Film Review: “Annihilation” (2018) and the Radical Dissolution of the Self

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

Some science fiction films are groundbreaking in the sense that they open up new ways of seeing and looking at the world. 2001: A Space Odyssey is one such film, as is Tarkovsky’s Solaris and Ridley Scott’s Alien. These films unsettle us, forcing us to live in a very uncomfortable sort of world, one that is both like and unlike the one that we experience in the everyday. Annihilation, with its unstable narrative, exquisitely unsettling visual composition, and uncanny sound design, is another such film, a reminder of the continuing power of science fiction to challenge our ways of making sense of the world…and of the cinematic image.

The film begins when Lena (Natalie Portman) is reunited with her husband Kane (Oscar Isaac) who had gone missing in an area known as the Shimmer over a year earlier. Determined to find out what caused his disappearance–and his physical breakdown after he re-emerged–she agrees to enter the Shimmer with a group of other women to discover the source of the disturbance, what it may want, and whether it can be reversed. Once there, however, they encounter increasingly disturbing mutations, including an alligator with teeth like a shark and a hideously disfigured (and utterly terrifying) bear. Ultimately, Lena must confront the entity that has formed the Shimmer, in all of its utterly alien intensity.

At the level of narrative, Annihilation poses a challenge. It is not a straightforward story, but is instead related largely in flashback from Lena’s perspective. However, as we quickly learn, there is much that Lena cannot explain, either to the scientists interrogating her in the army station outside the Shimmer. And, just as importantly, it’s entirely possible that Lena, having been affected (infected?) with the entity that has come to earth, may not in fact be herself in the way that we normally expect individual subjects to be. Perhaps, after all, she has become something entirely new, something capable of turning narrative against itself.

The film also registers a fundamental instability in the way we make sense of ourselves as discrete, self-contained subjects walled off from the external world. When Lena asserts at the end that she isn’t sure that the entity has a purpose other than the continual destabilization of life on earth, she gestures toward an uncomfortable truth: there are things in the universe that simply do not behave in any way that accords with our own limited epistemologies. This is particularly discomfiting, as the entire film’s narrative centers on a search for knowledge, a desire to understand what it is that has caused the Shimmer and driven so many soldiers to madness and death.

What’s more, the film is also a challenge to us as spectators. Through both its stunning visual and sound designs, the film engenders a feeling of a loss of self, something akin to the sublime. This emerges in two important ways, one small in scope and the other larger. In the first, smaller-scoped sequence, Lena gazes into a microscope at a dollop of her own blood, and she is dismayed to see her DNA–the basic structure of her identity–changing and mutating right before her eyes. This sequence is unsettling precisely because of its oscillation between the seen and the unseen. While Lena is able to see her innermost self rapidly transforming, her external self remains largely unchanged. This is in marked contrast to so many of the other characters in the film, who are shown losing parts of themselves, either to the predatory bear or to the more benign plant beings that gradually absorb one of the team members. This sequence engenders a profound feeling of unease in us as spectators, as we are forced to accept that, for all that we might like to think of ourselves as discrete subjects, we are constantly subjected to and changed by forces we cannot see or control.

The second is much more radical. The director has been very open about the fact that it is best seen on a big screen, and while I am not usually one who buys into the idea of medium specificity, but in this case the sheer overwhelmingly dazzling nature of the big screen really does make all the difference. There is a scene near the end where Lena finds herself face to face with the radical alterity that is the extraterrestrial being, and the screen explodes into a radiant nimbus that is rendered even more unsettling by the pulsing of the soundtrack. In this startling instance, the film invites us to feel as if we are being lifted right out of our bodies or, perhaps more precisely, as if our bodies have meshed with the film screen. Something, it seems to me, is lost in this exchange between the body of the film and the body of the viewer, and there is also something unsettlingly pleasurable about this experience.

Thus, the film’s title is not just about humanity’s propensity for self-destruction but also a distillation of the film’s challenge to individual subjectivity. In that sense, Annihilation is the perfect film for our current age, in which all truth–and all sense of self–seems to be in a current state of flux, disruption and, in the most extreme cases, implosion. The fact that the scientists who question Lena seem to have no more ability to explain what has happened than Lena herself does further calls into question the regimes of knowledge that govern almost every aspect of our being. And the fact that the film’s aesthetic remain so disturbing also registers, I argue, the angst of an era in which the old certainties are passing away and, somewhat surprisingly, turns those anxieties into a viewing experience that sends a quiver across the flesh, a shudder of pleasured revulsion.

Annihilation is a horror science fiction film in the best possible way, one that pushes the boundaries not only of what film as a medium can do, but also what we as spectators can readily bring into our own bodies, minds and, dare I say it, souls.

 

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Film Review: The Utopian Pleasures of “Black Panther” (2018)

Every so often a film comes along that really and truly changes the contours of Hollywood filmmaking.

Black Panther is one such film.

I tend to be a bit hyperbolic in my praise of films that I really enjoy, and I will warn you right now that this is going to be on of those reviews. From the very beginning, I loved everything about this film, from the cinematography to the acting to its utopian sensibility. Indeed, I would go so far as to say that it is without question my all-time favourite of the MCU to date.

Coogler’s camera is a remarkably graceful one, and he relies less on the sort of breakneck editing that marks so much recent action cinema (and that can be quite disorienting and distracting when used, as it often is, to excess). There are several instances in which his camera actually follows the movement of the actor rather than relying on  It’s largely this graceful camera movement that grants Wankada its graceful beauty, which we are frequently invited to consume from above as the camera glides over the mountains and plains, all of it bathed in the piercing African sun.

Coogler’s camera is matched by the sinuous and smooth grace of Chadwick Boseman’s T’Challa, who commands the screen with an understated intensity. While Boseman lacks the imposing physicality of his counterpart Michael B. Jordan (in the person of Killmonger), he nevertheless has a power all his own. The two are an intriguing mirror image of each other, each representing very different views of the world that systematically devalues the lives, experiences, and bodies of black people. While T’Challa believes in the necessity of looking after his people, even if that means turning his back on the rest of the world, Killmonger believes that it is only through violent revolution that the wretched of the earth can at last take control of their own destinies. The film ultimately argues that is only a synthesis of such ideas that can succeed.

Indeed, if I have one complaint about the film it’s that we don’t get to see more of Killmonger’s backstory. If we’re being completely honest here, Andy Serkis’s criminal mastermind Klaue is a bit of a distraction that could have been dispensed with in order to give us more time to learn about the tortured psyche of this film’s compelling antihero (I use that term rather than villain quite deliberately). While we do get some suggestive scenes of Killmonger’s backstory, more attention to his specific experiences as an African American would have allowed his personal philosophy–as tortured and destructive as it is–to have more heft within the film.

But let’s face it: the real stars of this film are the black women: T’Challa’s lover Nakia (Lupita Nyong’o), his general Okoye (Danai Gurira) and his sister Shuri (Letitia Wright). These are some of the most kickass female characters to grace the silver screen, and they own every second of it. Can we talk about the fact that the elite corps of  Wakanda is comprised of women so powerful that, in one of the film’s climactic clashes, they can only be overcome with the use of war rhinos? And can we talk about the fact that finally (finally!) there is a young woman of color who is shown to be an acknowledged tech wiz (and a kickass warrior to boot)? And can we also talk about the fact that we have a woman of color who is a spy on the order of 007 himself?

And let us not forget Angela Bassett. While she doesn’t have a very large role in this film, she nevertheless grants some further grace and gravitas to the proceedings. She is also a pillar of strength for both her son and the kingdom at large, a reminder of the fundamental role that women play in Wanakda.

This film, like so much of Hollywood–and of superhero films in particular–offers up a utopian sort of pleasure. As Richard Dyer has outlined it, utopia provides imaginary solutions to the problems and shortcomings of everyday life in capitalist modernity, providing intensity, energy, community, transparency, and abundance. All of these are clearly on display in Black Panther, whether in the form of Wakanda’s phenomenal wealth or the scenes of action that sweep us up in their intensity. What’s more, Hollywood encodes into its form a sensibility that one can take action, that one’s body has the ability to transform one’s lived reality. Of course, for many of us we take that for granted, even as we acknowledge our own bodied limitations.

One can see this sensibility in the film’s sinuous cinematography that lifts us free of the mundane burdens of the regular world, but it also emerges in the stunning feats of action. T’Challa has strength that is both innate and also buttressed by his suit, and this allows him to move through the world–and to mold it–in ways that are denied those of more pedestrian origins. The fact that it is a man of color whose embodied agency controls the narrative makes its utopian pleasure that much more intense.

Black Panther is also utopian in terms of its reception. While there have been some who have (rightfully) critiqued the film’s politics, there have been just as many who have seen in it exactly the sorts of utopian pleasures that have long been explicitly offered to white audiences. There is something profoundly joyous about simply seeing so many beautiful black stars in one place, in a film that has been buttressed and funded by one of the most powerful entertainment conglomerates. Tempting as it is to wring our hands at the perils of being incorporated into the gears of mass entertainment, we must also acknowledge the profound emotional resonance such representation has for those who consume it.

It is my sincere hope that Marvel, Disney, and all of the Hollywood studios recognize what should have been obvious for quite some time now: it is indeed possible to make (financially) successful films that center on the experiences of nonwhite people will at last find the representation they deserve.

Hollywood, are you listening?

Film Review: “Phantom Thread” (2017) and the Dark Side of Desire

Some spoilers for the film follow.

Apparently, 2017 was in some ways the year of desire, or at least that is the impression I get having seen several of the contenders for Best Picture this year. Whether it’s the yearning to be free of small town life and smothering mothers in Lady Bird, the sweet summer of first love in Call Me By Your Name, or the powerful lust for a life outside of the confines of Cold War conformity in The Shape of Water, desire is everywhere.

And it’s darker side is to be found in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Phantom Thread.

Phantom Thread is one of those films that’s deeply unsettling upon an initial viewing but slowly seeps into your consciousness as you think more about its impact on you. Perhaps it’s the film’s gorgeous attention to detail–both visual and auditory–or perhaps it’s the crisp performances from its leads. Whatever it is, this film burrows deep into your brain as the days go by.

Though it’s hard to summarize a film like this, here goes. Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) is a renowned designer of haute couture, his gowns desired and sought after by society’s finest. He lives with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), in a relationship fraught with quasi-incestuous ambiguity, and his daily life is governed by a very precise set of rituals which he rigorously enforces upon all who lives in his household. All of this is disrupted when he meets a waitress, Alma (Vicky Krieps), who slowly but irrevocably disrupts his daily routines as they both find themselves caught in the deadly tide of desire.

This desire seethes in every exchange, every frame, and every sartorial flourish, emerging at key moments to disturb our complacency as viewers. In this film, desire is not just as means by which people seek out a connection to one another, but also the way in which they are able to grasp something about themselves that evades their conscious understanding. Though the film establishes quite early on that Reynolds has a habit of dispensing with the young women who take his fancy, something about Alma–possibly her rakishness, her tendency to resist his control–seems to call to him in a way that keeps him from discarding her.

Desire also writhes beneath the surface of Day-Lewis’s face. Day-Lewis has earned himself a justified reputation for his ability to fully inhabit the characters that he plays, and he brings that to bear on his portrayal of Woodcock. Here, he portrays a man whose desire for control manifests itself in every aspect of his personality, from the rigour with which he approaches the design of his dresses to the absolute silence that he commands. This is a man who takes great care to sculpt his surroundings–including, it should be noted, his sister–into the form that he desires, and any disruption to that order causes an immediate outburst of rage.

And as much as the film’s visual palette is truly stunning, what stood out to me the most was its use of sound: the crisp delivery of the dialogue; the sumptuous rustle of cloth; the infamous scraping of the toast; the soft, delicate skritching of pen on paper. The sounds leap out of the screen, as unsettling as they are pleasurable, a reminder of the sheer physicality of this world. They grate against us just as they often grate against Woodcock, stitching us into his experience of his surroundings.

At the same time, sound also encourages us to see things from Alma’s perspective, to cheer for her as she cheerfully uses sound to break apart Woodcock’s meticulously ordered life. It is thus especially significant that Alma relates the film in voiceover, her voice asserting a measure of control into the narrative that forces us to rethink just how much Woodcock has over anything. But then, her entire presence in the film relies upon the power of sound, whether that is her tendency to always want to get the last word in an argument (one source of the film’s biting and rather acidic humour), or her deliberately goading him at the breakfast table by scraping her toast too loudly (and deliberately pouring the tea from a hilariously high angle).

As the film reaches its final third, Woodcock’s entire life, that he has crafted and sculpted with such meticulous and granular attention, has begun to crack. Cyril defies him at the breakfast table–something she has never done before–and one of his foremost customers has taken her work elsewhere. The film makes it clear that Woodcock’s brittle adherence to detail may well see the ruin of everything that he has worked so assiduously to maintain, both in his professional and personal life.

It is only when Alma begins poisoning Woodcock–thus rendering him incapacitated and totally reliant on him–that they begin to settle into their (deeply unsettling) primal rhythm. Each offers the opportunity to oscillate between control and abandon, a fierce frisson that will, Alma hopes, set the stage for their future together. Unlike Cyril, who has enabled Woodcock in his obsessive control, Alma constantly challenges him.

Ultimately, it seems to me, Phantom Thread explores the perilous nature of desire. It’s what drives (some of) us as human beings to seek out others, even as it is also what threatens to destroy us. Both Reynolds and Alma are individuals whose psyches are haunted by yearnings that they rarely openly articulate, in all likelihood because they cannot describe, even to themselves, what those desires actually are. And because the film seems largely agnostic about how we should feel about this obviously pathological relationship, it’s hard not to emerge deeply unsettled from the whole viewing experience (as many of my filmgoers did).

But then, perhaps that’s the film’s point. Much as we might like to pin desire down, channel it, or just plain understand it, part of it always eludes us. No matter how much we try to repress it, desire will always find away to erupt into our lives, disturbing the placid surface of our everyday reality.

Film Review: “Star Wars: Episode VIII–The Last Jedi” and the Aesthetics of Resistance

For me, a new Star Wars film is always a cause for celebration. I would consider myself a casual fan, someone who both takes pleasure in the franchise and recognizes its tremendous cultural impact and value as a text worthy of examination. While I was happy with The Force Awakens, to my mind The Last Jedi is like a breath of fresh air, taking the series in some new and very interesting directions.

Picking up where the previous film left off, The Last Jedi continues detailing the struggles of the Resistance, recently decimated and on the run from the First Order. In this film, Rey (Daisy Ridley) attempts to convince Luke (Mark Hamill) to return from self-imposed exile to help his sister, Leia (Carrie Fisher) and the other resistance leaders. Meanwhile, Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) grows increasingly frustrated with the seeming complacency of the Resistance, particularly when Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) takes over after Leia is seriously injured. Finn (John Boyega) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) embark on an effort to break the tracking device the First Order is using against the Resistance.

In its thematic concerns, Last Jedi carries on from the first film in the new trilogy. The First Order is ascendant, and throughout the film the Resistance trembles on the brink of utter collapse. The pacing accentuates this, as we are constantly led to sit on the edge of our seats, waiting for the dreadful final bomb that will wipe our heroes from the galaxy. Of course, the narrative tension is supplemented by the action-cinema aesthetics, the numerous explosions, whip-crack camera movements, and bodies in perpetual motion. Through this narrative, cinematographic, and editing patterns, the film leads us to feel how imperiled the Resistance is, how all it will take is one more death, one more catastrophe, and the First Order will succeed in rebuilding the totalitarian state.

These patterns are undergirded by universally excellent performances, and I continue to be totally on board with the increasing diversity on display in the Star Wars franchise. Kelly Marie Tran is the film’s breakout star, and her fierce portrayal of Rose Tico is both off-beat and touching.

Though she is only on screen for a very few scenes, Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo is also one of the film’s great stars. Dern has always managed to capture a peculiar mix of strength and vulnerability, and she brings that to bear in this role. Though our perception of Holdo is largely skewed by the perception of Poe, who thinks that she lacks the initiative to help the Resistance survive, her ultimate sacrifice was one of the film’s most beautiful, heartbreaking, and exhilarating moments. As with any great movie about resistance against tyranny, The Last Jedi makes it clear that there can be no victory without sacrifice.

On the “evil” side of things, Adam Driver continues to blow me away as Kylo Ren. This would be the easiest sort of role to do badly, in that he is essentially a spoiled man-child who thinks that the universe should bend to his will. Driver, however, makes the most of his own gifts to endow this character with a certain tortured beauty. Somehow, Driver manages to be both graceful and awkward at the same time, a tension that perfectly captures Ren’s profound inner conflict. He feels abandoned by everyone who he thought cared about him, and this has become key to his ruthless drive to bring the galaxy into order.

This reflects Rey’s own inner turmoil but, unlike him, she turns away (for the moment) from both the dark side represented by Kylo and the isolationism represented by Luke. Though she was similarly abandoned by her parents–whoever they are–she has given herself completely to the Resistance, and she recognizes, in a way Kylo does not, that attempting to force an order on the universe will only replicate the cycle of chaos and destruction.

What I’ve always loved about the Star Wars universe is that it tackles the pressing philosophical questions of our time. Is it really so bad to have a world that is firmly ordered in order to curtail the dangers of contingency and chance (as Kylo wants)? Is there value in the sort of exclusionary religion practiced by the Jedi, one that relies on genealogy and a select priesthood? (A friend of mine referred to this film as the Protestant Reformation of the Star Wars universe, and it’s an apt metaphor). The film has a philosophical heart, and that’s a refreshing thing to see in an action/science fiction/space opera film.

Though it risks finding resonance everywhere (as a friend recently pointed out to me), it seems to my eyes that the recent spate of Star Wars films has intervened in our contemporary moment. With the forces of tyranny, authoritarianism, and toxic masculinity in full flood, it’s hard not to feel a sense of despair, of wanting to just put your head down and hope that you survive. The Last Jedi, however, tells us that this is the way of the defeated, and that if we accept the brutality than we are complicit in the destruction of both ourselves and what we love. We must fight with every breath of our being, even though it is sometimes exhausting to do so (and even though it looks as if we might lose anyway).

This resonances stems in part from Carrie Fisher, who continues to exude a frail but resilient strength as an aging Leia. It was hard not to tear up every time she came on the screen, exuding her force of will and speaking in that faintly hoarse, slightly whispery way that is a hallmark of her recent performances. This is a woman who seems to know that she is fighting a rising tide but is determined to go down fighting.

In the end, The Last Jedi does give us hope that, even in the midst of great darkness we can still find the resilience and the strength to go on. And in these dark days, that’s a very heartening thought, indeed.

Film Review: “The Shape of Water” (2017) and Subversive Desire

Spoilers Ahead

I’ve been a fan of Guillermo del Toro’s work ever since I saw Pan’s Labyrinth as an undergraduate. Though I haven’t kept up with him as much as I should have, I decided that, when The Shape of Water came out, I was going to go see it. After all, it was set in the Cold War, and was clearly an homage to The Creature from the Black Lagoon, one of that era’s most iconic horror films.

I was not disappointed.

Set during the height of the Cold War, The Shape of Water is essentially the story of how Eliza (Sally Hawkins) falls in love with a creature dragged back from the Amazon by Colonel Richard Strickland (Michael Shannon). Secondarily, the film also deals with the personal lives of Eliza’s friend Zelda (Octavia Spencer) and Giles (Richard Jenkins), as well as Dr. Robert Hoffstetler (Michael Stuhlbarg).

As its base, the film is very much about the power of desire to liberate us from the shackles of bourgeois society and its ability to drain the joy from life. In that sense, it’s no accident that the film is set during the Cold War, that most perilous and oppressive of eras, when desire had not only social but grave political consequences. The film rips away the traditional (and irritatingly long-lived) cultural mythology that paints the period as one of dutiful wives and manly husbands, showing us the darker side of this ideology. Shannon’s Strickland is a Cold Warrior of the worst type, his mouth compressed into a grim line, his face bearing the grim imprint of his own pathological repression.

For Eliza, the power of desire lies in its ability to connect her to a being that may not be fully human (though the film also asks us to think about what that designation means). Unlike everyone else in her world, who sees her as just slightly less than human because of her muteness, the creature embraces her difference, desire providing the bridge between them. Indeed, desire in this film seems to exist in space beyond language, a challenge to the limits and the walls that we erect around ourselves.

There is, then, an irony in the title. For just as water always threatens to spill out of its bounds–it is fluid, after all–so desire always threatens to subvert the containers that we erect to contain and channel it. Though some might recoil at the idea that a human woman could find romantic (and sexual!) fulfillment with a man of another species, the film seems to take this particular fact in stride. It feels perfectly natural that Eliza should at last find her happiness with a creature that is as much a victim of the ruthless Cold War ethos as he is the characters’ anthropocentrism.

The Shape of Water repeatedly reminds us of the dangers of erecting walls around how we are supposed to feel, while also shedding a piercing light on the violence and hypocrisy undergirding Cold War America. From Strickland’s rotting fingers (they are bitten off by the creature but sewn back on and rejected by his body) to the empty friendliness of a pie shop clerk who spurns Giles’ advances (as well as a black couple that come in for a piece of pie), this is a Cold War America revealed in all of its artificial brutality. In this world, difference is to be shunned or destroyed and justice, peace, and beauty are (seemingly) doomed.

In the end, though, The Shape of Water is an optimistic film, and it is determined to see beauty and love win out in the end. It’s this sentiment, trite as it may sound, that makes this such a resonant film in our current world. While it’s sometimes very easy to lose sight of the pleasures of desire and the sheer joy of love, this film shows us what that can feel like. It may not be del Toro’s most adventurous film–though it is lovingly crafted, with some exquisite play with shades of green and blue–it is arguably one of his most optimistic.

As a completely useless (I think) aside: I really appreciated the brief snippets of the epic film The Story of Ruth, which I’ve always felt was a vastly unappreciated epic film (and one of the only ones in the latter part of the postwar cycle that actually focused on a woman). It is worth pointing out, though, that reviews of the time particularly praised Elana Eden’s portrayal of the biblical character for its dignity, restraint, and strength, so in that sense the film does serve as a fitting reference point for Hawkins’s Eliza.

All in all, a truly fine film.

Film Review: “Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri” Reveals a Broken America

For quite a while after I watched Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri, I couldn’t quite figure out how I felt about this bleak, scathing, deeply violent, and acidly funny film. It wasn’t until I was chatting with my partner about it, that it finally dawned on me. What was this movie about, really? Sure, it’s about a grief-stricken mother’s desire for justice for her murdered daughter, but to me there seemed more to it, some greater comment that the film was making (whether wittingly or unwittingly remains unclear).

It’s about the brokenness that’s slowly rotting away at the center of America.

To fully understand how I came to this conclusion, it’s important to both know what happens in the film and how it happens. Three Billboards details Mildred Hayes’ (Frances McDormand’s) pursuit of justice for her daughter, who was raped, murdered, and burned. She particularly blames the police chief Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), who happens to be suffering from pancreatic cancer. Her crusade enrages officer Jason Dixon (Sam Rockwell), a policeman who has already fallen under suspicion because of accusations that he tortured a black suspect in his custody. As this drama unfolds, we get a tortured, razor-sharp glance into the despair that seems to have set in in this small town in Missouri.

There’s something almost of a Greek tragedy about McDormand’s relentless desire to avenge her daughter. A modern-day Clytemnestra, her daughter’s brutal murder has forged her into a formidable weapon, one that has one destination that she is determined to reach no matter the cost. As capable as she is, however, she has her own prejudices, ones that, I would argue, are built into the privileged position she occupies as a white woman in Missouri. She throws out epithets with a careless abandon that are almost breathtaking in their effrontery, as when she torments Jason with the “n-word,” calls a fellow townsperson a midget (he’s played by Peter Dinklage, whose enormous talents are rather wasted in this role, alas), and she insults the dentist for his fatness. She’s a character so broken that she doesn’t even bother to hide her contempt for those who occupy a lower social strata than she does. The fact that she has black friends doesn’t keep her from using what is arguably the harshest racial slur there is when it suits her. And it also doesn’t keep her from being crude toward her only suitor in the film, whom she casually dismisses when it suits her and uses him in other cases.

Indeed, Ebbing is a town full of broken people. The houses cling to the hills, and the people are beaten down. To some extent, this film has something distinctly noir-ish about it, the sense that there really is no right or wrong, just a bunch of sad folks shuffling through life trying to grab what little bits of meaning they can. For Mildred this is seeking her daughter’s killer, for Willoughby it’s trying to find the killer and enjoy the last bit of time has with his family before his cancer takes him, and for Jason…well, I guess it takes the form of his desire to be a good cop. Whatever that’s supposed to mean.

The film takes great pains to show how truly pathetic Jason is–a 40-something man who lives with his worn-out mother, whose only calling has been as a policeman. Rockwell imbues Jason with a certain ignorant belligerence, the sort of guy who got along well enough in high school but pretty much knew that he wasn’t going to ever leave his hometown. He’s fiercely loyal to his police chief, but I for one found him to be the most infuriating type of character. The film tries to grant him some sort of nobility, but I was left unconvinced.

Harrelson, however, does do a fine job portraying Bill, bringing his characteristic charm. I’ve always been a fan of the sort of careless charisma that Harrelson seems to exude. He’s crude, yes, but also intensely loving and, yes, noble. Of all the characters, he is perhaps the most likable, but he too is broken, his body inevitably failing him. The fact that he cannot solve the film’s central case renders his life tragic.

Three Billboards does possess a certain beauty to it, though, and it contains a number of scenes showing the rugged beauty of the landscape. As I was watching, I kept feeling the unsettling tug of familiarity. These could be people that I had known and grown up with. Part of this, I suspect, stems from the fact that the film was shot in the Appalachian parts of North Carolina, which bear more than a passing resemblance to my own home of West Virginia. Perhaps that’s why I felt (and still feel) a profound ambivalence about the film.

As I think about it, I continue to be perplexed by the film’s seeming agnosticism regarding Jason’s torturing of a black man in police custody. The film clearly has a fondness for even its most reprehensible characters–the redemptive arc it grants to Jason is particularly galling, especially in this political climate–and this leaves a distinctly bitter taste in my mouth.

If the film succeeds at anything, though, it is in showing us the bleak despair that has settled like a miasma into the heart of American consciousness. What we are supposed to do with that realization, however, remains unclear.

Film Review: “Lady Bird” (2017)

Whenever a film receives a lot of praise from the critics, I’m always a bit skeptical. After all, is it really possible for a film to be that good?

Leave it to a film like Lady Bird to prove me absolutely wrong.

The film is, at first glance, a straightforward coming-of-age story. Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) feels trapped in her humdrum teenage life in Sacramento, and she is particularly dissatisfied with the vision that her mother (Laurie Metcalf) has of her life and her future. She yearns for a brighter future outside of Sacramento, of going to a college on the East Coast and escaping.

One of the things that really stood out to me as I watched the film was how well it captured the ethos of 2002 (when the film begins). From the Justin Timberlake playing on the radio to the references to 9/11 to the barely-concealed poverty that afflicts Lady Bird’s family, so much of it rang true to my own remembrances of that time (I was roughly the same age as Lady Bird at the time).

Lady Bird is a film about how incredibly awkward it is to be a teenager. Sure, it can be exhilarating and exciting to do all the teenage things–apply to college, act in a play, even sleep with boys–but there also the flip side of these things. You don’t always get into the college that you wanted (despite your highest hopes), you don’t always get the part that you think you deserve (and you have to pretend to be happy for your best friend who does), and boys can be real shits.

It’s worth pointing out the absolute brilliance of Ronan. She manages to make Lady Bird a charismatic and likable character, even if she does do and say some pretty shitty things to both her family and her friends. Ronan, however, imbues her with a paradoxical awkward grace, a teenager who is at once supremely confident in her abilities yet profoundly uncomfortable with her impending adulthood. She likes to think that she is ready for the great big world of college, but throughout the film she increasingly realizes that this might not be as true as she would like to believe. While she is sometimes selfish and carelessly cruel, Lady Bird also has a proud and empathetic heart. Like all of us (teenagers and otherwise), she’s a contradictory person, and the film shows those contradictions in all their messy details.

It is also a film about the tensions that inevitably arise even when a mother and a daughter love one another fiercely. While there wasn’t as much attention to the “mama drama” component of the narrative as the trailers had led me to expect, the fraught relationship between Lady Bird and her mother is still one of the most important aspects of the film. Though it’s clear that they love one another, I’m still not entirely sure that they like each other. And, indeed, that is one of the questions the film asks: should parents and children like one another, or should they be content to love each other? Is it even possible to do both and still maintain a healthy parent/child relationship?

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Metcalf threatens to steal the show. She has one of those faces that conveys a certain world-weary sadness in tandem with a frantic energy. There are several moments in the film when the camera is just about to cut away from her, and we see a certain frown twitch her lips downward, a mute testimony to the conflicted, yet intense, love she bears for her troublesome daughter. Just as Lady Bird feels burdened by her family, Marion bears her own scars and burdens, the result of her own soured relationship with her mother (briefly alluded to) and the family’s struggle with impending poverty. She knows that Lady Bird is ashamed of their circumstances, and it clearly breaks her heart. For all that, though, she clearly loves her fiercely.

The secondary characters also deserve praise. Lois Smith exudes grandmotherly charm as Sister Sarah Joan (and come on, who doesn’t love Lois Smith in literally anything?) Beanie Feldstein is also sublime as Lady Bird’s best friend Julie, imbuing the role with a careless ease. Lucas Hedges also deserves praise for his charming awkwardness as Danny, Lady Bird’s onetime boyfriend who comes out to her in one of the film’s most heart-wrenching scenes.

Director Gerwig has a strong sense of atmosphere, and Lady Bird’s house manages to convey both comfort and imprisonment at the same time, a doubling that is true of Sacramento as a whole. Both home and city have a stale beauty about them.

Gerwig crafts a compelling yet simple portrait of the pleasures and pitfalls of female adolescence: the torment of young love, sublime joy of friendship, the conflicted feelings of family. Hopefully, the film’s critical acclaim heralds more such stories from Hollywood.

Executives, are you listening?

Film Review: “Wonderstruck” (2017) and the Joys of the Cinema

It’s become a commonplace to bemoan the glut of big-budget spectacles in Hollywood (and rightly so). I mean, I love seeing lots of things blown up and hearing superheroes make fun of each other as much as the next movie-goer, but occasionally I like to see a film that has a strong story with compelling, well-drawn characters, a distinctive look, and a resonant emotional core.

Fortunately for those of us who like a good story told well, there’s a filmmaker like Todd Haynes.

With his most recent film, Wonderstruck, Haynes demonstrates once again his talents as a director who not only knows the particular qualities of the medium has chosen to work in, but also loves telling stories through film. Somewhere along the line recently, we seem to have lost a little bit of our own wonder at the ability of the medium to tell us stories that matter to us in a way that is different from literature, drama, or television. Through Wonderstruck, a story fundamentally about the search for family in the midst of the chaos of modern life, Haynes shows us the simple pleasures that can still be found in the cinema.

The film follows two narrative strands, one in 1927 and one in 1977. In 1927 New York, Rose (Millicent Simmonds) dreams of an escape from her father’s oppressive home to see her actress mother on the stage. Though hearing-impaired, she is determined to make her way there. In 1977, Ben (Oakes Fegley) sets out for NYC in search of his father.

Haynes has a well-deserved reputation for visual artistry, but this film demonstrates that he has a similarly fine-tuned sense of sound. The portions of the film devoted to Rose’s journey is highly evocative, with a near-constant orchestral score that heightens her feelings of excitement, sadness, and joy. The 1970s portion is a much busier soundscape. Though Ben is also hearing-impaired (as a result of an accident involving lightning), there is a lot more ambient noise, a reflection of the chaotic New York City of the 1970s.

That’s not so say that the film isn’t visually stunning. As always, Haynes has a keen eye for visual composition, as with the almost impressionistic look of his 1920s New York, and the brash hues of the 1970s. This shouldn’t surprise us: Haynes has one a sharp eye for colour, perhaps the sharpest of any director working today. While the film may not be as chromatically complex as either Far from Heaven or Carol, it still a look all its own.

The two younger actors really shine in their roles. Simmonds, the newcomer, really does seem like one of the child stars of the silent era, with her combination of precociousness and innocence. Oakes Fegley similarly shines, though he has a rougher edge than Simmonds.

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Millicent Simmonds has a bright career ahead of her.

While she plays a smaller part than in most of her other films with Haynes, Moore radiates warmth as older Rose and a brutal beauty as Rose’s mother. I’ve always been one of Moore’s biggest fans, and I’m really glad that Haynes continues to give her parts in which she can shine.

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If you don’t like Julianne Moore, I don’t know what to tell you.

The film moves slowly, but when it comes together at the end it makes the entire journey worth it. If you don’t feel a lump welling in your throat at the final revelations, then I think you should have yourself examined to make sure that you’re fully human. There is a true depth of emotion in this film that is (if I may be frank) a little rare in Haynes’ earlier films but has become increasingly common. For me, Carol really marked the turning point, when he started allowing genuine feeling to emerge in his films, and they are definitely the better for it.

Wonderstruck is also about the joy of modernity. It’s easy to lose sight of that in the chaos of our everyday lives, when the world seems to rush by it as an increasingly fast pace. Fortunately for us, Haynes allows his imagination and his camera to capture the beauty and, yes, the wonder of the world. Whether the expressionist landscapes of the 1920s or the grungy look of the 1970s, Haynes allows us to embrace the pleasures of the world.

In the end, Wonderstruck is a moving rumination on the power of family, friendship, and memory and the way that we make sense of the world around us. There’s a lot to love in this film, and I heartily recommend it.

Screening Classic Hollywood: “Anastasia” (1956)

I’ve always had a fascination with the legend of Anastasia Romanov, the youngest daughter of the doomed Nicholas and Alexandra who was rumoured, for much of the 20th Century, to have survived the massacre that struck her family. Before there was the exquisite Anastasia of animated fame, there was the 1956 film starring Yul Brynner and Ingrid Bergman.

The film is a briskly paced drama. While this was not quite what I was expecting–given the grandiosity of the subject matter–it works well for the film, rendering it more of a character study than the epic one might expect to tell the story of one of the most famous royals of the 20th Century. Though there are a few scenes that contain the extravagance one might expect from a period drama, for the most part the tension is between the three principal characters: General Bounine (Brynner), Anna Koref (Bergman), and the Dowager Empress Marie (Helen Hayes).

All three characters have an investment in maintaining the fiction that Anna really is the long-lost Anastasia. For Bounine, it’s the chance to make a great deal of money, while for Anna herself it is a means of recovering an identity that she may in fact have never had. And of course for the Dowager, it represents an opportunity to regain the loving family that was taken away from her in the fires of brutal revolution.

The film finds its most soaring effect is in its use of music. There is a remarkable sequence during a visit to Denmark to visit the Dowager Empress and the exuberant strains of Tchaikovsky greet her entrance (though her face isn’t revealed for a few more minutes). Though she is a supporting character, Helen Hayes manage to imbue this formidable historical figure with a grace that cannot be rivaled.

Bergman manages to imbue her own figure with a certain tragic elegance, as she is drawn in to the plot of Brynner’s rapacious general. As he draws her into his scheme, she begins to lose even the sense of who she is. Is she, in fact, the long-lost daughter of the tsar, or is she just another nameless orphan who has been brought into the scheme of an avaricious and embittered nobleman? The film leaves the answer unclear, and that is part of the pleasure.

She is matched by two other formidable characters, Brynner’s general and Helen Hayes’ iron-clad Dowager. Yul Brynner has always been one of my favourite actors from classic Hollywood, an object of simply exquisite and imposing male beauty. This film is no exception and, while he once again plays something of an asshole, he still maintains a measure of charisma. One always has to wonder what really lurks behind that austere and often callous exterior, what fiery, sensuous heart lurks in that brutal breast.

For her part, Hayes is truly magnificent of one of the 20th Century’s most tragic figures, a woman who lost her entire family and was frequently beset  She seems to bite off her words in a tense conversation with the general, and she is even more scathing to her attendant, remarking acerbically, “To a woman of your age, sex should be nothing but gender.” This is truly one of the most wonderful lines I have heard in a film.

More than that, though, Hayes is in many ways the emotional center of the film. When she finally comes to accept Anderson as her long-lost granddaughter, it is a truly heart-wrenching moment in the purest melodramatic form (ironically, she initially condemns Anna for indulging in precisely that kind of melodrama). If you don’t feel the familiar tug on your heartstrings that is the hallmark of a really good (which is to say, effective) Hollywood melodrama, then you may want to reconsider whether you are actually a fully-functioning human.

Given that we now know with a certainty that Anastasia was in fact murdered with the rest of her family, the film cannot but be fundamentally melancholy. We know all too well that the glamorous Russian princess perished at Yekaterinburg, the victim of the Bolshevik Revolution. Yet the film, as any good melodrama should, indulges our hope that maybe, just maybe, history has lied to us, that in the world of fantasy known as Hollywood film, the doomed Russian princess lives on. It might be a fantasy, but it’s a pleasant one.

All in all, Anastasia is a truly compelling product of its time, full of beautiful colours, exquisite performances, and a story that is as sad as it is beautiful. Truly an exquisite film.

Film Review: “The Dark Tower” (2017)

I went into The Dark Tower feeling a great deal of trepidation. The reviews, as everyone knows, had been truly abominable, and its box office performance has been similarly lackluster. All told, I was afraid that the film adaptation of one of my favourite epic fantasy series was going to be an epic disappointment.

However, I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed the film. As both a fan of the series on which it is based and on the genre as a whole, I found the film uniquely satisfying. While it may be counterintuitive to say that an hour-and-forty-five-minute-long film can be epic, this more than fits the bill.

In brief, the film is about three central characters, all of whom bear a relationship with the Dark Tower, a structure that sits at the center of the universe and keeps the chaotic darkness, and the monsters that inhabit it, at bay. Roland (Idris Elba) is the last of a mystical race known as the gunslingers, and he is in relentless pursuit of Walter (Matthew McConaughey), a demonic figure dressed in black who yearns to bring the Dark Tower crashing into ruin and to rule among the ruins. Lastly, Jake (Tom Taylor) is a boy in our world who finds himself a pawn in Walter’s efforts to bring down the Tower.

The plot is streamlined and tight, fitting into a typical feature film length of around 1 hour and 45 minutes, which is something of a reprieve from the narrative bloat that seems to have become de rigeur for Hollywood these days. I suspect that a great deal of the critical opprobrium has to do with this pared-down narrative, which I think actually works quite well for this iteration of King’s sprawling story. As anyone who has followed the books knows, things go sort of off the rails starting in the fifth book (Wolves of the Calla), and hit their nadir in Song of Sussanah. 

What’s more, the primary trio of the film–Roland (Idris Elba), Walter/The Man in Black (Matthew McConaughey), and Jake–really work well together. A lot of people have noted that McConaughey seems to chew the scenery with a sort of manic delight, but if they had read the books they would know that Walter is just that sort of character, one who delights in tearing things apart just to see how they work and who would just as soon see the world collapse into ruin than see it built up. Rather than seeing this as hammy, I see it as part of the manic energy that motivates Walter in some of his manifestations (he adopts different identities depending on which worlds he inhabits).

But the real core of the film is the relationship between Roland and Jake. Lots of shit hit the fan when it was revealed that the black Idris Elba would be playing the white Roland, but I find that the gruff, hulking figure of Elba fits quite well with the way that I have always imagined Roland to be. He evinces a world-weary strength that has always been a key part of the characterization of this seminal figure in the King legendarium, and Elba clearly has a great deal of screen chemistry with his young costar.

Is the film as rich and complex as the novels on which it is based? I would have to say: definitely not. But then, it doesn’t really have to be. What it is, and what it succeeds as, is an introduction to a wider universe that is one of the great works of modern fantasy. If you go into the film with that sort of realistic expectation, then it is quite enjoyable. Don’t get me wrong; there is still much about the narrative and the spectacle that fit nicely into the conventions of the epic fantasy lexicon.

Furthermore, it’s also a telling that this film, with all of its attempts to keep at bay the darkness and chaos, ends up showing us precisely what the costs of that chaos might be. I don’t want to go so far as to say that the film is an allegory for our troubled times, but there can be no doubt that its narrative of a world that has declined (Roland’s world) and one that might (ours) that really speaks to how much some of us yearn for someone to rescue us from the chaos that seems ready to engulf everything we hold dear.

All in all, I think that The Dark Tower deserves more credit than the critics have been willing to extend it. It’s unfortunate that it was plagued with such a tortuous production history, and that it had the misfortune to debut during one of the worst box office summers in recent history. Let us hope that there is at least some possibility that the projected TV series will come to fruition and that at least a few glimmers of King’s magnum opus may yet see the screen, whether big or small.