Thoughts on mother!

Darren Aronofsky returns to us with mother! a visceral, haunting film presented in the director’s trademark, singular vision. This film is going to be divisive and was meant to be so. It is disorienting, bizarre, and thoroughly upsetting. However, it is also a work of staggering complexity, nuanced and layered. The qualifier however is if you understand the subtext and commentary that is taking place. In no way am I trying to judge you or your intelligence if you do not pick up on the inspiration for the story that Aronofsky is attempting to tell here; that being said, I believe the film is a much richer experience if you do. So for the less discerning audience members, seeking out even the barest hint of the subtext might be beneficial to your understanding of the finished product, which I wholeheartedly adored.

mother!

Jennifer Lawrence as mother. Property of Paramount Pictures.

The overlying premise of mother! is this: the young second wife of a famous poet works to complete their paradisiacal country home while her husband struggles to write a follow-up to his world renowned debut. In the beginning, their relationship and their house are as one: pristine, unblemished, perfect. It is as if they live in a space outside of time, made only for them.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

Then an unwelcome stranger shows up: a man lost in the wilderness. Soon, his wife follows and despite the young woman’s protests, her husband allows them to stay in their house. Slowly, the cracks in their relationship begin to reveal themselves, highlighting the skewed power dynamic between them. Though the husband is clearly fond of her, he is often dismissive and selfish, thinking only of his unfinished work rather than considering his wife’s happiness. This is exacerbated by the revelation that the strange couple are actually ardent fans of the husband’s writing and he, despite all his talk about loving his wife, yearns for adoration above all else. The young woman and the guests begin to war for the husband’s attention, even as strange events start occurring in the house, including bleeding floorboards, the discovery of a secret doorway, and the destruction of an indefinable object.

mother!

Javier Bardem as Him. Property of Paramount Pictures.

Then more people come. The young woman is staggered by their careless disrespect of her home and, more importantly, each other. Their humanity starts to give way to blind fanaticism and the young woman’s life devolves into a funhouse of horrors as she must weather this escalating home invasion while attempting to hold onto her husband, whose need for adoration ends with awful, deadly consequences.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

mother! is a journey of a film, a primal, thought-provoking experience that most certainly benefits from going in as cold as possible (unless you’re worried about missing the subtext as mentioned before). It’s a struggle even writing about it in such oblique terms because I have so much to say about it and so much I want to discuss with people who’ve seen it. The characters, for example, are nameless, granted broad titles that speak to their underlying narrative purpose. Jennifer Lawrence, who plays the young wife is simply called “mother.” Javier Bardem, who plays her husband, is “Him.” That’s it. And though those titles may seem pretentious, they’re not. Nothing in the film is present without purpose. There are no needless artistic flourishes. This is a deftly crafted narrative machine designed by Aronofsky with the intent to cause disruption, then conversation.

The performances are the beating heart of this film and both leads (and the extended cast) kill it. Lawrence is wonderful here, crafting a character that is at once resilient, yet frustratingly passive (at least at the onset). She is confused and often hurt by her husband’s actions, but she seeks to continue on, to persevere in hopes of there being something better in the future. Lawrence gives her most calculated performance since The Silver Linings Playbook, effortlessly conveying a broad range of quickly cycling emotions, from confusion, to outrage, to horror. She is our window into the film and succeeds in serving as a vessel for the audience, taking us on this journey into madness, making us feel the paranoia, claustrophobia, and loneliness of her character in every moment, no matter how quiet or how loud.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

Bardem, on the other hand, is a pleasing, purposeful cipher. He is at once loving and distant; amenable, but also capable of wrath. He clearly loves his wife, but he loves the feeling of being loved more. One gets the sense that everything that occurs, in his mind, must come back to him and how he feels. When remarking upon an awful incident that happens early in the film, he can only speak to how he was involved. When talking to the strange couple about whether or not he and his wife want children, he speaks for both of them. It’s a demanding role and Bardem, as he is wont to do, delivers, crafting a character whose arc is meaningful and unsurprising in the context of the commentary that Aronofsky is seeking to provide.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

From a stylistic standpoint, mother! is the latest in a slew of movies that love handheld close-ups. Like Black Swan before it, Aronofsky and cinematographer Matthew Libatique spend the majority of the film with the camera less than two feet from Lawrence, swimming around her as she navigates her labyrinthine house. The technique makes each shot feel visceral and dynamic, lending added weight to her increasingly distressed emotional state as her world continues to shrink. This, paired with the increasingly nightmarish imagery and lack of a traditional score, make mother! an unforgettable sensory experience.

mother!

Property of Paramount Pictures.

A final word on mother! This film is meant to upset you; it’s also meant to make you think and generate discussion. Though still a meaningful experience without the subtext, I feel like it is necessary to fully appreciate the amount of care and detail that went into crafting this experience. Aronofsky, as he always does, has something to say and does so with style and purpose. This is more than just a drama. It is an absurdist parable with a clear, necessary message. When placed beside the rest of his filmography, I would say this is more a companion to Noah and The Fountain than anything else. It plays with narrative structures and expectations, while offering layered, challenging commentary on a well-trodden subject. If you get the subtext, the moment that everything clicks for you is, in a word, divine.

A staggering film. It is easily one of my favorites this year so far. See it.

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Thoughts on Good Time

2017 has been a wonderful year for movies. Though blockbusters have stumbled at the box office, a slew of smaller films have succeeded in delivering a range of excellence, from nuanced character studies and touching comedies to tense thrillers. The level of quality dished out in a few short months—especially in the whizz-bang realm of the summer—has been staggering. Despite its relatively early release (as far as awards contenders go) I really do hope Good Time gets the recognition it deserves. Not only is it a gritty, tense urban thriller, it also features the second award worthy performance of the year from Robert Pattinson, who last wowed me in The Lost City of Z. Here he manages to surpass even that impressive performance in what is surely the best work of his career.

Good Time.png

Property of A24.

Good Time is a classic day-in-the-life crime nail biter. It begins innocuously enough, with a mentally impaired young man named Nick attending a meeting with his counselor. The emotional headway he’s making is interrupted by the whirlwind of chaos given human form that is his brother, Connie (Pattinson). Connie pulls Nick out of his appointment only to immediately make him an accomplice to a bank robbery. Events, as they are wont to do in Good Time, quickly go horrifically wrong. Nick is arrested and sent to Riker’s Island and Connie, struck through with guilt because of his brother’s incarceration, decides he will do whatever it takes to get him out. A bail bonds attorney tells Connie that he can get his brother set free if he comes up with ten thousand dollars and so Connie’s ill-fated mission begins.

Good Time

Robert Pattinson as Connie. Property of A24.

The remainder of Good Time is a mixture of character study and crime thriller as Connie haplessly tries to navigate an increasingly fraught situation which he complicates and worsens at every turn. Connie, as embodied by Pattinson, is not a smart man. However he is possessed of a sort of idiot cunning that somehow sees him through each and every challenge, with literally everyone else around him suffering because of his actions. Pattinson imbues the character with such fast-talking, kinetic charm that it’s impossible not to be strung along like the many people that Connie manages to screw over in the film’s relatively brisk runtime. The hypnotic nature of Connie’s presence is further highlighted by the visceral style of the film.

Good Time

Bennie Safdie as Nick. Property of A24.

Directed by the Safdie brothers Josh and Bennie—the latter, who plays Nick, delivers a brilliantly subdued performance in his limited screen time—Good Time is infused with a style all its own. Its New York City is a hellish, bad acid trip reflection of NYC; a claustrophobic, threatening place painted in varying shades of red, blue, and pink. Paired with a buzzing, synth-laden score by musician Oneohtrix Point Never, this is NYC as you’ve never experienced it before. The grit is artfully framed by cinematographer Sean Price Williams, who also manages to accentuate Connie’s continually shrinking, stressful world through the generous use of handheld cameras. The majority of the film is spent in punishing close-ups, hovering only a few feet away from Pattinson’s face as he breathes life into Connie’s detestable yet mesmerizing character.

Good Time

Robert Pattinson as Connie. Property of A24.

If anything that’s the greatest accomplishment of the film: the ineffably enchanting nature of Connie. There’s no reason to like him. Every bad thing that happens in the film is directly tied to his relative shittiness and yet you can’t help but be fascinated by him, wholly invested in his misguided, ill-conceived quest and the ruin of wrecked lives left strewn in his path. Robert Pattinson elevates already sterling writing with a career best performance that deserves to be on every awards short list there is. Simply brilliant work.

What more can be said? Good Time is one of the best films of 2017: tense, thrilling, and surprisingly funny (trust me). It tracks the exploits of one of the best characters in recent memory, given life by one of our most talented modern actors. If you have the opportunity, see this film as soon as you can. You’ll be sure to have… a lot of fun watching it.

Thoughts on IT

Something’s wrong in the town of Derry. Tragedies occur with startling regularity. Violence is many times the national average. And children just disappear. Is it merely some freakish grouping of statistics? Of course not. The mind of Stephen King could not deliver something so bland. Instead the force that haunts Derry is worse than anyone could imagine: it’s whatever you’re most afraid of.

It

The Losers. Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

IT, the newest adaption of Stephen King’s 1986 horror classic, follows a group of children who must band together to face the ancient evil that lurks beneath their town. Unfortunately, that evil is a shapeshifter of incredible power, one that’s capable of sensing their greatest fears and inhabiting them. If children are the main food source of It, fear is Its seasoning. The film’s exploration of children’s fears is its main conceptual appeal. Fear requires imagination and who imagines better than children? Whose fears are more varied or powerful?

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

The main group of kids that we come to know as The Losers Club range from an asthmatic hypochondriac to a fast-talking nerd with coke bottle glasses, the chubby bookworm to the stuttering hero. They are each unique people with their own histories and the film does a great job (like the book) of couching fear in character; the manner in which Pennywise the Dancing Clown (or It) appears to them is appropriate and terrifying. Some fears are more serious. Bill, ostensibly the main character, fears his insurmountable guilt over the death of his younger brother Georgie, who’s killed (in horrific fashion) in the opening scene. For Beverly, who’s suffered the gross attention of older men (and her father) for far too long, her fear is of maturing, of becoming a woman in a predacious world. For Mike, whose parents perished in a fire, his fear is of being burned alive. Other characters’ fears are more irrational or abstract. For Stan, who’s much more sheltered and childish, his fear is merely the weird woman in the painting of his father’s office; Eddie on the other hand fears the idea of sickness, rampant and unchecked.

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Each of the actors who play the Losers is pitch perfect. This is perhaps the most impressive young cast ever assembled for a movie, with each actor fully inhabiting their roles, making these characters not only feel like real kids, but also real friends. You feel for their struggle, you root for them to succeed, and you’re terrified alongside them as they face the primordial terror of It. Also, props to Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema for making IT a hard R film; thanks to that allowance, the kids talk and swear like real people, which was incredibly refreshing compared to the sanitized product we could’ve received.

it

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

However, the stakes for the children would be meaningless if Pennywise wasn’t an absolute terror, and thanks to the supreme efforts of Bill Skarsgard, he most certainly is. Skarsgard (Hemlock Grove) gives an iconic performance as the film’s titular antagonist. Through merely his voice and mannerisms (accented by inspired costume and makeup work), Skarsgard is simultaneously able to make Pennywise feel incredibly ancient and inhuman. In every action, one gets the sense that this is a creature parodying human life, his skinsuit always on the verge of giving way to his utterly alien nature. Even more disturbing, one gathers that Pennywise has assumed the avatar of a clown merely because he enjoys the sadistic irony of it. The gleeful, almost childish joy he takes in tormenting these children never ceases to be chilling. The filmmakers add to Skarsgard’s incredible performance by using a number of inspired camera techniques that only serve to accentuate It’s otherness. This, in addition to shooting Skarsgard from almost exclusively low angles to highlight his size (he’s 6’4”; towering in comparison to the young cast), make you believe in horrifying threat that he represents to these children. Overall, this is a definitive take on a classic character, imbued with new life by a wildly talented performer and a director with a clear vision.

It

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

Andres Muschietti (Mama) has done a wonderful job of adapting King’s novel. Along with writers Chase Palmer, Cary Fukunaga, and Gary Dauberman, Muschietti has been able to capture the unique tonal shifts of a Stephen King story, creating a film that’s more akin to Korean cinema than a standard American horror. I laughed more in this film than any other film this year, and that’s saying a lot for a movie that also heavily features the murder of children. Appropriately, Korean cinematographer Chung-hoon Chung (frequent collaborator with master director Chan-wook Park) fills It with lavish imagery and just the right amount of spooky Dutch angles. All of this is accented by a nicely varied score by Benjamin Wallfisch, which manages to be discomfiting or hopeful when necessary.

It.png

Property of Warner Bros. and New Line Cinema.

On a final note, perhaps the greatest achievement of the film is its depiction of the helplessness that one sometimes feels as a child. The kids are the ones experiencing the horror. Though one gets the sense their parents, and the adult populace of Derry, know something is and has always been amiss, they turn a blind eye. The people that are supposed to make children feel safe are reneging upon their responsibilities, and often, particularly in the case of Beverly, assume the role of the predator instead, a chilling and all too real reality. This is a common theme in many of King’s works, from Misery and Salem’s Lot, to The Shining and Carrie: the ugliness and perversion that lurks just beneath the idyllic sheen of small town American normality. It’s horrifying as a timeless cosmic entity; it’s almost worse when you realize that evil is often just people.

IT is not merely a staggering accomplishment for horror, it is an excellent film. Filled with heart, humor, and hope, it shows that friendship and love are and always will be the surest weapon against absolute evil. A terrifying, wonderful film that I can’t wait to see again.

Thoughts on A Ghost Story

Life. Death. Love. Time. Permanence. A Ghost Story, the new film by writer/director David Lowery tackles these subjects in a way that is both unexpected and challenging. The result is a mesmerizing meditation on meaning in the vastness of the universe.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Casey Affleck and Rooney Mara star as C and M, respectively, a couple living in an old house. We’re only afforded a few scenes of them together before C is killed in a car accident and M is left to her grief. Unbeknownst to her, C returns to the house as a ghost, imagined here by Lowery in familiar imagery: a white sheet with two eye holes. What follows is C’s experience of the afterlife, tied to the house in which he’d lived.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Perhaps the most striking element of the film is how it relates C’s experience of time. As a ghost, he is not necessarily present in the same way as a living person. He has autonomy, but only to a certain extent; and he’s able to manipulate his environment if angered or frustrated. However, he’s more of an emotional shadow than a thinking person, an echo of the man he used to be trying to make sense of what’s going on around him. This interpretation of ghosts is especially effective as it allows Lowery to jump through time, showcasing the drifting nature of C’s attention span. Using clever edits and a freeform style of pacing, Lowery invites the audience into C’s altered headspace, showing a world that’s passing him by.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Early in the film, he watches M eat an entire pie to deal with her grief, then he looks away and a season has passed and M’s in the other room, getting ready for work; another turn and it’s been a year; M is returning from a date with another man and the house has been scoured of C’s belongings. It’s a somber take on the afterlife, one which is impressively powerful given just how little we know of the central characters. However, the slices of life that we are offered are intimate, relatable, and incredibly moving. M changes the comforter to her bed shortly after C’s death, then stops to inhales his familiar scent; she listens to a song C made, remembering the first time she heard it. C seeing her experience these moments compounds the film’s somber quality, imbuing it with unexpected weight.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

This is also due to Rooney Mara’s wonderful performance. She is largely silent throughout the film, but she is able to imbue her character with such emotion that you see each stage of her grief, no matter the time period. C’s loss of life is also her loss and Mara, once again, proves the depth of her talent, effortlessly conveying a challenging mixture of emotions in another subdued, yet powerful performance.

A Ghost Story.png

Property of A24.

However, this film would not succeed as wildly as it does without a compelling ghost. C’s frustration, sense of loss, and feeling of aimlessness are palpable thanks to a deft performance by Casey Affleck, who certainly made use of his mask work classes here. Also largely silent throughout the film, Affleck nevertheless manages to make C a sympathetic character through a mixture of stillness and measured movements: a head tilt, a slouch, a yearning glance. Thanks to him, C’s ghostly, silent presence is never dull, but rather filled with tangible moments of emotion.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

As M gets further away from him, eventually leaving the house entirely, C becomes increasingly unmoored, cast adrift in time. The pacing of the film from here on is unique, as stated before, in that C skips through time, observing small moments between the ever-shifting inhabitants of the house, then become laser-focused on a single thing that interests him. Through these moments of intense concentration, the underlying message of the film is laid bare. I won’t go into it specifically for fear of spoilers, but I will say that I appreciate the complexity of the two-fold worldview posited. Overall, it is a commentary on life, death, time, and the meaning of art; the importance of permanence in a world that is itself impermanent. The true takeaway depends upon your point of view, but I admire that the film was able to discuss such a weighty subject in an abstract, nuanced, and meaningful way.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Much of the film’s success must be attributed to David Lowery, who used his proceeds from his previous directorial outing, Pete’s Dragon, to fund this film. His writing is spare, yet effective and he, along with cinematographer Andrew Droz Palermo (You’re Next) are able to capture the everyday beauty of spaces, specifically within a house. They imbue these spaces with meaning, then break your heart as they show the passage of time; how others move through the very same places, oblivious to the significant moments that took place there. The ghost’s iconic design is also a stylistic boon for the film. It may seem humorous at first, but the white sheet soon takes on a wholly different quality as the story progresses. Its color fades; its edges becoming dirty, frayed. Everything about its design speaks to the character of C, his growing detachment and the endless, aimless nature of his existence. The way the filmmakers shoot Affleck beneath the sheet is immediately compelling and picturesque no matter the setting. The visceral, atmospheric beauty of the film is heightened by Daniel Hart’s haunting score, which fills C’s world with repeated motifs of grief and hope using a mixture of strings and subdued percussion.

A Ghost Story

Property of A24.

Overall, A Ghost Story is a strange, powerful, and deeply moving film. It is definitely not for everyone, but for those willing to give themselves over to an experience and take the plunge, I do not think you’ll be disappointed. It offers a unique outlook on universal human experiences while also showcasing a worldview that might just be the most hopeful, uplifting thing I’ve seen in a long time. I adored this film and hope you do too.

Thoughts on American Gods, Season One

American Gods

Religion is a constant presence in the modern world. Every day billions of people bend their heads in prayer to their chosen deity, whether it be the God (or Gods) of Christianity, Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc. Yet how broad is the definition of religion? Is a deity anything more than something to which people give their time and precious belief? For every second spent in prayer in this modern age, tenfold are given freely to glowing screens; whispered adorations have been supplanted by Likes, Hearts, Views, and Comments. These new gods command our time and devotion, threatening to usurp traditional gods in the very same way those gods usurped the gods of old. American Gods, the new show by Hannibal and Pushing Daisies showrunner Bryan Fuller and writer Michael Green, seeks to explore this heady subject in a first season that is as challenging as it is mesmerizing; a blistering, challenging proof-of-concept that shirks normal storytelling rules to deliver an experience that is as captivating as it is strange.

Based upon the 2001 novel of the same name by Neil Gaiman (praise be his name!), American Gods centers on career criminal Shadow Moon. Shadow took the fall for a crime and ended up in prison. Some years later he’s released early due to the distinct misfortune of his wife having been killed in a car crash. On the way to the funeral, he encounters a mysterious smooth-talker named Mr. Wednesday who offers Shadow more than just employment: he offers him purpose. Although at first reluctant, Shadow eventually makes a compact with Wednesday and begins his peculiar road trip across America to fulfill the old man’s incredibly specific task: he wants to start a war. Specifically, he wants to start a war between the Old gods and the New.

In the universe of American Gods, belief is what brings deities into being and gives them strength; collective consciousness at its most powerful. Every immigrant who ever came to America and gave praise to a foreign god gave birth to a different aspect of that god: a shade reflective of their conception of the being which they worshipped, seen through the lens of their culture and experiences. As depicted in the show for example, a Mexican person’s concept of Jesus is much different than an Irish person’s concept of Jesus; in American Gods both aspects exist as separate entities embodying those beliefs. The problem for Mr. Wednesday and his ilk is that no one believes in them anymore. Save for the more popular religions that have been commodified and commercialized, the Old Gods are largely neglected, supplanted by a new class of deity powered by the constant adoration of modern humanity. Technology and Media reign, led by the enigmatic Mr. World: interconnectivity personified, the avatar of globalization.

Peace is offered, but Mr. Wednesday is of a different time; a time of blood sacrifice and fire. He doesn’t want to limp on in obscurity. He wants to be worshipped as he once was. And so he recruits Shadow to serve as his bodyguard on a road trip across America to recruit the remaining Old Gods for the war to come.

American Gods is a triumph of imagination, style, and casting. Bryan Fuller has taken his distinct aesthetic sensibilities (as evidenced in Pushing Daisies and Hannibal) and combined them with a daring, almost freeform plot structure that centers, above all else, on character. The show is not slow, but meticulous. The plot grows and spins its many threads, but instead of stringing the viewer along at a breakneck pace, it allows for time to explore characters that would only be supporting players in another program. Shadow himself is largely absent for two whole episodes—quite a risk in an eight episode season—and instead the audience finds themselves following anyone from a disgruntled leprechaun to Shadow’s dead wife come back from the grave. These storytelling risks slow the advance of the central storyline, true, but they also flesh out the world of American Gods, making it feel bizarre and heightened, but also lived-in. Shadow is the central character, but he is only one player in a larger game and because of these tangents the world feels as big as you’d want it to in a story concerning a godly war.

The series is also peppered with fascinating vignettes that range from wistful to tragic. These five to ten minute segments (labelled Coming to America and Somewhere in America) highlight how the Old Gods came to be in America as well as showing how they live now. Some of the show’s most powerful segments stem from these daring asides. One of the most moving features the incomparable Orlando Jones as Anansi, an African trickster god, who appears to a group of slaves on a ship as they’re being taken to America. It’s a mesmerizing scene that functions on many levels: Anansi speaks to them with full knowledge of the abuse and oppression that awaits them and their future ancestors in America, simultaneously urging them to resistance and sacrifice. It’s potent material and American Gods never shies away from confronting and commenting on the many issues facing America today. From gun rights to immigration, American Gods has something to say in its own unique and potent way.

There’s also a focus on identity, on both a macro and micro scale. American Gods discusses America’s confused and often contradictory identity with itself and its citizens (see the current events above), then takes it deeper as characters seek to determine who they are rather than what they’re expected to be. Shadow struggles with purpose in a country that’s labelled him as a lost cause. Laura Moon struggles with self-love, having already endured what many would consider the dream of suburban life. And perhaps the most touching vignette: a gay Middle Eastern man named Salim struggles to find comfort and understanding in a country that has a largely homogenized view of his culture and people. The care with which Salim’s story is handled is one of the most beautiful parts of the series and I hope American Gods receives recognition for such a nuanced, sex-positive, and thoughtful depiction of homosexuality and intimacy.

Aside from American Gods’ weighty themes and incredible visuals, it is an actor’s showcase. As expected, Ian McShane is wonderful as Mr. Wednesday. He imbues the elder god with the mischievous spirit of a lifelong grifter, but also gives a hint of the menace and wrath lingering just beneath the surface. Ricky Whittle, formerly of The 100, makes for a capable, charismatic lead a far cry from the stoic, near-silent Shadow of the book. Whittle’s committed performance makes Shadow’s journey from skeptic to believer as fun as it is captivating. Emily Browning (Sleeping Beauty, Sucker Punch) is sublime as the recently deceased Laura Moon. Laura is a truly unlikable character. She’s nasty, selfish, and fickle and exactly what we need right now. The experimental structure of the show allows us the time to come to understand why Laura is the way she is. It certainly doesn’t make her more redeemable, but it does flesh her out as a real human with all the contradictory, ineffable what?-ness present in actual people, which I believe is important to show in female characters. I could go on, but really you’re better off seeing the show for yourself. Every actor—from Peter Stormare as the bloodthirsty Czernobog to Gillian Anderson as Media, Pablo Schrieber as a luckless leprechaun to Crispin Glover as Mr. World—is excellent and perfectly cast. Here’s hoping season two continues the trend (and casts Mads Mikkelsen as an Old God because, well come on, he’s Mads Mikkelsen!).

Lastly, I shall comment on the music. Brian Reitzell returns to collaborate with Bryan Fuller once again. Similar to his Hannibal score, Reitzell imbues the universe of American Gods with a cacophony of discord: a beautiful, unsettling mishmash of violent strings and caterwauling horns. If you need a sampler, look at the opening credits. It never fails to set the mood and get you excited. Overall, it’s some truly sterling work that manages to always strengthen and never overbear the drama taking place on screen.

Much more could be said of American Gods, but it is truly something that needs to be seen to be believed. A singular experience: beautiful, bizarre, and utterly compelling. There’s nothing like it. Watch and then be overwhelmed with the need for a Bryan Fuller-led adaptation of Sandman. Revel in the sheer Gaiman-ness of it (PRAISE BE HIS NAME!). And maybe, just maybe, allow yourself think critically about the power of belief, what America is, and what it should be.

 

American Gods is available to watch now on Starz.

Thoughts on The Lost City of Z

Lost City of Z

In this age of connectivity, it is strange to imagine a time when the world was not at our fingertips, when much of the globe remained unmapped. That mystery bred fear and trepidation in most, but to a select few it granted something else: a fervent, obsessive desire to discover. The Lost City of Z, the latest film by director James Gray (The Immigrant, Two Lovers) explores such themes through the true-life story of British explorer Colonel Percival “Percy” Fawcett, whose pursuit of an ancient city deep within the Amazon became a lifelong obsession.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Studios.

The story begins in the early years of the 20th century with Percy Fawcett (a career best Charlie Hunnam) struggling to overcome the stuffy classicism of British society. Seeing an opportunity to advance himself and his wife Nina (a wonderful Sienna Miller), Percy accepts the opportunity to map an unexplored region of the Amazon. The journey, though perilous, leads to the discovery of artifacts that may prove the indigenous peoples’ civilizations predate those of Britannia. This bold claim leads Percy to fame and controversy. Ridiculed and revered in equal measure by the scientific community and the British elite, Percy nevertheless manages to gather funding to mount a number of other expeditions, becoming increasingly obsessed with what he believes to be a lost city deep in the jungle, which he has labeled “Z” (pronounced zed).

Lost City of Z

Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett. Property of Amazon Studios.

The Lost City of Z is a fantastic film: both an adventure and an in-depth character study presented in a deft and striking manner. Its deliberate pace allows the viewer to experience the wonder and dread that Percy feels when he first arrives in the Amazon. The excitement and color of these segments provide a striking contrast to the muted affairs of his home life when he returns to Britain. The only time he seems alive is when he must defend his discoveries before a board of his peers. You feel his anger and frustration as he tries to present his findings to the British elite, tries to make them look past their pride to understand the truth that though a world power, they might not have been first in all things.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Stuidos.

Through his journeys, Percy becomes an advocate for the native peoples of the Amazon, thinking of himself as a bridge between them and western civilization. It’s fascinating then to see that his progressive nature only stretches so far as he forbids his wife from accompanying him on his explorations, leaving her to raise their children alone for years at a time. These odd contrasts are what make Percy such an intriguing, complex, and vexing character. He obviously cares for his family and his wife, but the call of the Amazon is too much for him to resist. Time and again he chooses return, drawn by an obsessive need that only grows stronger as the years roll on. Even within the trenches of World War One, facing certain death, his thoughts are not of his family, but of the jungle and the fabled city that eludes him.

Lost City of Z

Charlie Hunnam as Percy Fawcett. Property of Amazon Studios.

Charlie Hunnam is the beating heart of this film. His Percy is a driven, stubborn man who constantly seems to be at war with himself over what he wants. The cause for his misfortune at the onset of the film—his father was a drunkard and gambler, crippling his class mobility—serves as a plausible foundation for his obsessive need for acceptance. However, that can only remain his driving force for so long and soon Z becomes his only motivation. Hunnam’s nuanced, careful performance deftly handles this handoff in a subtle manner that is both realistic and tragic. Though Percy comes to gain what he originally sought, it isn’t enough and eventually, neither is his growing family. All of this makes for a compelling and frustrating main character that you support and condemn in equal measure: a rarity in modern film. Though the writing should also be credited for Percy’s success as a character, it is Hunnam’s stellar performance that keeps the audience keenly invested in his quest until the very end.

Lost City of Z

Sienna Miller as Nina Fawcett. Property of Amazon Studios.

Sienna Miller is also a highlight as Percy’s long-suffering wife, Nina. Unfairly saddled with the responsibility of raising their family alone, Nina remains a steadfast advocate for her husband, even as he betrays his promises to stay again and again. However, Nina is never portrayed as a pushover and she makes Percy consider the full weight of his actions every time he seeks to leave. Miller succeeds in showing Nina’s strength and resolve as a woman in an incredibly sexist time period while also remaining vulnerable; every time Percy chooses to leave Nina, it hurts and Miller explores this hurt in subtly different ways in each segment of the film. Like Hunnam’s Percy, Miller’s Nina is not the same person who she was at the onset of the story, and it’s an accomplishment of both writing and performance that the film manages to have a full arc for two wildly different characters within the span of two-and-a-half hours.

Die versunkene Stadt Z

Robert Pattinson as Henry Costin. Property of Amazon Studios.

Lastly, Robert Pattinson plays Percy’s aide de camp, Henry Costin. He too has a memorable arc, starting as an aimless alcoholic with a knack for mapping, he eventually becomes Percy’s most reliable friend and advocate. Despite his support of Percy’s pursuit of Z, Costin comes to represent the voice of reason in the film. Though proud of their work in their expeditions, his life is more than the jungle, serving as a point of conflict between the two characters as the film progresses. Pattinson is one of the most promising, daring actors working today and I continue to be impressed with the diversity and strength of his performances. His work here as Costin is truly inspired; Pattinson walks the tightrope between reliable friend and well-mean devil’s advocate in a way that contrasts perfectly with Hunnam’s strained, unflagging drive.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Studios.

Though mainly a performance piece, the work of the actors would mean nothing without the remarkable script by writer/director James Gray. How he wrestled such a broad and detailed book into so sprawling, yet concise a film is beyond me. His characters are filled with life, have fully realized stories, and grow, change, and regress in a number of compelling ways. His artful direction, further realized by cinematographer Darius Khondji (Midnight in Paris, Se7en, Delicatessen), presents the Amazon in a spellbinding, multifaceted manner; it’s dangerous and beautiful, ancient and exciting, filled with wonder as well as dread.

Lost City of Z

Property of Amazon Studios.

A triumph of classic filmmaking, The Lost City of Z is one of the best film’s I’ve seen this year. It’s a story of obsession and need, both epic in scope and painfully intimate. I would be satisfied with nominations for Hunnam, Miller, and Pattinson, as well as the script, direction, and cinematography; it’s really that good. James Gray has created something truly special here. See it and experience the wonder of the Amazon and the tantalizing promise of Z.

Thoughts on Colossal

Colossal

I love a great metaphor movie. Why? Because in many films, you get what you see. The characters navigate the plot to its end, either driving it or in most cases being driven by it with a little symbolism here, perhaps some allegory, etc. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. In fact, many of my favorite films rest on this plane. However, some movies function on a different level and though they might be odd or strange and leave much to the imagination, the central message of the movie shines through in a unique and often powerful way. Colossal is one such film.

Colossal 1

Property of Neon.

The story of Colossal follows Gloria, a 30-something alcoholic nonstarter whose boyfriend dumps her after her latest night of hard partying. Kicked out of his apartment, she decides to move back to her (currently vacant) childhood home in upstate New York and figure out what to do with her life. There she runs into an old acquaintance from elementary school named Oscar. They reconnect and she begins to work at his bar (not the best idea) while she attempts to piece her life back together and decide what she’s going to do and if she really can change.

Colossal 1.png

Property of Neon.

Then a giant monster attacks Seoul, South Korea. Worse yet, Gloria discovers that she is the monster and that every morning at 8 a.m. it materializes over a city full of people and tracks her movements, to devastating effect.

Colossal 1

Property of Neon.

Now, one would think the rest of the film would be about Gloria and Oscar teaming together to figure out how to stop the monster. Colossal is not that film and its only ticking clock exists in the form of its characters, who, refreshingly, drive the entirety of the film’s conflict. Instead, it is a film about toxic people, neediness, and the vices which hold people back and stop them from becoming who they want to be.

The reason this film is successful is because of director/writer Nacho Vigalondo’s brilliant writing. The two central characters grow and change in drastic ways that are still believable given the grounded nature of their lives (save for all that monster business) and the problems that both of them have. Their addictions and general disappointment in where they are at make for meaty thematic material, giving even the smallest scenes added weight and depth.

Colossal 1.png

Property of Neon.

The material is further elevated by Anne Hathaway and Jason Sudeikis as Gloria and Oscar, respectively. Hathaway, as always, is excellent. Her Gloria is a complete mess; impulsive, self-destructive, and often selfish, Gloria nonetheless remains a relatable character because Hathaway lets you know, in many small ways, just how badly she wants to change and become better. Sudeikis offers perhaps the best performance of his career. Oscar is a character with hidden depths; he starts the film as an amiable everyman willing to lend Gloria a hand, a job, and even friendship, but as their time together lengthens, and more alcohol is drunk, emotions are laid bare and motivations are revealed. Oscar’s true self begins to peek through the cracks. How Hathaway and Sudeikis navigate their characters intersecting journeys is impressive and surprising, leading to a conclusion that is both cathartic and deeply satisfying.

Colossal 1

Property of Neon.

Beyond the great writing, Vigalondo’s direction is assured and deftly folds slivers of high-budget kaiju action with a moving, message-driven indie-dramedy that will most likely surprise you at every turn. The cinematography is pleasing, contrasting the light and color of Seoul with the relative dreariness of Gloria’s hometown. The effects are incredible, given the rather modest budget of the film, and I appreciated the amount of restraint and suggestion used to convey the enormity and movement of the creature. On top of this, Bear McCreary’s soundtrack is an awesome mixture of well-selected oldies and original music that manages to capture the titanic quality of the kaiju material as well as the intimate, moving moments in Gloria’s journey.

Overall, I loved this film and if you have even the slightest interest in seeing it, I suggest you take the opportunity to do so. It will surprise you. I truly wish there were more films like this, that ask you to take the plunge and just go with it, because if you do, you may not necessarily have a good time, but you’ll have seen something wholly unique and oddly, wonderfully strange. Who knows? You might even learn something.

Thoughts on Song to Song

Terrence Malick is a masterful filmmaker. He may be divisive due to his unique approach to storytelling, but I am firmly on the side that thinks he is an auteur of staggering talent and vision. His films are so intimate and human, yet somehow manage to be so while only allowing the audience glimpses into the lives of the characters that live within his world. The New World explored cultures clashing, the meeting of conquest and nature; Tree of Life detailed the macro and micro, contrasting the birth and death of the universe with the life of a small family in Texas; Song to Song, his newest film, dissects relationships, love, and the eternal push and pull of the often unknowable, unpredictable human desire.

Song to Song.png

Property of Broad Green Pictures.

The film centers on Faye, a musician caught between two men: BV, a charming singer/songwriter, and Cook, a wealthy music producer. That’s it. That’s the story. Like Tree of Life, Song to Song is almost voyeuristic in its portrayal of ordinary, day to day life; the audience watches as Faye falls for BV, tries to disentangle herself from Cook, struggles to move on, fails, endures, obsesses. It’s intimate and it’s real and, most importantly, genuine. Even more impressive is its structure, which hits you like a memory – out of order, yet associative, strung together in a wholly unique, impressionistic experience that only Terrence Malick could deliver.

Song to Song

Property of Broad Green Pictures.

Rooney Mara stars as Faye, the film’s amiable, yet troubled lead. Mara imbues Faye with a sense of emotional frailty and indecision, a constant yearning that she can’t figure out how to reconcile. Her inability to choose between happiness and desire leaves her in a constant state of self-punishment. Mara reflects Faye’s indecision with subtlety and grace. You’re never mad at Faye because you understand her, and understand that sometimes the human heart is unknowable and there is no good reason to explain how you feel or what you do, especially when it comes to love.

Song to Song

Property of Broad Green Pictures.

Ryan Gosling plays BV as an artist struggling to stay clean in a dirty world. All around him he sees excess and shallowness; the thing for which he hungers most is truth. His pursuit of Faye and truth in their relationship is both relatable and tragic. Yet he is also not without his failings; there’s an unwillingness for confrontation that hinders BV; his inability to face his problems exacerbates his unhappiness and undermines his sense of accomplishment in his own life and career.

Song to Song

Property of Broad Green Pictures.

Michael Fassbender plays Cook, an irascible yet charismatic rogue whose life is excess. Though self-destructive and impulsive, Fassbender succeeds in making Cook a hypnotic, inescapable presence capable of effortless manipulation. He’s a man that livens up any room he’s in and his friendship with BV, as well as his secret trysts with Faye, are made believable by Fassbender’s endless charm. Yet even Cook is not to be taken at face value and in quiet moments Fassbender gives him just enough vulnerability to show that even he doesn’t believe in the act he’s selling a hundred percent of the time.

Song to Song

Property of Broad Green Pictures.

This trio of characters, with all their histories and personal faults, desires and goals, make for a fascinating, character-driven story unlike any other. On a technical level, the film soars thanks to three-time Oscar winner, Emmanuel Lubezki’s unparalleled cinematic eye (he won Best Cinematography for Gravity, Birdman, and The Revenant, respectively). Seriously, everything is beautiful; from the most mundane, dusty trailer to idyllic Mexican beaches, angular modern architecture to the swells and angles of human bodies as they meet. His eye complements Terrence Malick’s directing style, evoking the dreamlike quality of memory. Together, they have created another singular work and Lubezki continues to show why he’s one of the most iconic cinematographers of modern cinema.

Song to Song

Property of Broad Green Pictures.

 

Being about music and the music industry, the film also somehow managed to capture footage of the characters interacting with real-life musicians in an organic and meaningful way, including Patti Smith, Iggy Pop, Lykke Li, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and many others. Rooney Mara’s Faye even plays on stage at Austin City Limits music festival. Beyond this impressive feat of shooting at an active festival, the film makes deft use of a number of songs, creating a soundtrack that is as intimate, unique, and memorable as the film itself.

Song to Song

Property of Broad Green Pictures.

In closing, this film is really about moments, strung together like a reminiscence, punctuated by song. It’s beautiful and ugly. It’s vital and human, moving and raw. I loved it.

The Taylor Awards 2017

Academy_Award_trophy

Another year, another Oscar season. As always, I’m excited for the Oscars, but if you’d like to know what my favorite films were, then read on!

Here follows a set of lists that sometimes coincide with the Oscar selections and sometimes don’t. I have bolded my favorites and linked to the blog posts involving those films if possible. Those that do not have a bolded entry are too close to call; those with two signify a tie. Once again, I’ll put the disclaimer that I probably forgot a few films/performances or simply didn’t see them. Apologies.

Now without further ado!

Best Picture – Academy-esque Films

13th

Arrival

Captain Fantastic

Hell or High Water

Hunt for the Wilderpeople

La La Land

Lion

The Lobster

Manchester by the Sea

Moonlight

 

moonlight-poster

Property of A24.

This year saw the release of a sterling array of films that fit into a variety of genres. The documentary 13th broke my heart with its deep-dive into the horrors and injustices of mass incarceration in America. Arrival delivered an essential story about humanity’s need for communication. Captain Fantastic showed an unconventional father’s love for his children in a tragic situation. Hell or High Water was a modern western masterpiece. Hunt for the Wilderpeople showed that quirky, heartwarming, and tragic could all be used to describe the same movie about two outcasts coming together. That it was hilarious also solidifies its presence here. La La Land brings old and new together in a perfect package that reminds me why I love movies. It’s a film for artists and dreamers, a call to never give up and persevere. It’s hard to resist the pull of that message. Lion was a touching story about loss and identity. Simple, yet emotionally gratifying. The Lobster was a hilariously dark exploration of the vicious ironies of modern love. Manchester by the Sea was a wonderfully poignant mediation on grief. However, of all these films, I think Moonlight, as a whole, is the one I’d choose as “Best,” because it offered me a glimpse into a world that is not my own; it let me understand one man’s struggle with his identity and his relationships in an extremely artful, emotionally resonant way. I won’t soon forget it.

And just a hair behind Moonlight, I’d put La La Land and Manchester by the Sea, two films that I also loved.

Best Picture – Science Fiction or Fantasy

10 Cloverfield Lane

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Edition)

Captain America: Civil War

Doctor Strange

Split

Star Wars: Rogue One

Swiss Army Man

Warcraft

The Witch

It has been another strong year for fantasy and science fiction (which always seems to be shunned on the awards’ circuit save for last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road and Ex Machina). However, I think this group is too close for me to call. If anything, I’d say 10 Cloverfield Lane and Split satisfy my yearning for small, taut thrillers, Swiss Army Man and The Witch give me just the right amount of moody weirdness, while other films like Captain America: Civil War and Star Wars: Rogue One offer the epic scope that I crave.

 

Best Action Film/ Best Film that Happens to Have Great Action Scenes in It

Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Edition)

Captain America: Civil War

Doctor Strange

Hacksaw Ridge

Hell or High Water

John Wick: Chapter II

Star Wars: Rogue One

Warcraft

This was a difficult choice for me because all of these films are filled with great action sequences. John Wick: Chapter II has enough face-shooting, throat-punching mayhem (with the requisite return of the amazing Keanu Reeves) to satisfy any action fan. Captain America: Civil War is here solely upon the majesty of its Airport Fight sequence, which manages to have a handful of heroes clash in unique ways while maintaining dramatic focus and letting everyone have a moment to shine. Finally, Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (Extended Edition) is here simply for the Warehouse Sequence, which gave me the Batman fight scene I always wanted. Fingers crossed for The Batman to be just as thrilling as that sequence.

 

Cap

Property of Disney.

Best Director

Damien Chazelle – La La Land

DANIELS – Swiss Army Man

Robert Eggers – The Witch

Mel Gibson – Hacksaw Ridge

Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

Yorgos Lanthimos – The Lobster

Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

David Mackenzie – Hell or High Water

Martin Scorsese – Silence

Dennis Villeneuve – Arrival

Taika Waititi – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

la-la-land

Property of Summit Entertainment.

This category is filled with brilliance. It was hard to choose a victor, but I ended up going with Damien Chazelle, who seems to have revived a genre through the pure cinematic joy of La La Land, a film that I love for its dedication to artists and their dreams. After Whiplash and La La Land, I can’t wait to see what he does next.

Best Actress

Amy Adams – Arrival

Annette Bening – 20th Century Women

Viola Davis – Fences

Mary Elizabeth Winstead – 10 Cloverfield Lane

Natalie Portman – Jackie

Emma Stone – La La Land

Anya Taylor-Joy – The Witch

This category is populated by knockout performances, but for me, it was Natalie Portman in Jackie that moved me most. She effortlessly captures the double-life of Jackie Kennedy, contrasting her turbulent private life with the demands of her extremely public persona. An intriguing, layered performance. I was mesmerized.

 

jackie-poster-1

Property of Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Best Actor

Casey Affleck – Manchester by the Sea

Andrew Garfield – Hacksaw Ridge/Silence

Ryan Gosling – La La Land

Viggo Mortensen – Captain Fantastic

Denzel Washington – Fences

Casey Affleck’s performance is devastating in Manchester by the Sea. It’s subtle and refined, yet so controlled that he somehow manages to characterize a man numbed by trauma and make the audience feel for him. It’s a genius performance and probably my favorite of the year. And just a step to the left of that is Viggo Mortensen, one of the finest actors alive today. His unconventional father figure in Captain Fantastic is the heart and soul of the film; it’s a complex performance, full of warmth and compassion, yet also contradictions that the character must face. Mortensen navigates this human puzzle with a master craftsman’s grace. I love this man.

 

Best Supporting Actress

Naomie Harris – Moonlight

Nicole Kidman – Lion

Michelle Williams – Manchester by the Sea

Like my pick for Best Supporting Actor, Michelle Williams is only in a few scenes in Manchester by the Sea. However, Williams uses the most of her time, turning in an incredible performance full of pain and heartache. It’s caught in glances at first, a lingering melancholy between William’s and Affleck; but when it comes to the surface it gushes out in a scene so earnest it will move even the iciest of viewers. Always reliable, this is some of Michelle William’s finest work.

 

manchester-2

Property of Amazon Studios.

Best Supporting Actor

Mahershala Ali – Moonlight

Julian Dennison – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Ben Foster – Hell or High Water

Lucas Hedges – Manchester by the Sea

Dev Patel – Lion

Michael Shannon – Nocturnal Animals

Aaron Taylor-Johnson – Nocturnal Animals

Though only in a small portion of the film, Mahershala Ali’s Juan is a looming presence in the entirety of Moonlight. It’s a quiet, thoughtful performance that’s filled with warmth, compassion, and guilt. Ali effortlessly conveys Juan’s growing affection for Chiron, providing him with a father figure that is sorely missed in the latter two-thirds of the film.

moonlight-1

Property of A24.

Best Cinematography

Thimios Bakatakis – The Lobster

Jarin Blaschke – The Witch

Greig Fraser – Lion

James Laxton – Moonlight

Seamus McGarvey – Nocturnal Animals

Giles Nuttgens – Hell or High Water

Linus Sandgren – La La Land

Larkin Seiple – Swiss Army Man

Bradford Young – Arrival

This is an incredibly tough category this year, however I chose Swiss Army Man for Best Cinematography due to the sheer overwhelming power of its inventiveness. There’s a wild, beating heart of creativity that pumps in every frame of this film and Larkin Seiple’s skillful eye manages to capture its kooky, earnest magic in vivid, colorful detail while also using a number of inventive techniques to convey the questionable mental state of the main character.

swiss-army-man

Property of A24.

Film Editing

Tom Cross – La La Land

John Gilbert – Hacksaw Ridge

Joi McMillon & Nat Sanders – Moonlight

Jake Roberts – Hell or High Water

Joe Walker – Arrival

There’s a hypnotic quality to Arrival that is difficult to capture in words. It has a thoughtful pace, but it’s never slow, instead unfolding and crosscutting between different timelines and events in a beautifully coordinated, yet elegant way. It’s some truly great work from Joe Walker.

 

Writing – Adapted Screenplay

Luke Davies – Lion

Eric Heisserer – Arrival

Barry Jenkins – Moonlight

Taika Waititi and Te Arepa Kahi – Hunt for the Wilderpeople

Arrival is a magic trick of a film and that is largely due to its magnetic script by Eric Heisserer. It’s a thought-provoking movie that manages to explore macro and micro events through its unique structure by contrasting a possible apocalypse with a personal tragedy in a completely unexpected way. A brilliant work of screencraft.

arrival

Property of Paramount Pictures.

Writing – Original Screenplay

Damien Chazelle – La La Land

Yorgos Lanthimos & Efthymis Filippou – The Lobster

Kenneth Lonergan – Manchester by the Sea

Mike Mills – 20th Century Women

Tyler Sheridan – Hell or High Water

There was a ton of creativity on display here in the Original Screenplay category this year. However, none moved me quite as powerfully as Kenneth Lonergan’s quietly devastating Manchester by the Sea. It’s an emotional powerhouse of a film delivered in a script that is beautiful in its sparseness. The naturalistic quality of conversation is so difficult to capture, but Lonergan does it here with a master’s deftness.

manchester

Property of Amazon Studios.

Music – Original Score

Arrival – Jóhann Jóhannsson

Hunt for the Wilderpeople – Lukasz Pawel Buda, Samuel Scott, Conrad Wedde

La La Land – Justin Hurwitz

Lion – Volker Bertelmann & Dustin O’Halloran

Moonlight – Nicholas Britell

Star Wars: Rogue One – Michael Giacchino

Swiss Army Man – Andy Hull & McDowell

I know this is a contentious category for many, and though I loved all of the entries here, there was something strangely hopeful, yet somber about Michael Giacchino’s score for Star War: Rogue One. It ran counter to expectations to produce something new, and in my opinion, powerful. However, I would be remiss to deny the wonderful mix of joy and melancholy I feel when listening to Justin Hurwitz’s brilliant La La Land score. It’s catchy, moving, and instantly memorable.

Music – Original Song

“Audition (The Fools Who Dream” from La La Land

“City of Stars” from La La Land

“How Far I’ll Go” from Moana

La La Land is obviously the favorite here, but as a singular song, I was most taken by Lin Manuel-Miranda’s “How Far I’ll Go” from Moana. If he wins the Academy Award here, he’ll be the youngest person ever to win the coveted EGOT (Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Tony). I think that would be pretty cool. NOTE: I still haven’t listened to Hamilton. I know. I know.

moana

Property of Disney.

 

Visual Effects

Arrival

Doctor Strange

Kubo and the Two Strings

Star Wars: Rogue One

Warcraft

All admirable tech entries here, however none engrossed me as fully (or as seamlessly) in a different world as the technology on display in Warcraft. Fully half of the film’s main characters are CG and yet I felt for them, they seemed wholly tangible. Everything from the orcs’ design, musculature, movement, clothes, hair, and even facial expressions was pitch perfect.

Best Breakout Performance

Anya Taylor-Joy – The Witch

Surely one of the most talented new actresses to come around in some time, Anya Taylor-Joy has impressed me in both The Witch and the recent Split. In the former, she offered a transformative performance that was both calculated and effortlessly naturalistic. Be on the lookout for what she does next.

thewitch

Anya Taylor-Joy in The Witch. Property of A24.

Most Majestic

Sadly, once again Richard Armitage was not in a nominated film this year.

Other Films I Enjoyed

20th Century Women

The Accountant

Allied

Before the Flood

Don’t Breathe

Don’t Think Twice

Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Fences

Green Room

Hidden Figures

High-Rise

Jackie

Kubo and the Two Strings

The Lego Batman Movie

Moana

The Nice Guys

Nocturnal Animals

O.J. Made in America

Sausage Party

Silence

Star Trek: Beyond

Suicide Squad (Extended Edition)

Tallulah

Zootopia

ICYMI: Thoughts on The Lobster

the-lobster

What is love? It’s a question with no true answer, but one that has been examined endlessly in every medium. Some of these explorations are serious. Others are farcical. In director Yorgos Lanthimos’ film The Lobster, modern love is dissected using both absurdism and satire to deliver a message that is both cutting and poignant.

In a dystopian near-future, The City controls all, including the personal relationships of its citizens. The most important thing a person can be is part of a couple. It is required by law. Those who do not naturally pair up with another are sent to The Hotel, a picturesque facility in the countryside, featuring a number of amenities and group activities designed to allow people to find a compatible partner. If they fail to make a match within forty-five days, they are transformed into the animal of their choice.

Thrust into this ticking-clock of a scenario is David, an overly-polite and miserable man seemingly incapable of attracting a partner. Paunchy and not terribly excitable, David’s love life has suffered ever since his wife left him for another man. He now spends most of his time with his brother, Bob, who was turned into a dog a few years past after failing to find a mate at The Hotel. The first half of the film follows David’s exploits as he navigates the terrifying unfamiliarity of The Hotel’s bizarre rules and regulations. Throughout his journey he meets a number of colorful characters, including a woman with a fondness for biscuits, a woman with regular nosebleeds, a man with a limp, and a man with a lisp. Through these interactions, he learns of another group of people who live in The Woods beyond The Hotel. This group rejects interpersonal relationships and physical intimacy in rebellion against The City’s laws. Through a series of events both thrilling and peculiar, David comes into contact with this group in the back half of the film and soon finds that their complete denial of all romantic feeling might be just as cloying and repressive as The City’s demand for coupling.

To say that The Lobster is strange is a gross understatement. It is absurd and bizarre in the extreme, but thankfully always in a way that serves the story, which in itself is a vehicle of metaphor. Every facet of the film functions as a metaphor or commentary on the absurdity of modern relationships and the awkward push and pull of human connection. The characters speak with an arch sort of bluntness that’s jarring at first, but like Shakespeare, the beauty of the language shines through as the scenes roll on. That archness is a way for the storytellers to give voice to the subtext that usually haunts conversations as people attempt to get to know each other. Here, the subtext is the text, resulting in hilarious declarations told in glorious deadpan.

Beyond the dialogue, the scenarios themselves all speak to different fears and desires for anyone seeking love. The ticking-clock of The Hotel represents the societal pressure placed upon people to find a partner. Failing to do so often makes people feel ostracized and removed from part of the human experience. That people who fail to find a mate are lowered to the level of “animal” is telling of how extreme the film is willing to go in terms of its symbolism, but it is a powerful storytelling-device and one used to great effect.

Though being single is not inherently bad or a measure of one’s value as a person, The Lobster’s brilliance lies in its willingness to explore the ugliness of societal and institutional pressures concerning romantic relationships. These pressures are so deeply internalized that they cause people to act in illogical ways in order to please people they barely know. However, despite the complexity of human behavior and personality, for whatever reason people are also often simplified to a sole, defining trait. The Lobster takes this literally; everyone in the cast besides David is nameless, defined by a single trait which is reiterated throughout the film. It’s a brilliant and often hilariously sad commentary on how people interact with one another, especially when they’re desperately seeking human connection. In one scene David’s quasi-friend, the Limping Man, takes interest in another woman who has a limp, only to later learn that it’s from a recent injury and will soon heal; with a sigh of disappointment, he acknowledges that they can never be and moves on. Simply brilliant.

In contrast, when David encounters the rebel group that lives in The Woods, their denial of all physical and romantic interaction proves to be just as caustic and damaging as The Hotel’s dehumanizing regulations. Perhaps a commentary on the “outsiders looking in” – the rebel group is literally called The Loners – these people are so disgusted by those that subject themselves to relationships that they persist in a state of perpetual, sneering judgment. Even when David encounters a woman who shares a common trait (they are both shortsighted) he is hamstrung by The Loners’ rules, putting him in a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don’t scenario that leads to a wildly disturbing conclusion that is sure to stick with you long after the film ends.

This film lives and dies upon the audience’s relationship with David. Thankfully, Colin Farrell is pitch-perfect in the role, turning in a nuanced, subtle performance that somehow manages to be understated and arch, yet human. In a snow globe of a world, David is the lone spec of warmth. Though he tries to follow the rules, he is one of the only people with any sense of curiosity and agency. Farrell deftly shows David’s rebelliousness in small gestures and line-deliveries that speak of a man trying his best to break out of his shell, yet not certain where to go or what to do once he does. Overall, it’s a masterful performance by a talented actor in a period of well-earned resurgence.

On a textual level, The Lobster is wonderful. Yorgos Lanthimos and Efthymis Filippou’s incredible script somehow manages to package everything described above into one dense, yet subtle package. However, it is Lanthimos’ artful direction and Thimios Bakatakis’ cinematography that make the text sing. Orchestral interludes of slow-motion, picturesque beauty are spliced into stunningly filmed landscapes and haunting interiors. Everything is framed in such a way as to convey beauty, but also the distance and removal between the characters. The color palate is subdued and cold, accentuating the artificial, emotionally stunted nature of the relationships being explored. The score as well adds to this effect, featuring mournful string quartets that perfectly accent the reserved melodrama of what’s taking place on screen.

All of this goes a long way to say that The Lobster is brilliant and easily one of the best films released this (Oscar) year. It is thematically dense, darkly humorous, and sure to be a conversation starter among your friends, half of whom probably hated it. But that’s the beauty of the film. It exists on multiple levels and even if someone didn’t enjoy the film itself, its messages are worthy of conversation and critical thought. Most films don’t even get that.

A masterful work.