Friday, December 29, 2017

Hostiles Review (2017)

Grade: C-

In their new Western “Hostiles,” Director Scott Cooper and co writer Donald E. Stewart effectively deromanticize the American West and depict it as a place of casual violence and conquest. During the opening scene, set on a calm prairie out in the frontier, an unsuspecting homestead is attacked by a band of quietly terrifying Commanches. Children, including an infant are massacred with little fuss. Somehow, the movie only gets bleaker from there. It’s overflowing with violence, death and suffering.

Through this extreme gloominess, “Hostiles” is primarily two things: an exploration of the numbing, tormenting effect violence and suffering can have on individuals over an extended period of time, as well as a somber, revisionist look at the shameful legacy of white conquest in the old west. While occasionally compelling, the film ultimately comes up short on both fronts. Cooper’s narrative approach is disappointingly narrow-minded.

Our protagonist is Joseph Blocker, (Christian Bale) a US army Captain who is broken down and full of hatred. Years of battle and death have made him spiteful towards Native Americans. But that spite also masks an aching feeling of guilt. This is perhaps the most pained, intense performance Bale has delivered in his entire career. There’s no light or charisma in his demeanor. The first time we see Blocker, in close up as he watches a trio of Apaches being rounded up, he’s stiff and emotionless, dead inside.

Blocker is ready for retirement and maybe a hot bath. But his work isn’t done yet. He’s ordered to escort an elderly Cheyenne chief named Yellow Hawk (the great Wes Studi in another terrific, understated turn) and his family back to their land in Montana. Blocker reluctantly agrees and they set off, accompanied by a small cavalry unit. Along the way they encounter Rosalie Quaid (Rosamund Pike) an emotionally fraught woman who lost her family in the film’s opening attack, and face off against a diverse lot of antagonists (Indians, fur trappers, land owners etc.).

Throughout the course of the journey, Blocker will take a good hard look at his deep seeded hatred and guilt and perhaps even have a change of heart about his Native acquaintances. By the middle of the second act, “Hostiles” is dripping with white guilt, which is good. We have plenty to feel guilty about regarding our despicable treatment of Native Americans (and other minorities) in the old west and Cooper makes that very clear. In one scene, one of Blockers men essentially apologizes to Yellow Hawk for the treatment of his people. But this is also the main problem with “Hostiles:” despite its good intentions the picture ultimately prioritizes white guilt and white suffering at the expense of its Native characters.

This isn’t to say the film’s depiction of Native Americans is entirely offensive. In fact Studi portrays Yellow Hawk as stoic and enlightened. He’s generous even when his white counterparts don’t return the favor and constantly preaches unity when the group is in a tense survival situation. He’s a much better, more put together person than any of the white people. As a character, however, we don’t get to know Yellow Hawk on an intimate, human level (unlike Blocker or Quaid). How has he (and his family) been personally affected by violence and tragedy? Yellow Hawk is a resilient but two-dimensional figure rather then a well-rounded character. His own conflicts, past and personality are never fleshed out. There’s always a distance between him and us that makes him feel more like a symbol than a real person. Meanwhile, Yellow Hawk’s daughter and son in law are given only a few lines of dialogue and are paper-thin. In the end, the Indian characters are there primarily for Blocker’s redemption.

In “Hostiles,” white guilt and disillusionment are placed front and center while Native American tragedy and perspective is pushed to the side. Things get especially frustrating when the film directly attempts equate white struggle with Indian struggle. Somehow, Blocker losing friends during battle (with Indians, mind you) is on par with the systemic genocide and conquest of Native Americans.

With the exception of a few tensely edited action sequences, “Hostiles” suffers from a painfully sluggish stop and start narrative. I don’t mind slow burn storytelling as long as it pays off but the film builds to such an underwhelming and patronizing end point that the meticulousness isn’t earned. Overall, Cooper’s film is well intentioned but one sided. Native American perspective is minimized in favor of yet another tale of white redemption.

Tuesday, December 19, 2017

Call Me By Your Name Review (2017)

Grade: B+

“Call Me By Your Name” is a warm, romantic film that derives much of its romance from a gorgeous setting and a laid-back summer vibe. The action primarily takes place on a heavenly Villa tucked away somewhere in Northern Italy, near a quaint little village complete with old stone architecture. The property is dotted with fertile peach and apricot trees. An ornate, stone pool sits off to the side. A secluded river is within walking distance and an azure lake is only a quick drive away. Paradise.

It’s here that seventeen-year-old Elio (Timothy Chalamet) spends his summer with his archeologist father (played by Michael Stuhlbarg), mother Annella (Amira Caeser) and Oliver (Armie Hammer, more leg than man in this movie) his father’s strapping summer research assistant. Elio spends his days writing music, drinking fresh apricot juice and having casual romantic flings. What a life. But it won’t last forever.

Directed by Luca Guadagino, “Call Me By Your Name” acutely captures the joyous highs and bittersweet lows of summer vacation. You can do anything you want. You can sleep in. You can sit by the pool and read your book all day. You can go skinny dipping at midnight.  You can even have an affair with an older American college student (more on that soon). Obligations to work and school are nil. Time itself seems to have stopped.  Of course, we know all this pleasure and freedom is short lived. Summer will end and reality will set in.  The same can be said for the film’s central relationship—it’s impassioned and felt but also transient. Like the summer in Italian Eden, it must also come to end.

The movie put me in such a relaxed state of mind that I was more than ready to be invested in the drama of the central romance. Elio begins a relationship with Oliver. Oliver is smoother and more assured of himself while Elio is a little awkward and still trying to figure out who he is.  They share a quiet and thoughtful bond. There are no lengthy courting sessions; they don’t have effortless romantic banter. Sometimes there are days where they barely interact with each other.

The relationship is based more on subtle glances and physical gestures. It’s a physical relationship without being overly sexual, although it does eventually reach that point. There’s a natural energy between them that gradually turns to lust. Guadagino takes his time in developing their attraction, which makes the moment they finally consummate the relationship immensely satisfying and even a little surprising.

I can’t finish this review without mentioning the controversial aspect of “Call Me By Your Name:” Oliver is twenty-five and Elio is seventeen. It’s an uncomfortable, divisive issue that the movie doesn’t directly address. Some viewers (especially American) will be unable to look past the age difference and I can’t really fault them for that. But aside from the fact that the movie is set in nineteen eighty-three and in Italy (where the age of consent is fourteen) I wasn’t bothered by the relationship because of how well Guadagino handles it. Their relationship could have been more explicit and exploitive but instead it’s tender and respectful. Had Oliver been more of manipulator or an abuser, I would have a harder time with the film but he and Elio are so gentle and considerate in their one on one scenes. We can feel their affection. In theory, the relationship is problematic but when you see the way they look at each other that concern melts away.

Ultimately, I think I was charmed by “Call Me By Your Name” more for the romanticized setting and the breezy summer vibes it emits in every sundrenched frame than Elio and Oliver’s affair but their relationship is still passionate and meaningful, making the film’s inevitably bittersweet resolution devastating to watch.

Friday, December 8, 2017

The Shape of Water Review (2017)

Grade: B-

What if, at the end of Universal’s classic monster flick, “Creature From The Black Lagoon,” instead of being killed, the titular creature was captured and brought back to America? And what if he was kept in a top-secret government laboratory where he was deeply misunderstood and neglected? And what if he also fell in love with a human woman? That’s one way to think about “The Shape of Water.”

Written and directed by Guillermo Del Toro, “The Shape of Water” is an intriguing, sometimes messy genre mashup of creature horror, cold war espionage thriller and of course interspecies romance. More importantly, it’s a social drama about the ugliness of America circa 1962, which is where the film succeeds the most. Del Toro asks us to consider who the real monster is: the slimy fish man or the society he’s forcibly brought into?

Del Toro crafts a cinematic atmosphere that's equal parts enchanted and nightmarish. Set in Baltimore, the picture is stylish and colorful in an unsettling way. The color palette is dingy, consisting mainly of turquois green and swamp green, along with a sickly yellow. The world of “The Shape of Water” is both welcoming and threatening. In the neighborhood, there’s a restaurant meant to replicate a homey fifties style, small town diner. The host even cheerfully says: “Y’all come back now ya’ here?” as customers leave. However, when that same host suddenly tells an African American couple that they can’t eat there, we realize said hominess is just a fa├žade. Society here is gloomy and inclusive, to “monsters” like the fish guy and folks who aren’t straight white men.

There is, indeed, a sinister, wide-eyed monster lurking throughout the film but it’s not the fish man, it’s Richard Strictland, (Michael Shannon) the fella who captured him and is abusing him behind closed doors with the Governments blessing. Shannon gives another grimacing, unhinged performance, he can do this sort of thing in his sleep, and the movie certainly isn’t subtle in vilifying the United States government. In this regard, “The Shape of Water” is a dour drama about America’s continued mistreatment of The Other.

Of course, “The Shape of Water” also wants to be an uplifting love story about two outcasts. Elisa (Sally Hawkins) is a mute woman who lives most of her life in isolation, watching movies and old TV shows. She works as a cleaning woman at the same government lab that the fish man is being held. They strike up an immediate friendship (she sits at the edge of his tank feeding him eggs) and fall madly in love. Hawkins is solid in the role but their romance is cold and emotionally distant most of the time. I appreciate that Del Toro takes their relationship in an unexpectedly erotic direction. There’s an erotically charged scene between them involving a flooded bathroom that’s delightfully weird. But overall their romance develops too quickly; their affection feels forced rather than genuine.

“The Shape of Water” also suffers from narrative messiness, especially in the second half. A half-baked plotline involving an undercover Soviet scientist (played by Michael Stuhlberg) trying to get a hold of the fish man ultimately fizzles out. Given how trenchant Del Toro’s critique of American society is, I don’t think the Cold War angle is needed. He would have been better off removing it entirely and devoting that time to the central romance. Additionally, the ending is abrupt and unsatisfyingly upbeat. In spite of the film’s heavy social themes, Del Toro settles for a slightly contrived fairytale ending.

Despite these criticisms, “The Shape of Water” has too much going on for me to out rightly dismiss it. Del Toro puts hard-hitting societal critiques into a bizarre, accessible, genre-bending mold.

The Post Review (2017)

Grade: B

Steven Spielberg signed on to direct “The Post” (a film about the immediate events leading up to the publishing of the Pentagon Papers by the Washington Post) in March of this year. He read the script and concluded that this story needed to be told immediately. And, well, he’s right.

With news organizations shutting down around the country (due to shrinking revenue) and the Trump administration continuing to wage war on honest journalism, “The Post” is the most urgent film of the year. It’s a polished, well-acted picture about the first amendment being threatened as well as a celebration of the power and value of the press in a democratic society.

The film’s opening is swift and thrilling. The highly classified Pentagon papers are stolen, under ominous lighting, by Military analyst Daniel Elsberg (Matthew Rhys). Elsberg, along with several others proceed to scan and copy every page and drop excerpts off at the newsrooms of The Post and their rival The New York Times. When The White House hinders The Times from publishing excerpts of the documents, Post editor Ben Bradlee (crotchety Tom Hanks, chewing scenery, doing his best Jason Robards impression) and his staff are given a major opportunity. However, it’s up to owner Kay Graham (Meryl Streep) to make the final decision on whether to publish the documents.  

Beyond urgency, the main reason to see “The Post” is Streep’s luminous performance. Her Kay is eloquent, careful and modest. Her graceful self-assuredness makes her the MVP of every scene she’s in. Kay is quiet but never passive; she is after all a woman in a powerful position surrounded by old white men that constantly undermine her and want to see her fail. When Post board member Arthur Parsons (Bradley Whitford) patronizes her leadership in the comfort of three other men, Kay emerges from another room and tells him off with measured confidence. The scenes in which she has to fight for her place and her voice to be heard are poignant and rousing. At the same time, we see Kay at her most vulnerable and insecure-- when she struggles to keep her elegant composure and is tempted to give into the pressure closing in on her.

Considering that Kay Graham was left out of “All the Presidents Men,” (about The Post’s subsequent investigation of the Watergate scandal) her perspective and presence here is crucial. The Post may never have published The Pentagon Papers without her fearless leadership and Spielberg places her front and center.

Otherwise, “The Post” is a tight, sturdy Hollywood product. The pacing is near perfect. Given the large cast of characters and chain of events, these might be the fastest, fat free hundred and fifty-five minutes you’ll ever sit through. The dialogue exchanges are slick and precise, accompanied by lots of dramatic walking. “All the Presidents Men” focused solely on work in the newsroom, with no space for social lives. In “The Post,” personal and professional lives are in constant conflict. The characters private lives are frequently interrupted, which becomes a running joke throughout. Kay has three different formal parties interrupted by urgent matters. Spielberg depicts all of this action in a restrained yet dynamic manner; Janusz Kaminski’s cinematography is fluid and immersive. The camera frantically tracks through the busy offices of The Post and gently glides around populated news desks and dinner tables, capturing heated debates and editorial meetings. It’s all very absorbing to watch, at least for a while.

The film can’t help but feel a little mechanical and stale in the third act. “All the Presidents Men” was also a timely celebration of journalism and the first amendment but it showed the journalistic process in action, a process that naturally lends itself to the procedural film genre.  Director Alan J Pakula immersed us in the thrilling details and day-to-day grind of a journalistic investigation: interviewing subjects, tracking down sources, scouring records for hours upon end and meeting print deadlines.

In “The Post,” the drama ultimately hinges more on a decision than an investigation: should the paper publish these documents or not? It’s a monumental decision for sure but Spielberg handles it (and the remainder of the film) with heavy hands. The script by Liz Hannah and Josh Singer gets increasingly ham-fisted and self-congratulatory. The slick conversations between characters in the beginning gradually become wooden and preachy speeches about the importance of the first amendment. The movie repeatedly taps you on the shoulder, reminding you just how important and relevant the story being told is. We get it.

The points that Spielberg bludgeons you with are important but the heavy handedness gets to be tedious and the finale is underwhelming as a result. “The Post” is an impressive, relevant movie that should be seen but it’s not a great movie.