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Friday, December 29, 2017

Review- Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi

Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi (2017): Written and directed by Rian Johnson.  Starring: Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Adam Driver, Kelly Marie Tran, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, Laura Dern, Benicia Del Toro, Mark Hamill and our Forever Queen, Carrie Fisher.  Running Time: 152 minutes.  Based on characters created by George Lucas. 

Rating: 3.5/4

**this review contains spoilers for The Last Jedi**

             The more I mull over The Last Jedi in my mind the more I dig it.  It was not what I expected.  It didn’t have any of the fates for its older characters that I’d envisioned since first entering the old EU.  I felt a bit uncomfortable at first over how much the film had challenged my assumptions about its world.  And the more that became clear to me, the more I realized that’s exactly what this franchise and we as fans needed.  Star Wars doesn’t need complacency.  Star Wars was never meant to have easy outs.  Star Wars can’t afford to jog in place, and ultimately won’t, no matter how much many of the fanboys might want it to. 

            And yes, I say this even though The Last Jedi, like its predecessor The Force Awakens, is very much a film built around the cyclical nature of this universe and its fundamental light-vs-dark conflict.  Both films in this new trilogy have been filled to the brim with allusions, both on-the-nose and subtle, to the overarching narrative of the original trilogy, but putting just enough spin on them that we are now in a place far different from where we were at the end of Return of the Jedi all those years ago.  The result is a cinematic world that is the freest and most open for something new it’s been since that glorious opening music first rang out back in 1977. 

            This time around the parallels are a mash-up of The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi.  Finn, Po, Leia, a new character named Rose, and the rest of the Resistance spend most of the movie fleeing from the First Order in an extended chase sequence (sound familiar?), ending in a ground battle reminiscent of the fighting on Hoth.  Rey has located the reclusive Luke Skywalker on his hideaway planet (sound familiar?), seeking training and guidance in the ways of the force, but has to overcome his reluctance to train another Jedi after his earlier failure to rebuild the Jedi ended with the rise of Kylo Ren.  And ultimately, she will break away early to seek out a confrontation with Ren and his Sith mentor in a dim throne room, attempting to turn him back to the good and bring him to betray and destroy the Dark Side master driving the First Order in time to save the rest of the Resistance from what seems like sure annihilation (sound familiar?). 

            That a movie with so many clear parallels to what came before can feel so fresh and new is a testament to the talent and creative energy of the people making this movie, from director Rian Johnson, to the camerapeople and editors and production designers, to the remarkable cast that never fails to make their characters far more than what they would be in lesser hands.  There are moments where their respective arcs feel a bit broad and easy to read, but the film commits to having each of its main characters (and even some of the side ones) have certain lessons they need to learn by the end if they are to help keep the light alive in the face of the dark that would snuff it out.  Rey needs to accept that she doesn’t need some special lineage to play a meaningful role in what’s to come.  Finn has to find a reason to fight the First Order beyond his own desire for self-preservation.  Po needs to realize there’s more to being a real hero than simply jumping into an X-Wing and blowing shit up. 

            Even Luke has a lesson to learn in all of this.  He does rightly take Rey (and himself) to task for holding on too dearly to the past in lieu of focusing on the present.  It is, indeed, a meta-narrative running throughout the entire film that both the in-world characters and we the outside fans have spent too long trying to perfectly preserve what came before, rather than trying to build something genuinely new.  And yet, as Luke realizes in two key scenes towards the end of the film, even old symbols and legends have a power of their own to endure and inspire the next generation.  We can’t be bound by the past, but neither should we seek to break off from it entirely. 

            It is a shock to see such a jaded, cynical Luke appear before us after so eagerly anticipating his return to the role that defined his career.  But here again, it makes more and more sense within this new world the more I think about it, where there is a stronger emphasis on accepting and even embracing the failures and shortcomings of the figures of our childhood.  Mark Hamill gives his all in what is one of the best performances of his career.  He and Daisy Ridley dominate the movie all on their own, and are the primary reason this movie will ultimately endure no matter how much irate fanboys might wish to sink it.  After Luke’s final, triumphant return to salvage the Resistance, he gazes on a dual sunset before fading into the Force.  It is a direct and deeply affecting callback to the very beginning of his journey back on Tatooine, a moment signifying that, perhaps, he may even have been meant to fall as far as he did before being able to rise up again, ultimately completing his mission in life in a way he never thought possible. 

            While it is a near-certainty that we will get at least one scene with Force-Ghost Luke in the next movie, it is unfortunate that we can’t say the same for Carrie Fisher.  Lucasfilm, to its credit, has already announced that there will be no effort to CGI Leia into the final movie, which means that this is Fisher’s final testament to us as an actor, and so many of her scenes (particularly her “farewell” with Luke during the final battle) carry an extra emotional heft to them because of this.  She is remarkable, of course, poised and confident and powerful in her bearing.  While it is sad she is gone, I am grateful she was able to shine one last time for us. 

            As much as this is a well-acted movie, it is also a technically stunning and visually beautiful one as well.  Red is a particularly powerful motif, filling the throne room of Snokes and coating the mineral-salt field of the final battle.  By the time Luke steps out to face Kylo Ren, it looks like the Rebel base is bleeding from an open wound.  In another moment of self-sacrifice by a minor character, the color and sound drops out completely as we see an entire fleet break apart and shatter, in what may be the most spectacular visual in any Star Wars movie ever. 

            Given that The Last Jedi is obsessed with breaking chains and casting forth for something new, it makes sense that it took us two movies to work through so much of the series’ meta-baggage being dragged into this new trilogy- there is a LOT of weight and expectations riding on these films, still one of the last truly global cultural phenomenon.  So far, to my immense joy, the people behind them have managed to meet the challenge so far, returning us to that galaxy of magic and wonder that generations of us have fallen in love with.  The Force is with this franchise once more, and I sincerely hope it stays that way. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, December 23, 2017

Review: Aus Dem Nichts (In the Fade)

Aus Dem Nichts (2017): Written and directed by Fatih Akin.  Starring: Diane Kruger, Denis Moschitto, Johannes Kirsch, Ulrich Tukur.  Running Time: 106 Minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            And the quiet revival of German cinema continues.  Aus Dem Nichts will, in all likelihood, be merely the first of many German movies in coming years to tackle the various issues surrounding immigration that have gained increasing prominence in public debate since 2015, and what a start it is.  It is a hard look at how the fringe right of society, by giving in to its darkest and most violent impulses, can all too easily corrupt and drag down the rest of us when we try to grapple with it. 

            Diane Kruger stars as Katja, a woman happily married to a Turkish man, whose life is completely shattered when a seemingly random nail-bomb attack kills both her husband and their young son.  The police eventually arrest a young neo-Nazi couple and charge them with the double-murder, and as the trial progresses (and the prospects for true justice being delivered both rise and fall), Katja struggles with how- and if- her life can ever go on, and what the loss of her family means for her future. 

            Central to the film is Diane Kruger’s powerhouse performance in the leading role.  It’s already netted her the Best Actress award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, and may well land the film a consecutive nomination for Germany in the Best Foreign Picture category at the upcoming Oscars.  Her tight, drawn facial expressions run the gamut of all the emotions raging through her; her pain at the scale and senselessness of her loss is clear, but so is her incredible inner resolve, as she chooses to subject herself to every aspect of the trial, including even a skin-crawlingly detailed description by the coroner of each nail found in the bodies. 

            Her performance is matched by cinematography that perfectly mirrors the moods and depressions she struggles with before, during, and after the trial.  This is especially apparent during the first two-thirds of the movie (there are three sections total, each separated by a chapter title), where her surroundings are filled with darkness.  In one of my favorite single images of any film I’ve seen this year, the camera holds on her face as she stares out blankly at the night rain, the shadows cast by the water running down the window criss-crossing her face like black tears. 

            Beyond her performance, the matter at hand in the film is an inherently loaded one that will inevitably divide both audiences and casual viewers.  How to properly respond to violence and extremism is such an emotional, fraught, and complex question that we will never have a commonly accepted answer to it, and the movie is filled with this ambiguity.  The act of these neo-Nazis is heinous, but there is plenty of room to argue whether or not the justice system, the extended friends and family members of the victims, and even Katja herself react in healthy or constructive ways.  Katja’s own conclusion, reached at the very end of the movie after a long and tortuous process of self-reflection, is the sort of ending meant to provoke endless, controversial debate afterwards. 

            I imagine it would be a fascinating experience to watch this film with a variety of people across political spectrums of the West and discuss its themes for several hours afterward, and perhaps one day I will have such a chance.  It may take a while for this film to make the rounds, but it is absolutely a work seeing should the chance present itself. 

-Noah Franc 

Sunday, December 17, 2017

Review: Valley of Saints

Valley of Saints: Written and directed by Musa Syeed.  Starring: Mohammed Afzal, Gulzar Ahmed Bhat, Neelofar Hamid.  Running Time: 82 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Oftentimes, the best films are the ones that eschew grander, more theatrical gestures.  The ones that rely on their own subtle self-confidence to draw us into their world.  The ones that stir us in the quiet moments.  Valley of Saints, the debut film by Musa Syeed, is a masterclass in this sort of film, a series of meditations and small moments framed by grand mountains and a quiet lake.  It lays a sturdy foundation of stones that, collectively, build a profoundly moving cinematic experience, centered on a love story as real as anything. 

            The story is set in the valley of Dal Lake in Indian-controlled Kashmir, a place incessantly plagued by armed civil strife.  Gulzar, a boatman, has spent his whole life here, born, as he puts it, “with a paddle in his hands.”  He and his best friend, Afzal, are technically grown men, but around each other they are little boys, laughing, piggybacking, singing, never needing to take each other too seriously.  Theirs is a profoundly deep love of the sort that transcends the usual notions of family and friendship. 

            They know there’s no future for them in Srinagar other than hawking wares and boat trips to foreigners, so for a long time they’ve been putting together money for bus tickets to Delhi and, so they imagine, a better future.  The day they try to leave, though, hostilities break out again, forcing them to stay put until another ceasefire is reached.  Stuck for the time being, they agree to help out another boatsman by agreeing to take care of the lone remaining guest on his hotel boat, a young woman named Asifa, who’s there to conduct ecological research.   

            Originally from the area herself, she’s returned to study the slow degradation of the river through lax environmental laws and oversight, and there is a bitter sadness in her voice when she notes just how devoid of life so many parts of the lake have become in recent years.  This is a film that is able to comment on our connection to nature and our dependence on it in ways that many films try and fail to.  The plaintive earnestness of the characters and cinematography doesn’t allow any room for cynicism or pandering in this regard.  There are more important things to think about than that. 

            As they take her around the lake, and learn more about each other’s lives, the romance that slowly blossoms between Gulzar and Asifa is quiet, underplayed, and effortless.  It’s one of the most compelling love stories I’ve ever seen in a movie.  Of course, this does lead to some jealous bickering between Gulzar and Afzal, and their anger with each other is real, but of course that could never be enough to seriously threaten their friendship- they know each other far too well for that. 

            In the end, of course, choices must be made by each of these characters, but as the movie itself intuitively grasps, having to face such choices in our lives is unavoidable.  As such, they don’t need to be viewed as solely good or bad things.  We will take one path forward over another, and there is always a way to live with that, as long as we don’t forget where we come from and what has, in some way, moved us.  This is a remarkable movie, filled with a grace and sense of self that most movies with bigger names and larger budgets lack. 

-Noah Franc 

Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Review: Tehran Taboo

Tehran Taboo (2017): Written by Grit Kienzlen and Ali Soozandeh, directed by Ali Soozandeh.  Starring: Arash Marandi, Morteza Tavakoli, Alireza Bayram, and Zahra Amir Ebrahimi.  Running Time: 90 minutes. 

Rating: 3.5/4

            When I watch movies like Tehran Taboo, I can’t help reflecting on how absurd our efforts to regulate and control human sexuality ultimately are.  The harder we seek to dominate our most basic instinct from the top down, the more it all inevitably backfires in ways that completely undermine whatever you were trying to achieve in the first place.  It’s the states with the strongest focus on abstinence-only Sex Ed and the least comprehensive access to contraception that have the worst rates of teen pregnancy.  And the countries, cultures, and social systems that work the hardest to write sex and sexuality out of daily human life are the places where everything you say or do ultimately twists around on itself to, in the end, be ALL about sex and little else. 

            This rotoscope-animated work by Ali Soozandeh follows three women of various ages living in Tehran, whose lives slowly start to intersect more and more intimately.  A prostitute tries to raise her son alone, an already-hard task made harder by the fact that just about EVERYTHING in Iranian life requires a husband’s permission to do.  A young girl from the country, in the city to marry an arranged bride, has a drunken fling with an aspiring musician in an underground club shortly before the wedding, then realizes they have to find a way to medically “reconstruct” her virginity, otherwise her fiancé will kill them both.  An older housewife is finally pregnant after several miscarriages, but despite her joy, this only complicates her desires for more than what her quiet life with a banker and his parents affords her.   

            This is a movie that builds itself on small, quiet moments with the characters, revealing just how much of their thoughts and feelings they feel compelled to hide from society just to survive.  The prostitute is a particularly tough cookie, something she clearly has to be; when a taxi driver insults her, she simply scratches an insult into the back of his seat for the next passenger to see, then gets out at the next corner, and when a school director insults her child, she doesn’t hesitate to throw a few choice insults right back.  This seems to be the core of what draws the housewife to her when they discover that they live in the same apartment complex- the prostitute’s fearlessness is something the housewife has never had, could never have. 

            While the friendship between these older women blossoms, the young girl and musician find themselves forced to jump through one ridiculous hoop after another trying to find some solution, any solution, that will let them extricate themselves from their predicament scot-free, and as the film draws on they both become increasingly afraid that there really might be no way out.  So much of the daily inequities between men and women, and so many of the extreme consequences dished out for even holding hands in a world determined to keep men and women separate, are so laughably absurd, but at the same time so darkly sad.  In the end, stories like these can’t help but end in tragedy.

            The film is not without its flaws- the animation, while it does work for the film, is not of the highest quality, and there are some storytelling inconsistencies regarding the timeline of what is happening and when that struck me as being easily fixed- but this is still a powerful film regardless, an experience that will stick with you afterwards.  Every society in the world still struggles to handle the human sex instinct, and in every society in the world still, in their various ways, tries to keep the female half of the population in subservience, and all that accomplishes is to hold us all back and make life darker than it has to be.  Let’s be appreciative of the films that allow us to remember and refocus on that when they come along. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: Moonlight/Winter’s Bone

            Part of my intention when I began Films for the Trump Years was to provide something of a beginner’s guide to films of all ages and stripes that, in some way, dealt with themes that reflect or comment on the many issues we are currently facing at this particular fulcrum of human history (both Trump-related and non).  The easy way to do this would be for me to stick to historical dramas or documentaries that explicitly tackle the direct, real-world causes of this current wave of reactionary conservatism.  And indeed, that is mostly what I spent 2017 doing. 

            This was with good reason- all the films I’ve picked are excellent, must-see works- but going forward I’d like to at least occasionally branch out a bit and think a bit bigger about how we relate to storytelling, and how we can use storytelling as inspiration for real-world change.  With that in mind, for this month’s installment I am suggesting a double-feature that might sound rather odd, at least at first; the 2010 indie drama Winter’s Bone, and last year’s Best Picture Winner, Moonlight (2016). 

            Winter’s Bone is a 2010 indie drama written by Anne Rosellini and Debra Granik (who also directed), and starring Jennifer Lawrence in the role that put her on the cinematic map.  She plays Ree, a teenager living in a dejectedly poor stretch of the Ozark Mountains.  With a no-show father connected to the area’s extensive methamphetamine underworld and a mentally ill mother, she’s had to grow up fast and basically be the lone providing parent for her two younger siblings.  What scraps the family has are suddenly threatened when the local sheriff shows up and informs her that her Dad failed to show for a court date, and had previously signed over the family house as collateral, meaning that if he doesn’t show soon (or if Ree can’t provide proof he’s dead), the state will be forced to collect, and she and her family will essentially be made homeless.  Left trying to navigate (and survive) a world built on family loyalty and absolute silence, she proceeds to fight tooth and nail against the grain of her community so as to find out the truth. 

            Moonlight, written and directed by Barry Jenkins, came out in 2016, and eventually won three Academy Awards, including Best Picture in possibly the strangest moment in Oscar history.  Divided into three parts, we see different stages of the life of a black man named Chiron, first as a small child, then as a teenager, and finally as an adult.  The film is, at least primarily, about Chiron’s lifelong struggles to understand and accept his homosexuality.  It goes far beyond that, however, in its meditations on racism, toxic masculinity, cultures of drug abuse and prostitution, and the dynamics of broken families, and how each of these things contribute to making his journey of self-acceptance that much harder and more painful. 

            On the face of it, these movies may seem to be complete polar opposites; one is about a white woman in one of the most homogenously white parts of rural America, and the other is about a black man in one of the most ethnically diverse coastal cities in America (Miami).  And yet, the more I’ve thought about these two movies, the more similarities I see between the two main characters.  Both are struggling to achieve some form of material or emotional peace amidst worlds of depravation and violence.  Both are stuck in cycles of deep poverty, which inform the life choices they end up making about how to live.  For Ree, one of the only viable options open to her to make a decent salary is to join the military, where her life would be completely in the hands of higher-ups who literally can’t imagine what she’s gone through.  Chiron comes from a world suffused with drug use, and we eventually learn that, through either choice or circumstance, he ends up in the same boat as an adult, selling the very drugs that wrecked his mother’s health years earlier. 

            Even the respective obstacles they are forced to deal with are remarkably similar.  In addition to the limitations of poverty they face, both push against gender and sexual restrictions latent in society about how they each “should” behave.  Both worlds are filled with men, young and old, who exemplify various forms of toxic masculinity.  Ree is told perfunctorily by the men (and the women!) around her to just drop it, to stop asking awkward questions about her Dad, to just shut up and let things be.  Chiron is tormented by other kids at an early age for being a “faggot,” with even his own mother criticizing the way he walks.  He is provided some fatherly support and advice by Juan, but for all his wisdom, he’s every bit as trapped as Chiron by the environment he’s grown up in.  None of the men in these movies, for all of the swagger they possess, are in places of real security or happiness.    

            And though neither film focuses on racism, at least consciously, it’s worth viewing them a second time deliberately through the lens of this country’s racial history.  Look at the ethnically homogenous world Ree is from and ask yourselves; why, exactly, is this part of the country so white?  How would these characters react if a Trump-like figure came marching through, proclaiming his solidarity with their pain and an end to the dominance of those terrible city elites who scoff at their poverty and laugh at their silly accents? 

            Similarly, what are the racial dynamics in our history that led to Chiron’s community in Miami being so cut off, poorly-served, and plagued by drugs and crime?  How does the film’s treatment of this sort of environment comment on our broader history of explicitly shunting minorities into poor neighbors and promoting drug use there?  What can Chiron’s life tell us about the prison industrial complex?  What would it take to rectify all this pain, all this suffering, all this psychological scarring? 

            Part of the challenge we now collectively face, if we can summon the courage to really deal with it, is to finally own up to difficult, painful questions that need to be asked, again and again, questions that are without simple solutions.  Both of these amazing films allow us to do that, which is why, this month, I recommend watching each of these movies side by side, if you haven’t seen them already, and allowing yourself to ponder the questions they raised, and whether or not we can finally offer some answers to them. 

-Noah Franc 

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short

Part 7- Human Flow

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Films for the Trump Years- Human Flow

            One of the most fundamental physical truths of the universe is that all things are forever in motion.  Every particle of every star and every rock has been moving for 13 billion years, and will continue moving for untold billions more.  And as it is with the universe we are part and parcel of, so it is with humanity, whose history is nothing more than the story of constant movement, of peoples forming and disbanding, and forever migrating from one corner of the globe to the other.  As long as humans exist, we will need to continue to move and forge ever-newer identities.  This basic truth is as impossible to stop as the gravitational trajectories of the galaxies.  We are human, and to be human is to move.    

            And yet, this primary truth is always shadowed by a second; as we perpetually move, there will perpetually be those who seek to deny this reality and to keep it at bay, no matter the cost.  They will insist that human affairs are something settled and separate from the rules of the larger world around them.  That the identities of the now are forever fixed and must be maintained, no matter what. 

             There’s a funny thing, though, about reality.  It has never and will never need our approval to be what it is.  The stars will move whether or not you accept their existence, and human beings will move when the times demand it, no matter how much the Trumps of the world will seek to prevent it. 

            The spike in numbers of people fleeing to Europe, primarily to escape ISIS, in 2014-2015 was, for most, the first time they woke up to what had already been a growing, global refugee crisis for several years.  We currently have over 65 million people (and counting!) displaced from their homes and countries of origin through violence, famine, oppression, and other calamities, the largest number since World War II. 

            While more and more filmmakers are beginning to tackle this massive issue in their work, Chinese artist and human rights symbol Ai Weiwei is the first to try and take a truly global approach with his new and masterful documentary, Human Flow.  He begins on the coastline of Greece with the arrival of a fresh boat of migrants seeking asylum in Europe.  From there, he hops across the globe to various hotspots of the refugee crisis, examining some of the varied circumstances, both man-made and natural, driving these people from their homes to seek their futures elsewhere. 

            Weiwei himself is often on screen with members of his crew.  We see him interact plenty with many of the people he travels with.  But his presence is minimal; he’s here to, as much as possible, put faces and images to the news stories so many around the world have willfully ignored or misrepresented for cheap political gain.  There are a few talking heads here and there to provide better context for the current refugee situation, as well as scrawls of news articles published during the height of the migration to Europe a few years ago.  But for the most part, we just see people. 

            It is a beautifully shot film.  There is extensive use of drone footage to provide big-picture images of the massive sprawl of many refugee camps around the world, with thin, temporary shelters stretching out for miles across barren landscapes.  Often, the camera hovers over the camps just high enough that the huge numbers of people in them seem as scurrying ants, individually tiny, but collectively conveying a powerful sense of immense momentum of human motion and the futility of trying to hold it all back.  These moments are simultaneously the most stunning and the most terrifying of the entire film. 

            One of the most important moments, however, is a sequence focused on Africa that reminds us that a growing proportion of the world’s refugees are climate refugees, forced to abandon their homes because the various effects of man-made global warming are slowly making more and more of the world genuinely uninhabitable.  This will be one of the most consequential issues we face in the coming decades if global policy towards climate change does not undergo an even more massive shift.  It will rely on ALL nations, not just the US or EU, radically reconsidering their policies towards the climate and towards refugees to prevent future waves of forced migration that will make the current situation appear tame by comparison. 

            This is a staggering, overwhelming film in its scope and ambitions.  It may well be said by some that the film stretches itself too thin, and by trying to include at least a little bit on every major hotspot of the global refugee crisis, it deprives itself of depth that could make it more impactful for some audiences.  However, I found this to be a rather fitting approach, because, in a way, the movie simply couldn’t be any other way and still have the power it does.  The film is vast, sprawling, overwhelming, and a touch unfocused because it’s subject matter is vast, sprawling, and overwhelming, and defies all easy explanations or solutions.  There is no easy way through this hell we have made for ourselves; just a lot of really, really hard work. 

            By often just letting us look at this rainbow collection of peoples fleeing depravation and seeking shelter, Weiwei forces the attentive viewer to do something most of us genuinely hate doing; to look at all these faces and truly struggle with ourselves to see each as human, with unique stories, motivations, and reasons for fleeing, each one with hopes, dreams and desires, all needing food, safety, shelter, and some sense of worth and dignity in their lives.  What if we saw each of them as ourselves?  How boundlessly large, then, would our sorrow and sympathy and compassion for them be? 

            Human Flow is one of the year’s best and most important films, given an added level of importance in a time when the governing party of the United States and major parties across Europe are actively trying to push back against the notion that all humans are worthy of safety, security, and dignity.  Those who would deny the “other” the blessing of common humanity must be fought, tooth and nail, without pause or reprieve.  Let this film be a wake-up call to action for us all. 

-Noah Franc 

Previously on Films for the Trump Years

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th 

Part 4- Get Out

Part 6- The Big Short 

Friday, November 17, 2017

Review: Inxeba (The Wound)

The Wound (2017): Written by John Trengove, Thando Mgqolozana, and Malusi Bengu, directed by John Trengove.  Starring: Nakhane Toure, Bongile Mantsai, Niza Jay Ncoyini, Thobani Mseleni.  Running Time: 88 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            As the push for recognitions and rights for LGBTQ peoples spreads around the world, more and more cultures will experience the uncomfortable tensions that are inevitable when longstanding norms and traditions are directly challenged by a rapidly changing world.  This has been most visible recently within the Western world, but other areas of South American, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia are going through similar struggles as the world becomes more interconnected.  Movies like The Wound, the second feature from the South African director John Trengove, provide a cultural cross-cultural window for us all to consider the ways in which changing traditions around the world both mirror and differ from each other, and how we can best thread the needle between the two. 

            Twice a year, the young men of the Xhosa people in South Africa are gathered on a specific mountain for to be ritually circumcised.  This is the opening of the film, and it is as affecting and difficult a scene as any I’ve seen this year.  They then stay in specially-built camps on the mountain for a period of a few weeks while they heal, wearing nothing but a white robe and carrying a walking stick, and are led and organized by leaders who oversee the process and teach “the initiates” everything they are supposed to know in order to be seen as men within Xhosa society. 

            We soon learn that two of these leaders are, if not necessary gay (one of them is married with children), at least bisexual; every time they are on the mountain, they find secluded times and places to have sex.  But what this means, for them and for their identities, is never openly spoken of.  What they are and what they are doing is so wholly taboo and considered so entirely antithetical to what their cultures deem “acceptable” behaviors for men that, even when alone, they seemingly can’t allow themselves to contemplate it.  It just has to be hidden, no matter the cost. 

            This sort of unspoken tension between the single idealized image of “The Man” that permeates the words and deeds of the elders during the ritual, and the far messier reality of what these people, is what gives this movie its primary staying power.  So much is made of “being a man,” yet no one ever really seems to want to stop and ask each other- or even themselves- what, exactly, being a man means, and why it’s such a big deal. 

            How long these two have been doing this- coming to this mountain, leading the initiates, and stealing bits of time for their trysts- isn’t clear, but long enough that, perhaps, they’ve gotten a bit too complacent about it all, assuming that things could continue like this forever.  One particular initiate, picked on by the other initiates constantly for being a soft city boy from a wealthy father, sees the whole ritual with a much more critical eye, and soon realizes the truth about the men supposedly leading them to becoming men.  And from here, one secret after another starts to slip out, and it becomes clear that one thing or another will have to finally break. 

            It is, unfortunately, during this second part of the movie when the revelations begin that the film starts to lose a bit of steam.  Everything about how the story builds makes sense, but things start to get a little predictable when things start to go wrong, and given how well the film works in the first half, it would have been nice to see it be a bit more unpredictable or unresolved in its resolution.  This is also a film relying heavily on the handheld camera technique, and while that’s mostly fine, some scenes could have greatly benefited from a steadier hand. 

            But none of that is enough to weaken what is a remarkable film that offers a bit of a different cultural take on the struggles between homosexual identities and the cultures and traditions that still see it as something to be hidden and repressed.  The Wound is a well-made, remarkably-acted film that deserves to be part of our cultural conversation going forward over how to reconcile the old with the new. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Review- Thor: Ragnarok

Thor: Ragnarok (2017): Written by Eric Pearson, Craig Kyle, and Christopher Yost, and directed by Taika Waititi.  Starring: Chris Hemsworth, Tom Hiddleston, Cate Blanchett, Idris Elba, Jeff Goldblum, Tessa Thompson, Karl Urban, Mark Ruffalo, and Anthony Hopkins.  Running Time: 130 minutes. 

Rating: 4/4

            Thor: Ragnarok is the Marvel movie I’ve been waiting for my entire life.  While I am no doubt sure that, one day, someone very talented will take the legends of a space Viking and his lightning hammer, or the antics of a man with a shrinking suit, or the big green one, and create a very searing, dramatic, artistic examination of the human psyche, let’s not pretend that was ever what Marvel characters were meant to be.  And such serious angles have never been what make the Marvel movies fun to experience.  The more tongue-in-cheek the MCU is, the more colorful it is, the more focused on just how damn charming its cast is, the better it is, and with Thor: Ragnarok, this extended Disney branding exercise reaches a particular height it’s otherwise only achieved in the first Avengers movie and both Guardians of the Galaxy features.

            I don’t need Oscar-worthy acting.  I don’t need a script filled with gravitas.  I don’t want the brown pallet of most modern action movies.  Give me a handful of lead characters dripping with charisma and chemistry, with a campy-as-all-hell villain strutting up and down every piece of scenery handed to her.  Give me a vibrant color pallet presented via gorgeous cinematography and production design.  Give me a head-pounding score, with a few choice rock classics thrown in for good measure.  And give me the laughs and the one-liners.  Oh, give me all the one-liners. 

            I may be one of the few people left on Earth who actually thought The Dark World was not only better than the first Thor movie, but was (at the time) one of the best Marvel movies to date.  At the very least, it started to move sharply away from the more serious, tedious world-building of previous MCU films and started to embrace much more of the camp that makes all these various genre films feel a part of the same universe.  Ragnarok takes that shift and pumps its veins full of acid, spinning away from the past Thor movies so hard and so fast that it very nearly threatens to fall out of the MCU entirely and into a parallel dimension where Jeff Goldblum succeeded in becoming the Greek God he was clearly meant to be. 

            More than anything else, this film’s pacing sets it up right from the start for success- we are briskly reminded that Thanos is out there, there are infinity stones that need finding, and we get a short (but excellent) cameo from Benedict Cumberbatch’s Doctor Strange, but what little we need to know is explained quickly and let be so that we can get right to the fun times.  Pretty much every previous character from the franchise is summarily dropped- Natalie Portman and her coterie have been excised, and aside from Idris Elba (who remains one of the most underappreciated side actors in the entire MCU), the few Asgardians we knew from the past are killed when Thor’s long-banished sister, Hela (Cate Blanchett as Reverse Galadriel), returns to lay claim to the throne and launch war upon the universe.   

            Thor and Loki’s initial encounter with her goes disastrously- Thor loses his hammer and both find themselves cast into a parallel world ruled over by an absolutely delicious Jeff Goldblum, who’s so good he only fails to be the best new villain in the Marvel MCU by virtue of the fact that Cate Blanchett is also in this movie.  They soon find new allies- Tessa Thompson as a long-lost Asgardian warrior and Bruce Banner (who’s been stuck in Hulk form since Age of Ultron)- and have to fight their way out of enslavement and back to Asgard in order to prevent Ragnarok, the end of the world.   

            This movie is one of the best examples this year of the principle that the journey is always better than the destination, and that sticking to a time-honored, predictable formula is no problem as long as you do it right.  There are no big twists or attempts to make the film be more than what it is.  It just is.  Chris Hemsworth is as impossibly handsome and rogueish as ever, Tom Hiddleston is still having way too much fun with his life, and their chemistry with each other is so perfectly fine-tuned by now, I wouldn’t complain if they canceled the rest of the MCU (except Black Panther, obviously) and just let them both star in buddy comedies till they die, or bodily ascend to Valhalla. 

            They are balanced out by Mark Ruffalo giving two remarkable performances as both the aggressive Hulk and the mild-mannered Banner, as well as Thompson’s wounded and surly ex-Valkyrie, who better damn well get something to do in the next Avengers movie.  Even Karl Urban is finally back in a big picture as Skurge, a skeevy, opportunistic Asgardian who decides (slightly reluctantly) to hitch his wagon to the Hela Train as a means to wealth and power.    

            It’s amazing just how much detail is packed into every shot of the film.  Yes, the CGI use is extremely heavily utilized, but it’s gorgeous, detail-packed CGI, with a bounty of great character designs and a breezy, drive-by quality in how it takes us past one fascinating visual or new idea after another, but never bogging itself down trying to have it all make sense.  The new bits of the world we need to know about are explained, and those we don’t need to know about aren’t, which, in the best tradition of hint-don’t-tell, allows this film to be a fun, riveting, tightly-packed adventure that still feels like only a part of a larger universe, one that we may get to revisit in the future if we are so lucky.   

            The Gladiator-style planet Thor and Loki initially fall into is a perfect example of this; pretty much every other character, be it a named one or some extra in the corner of the shot, has a completely different costume design and look, with a thousand different styles and color schemes all intermingling on the screen.  And with each shot of a crowd or a street, I couldn’t help but remind myself that, whether what we’re seeing it CGI or not, someone still had to sit down and come up with each of the bonkers designs we see.  It’s the sort of obsessive effort that also made the luscious visuals of Valerian something to behold, but without the unequal acting that dragged that otherwise fascinating work down from the heights it sought to reach. 

            There will be many people wringing their hands over the lack of any real depth or variation to the story, or the fact that once again we’re given a villain below Iago-levels of complexity, or that yes, this movie is more about getting every laugh it can than about making you believe that the adventures of Space Argonauts matter in a broader societal sense.  I feel sorry for those people, for their lives must be dank, dark, and miserable indeed.  For Thor: Ragnarok is, put quite simply, fun as all hell.  It’s the most fun and hardest laughs I’ve had at the theater this year, and in these dark times there is a power and value in that that we underestimate at our own peril. 

            You may disagree.  You may want something else from your comic book movie.  And that’s okay.  I don’t, and now that Thor: Ragnarok has given me what I always wanted, I never will. 

-Noah Franc 

Monday, November 6, 2017

Reflections: Stranger Things 2

**minor thematic spoilers for season two of Stranger Things**

            As with many a good thing, I couldn’t help but wish at first for Stranger Things to be left alone as a stand-alone, great piece of television drama.  I’ve been burned far too often by later installments of once-great creations gone to seed; the scars inflicted by the Ice Age sequels and the third season of Downtown Abbey are still visible when I shower.  And yet, here we are a year later, and I am loving this tasty plate of crow.  The Duffer Brothers have proven their mettle with a second season that, like the first, is a wonderful bit of storytelling.  Despite its flaws, this new season hits my nostalgia bones in all the right ways and reaches such great heights at its best that I’m confident it will hold up in the long run.  We’ve got something special here, and let’s hope it lasts. 

             Not that the show has never been without flaws- I was part of the chorus of people disappointed in how Barb was treated in season one, and as part two admits in a brief fourth-wall break, the story was indeed a bit derivative- but it’s so often the very flawed works that stand out most in our minds later on if there is a beating heart at the center of it all.  And what a hell of a beating heart this cast is.  I love every single performer in this series, from the minors to the mains, with David Harbour’s Hopper easily being my favorite.  The tag-team journey of him and Eleven/Jane growing as both individuals and as a makeshift father-daughter duo made for the best drama of the season, especially the heated fights in the cabin that, psychic powers aside, are some of the starkest and realist depictions of family dynamics I’ve ever seen in a TV show. 

            True, this season also can’t shake itself of a certain amount of predictability.  Will once again is victimized as the one that needs saving from the Upside Down, even if he does get more on-screen time to shine as an actor.  My heart leapt when Sean Astin appeared as Bob, only to sink an episode later as I realized he could only be there to turn evil or die by the end.  The late-inning toss-in of the hot young Macho Man visually seducing the sexually frustrated suburban mother was one of the most uncomfortable (in a bad way) things I’ve seen all year.  And yet, such occasions are minor missteps, for a formula done with love is every bit as nutritious to the soul as a deconstruction of the same. 

            And this show has found a number of ways to quietly subvert itself and audiences expectations of it.  This has been most evident in the surprisingly round development of Steve Harrington (Joe Keery).  Framed at the start of Season One as the prototypical 80’s “cool kid” antagonist, we got to see more and more of his softer side towards the end, as he gamely stepped in to help fight the Demogorgon despite so clearly, and so hilariously, out of his league.
            This time around he gets to bond a bit more with the kids, admitting to himself that he makes a better babysitter than he thought he would, and clearly enjoys it.  And while this could certainly go south in future seasons (and please oh please, let it not go south), it was refreshing to see someone on the losing end of a love triangle not devolve into bitter vengefulness.  You keep doing you, Steve.  You and your weird hair tricks. 

            All in all, this re-entry into the world of Hawkins and its unseen fight against the Upside Down was exactly what the doctor ordered this Halloween, and so far, I’m all in.  Let this train go as far as it can, and be our perpetual guide into the odd months of Autumn. 

-Noah Franc 

Saturday, October 28, 2017

Review: The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected): Written and directed by Noah Baumbach.  Starring: Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Elizabeth Marvel, Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, and Grace van Patten.  Running Time: 112 minutes. 

Rating: 3/4

            Noah Baumbach has spent his film career slowly turning himself into a master at taking incredibly immature characters, often set within tragicomically dysfunctional families, and spinning out remarkable tales make us really feel for the hilariously inept people we see.  We identify with them because they reflect so much of what is both pathetically and, at the same time, sweetly flawed in ourselves.  In this regard, his new Netflix-produced work The Meyerowitz Stories fits right in to his typical framework, and is a worthy successor to Frances Ha and Mistress America, even if it doesn’t quite reach the same heights those works did. 
            The authorial nature of the title refers to the broken-up structure of the film itself.  Instead of a smoothly connecting narrative, we only see scenes and snippets of the intersecting lives of the royally fucked-up Meyerowitz clan, identifiable by the title cards separating the segments focused on a particular character.  These “chapters,” after a fashion, take us through a series of events that bring together the disparate members of the family, which include the aging father, Harold (Dustin Hoffmann), his alcoholic fourth wife Maureen (Emma Thomson), his three children from his three previous wives- Danny, Matthew, and Jean (Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, and Elizabeth Marvel)- and Danny’s college-bound daughter, Eliza (Grace Van Patten). 

            Centered primarily around a health scare that, briefly, has everyone convinced Harold is finally about to die, one Pandora’s Box after another of unresolved mental problems, unhealthy family dynamics, and traumas is opened up and the horrors within unleashed.  Driven by the wholly self-centered attitude of their father, each of the children have clearly spent years finding their own ways to bottle up their angers, insecurities, and fears, but when the final specter of Death reveals itself, they suddenly find there’s no hiding to be had anymore. 

            Dustin Hoffman’s Harold, an aging sculpture, is the biggest scene-chewer and scene-stealer of the whole affair.  He embodies, in so many ways, the stereotypical narcissistic, narrow-minded “artist” taken to a miserable extreme.  He talks and rambles and gets angry about everyone and everything.  If you aren’t able to appreciate “the work” (his way of referring to his artistic career) you aren’t worth his time, so fuck off.  I was a bit bothered by this at first- his long-winded explanations of EVERYTHING and his incessant jumping from one topic to another at the drop of a pin come off at first like lazy exposition on the part of the screenplay- but it soon becomes clear how central this is to his character.  Harold can’t NOT keep talking about this and that, complaining and bemoaning that and this, because to pause for long enough might force him to accept that, just maybe, he was never that great an artist to begin with, and he’s not as famous as his peers for a reason. 

            As excellent as Dustin Hoffman is, though- and this is the best performance he’s given us in years- the cast is astoundingly good across the board.  Adam Sandler and Ben Stiller (Older Brother Danny and Younger Brother Matthew), much like Will Ferrell, are odd cases of actors; they’ve always specialized in comedy, yet I’ve nearly always found them far more interesting and, well, better in their non-comedic projects.  Ben Stiller has been good in a lot of movies before (I seem to be one of the only people left alive who recalls the underrated Walter Mitty), but this is easily one of his best roles.  Adam Sandler has never been better, period. 

            For all the outlandishness the Meyerowitz people display, this movie thrives on those subtle moments that reveal what lies beneath the surface of each person.  Matthew talks often about how he’s managed to get over his issues with his Dad, and one subplot revolves around him rather callously pushing to sell off the family house and every bit of artwork Harold ever made.  And yet, in one of the film’s finest scenes, the implications of all this hit him in a rush, and the insecurities he still has coupled with his equally-real love for his father come rushing out.  Emma Thompson puts on a ceaselessly happy façade even as her husband lies in a coma, but every so often her deep despair seeps out without warning.  Danny has a terrible relationship with his father and brother, but has a wonderfully genuine connection with his daughter, Eliza.  Indeed, Eliza’s very existence seems to be a small ray of hope the film proffers to the viewer; a sign that, even in the midst of such pain and hurt and angst, a whole person can still emerge from all that; happy, healthy, and ready to take on the world. 

            You’ll note I haven’t said much yet about the daughter, Jean, even though Marvel gives a performance that matches in quality that of everyone else.  This is, unfortunately, because the film is never nearly as interested in exploring her character, past, and issues as it is those of her brothers, who are the focus of most of what happens over the course of the movie.  Even when she does get a chapter title of her own, late in the movie, it’s only so we can learn about an episode of sexual harassment she experienced as a teenager.  And even then, rather than take this opportunity to finally dive into her psyche, the moment merely ends up serving as another opportunity for her brothers to make it all about them and their issues. 

            I found this aspect of the movie especially disappointing given how amazingly well Baumbach has written complicated, struggling female characters in his earlier movies.  Given what I’d previously seen of his work, I would have assumed going into this movie that Jean’s story and development would have been the topper.  That this is not the case, or even that she does not seem to get even billing with her brothers, strikes me as an unfortunate self-inflicted wound that keeps what is a very, very good movie from being a truly great one. 

            But don’t let that deter anyone from seeing this- The Meyerowitz Stories IS a very, very good movie, one of the best family dramas of 2017, and absolutely worth seeing.  Just make sure you have a strong drink on hand before pressing the “start” button. 

-Noah Franc 

Friday, October 20, 2017

Films for the Trump Years: The Big Short

            Looking back at all that’s happened the past few decades, it seems a monumental task to try and sort out the most important turning points over the past 16 years that led us to the Trump era, but the Great Recession that bridged the Bush and Obama years is easily one of the biggest.  While 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror was the genesis for the particular strains of xenophobia and fear now infecting us, the Great Recession birthed its evil twin; the collapse of trust for most Americans in the stability, competence, and trustworthiness of our institutions and basic norms of economics and governance.  

            Everything about it- the people who directly lost homes, savings, jobs, and more, the revelation of just how thoroughly corrupt the markets had become and how inadequate our systems of regulation were, the bailouts allowing those most guilty of the crash to walk away swimming in blood money, and beyond- stunk to high heaven.  Moreover, it produced twin ripple effects on both sides of the American political spectrum that we are still caught up in.  Before it was supercharged by the desire to destroy the first Black President, the Tea Party first came about as opposition within conservative ranks to the direct involvement of President Bush in saving the banks.  The results of the radicalization of the GOP from top to bottom this brought about are, unfortunately, obvious for all to see.   

            And although it has not yet reached the same level in terms of political power, liberals and progressives have been affected just as starkly.  The Occupy Wall Street movement changed forever much of the lexicon on the left in discussing economic inequality, and many in my generation became the first to abandon an instinctive opposition to anything branded with that dirty word “socialist,” willing to embrace ideas like those proposed by Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren that the Democratic Party would not have even contemplated addressing a decade ago.  And here, too, a strong tendency to inherently distrust and throw shade on anything deemed “establishment” is beginning to build to a destructive extreme. 

            Because of how important it is to bear in mind how the Recession is still not just affecting our economy, but even how we think about politics and society, in this month’s edition of Films for the Trump Years I suggest revisiting The Big Short, Adam McKay’s Oscar-winning masterpiece from 2015.  Based on the book by the same by Michael Lewis, one of today’s best non-fiction writers, it details how handful of finance expert with various backgrounds caught wind of the fact that the entire system propping up the housing and loans market was fraudulent.  With so many bad loans underwriting much of the American and global economy, it was not a question of if the system would crash, but when, and how badly. 

            What makes their stories so intriguing, complex, and interesting, is that none of these people are “good guys” in many senses of the word.  In their own way, they are just as greedy and opportunistic as those they are angry at for defrauding the public, because while they do try to raise at least a few alarm bells about what they find, they still don’t hesitate to profit off the crash when the opportunity arises. 

            What makes this movie a particular must-see, though, is how it uses its soundtrack, rapid-style editing, and fourth-wall breaks to not just tell a compelling story in a powerfully effective (which it does), but to also serve as a two-hour, Economics for Dummies Crash Course.  If you feel like you are hopelessly lost and unable to understand the many technical terms and ideas used in the industry, the movie reminds you that that is exactly the point- skullduggery like this is possible because its shrouded in such boring-sounding jargon, most people simply can’t muster the energy to pay much more than cursory attention to it all. 

            And therein lies the unfortunately all-too-cyclical nature of human greed and the systematic crashes it produces.  The movie pulls no punches at all in reminding the viewer just how cuttingly and awfully unfair it was that working people were ruined while the rich who made the crash were not punished in any meaningful way, and in revealing how a similar crash could easily just be a few more shorts away. 

            Like with most of the movies I select for this series, The Big Short is a film that calls for vigilance.  We can’t prevent every tragedy, but the more we resolve to work every day to open and re-open our eyes, and to educate ourselves about the world we live and the parts we play in whether we like it or no, the better our chances are of avoiding the next disaster. 

            So stay vigilant.  Stay woke.  And when you smell something, don’t ever hesitate to say something. 

-Noah Franc

Previously on Films for the Trump Years

Part 1- Selma

Part 3- 13th 

Part 4- Get Out