Thursday, January 28, 2016


CAROL (Todd Haynes, 2015)

In CAROL Therese Belivet (Rooney Mara) appears to be on the same track of many other young women in the early 1950s. She works in a Manhattan department store and has a boyfriend Richard (Jake Lacy) who is persistent in wishing to join their lives. Nevertheless, Therese entertains the notion of becoming a photographer and seems to hold Richard at arm’s length. She gives off the distinct sense of not yet knowing where she wants life to take her or how she might arrive at the destination.

That all changes gradually when she meets Carol Aird (Cate Blanchett). The glamorous older woman buys a train set for her daugher from Therese, and they have reason to be in touch again when the shopgirl mails Carol the gloves she left on her counter. Carol meets Therese for lunch as a way of saying thanks and is so intrigued by her that she extends an invitation to visit at her home in New Jersey. Carol is in the midst of divorcing her husband Harge (Kyle Chandler) and seems quite taken with the curious young woman that Therese is, even if the attraction goes unspoken. Therese is intrigued too, and eventually they depart together on a road trip west during the holidays.

Based on a novel by Patricia Highsmith, CAROL casts what would have been a socially forbidden romance at the time as a thriller. Phyllis Nagy’s screenplay opens the film in media res with a suspicious air around Therese and Carol conversing in a restaurant while seemingly under someone’s watchful eyes. On the surface there is nothing out of the ordinary about two women sharing a table in a public space, yet the images are charged with the hints of the clandestine. Director Todd Haynes often shoots scenes, particularly their first lunch, with an excess of space above and behind the women. While the framing violates presumed technical rules of composition, it implies the feeling of being observed from behind, of looking over one’s shoulders to be sure that one is not being spied on.

During a brief scene with Therese and friends crammed into a movie theater’s projection booth, one character taking notes remarks that he is tracking the differences between what those on screen are saying and what they are thinking and feeling. It’s as blatant a statement of purpose as possible to describe Haynes’ directorial approach and Nagy’s screenplay. The actions on screen and the dialogue tend to resist making plain the interior lives of the lovers. How Therese and Carol conduct themselves within the frame and what they convey through looks and body language are immeasurably more revealing.

Mara may seem a bit alien as Therese, or “flung out of space” as Carol remarks, but the quiet awkwardness she inhabits suits the part. Therese’s trajectory from impassive participant to controller of her destiny pulsates with the excitement of self-awakening. Still, in keeping with the period and the emotional exterior of the character, Mara’s terrific performance demonstrates her character’s development largely through the eyes. Blanchett’s regal bearing is used to great effect because Carol is somewhat like a queen, or one likely to be deposed. If her divorce is completed, she stands to be deprived of a lot financially and emotionally, yet she carries on how she sees fit unashamedly. Carol possesses the wisdom and scars that Therese has yet to receive. Like Mara, Blanchett is expert at employing glances to show how she envies Therese’s unformed qualities and desires to shield her from the pain that may come in the process. Despite the age and experience differences, Therese and Carol’s romance seems neither predatory nor imbalanced. Although unlikely companions who require time and circumstances to be on equal footing, their love story simmers with the passion of what it means to be seen and accepted in total by another.

Grade: A

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

The Hateful Eight

THE HATEFUL EIGHT (Quentin Tarantino, 2015)

A snowstorm is blanketing the Wyoming landscape in white in THE HATEFUL EIGHT when Major Marquis Warren (Samuel L. Jackson) stops a stagecoach in the hope that he might catch a ride to Red Rock and get out of the elements. After the Civil War, Marquis became a bounty hunter. He has three bodies stacked and ready to be cashed in if he can find transportation. To get on the stagecoach he must persuade John Ruth (Kurt Russell) that he means him no harm. John is known as The Hangman because he doesn’t kill his bounties but rather waits to see them strung up by their necks, and he’s not too eager for company due to the fact that he is cuffed to Daisy Domergue (Jennifer Jason Leigh), whose bounty will fetch the high price of ten thousand dollars.

As it so happens, Marquis and John are acquainted, thus granting him a seat. On their way they also reluctantly pick up Chris Mannix (Walton Goggins), whose claim to be the next sheriff of Red Rock is greeted dubiously considering his involvement with a notorious southern militia during the war. With the bad weather increasing, they stop at Minnie’s Haberdashery, where they find Bob (Demián Bichir), who is watching the place in Minnie’s absence; Oswaldo Mobray (Tim Roth), the hangman en route to Red Rock; Joe Gage (Michael Madsen), a cowboy headed home; and General Sandy Smithers (Bruce Dern), an old Confederate in search of his missing son. Distrust and dislike runs high among this bunch of scoundrels, but whether they like it or not, the heavy snow requires they share the shelter.

Writer-director Quentin Tarantino confines this nefarious octet and waits patiently for them to kill each other. THE HATEFUL EIGHT filters Agatha Christie’s mysteries through Tarantino’s distinct sensibilities regarding violence, dark humor, cinema history, and savoring of language. In effect it is a chamber drama, just one that is bloodier, more vulgar, and angrier. It’s also as though he’s stretched the farm interrogation scene from INGLORIOUS BASTERDS into a three-hour plus film of its own. While the majority of THE HATEFUL EIGHT is bound to a single location, Tarantino finds numerous ways to explore the space and present those occupying it while keeping plenty of room for the unexpected. Much has been made of Tarantino shooting the film on 70mm and in a 2.76:1 aspect ratio, which some have shrugged off as overkill, but the wider frame and increased picture clarity are crucial to the actors’ blocking and detail awareness.

Tarantino’s preoccupation with screen violence is complicated and, depending on one’s perspective, problematic. As in his other films, he treats the bloodshed as something pleasurable to view and abhorrent, often concurrently. Perhaps more than anything else he’s made, THE HATEFUL EIGHT is concerned with that contradiction between our best and worst impulses, except here it’s under the guise of considering the difference between justice and frontier justice. If the title doesn’t make it clear that the characters are not good people, their actions should, yet it’s hard to resist the enjoyment in watching these silver-tongued devils behave horribly. Call such an attraction to depravity original sin if you like. As depicted in this film it’s very entertaining.

Extracting a clear thesis from THE HATEFUL EIGHT is a fool’s errand, although Tarantino seems to have followed DJANGO UNCHAINED with another exploration of this country’s racial history reflected in the present. Marquis’ Lincoln letter is a fantastic device for showing how he can pass in a society that is largely unaccepting of him because of his skin color. His anguished cry of “wake up white boy” near the film’s end echoes across the generations. With Tarantino’s work the subtext tends to be secondary to more immediate satisfactions and more muddled too. Still, it’s hard to ignore the seething rage in THE HATEFUL EIGHT behind the humor and impeccably lit images.

Grade: A-

Daddy's Home

DADDY’S HOME (Sean Anders, 2015)

As a relatively new stepfather to two kids in DADDY’S HOME, Brad Whitaker (WIll Ferrell) wants nothing more in the world than for the children to accept him as a paternal figure. It seems that his relationship with Dylan (Owen Vaccaro) and Megan (Scarlett Estevez) is finally reaching that point. Dylan wants to speak to him about his problems with a bully, and Megan asks him to accompany her to a father/daughter dance. When the kids’ biological father Dusty (Mark Wahlberg) calls Sara (Linda Cardellini), their mom and his ex-wife, to say that he’s coming for a visit, she resists the idea, but Brad welcomes the opportunity for him to maintain a role in Dylan and Megan’s lives.

It doesn’t take long for the mild-mannered, smooth jazz radio executive to understand why Sara expressed concerns about inviting his cool, fit counterpart into their house, yet Brad continues to give Dusty the benefit of the doubt even when he’s actively undermining his authority at home and upstaging him at work. Their competition for the affection of the kids escalates to absurd measures. More critically, it strains Brad and Sara’s marriage, which was Dusty’s intention all along.

DADDY’S HOME seeks to mine a stepfather’s insecurities and desire for total acceptance in a family in the way that MEET THE PARENTS found humor in wanting to impress future in-laws. While Ferrell’s Brad starts on a firmer foundation, he’s like Ben Stiller’s MEET THE PARENTS protagonist in that both face off with hostile, more stereotypically masculine men fending them off as perceived interlopers. Brad’s situation may be more specific than one about the universal anxiety in wishing to gain approval from a significant other’s parents, but what he struggles with is not significantly different than any outsider striving to get inside a group.

The opportunities to satirize the degrees to which an adoptive and biological father will passive-aggressively and nakedly combat for supremacy are seemingly countless, yet DADDY’S HOME contains about enough ideas to fill a film trailer. Although there’s some amusement in expected scenes of gift-giving one-upmanship and handyman prowess or lack thereof, the film lacks imagination. Dusty’s less showy efforts to erode Brad’s reputation, like his insinuations of racism, tend to be funnier than the more obvious gags.

The film’s stylistic tug of war is waged between the heart-warming, all-ages comedy it wants to be and the nasty streak residing in the hearts of its adversaries. DADDY’S HOME feels as though it’s restraining Brad and Dusty from unleashing hell on each other and, in its relative politeness, mutes the humor in their clashes. Ferrell has his moments as he tries to be a good sport while being humiliated. Wahlberg can be funny playing a caricature of male ruggedness and unflappability. DADDY’S HOME just doesn’t let them run as wild as they could and suffers for it.

Grade: C


SISTERS (Jason Moore, 2015)

Amy Poehler and Tina Fey are funny, likeable performers, but they can’t appear in a film and make it golden by sheer force of personality. It feels as though that’s what is being asked of them in SISTERS, a slack comedy that wagers the audience will be tickled enough by seeing them behave irresponsibly and hearing them deliver a good one-liner every now and then. Their rambunctious dispositions shine in moments, like during their shameless, suggestive flirtation with a guy landscaping his yard and when they are confronted by an old school acquaintance they didn’t invite to their bash. Fey and Poehler’s characters, the Ellis sisters, know they possess power in the situations and aren’t ashamed to wield it with authority. SISTERS clicks when their naughty streaks emerge because they’re the aggressors and flails when the Ellises’ recklessness is like a party trick they’re called upon to impress everyone with.

Poehler plays the younger sister Maura, a divorced nurse who is preternaturally nice to seemingly everyone she encounters. Not only is she upset when her parents (James Brolin and Dianne Wiest) inform her that she and her older sister Kate (Fey) need to return to Orlando to clean out their bedrooms because they’re selling the family home, but it’s also put upon her to share the news with her irresponsible sibling. Maura gets Kate to accompany her on a trip to Florida without providing the underlying reason. The unemployed and virtually homeless Kate is happy to get out of town. When they arrive at their childhood home, they discover that their parents have already sold it.

If the sisters have to accept that a part of their past will no longer remain in family ownership, then they intend to say goodbye with a massive final party at it. They invite old high school friends, many of whom welcome a break from domestic predictability and a chance to relive their youthful recklessness. Maura and Kate agree to switch roles from when they were teenagers, with the younger sister free to cut loose and and seduce neighbor James (Ike Barinholtz) while Kate keeps a watchful eye on her and their guests. Things get out of hand, though.

Longtime SATURDAY NIGHT LIVE writer Paula Pell’s SISTERS screenplay lacks sting. Even as it trots out some vulgarity intended for shock value, it produces less of a zap than the static discharge after rubbing one’s feet on the carpet and touching a doorknob. The mushy quality to the jokes reflects how a comedy sketch writer pressed against deadline turns to the easiest punchlines than funnier options that need more time to be worked on. The scenario is set up and resolved rather quickly, leaving an enormous amount of time devoted to the party itself. These scenes of suburbanites shedding their inhibitions seem to last forever with diminishing comedic returns.

SISTERS’ underlying message is similar to NEIGHBORS regarding coming to terms with one’s age in life, but who cares about what a film is saying when everything wrapped around it is thoroughly mediocre? Poehler and Fey emerge unscathed from the lackluster film, even though this stands as yet another deflating reminder of the uninspired state of mainstream film comedy.

Grade: C-