is certainly not enough to be believable and ends up tarnishing one of the most awaited returns of a character in film history.
The problems with Leia’s character are symptomatic of an issue with this film fitting into the larger Star Wars mythos: anythinghaving to do with the Force. Leia, a character that was known to be Force-sensitive but not nearly as capable as a trained Jedi, performs the most impressive feat seen in a Star Wars movie: surviving being blown up and sucked into the vacuum of space, and then using the Force to fly back to her ship. I couldn’t suspend my disbelief on this one. I had to look around at my fellow moviegoers to make sure that I wasn’t just hallucinating. Unfortunately, I wasn’t.
While Leia’s character would go on to have meaningful scenes in the rest of the movie, it really didn’t matter to me anymore. The damage was done. This was an egregious act by the film, rewriting the rules of the Force in such a flippant way that it just felt disrespectful. The Last Jedi didn’t stop there in its reintroduction of the Force. Snoke shows never-before-seen powers, appearing nearly omnipotent before being cleaved in the most predictable manner possible. Yoda, who has been dead for decades at this point, summons actual lightning out of nowhere and now has forced us to consider if space ghosts are the most powerful beings in the galaxy. Luke projects himself across lightyears in his only redemptive moment to dodge Kylo Ren a couple of times before pathetically dying for no reason.
The best thing about the new trilogy is the continued exploration of the Star Wars universe and lore. One of the coolest moments in The Force Awakens is Kylo halting a laser blast in midair. It’s like this movie saw that and said “hold my beer” over and over again. The result is too many suspensions of disbelief, too many perceived plot holes, and way, way too much fan service.
I don’t want to sell this movie completely short. It had beautiful cinematography, excellent dialogue, and heart-pounding action. If this were not a Star Wars movie, perhaps that would have been enough to meet expectations. But that is not the case. As a result, this feels less like a canonical film and more like a two and a half hour fan-created tribute video with a massive budget.
Yes there are great moments, but without proper story elements and characterization it was just that, a loosely tied collection of moments. Many fans were expecting this to go beyond, push the limits, and give us the next great Star Wars sequel. Instead it explored all the wrong boundaries and transformed this storied franchise from an epic space opera into something we never could have expected: a hacky space comedy.
The Disaster Artist
Wiseau’s Bizarre Adventures
by REGGIE WOLTZ
For anyone who has ever made it through the entirety of The Room, first of all, congratulations. There is a special place in heaven reserved for those with the wherewithal to endure that tragic comedy of a film. Having seen it a handful of times (primarily because I enjoy sharing my pain with others), I can attest to experiencing the delirium that slowly eats your brain over its 99 minute runtime.
The existence of such a movie poses many serious and philosophical questions. Was there even a script? Is God evil for allowing this to be made? What exactly were the creators going for? But mainly: who the frig is Tommy Wiseau?
This last question is what The Disaster Artist seeks to help us answer. By channeling the presence of The Room’s auteur to an absolute T, James Franco gives us a peek behind a curtain that is unsettling, mystifying, and definitely not from New Orleans. And while the movie ends without providing satisfying results for its three essential queries (Where is he from? How old is he? Why is he so rich?), the journey that we take to get there is quite a pleasure.
Beyond the inherent mystery of the film, it is the individual performances that make The Disaster Artist stand out. James Franco deserves awards for his replication of Wiseau’s laugh alone. His brother, Dave Franco, serves as a tonic to the tall glass of absinthe that is Tommy Wiseau by creating an empathetic Greg Sestero from the opening scene. This movie would not be the same without Sestero’s overly smiley and optimistic attitude cutting the dramatic tension and allowing this to be a comedy, rather than a disturbing sort of biopic.
In fact, it is this abundance of chemistry between the two leads that creates one of the film’s only flaws. The climax of the conflict, the filming of The Room’s surrealist football tossing scene, feels jarring and sudden after much of the movie had downplayed the underlying darkness of its main characters’ relationship in order to let its absurdist humor shine. This crashing back to reality, a departure in tone and logic from the rest of the story, was also undone by the finale – which cheapens its presence even further.
Now, I’m not upset in the least that this movie leaned way more towards comedy than drama. Forcing the crew behind Pineapple Express and This is the End to create a somber film would be like Alfred Hitchcock making a musical. It would feel unnatural. Instead we get what this movie ought to be: an incredible combination of character and cringe comedy with moments of darkness that hit and disturb the audience like Wiseau’s deathly pelvic thrusts.
This comedy isn’t only derived from the Franco brothers’ portrayals. This film utilizes one-shot characters with mastery. Judd Apatow, Jerrod Carmichael, Jason Mantzoukas, Hannibal Burress, Megan Mullally, Josh Hutcherson, and Zac Efron (and all the others I’m forgetting about) deliver hilarious moments in their limited number of scenes. Not to mention how well the most prominent supporting characters, played by Seth Rogen and Paul Scheer, mesh with the Francos’ and allow them to shine even more.
Just as The Room was not meant to be a comedy, The Disaster Artist was not meant to be a masterpiece. And yet, I haven’t had a more fun or inspiring experience in the theater in a long time.
This movie is a love letter to the art of Tommy Wiseau: part genius, part child, but an undisputed creator of his vision. It does not want us to pity him or look down upon his twisted accomplishment. We are meant to be motivated by him to open up ourselves to our craft and be the best we can be. Just as Adam Scott said in the opening to the film, “We are still talking about this movie over a decade after it came out. We aren’t talking about what won the Oscar ten years ago.” By putting himself out there, Tommy Wiseau may not have become the star that he dreamed of, but he transcended what a star could ever be.
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