Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Medicine for Melancholy


Two strangers wake up after a drunken one-night stand at a mutual friend’s party and awkwardly interact in the harsh light of morning in MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY. Micah (Wyatt Cenac) and Jo’ (Tracey Weggins) get coffee and share a cab ride, but he seems much more interested in building upon what happened the night before than she does. If it weren’t for her forgetting her wallet in the taxi, they’d likely never see each other again.

Micah tracks her down with a little difficulty. Jo’ doesn’t seem too keen to invite him into her spacious San Francisco apartment because, as she grudgingly reveals, she’s living there with her boyfriend, a curator who is currently in London. Nevertheless, Micah possesses a certain charm he deploys to persuade her to spend the day exploring the city with him. Although Jo’ sends him mixed signals, he’s happy to have the time together.

Writer-director Barry Jenkins’ first feature film finds him testing out themes and soaking up the atmosphere in ways he refined eight years later with MOONLIGHT. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY unspools as the inverse of BEFORE SUNRISE. The pair’s brief, shared time, roughly twenty-four hours, begins intimately and then works toward lively conversations about their views on all manner of topics. The film is also clearly indebted to Wong Kar-wai’s IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and Claire Denis’ FRIDAY NIGHT, from which Jenkins borrows a song for the soundtrack. MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY wallows in the romantic tension fueled by desire and loneliness fighting with personal circumstances that make such a relationship illicit.

Jo’ already being with someone hangs over her day with Micah, as does the fact that she’s dating a white man. Cenac plays Micah as a funny, down-to-earth guy, but his character doesn’t hide his resentments. He bristles at his position as a black man in a gentrifying San Francisco that would outprice him and those like him from the city and the shoebox of a studio apartment he rents. Meanwhile, Jo’ doesn’t have to worry about paying for the big place where she lives. Micah doesn’t accuse her of betraying her race, but the privilege he perceives her benefiting from is implicit in the frustration he expresses, particularly when he has a few drinks in him.

MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY succeeds more at getting into Micah’s head than Jo’s. Jenkins lets the characters’ actions speak for themselves. While Micah’s motives are straightforward, the psychology behind Jo’s decisions are obscured more. She’s wary of revealing much about herself to Micah and displays an awareness that she shouldn’t be doing what she’s doing. Still, she submits to this encounter and takes an active role in ensuring that hanging out isn’t innocent socializing. Jenkins doesn’t need to explain all of Jo’s choices, but he could have done better at balancing our understanding of the two protagonists.

Cinematographer James Laxton’s work on MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY stands in sharp contrast to the visual style of his lighting for MOONLIGHT. Where the latter boasted sumptuous colors, MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY is often bleached so that it almost appears to be in black and white. Like cautionary and prohibitory signals, faded yellows and reds peek out most prominently from the delicate, silvery images. In part Jenkins’ film is about how you interpret your surroundings. Although MEDICINE FOR MELANCHOLY exhibits potential checked by limitations of a young filmmaker, the visual cues Jenkins employs suggest he understands how to have images and words serve one another to achieve something greater than either on their own.

Grade: B-

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

The Glass Castle

THE GLASS CASTLE (Destin Daniel Cretton, 2017)

The Walls family doesn’t have much in THE GLASS CASTLE, but as far as father Rex (Woody Harrelson) and mother Rose Mary (Naomi Watts) are concerned, that’s all part of the adventure in their nomadic way of life. Rex is an alcoholic who can’t hold a job for long and is often rushing his family out of town to avoid the police or those seeking overdue payment. Rose Mary spends her days painting and enabling Rex’s destructive behavior. The family moves constantly, relocating all over the western U.S. before the reluctant return to Rex’s hometown of Welch, West Virginia. The shabby home where they place roots is no glass castle, the long-promised and aspirational home Rex talks of building, but at least it provides some stability.

THE GLASS CASTLE is based on the memoir by Jeannette Walls, Rex and Rose Mary’s second oldest child, and the film is told from her perspective. Played at different ages by Chandler Head, Ella Anderson, and Brie Larson, Jeannette admires and tries to help her father while regularly being disappointed by him. She eventually saves enough money to flee West Virginia, get a college degree, and become a professional success as a writer in New York City, yet her parents are the shadow she can’t shake. She lies about her family in social situations, and it’s not hard to see why. When Rex and Rose Mary move to the Big Apple, she does not avoid them, but she is ashamed that they are squatters who sift through the trash to survive.

Co-writer and director Destin Daniel Cretton studied those coping with trauma in his previous film, SHORT TERM 12. THE GLASS CASTLE also explores the cycle of abuse, although this time he focuses on the dysfunction within a single family. To the average person, the squalor and extreme poverty the Walls family lives in is horrifying, yet Cretton emphasizes how normal these conditions seem to those who don’t know anything different and have just accepted it. Rex and Rose Mary romanticize their dire situation, a strategy which comes off like self-protection and a manifestation of mental illness. They don’t beat their children, but the neglect and psychological damage they inflict is no less harmful. It is sad but altogether unsurprising to discover that the unhealthy dynamic Rex and Rose Mary raise their kids in looks better when compared to the upbringing he had.

Although viewers will surely leave the film unlikely to feel charitable toward the parents, THE GLASS CASTLE isn’t interested in judging Rex and Rose Mary. In it and SHORT TERM 12 Cretton seeks for the victim to move on from steeping in deserved resentment, as hard as that may be. Jeannette loves her mom and dad and despairs at the wreckage they’ve made of their lives and and its effect on her. Seen through her eyes, the film demonstrates enormous amounts of empathy and forgiveness while not discounting all the complicated and conflicted feelings churning inside the Walls children. THE GLASS CASTLE wrestles with how to integrate the positive qualities and memories with all of the pain those same people brought on.

When Jeannette is a child, Rex tells her about the point that’s hard to distinguish where a flame ends but heat is visible in a clear, wavering form. He explains that this place is between turbulence and order, where rules don’t apply. Rex and Rose Mary choose to occupy this space but fail to recognize that this zone distorts what is seen in it. They are not beholden to anyone, but their situation is stifling more than it is freeing. THE GLASS CASTLE carries you through a range of emotions with this family. Harrelson in particular is adept at showing how an important family member can attract and repel loved ones to the point of confusion. THE GLASS CASTLE permits the knotty family relationships to stand as complex, unresolved interactions, which is why showing the real people in the end credits seems like a mistake. Perhaps Jeannette and her siblings have worked through all their grievances, but the way the subjects of the dramatized story are presented, it comes across like an apology of sorts or a hastily applied but ineffective bandage. The film embraced the contradictions and opposing feelings, so it feels like being undermined somewhat with the conventional happy ending suggested when the real Walls family appears.

Grade: B

Monday, August 28, 2017

Logan Lucky

LOGAN LUCKY (Steven Soderbergh, 2017)

LOGAN LUCKY is an oxymoron of a title that describes a West Virginia family for whom things seem to go south every time it looks like they’ve caught a break. Jimmy Logan (Channing Tatum) was on the path to a professional football career until an injury ended that possibility. Clyde Logan (Adam Driver) served in Iraq without incident, only to lose his left hand and part of the forearm in an explosion as he was on his way out of the country at the end of his tour. Their sister Mellie (Riley Keough) doesn’t put as much stock in the so-called curse, but Clyde more than makes up for her skepticism as he recounts family history that provides evidence for its reality.

When Jimmy loses a construction job at the Charlotte Motor Speedway through no fault of his own, he decides to apply the knowledge he gained there to improve his lot by illegal means. Jimmy concocts a scheme to steal the money the racetrack brings in from concession sales and convinces his brother and sister to assist. They know an explosives expert with the perfect skillset, except the right man for the job, the appropriately named Joe Bang (Daniel Craig), is in prison. Jimmy has an elaborate plan in mind for breaking him out and getting him back behind bars without notice, but he needs to add Joe’s dimwit brothers Fish (Jack Quaid) and Sam (Brian Gleeson) to the crew to get Joe on board. As thoroughly as Jimmy has prepared, everything becomes riskier when they need to execute the heist earlier than intended.

Director Steven Soderbergh ends his short-lived retirement from filmmaking with a hillbilly variation on his OCEAN’S trilogy. Rebecca Blunt, a first-time screenwriter suspected of being a Soderbergh or his wife’s pseudonym, accounts for all of the questions that might arise in LOGAN LUCKY’s unlikely and intricately plotted robbery. The wide frame and Soderbergh’s open compositions provide room to appreciate how big of an undertaking the heist is and the teamwork necessary to pull it off. The implementation of Jimmy’s plan delivers pleasure because of its finely tooled nature. Sure, this brazen theft is improbable, but the degree to which it has been thought out highlights the structural beauty.

While LOGAN LUCKY hits all the right spots as a heist movie, it’s equally adept as a comedy. The relaxed scenes unwind with amusement at the situations that develop in unexpected ways. A staged prison riot results in a funny negotiation between the convicts and the exasperated warden played by Dwight Yoakam. Joe Bang’s tricks of the trade provoke skepticism until he explains the chemistry and gets the desired result. Mellie’s verbal undermining of the husband of Jimmy’s ex-wife highlights the difference between knowledge and position as the beautician is better acquainted with cars than the auto dealer. The film delights in tweaking expectations.

It seems like accusations of mockery surface any time a film comedically portrays people from the heartland, but LOGAN LUCKY manifests a great deal of warmth for its characters. They may do ridiculous things or have silly ideas, but the film laughs at the frailties in the human condition, not because it’s gawking at self-proclaimed rednecks. The opening scene with Jimmy and his daughter conveys the great affection between the two as he works on his truck and she hands him the requested tools. This relationship informs everything that transpires in the film and is indicative of the generosity the main characters show one another. The emotional peak is reached at a children’s beauty pageant with the singing of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads,” a scene that could have been mawkish but instead is quite affecting in getting to the heart of what motivates proud, put-upon people like Jimmy and his family. The hijinks and humor conceal the economic subtext, a familiar subject in Soderbergh’s films, but LOGAN LUCKY makes sure to remind that these ornery people are trying to exploit an opportunity just like those who profit off of them.

Grade: A-

Saturday, August 12, 2017


CREEP (Patrick Brice, 2014)

In CREEP Aaron (Patrick Brice) accepts a videography job in the mountains not knowing much about what he’ll be recording other than it will pay well for one day’s work. Initially the remoteness of the location unnerves him somewhat, especially because his client Josef (Mark Duplass) startles him by banging on the window of Aaron’s car by way of an introduction. Aaron’s imagination also wanders a bit when spotting an axe in front of the house but dismisses it once he starts doing what he’s been hired to do.

That’s not to say everything is normal. Josef tells him that he wants Aaron to record him all day because he has a brain tumor, likely has just a couple months left, and wishes to document who he is for the unborn son his wife is carrying. For the first thing they record Josef disrobes and pretends to give his baby a bath. The interpersonal tension at the beginning doesn’t entirely go away, but by the time they finish it seems to have been a worthwhile experience for Aaron. He can’t find his keys when he’s ready to leave, though. The longer he’s in Josef’s home, the more concerned he becomes for his safety.

CREEP is shot with the first-person perspective, which has the effect of making the viewer present in the goings-on, if not exactly an active participant. The distance between the audience and the characters is shortened so that it feels like being in the room with them even if as an unacknowledged observer. The form charges the interactions so that they are direct and intense and not mediated through the camera. The fewer number of cuts emphasize being put on the spot in awkward situations. The uneasiness cannot be relieved because you are trapped in the moment as the recording rolls.

Duplass, who co-wrote the story with Brice, excels at straddling the line of being friendly and unsettling with his overly familiar manner. Josef is a little weird, particularly where he lacks boundaries, but it’s hard to discern if such quirks are harmless breaches of social etiquette or indicative of a deeper pathology. Duplass molds Josef into the kind of person who could be fun to be around in one instance and put you on guard in another. He doesn’t necessarily come across as sinister, yet Duplass doesn’t hide the calculation in how Josef tests Aaron’s limits under the guise of honesty. Duplass’ performance highlights how someone can give you the creeps even though there may not be tangible evidence of anything dangerous about him.

CREEP reveals itself to be about how propriety can be used against the person who strains to be polite. Because Aaron is genuinely a nice guy, he gives Josef the benefit of the doubt. He also gives him leeway because it’s how we’re taught to be from a young age. Even if Josef comes across as kind of strange, many people feel the reflex not to act overly judgmental when face to face with such a person. Doing so would be rude and only serve to amplify the awkwardness. CREEP considers how that civility could be a fatal flaw when the other party refuses to abide by the contract. On the surface not much in CREEP is objectively scary, but the context of what is said and done often makes it terrifying.

Grade: B

Friday, August 11, 2017

A Ghost Story

A GHOST STORY (David Lowery, 2017)

In the brief time the couple credited as C (Casey Affleck) and M (Rooney Mara) in A GHOST STORY are together, we see how close they can be and the disagreement they have over whether or not to stay in their current home. He feels attached to the place where they share their lives; to her the house holds no special importance.

The difference of opinions about the space continues when they are parted. C is killed in an automobile accident. When he becomes conscious of being on a new plane of existence, he declines to move on. Instead, donning the white sheet that covered him in the morgue, C is drawn back to the house, where he watches M but is invisible to her. What he recalls about his time before being a ghost is unclear, but something keeps him there. M grieves but in time moves on from him and the house. C remains even as the occupants change, rooted to a location where he feels an unexplained loss and unresolved anger.

C can make things go bump in the night and lash out in the ways other stories have conditioned us to think of ghosts, but writer-director David Lowery has other interests than eliciting jumps from an apparition that goes, “Boo!” For one, A GHOST STORY portrays the experience of grief for the deceased. The metaphysics at play are vague, but C appears to have a choice to advance to a different level or stay on this earthly one. The decision to remain haunts him and others like him. These ghosts are like dogs left at home without any way of knowing when or if their owners will return. They are waiting for that happy moment when they are reunited with someone, except they experience time much differently and have little to no memory of why they feel holes at their cores. The ghost’s grief is not specific but a general emptiness with no obvious way of filling it.

Lowery also studies the grief for a place. Time transforms everywhere, so even if a spot has little turnover in residents or a lot through the years, the space is not what it once was. Just as the physical qualities change, the relationship with the location adapts. Mental associations are as much a part of the structure as the beams. C’s link in life and afterlife to the house are all of the emotional ties and memories that it contains, yet what he struggles to realize is that those don’t vanish even with the absence of the four walls around him. In contrast to the film’s minimal dialogue, Lowery spells this out effectively, although somewhat heavy-handedly, with a monologue delivered by a prognosticator played by Will Oldham.

A GHOST STORY unfolds in the style of European and Asian slow cinema so it can better convey the different experience of time and put our years into perspective regarding the universe’s age. Little tends to happen, but when C flits through time in a less comprehensive version of THE TREE OF LIFE’s birth of the universe section, Lowery powerfully evokes the impermanence of what we tend to assume as eternal.

Rather than generating restlessness, the stillness and relative silence in A GHOST STORY create room for meditation and appreciating the visual detail. C’s ghost sheet is gorgeously wrinkled with impenetrably dark eyeholes, more like a haute couture version of a death shroud than a homemade costume from the Charlie Brown Halloween special. The score by Daniel Hart and key song “I Get Overwhelmed” by his band Dark Rooms express the wistfulness in time’s redefining of things throughout life. A GHOST STORY aches for what no longer is but reminds that truly the most valuable things transcend.

Grade: A-

Thursday, August 10, 2017

Atomic Blonde

ATOMIC BLONDE (David Leitch, 2017)

Set in 1989 prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, ATOMIC BLONDE takes MI6 agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) to the divided German city in search of Satchel, a spy who is double crossing the West to work with the Soviet Union. His latest collaboration with a KGB officer resulted in a British agent’s death and the theft of a sensitive list that names all of the spies secretly working in the USSR. Lorraine is tasked with killing Satchel, retrieving the list, and helping with the defection of Spyglass (Eddie Marsan), a Stasi officer who initially stole the list to give to the West and who has it memorized.

Lorraine’s cover is blown as soon as she lands in Berlin. Although she’s more than capable of taking care of herself, she gains information and assistance from David Percival (James McAvoy), a fellow MI6 agent who has been working undercover there for a long time. Meanwhile, French agent Delphine Lasalle (Sofia Boutella) is keeping close tabs on Lorraine.

ATOMIC BLONDE shares a lot of similarities with JOHN WICK, which comes as no surprise as director David Leitch was an uncredited co-director for the Keanu Reeves revenge film. Both feature staggeringly talented and stylishly dressed killers cutting swaths through underworlds in dark cities edged with neon. Lorraine works for the government while John is an assassin for hire, but otherwise they’re characters cut from the same cloth. Leitch exerts great effort to make the action and fight scenes legible. The violence is choreographed and edited to appreciate the viciousness of it, but the action isn’t just a demonstration of sheer power. Equal importance is placed on admiring the elegance in how the hero moves and how she looks in her fashionable clothes.

The action centerpiece comes late in ATOMIC BLONDE with a long sequence constructed to seem as though it is one unbroken take. Lorraine engages in hand-to-hand combat with some bad guys and then hops into a car for a perilous drive through the city. Even if one can tell where shots are stitched together, this stunning section cranks up the excitement so that there is more investment in marveling at what’s happening than how they pulled it off.

As in MAD MAX: FURY ROAD, Theron proves herself to be a dynamic action star. Her long lines lend aesthetic grace to the action, and her physicality drives home the force. Leitch employs dark, brooding, modern rock hits to complement the emotional coolness that Theron channels from French film noir. Lorraine is not a great character, but ATOMIC BLONDE hands Theron a role that capitalizes on that je ne sais quoi that differentiates movie stars from other actors.

ATOMIC BLONDE’s plot is needlessly complicated, especially as the espionage intrigue delivers little in the way of surprises. Leitch devotes more energy to developing the atmosphere. While ATOMIC BLONDE coasts on touring through the chic and dingy corners of a city that will soon be upended, soaking up the grimy pleasures of this setting with a natty heroine as a guide satisfies.

Grade: B-