mid90s

Release: Friday, October 26, 2018

→Theater

Written by: Jonah Hill

Directed by: Jonah Hill

Ahead of its premiere at TIFF earlier this year, débuting writer-director Jonah Hill said of his mid90s, a rough-around-the-edges, scrappy little slice-of-life drama extracted from the streets of L.A., that what he really didn’t want to do was create nostalgia porn. Honestly, this is the first time I have ever heard the phrase ‘nostalgia porn.’ To me that seems like a term only a child of the early-to-mid 2000s could coin. It’s funny though, as Hill certainly captures a number of performances and a milieu that feel gritty and authentic, while his creative approach, shooting almost guerrilla style and in a 4:3 aspect, invariably sends us back to the days of the classically grainy street-skating edits.

The story follows little Stevie (introducing Sunny Suljic) who lives with his co-dependent single mom Dabney (Katherine Waterston) and abusive older brother Ian (the justifiably ubiquitous Lucas Hedges) and his experiences falling in with a group of skateboarders as he attempts to find out who he really is instead of the punching bag he is at home. One day Stevie spots a group of skaters across the street giving a store owner a hard time as he attempts to shoo them away from the property. Amused, he follows them back to a skate shop located on Motor Avenue, drawn in by their swagger.

The supporting parts are played mostly by non-professional actors, starting with Suljic whom Hill apparently discovered at a skatepark. He also invited pro-am skaters Na-kel Smith (playing the notably more mature Ray) and Olan Prenatt (“Fuckshit,” the only logical nickname for someone so hype) to read for him and they quickly got the gig. More on the periphery are “Fourth Grade” (Ryder McLaughlin), a not-so-bright fella whose poverty is so extreme his family can barely afford socks, and Ruben (Gio Galicia), whose physically abusive home life explains his more antagonistic, tough-guy persona.

Before long, and despite initial misgivings, Stevie (a.k.a. “Sunburn,” a nickname earned after his first and truly awkward interaction) seems to have found his tribe, and a few new thrills in one fell swoop. He quickly latches on to the partying aspects that seem to go hand-in-hand with this vagrant lifestyle. As he gets in deeper his behavior begins to change, that wide-eyed innocence traded out for a misguided sense of what being  “cool” looks and sounds like. (Hint: it ain’t defined by screaming like a maniac at your mother.) With an ego running amok, Stevie finds himself twisting into a pretzel trying to become something he isn’t.

What’s great about mid90s is that you never needed to have popped an ollie in your life to be able to appreciate its themes, or to sympathize with its admittedly foul-mouthed teen protagonists. Fitting in, being accepted, succumbing to peer pressure — these are universal experiences and they certainly don’t dry up after high school. Skateboarding culture is a big part of it but this isn’t a movie about skateboarding. Understanding the nuances of the art form is less important as noticing the escapement, the freedom of movement it provides — and that’s especially true of the creative design of the production itself. Skateboarding is what gives the narrative fluidity, moving us gracefully (and sometimes less so) between moments and locales that give character to this sympathetically told coming-of-age piece.

“Fuck, shit, yo that was dope!”

Recommendation: Mid90s proves an entirely natural and honest portrayal of adolescence and the growing pains associated with it. There is an element of bittersweetness inherent in the going back, but that’s more of a side effect than an end goal. While what happens on screen is engaging, I think what’s happening behind the camera is even more exciting. Jonah Hill, comedic progeny of Judd Apatow/Seth Rogen/Evan Goldberg, has made something entirely divorced from his acting career. Slight but substantive, and with an uncanny sense of time and place, the film is unquestionably a strong first effort. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 85 mins.

Quoted: “A lot of the time, you feel that our lives are the worst. But you look in anybody else’s closet, you wouldn’t trade your shit for their shit.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Get Out

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Release: Friday, February 24, 2017

[Theater]

Written by: Jordan Peele

Directed by: Jordan Peele

Jordan Peele announces himself as a talent to keep an eye on with his surprisingly enlightening and even more entertaining directorial debut, the horror-comedy Get Out. His first try proves an early candidate for sleeper hit of the year, a film that manages to balance provocative themes, an interesting premise and a handful of solid performances in a way that’s rare even for seasoned filmmakers.

Get Out centers around a young mixed-race couple, Rose Armitage (Allison Williams) and Chris Washington (Daniel Kaluuya), who visit the former’s parents for a weekend. While Rose feels they’ve reached that point in their relationship, Chris isn’t sure how her parents are going to respond to him being black. She hasn’t told them because she’s adamant the only thing he needs to worry about is how uncool they are.

When the two arrive, awkwardness wastes no time setting in. Rose’s father Dean (played by a nearly unrecognizable Bradley Whitford) is a neurosurgeon who immediately sets out on a crusade to impress Chris with aggressive politeness and generally overcompensatory behavior. He takes “[his] man” on a tour of the house, making sure to let Chris know he’s not one of those ignorant types. After all, he has great appreciation for Jesse Owens and if he could, he would have voted for a third term for former President Obama.

His wife Missy (Catherine Keener) is a psychiatrist whose hypnotherapy may not come free of charge but it sometimes does without patient consent. I’ve never really liked Catherine Keener, even while acknowledging the knack she has for portraying emotionally unstable weirdos. In Get Out her eccentricity functions as more than a character trait. Missy is actually more a plot device than a character, which isn’t nearly as disappointing as it sounds. Rose has a younger brother too, Caleb Landry Jones’ wild card Jeremy, whose domineering albeit brief presence threatens to undermine the film’s subtle strategizing. He’s a bit harder to take seriously.

As are the numerous black servants on the premises. They’re all so goofy they inadvertently become beacons of comedic relief rather than legitimate concerns. And this is the issue I have with the hybrid genre: knowing which reaction is appropriate can prove frustrating at best. Even if their behavior is intended to be funny, it’s not quite funny enough to be convincing in that way either. I chuckled at a couple of the interactions, particularly with maid Georgina (Betty Gabriel), but felt bad when I did. It was awkward. Luckily there are other instances where the humor succeeds and actually enhances the experience — see Lil Rel Howery as Chris’ security guard friend, for example.

As Chris wanders the grounds snapping photos and asking seemingly innocuous questions of the staff, wafts of institutionalized racism become stronger. It has become evident Chris’ discomfort isn’t just personal. There’s a larger, more sinister dynamic at play, suggested by the servants’ unnatural mannerisms and body language. And the discomfort only grows as more of Rose’s family unexpectedly show up for the reunion she forgot to tell Chris about.

Peele, no stranger to skewering the politically correct in his successful and often controversial Comedy Central sketch show Key & Peele (and whose co-host you can find starring alongside him in 2016’s hit action-comedy Keanu), has found a way to expand his observations about the American society in which we live today into a full-length feature presentation. And he does so without falling back on a blueprint that has treated him very well thus far. He also avoids overtly politicizing his message.

Get Out could have manifested as a series of skits all building toward some unifying theme. It could have been, like Logan to some degree, a specific jab at a specific American president putting into effect specific policies. Instead the fiction is broader, more immune to current political trends. Peele legitimizes his cause with insightful commentary and an effortlessly likable lead — a seriousness of purpose only moderately undercut by a few emotionally confused cues and a truth-revealing climax that doesn’t quite live up to the standards set by the movie that preceded it.

Recommendation: Get Out is a movie that has gotten people talking. It’s going to be one of the surprise hits of the year and the hype is pretty much justified as Jordan Peele very clearly has his finger on the pulse of what not only the typical moviegoer wants to see in their movies, but that of film critics and skeptics as well.

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “Man, I told you not to go in that house.”

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Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Birth of a Nation

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Release: Friday, October 7, 2016

[Theater]

Written by: Nate Parker

Directed by: Nate Parker

It’s all but inevitable making comparisons between Steve McQueen’s 2013 Oscar-winning adaptation of Solomon Northup’s memoir and the debut feature from Nate Parker. Some have even gone as far as to regard the latter’s work as the 12 Years a Slave of 2016, which, in hindsight, seems a little hasty.

There is plenty of evidence that supports the notion the two films are cut from the same cloth. Both pieces center on fairly young, literate black males who endure uniquely brutal circumstances in the antebellum South. 12 Years may be more notorious for its unflinching depiction of violence, but The Birth of a Nation is no slouch, offering up a similarly sweeping, damning indictment of society by channeling the greater travesty of institutionalized racism through a singular perspective. Nation even compares favorably to its spiritual predecessor in terms of emotional heft and the authority it carries — these are very serious films with conviction to match and an unusual ability to break your spirit through sheer force of realism.

They are also deeply personal works, helmed by capable filmmakers whose vision and whose commitment to that vision seem to go unquestioned. Parker proves himself an indispensable asset, serving not only as Nation‘s director, writer and producer, but fulfilling a substantial lead role as Nat Turner, an enslaved man who inspired a bloody uprising in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. Unlike McQueen’s third effort, one that followed a free man’s descent into hell having been abducted and sold into slavery, Parker’s debut begins in the muck, gradually building toward a rebellion that caused the deaths of an estimated 65 whites, while retaliatory action on behalf of white militias and mobs cost the lives of roughly 200 African Americans, both freed and enslaved and many of whom had never so much as raised a pitchfork in (righteous) anger. There’s an appalling reality we must face come the end credits, too. A brief title card lets us know just how barbaric life would become in this region in the aftermath. And after being captured we’re told Nat was hanged, beheaded and then quartered, and parts of his corpse were “repurposed” in an effort to eliminate any trace of his existence.

Appropriately, a sense of martyrdom permeates the drama, though this is also the very rough, blunt edge that comes to define the blade of justice Parker is attempting to wield. That the portrait desperately wants to be at least something like The Passion of the Christ when it grows up — Parker clearly regards the figure as more Jesus Christ than Dr. Martin Luther King — doesn’t necessarily make the film profound. It does make it rather clumsy and pretentious though. His introduction, The Birth of a Leader as it were, is far from being a stroke of subtlety, and it’s a moment that we’ll frequently return to during the longer paces of the second and third acts. There’s a mystical quality to the way we’re introduced to Nat as a young boy running from something (presumably violent) through the thick, dark woods. He stumbles upon a small gathering of prophets (as one does) who see the boy growing into a man of considerable influence and power. The only thing they don’t say is specifically how the plot is going to develop.

Nation is a beautifully realized production, from its musty yellow/gray/brown wardrobe to the McQueen-esque shots of a southern landscape that stays still as a painting, hauntingly indifferent to the passage of time. Set against this backdrop are universally committed performances, with Parker offering one of the year’s more morally and emotionally complex protagonists. As a black preacher afforded certain luxuries (you might call them), like maintaining a borderline friendly relationship with the proprietors of this particular plantation to which he has drifted and for whom he picks not-so-endless supplies of cotton, Nat is an immediately empathetic character even if his saintly aura feels awkward. Armie Hammer, who plays Samuel Turner, also turns in strong work, managing to effect a slave owner whose humanity may still lie dormant but is constantly being ignored in favor of simpler, more immediate solutions — getting drunk as a way to deal with his economic woes, and taking out his problems on what he calls his property. Yes, it’s all very Edwin Epps-ian.

Like many plantation owners Samuel and his wife Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller) are enduring very harsh economic times and they are looking for other ways to raise money. A local reverend (Mark Boone Jr.) suggests they employ Nat’s gift to help suppress unruly slaves elsewhere. Sure enough, as we travel with him and Samuel to various plantations and experience the atrocities ongoing there, it becomes clear the young man has a certain power that can pay dividends. But it comes at a hefty price for Nat as the psychological torment of remaining obedient spreads like a cancer throughout his soul, while the contradictory, physical act of standing before his people while he suppresses them with scripture hurts him as much, if not more. It’s a perfectly twisted nightmare, one that comes to life powerfully and memorably via the conviction of a freshman director.

The narrative swells almost ungainly to encompass Nat’s budding romance with the newly arrived Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a quiet but beautiful woman who is taken by Nat’s kindness and confidence. And so we’ve reached a point where the more predictable stuff starts to happen: as Nat’s preaching continues he finds his popularity growing, but also finds his fiery sermons are only inflaming wounds rather than healing them. Violence is visited upon Nat’s home as Cherry, now his wife, barely survives an assault from three men, one of whom is Jackie Earle Haley’s detestable Raymond Cobb, the same man who had years ago murdered Nat’s father right in front of him. Tacked on for good measure are the moments of suffering that now feel de rigueur for the genre — an off-screen rape, the whipping at the post, lynchings. Not that these moments are ineffective or that we once think about dismissing them, but the bluntness with which Parker inserts these moments of torture overrides the film’s more compelling epiphanies, like him discovering that for every verse in the Bible that supports strict obedience to a higher power, there is one condemning man for his violent and hateful behavior.

It’s also unfortunate the road to rebellion isn’t realized as fully as one might expect from a film so provocatively titled. There’s a sense of unity in a few of the ending scenes, but it feels rushed and secondary to the personal stakes that have been ratcheted up by each act of cruelty Nat witnesses; nevertheless it’s not a stretch to imagine these quiet rumblings later erupting into full-fledged war as the country tears itself apart from civil unrest. And Parker even directly addresses those connections by depicting a young boy briefly glimpsed sitting by becoming a soldier on the front lines. While compelling in its own right, transitions like these have little nuance and feel clunky, evidence of a director still finding his style.

In spite of its clumsiness and familiarity Nation feels weighty and you can sense the rage steaming off the pages of this script. You can smell the ink, taste the sweat and the tears that were poured into this labor of love. Yes, the film left me feeling profoundly sad, and I would be lying if I said I wanted to see it again. Yes, the narrative could have (and probably should have) been more subtle with its paralleling of Nat’s suffering to the final hours in the life of Jesus of Nazareth. Yes, I am aware that the director’s public image as of present isn’t exactly of the sort you want to tout during awards season. (I find the latter tidbit interesting insofar as it is curiously poor timing for Parker.) Still, there’s enough here to distinguish the film as a unique vision, and one that gains some points for poignancy as nationwide protests continue to dominate headlines as more and more black athletes take a knee. That Colin Kaepernick felt he had to do something symbolic during the National Anthem is evidence that not much has really changed. Meanwhile the red on the flag continues to run.

nat-turner-and-aja-naomi-king-in-the-birth-of-a-nation

Recommendation: Hard-hitting, violent and downright nasty at times, The Birth of a Nation is not an easy watch but it is an important film. It’s an interesting one to watch given its pronounced spiritual roots, even though I personally think the Jesus Christ parallel is a bit much. I am not ready to proclaim this a must-see; it’s not quite as masterfully created as Steve McQueen’s film but at the same time I also get the comparisons. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 120 mins.

Quoted: “Submit yourselves to your Masters, not only to those who are good and considerate. But also to those who are harsh.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited. 

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com

Rosewater

Release: Friday, November 14, 2014 (limited)

[Redbox]

Written by: Jon Stewart

Directed by: Jon Stewart

Rosewater may be watered-down in the drama department, but then that’s missing the point that Jon Stewart already seems to be blossoming from satirical news show host into a feature film maker with serious potential.

You won’t find many (if any) of Stewart’s signature snide remarks in this cinematic adaptation of Iranian-Canadian journalist Maziar Bahari’s memoir Then They Came for Me. Distilling the essence of that account into a rather harrowing hour and forty minutes couldn’t have been any small task, yet Stewart adapts with confidence Bahari’s being detained and brutal interrogation at the hands of Iranian authorities for 118 days — a kind of confidence that seems a natural extension of his ability to look a camera dead-on and resist the urge to crack wise whenever it was appropriate.

This somber account isn’t in the conversation of award-winning biopics, but Stewart’s dedication to exploring a serious, often potent subject matter is impressive regardless. Rosewater is earnest yet it never becomes powerful enough to arouse emotional responses; lenses dedicated to reflecting the tension that continues to define American and Middle Eastern relations have a more journalistic presence rather than anything that feels truly cinematic. But perhaps it’s a credit to the filmmakers that the final product never could be described as bombastic or self-serving.

Performances from Gael García Bernal and Kim Bodnia enrich the film with paranoia and distrust but it’s really how Stewart puts together an empathetic portrait of human beings being lodged in between a rock and a hard place. Bodnia’s Javadi (a.k.a. Rosewater), though clearly an unlikable and hostile man, is shaded with a humanity that saves him from one-note villainy. We witness the perpetual berating and detaining of the journalist as a function of Javadi taking orders from his higher ups. We notice these 118 days take a toll on him, though nothing like what they do to his prisoner. And clearly there are fundamental ideological differences that assure neither party are ever going to see eye-to-eye, but during the course of Rosewater‘s extensive imprisonment scenes we glimpse at a more disturbing reality: there’s an unsettling sameness about the extremist beliefs of Javadi and Maziar’s commitment to maintaining his innocence.

In one stand-out scene toward the end, far past the point where the blindfold Maziar must wear at all times signifies little more than an asinine Evin Prison regulation, Stewart beautifully displays how one triumphs over the other, and though it’s no spoiler to suggest which one does win out, the denouement finds The Daily Show host announcing that he has plans beyond sitting behind that desk, reading and analyzing ridiculous headlines. This is the film at its most optimistic and moving.

Rosewater doesn’t try to be a damning political statement. It’s about a man’s journey through psychological (and often physical) abuse and torment. For us, the torment is knowing how close Maziar is to freedom. His words carry truth but they aren’t worth listening to as far as Javadi and his higher-ups are concerned. To them, the journalist’s so-called treasonous acts speak for themselves. To them he’s a symbol of an uprising those in power couldn’t hope to suppress if enough of them spread across the land. The documentation of the violent reactions of citizens following the presidential election of 2009 isn’t an innocent act; it could galvanize the oppressed into action against a righteous government. Such ignorance is the hardest pill to swallow.

Rosewater reflects honestly upon a crisis situation that hardly feels sensationalized. Stewart demonstrates a knack for showing compassion towards his fellow man, even the ones we ought to loathe completely. Of course he’s never telling us to root for the bad guys, and he’s not exactly deterring anyone from celebrating the good ones outright. In his debut film Stewart is reminding us that every common human experience is tinted by some shade of gray. Some grays are certainly darker than others.

Recommendation: Jon Stewart has created a bit of cinema that has potential to be more powerful, but there are marks of a new talent present all throughout. Rosewater is politically-charged, but its surprisingly restrained in that regard and more often than not doesn’t lean too heavily one way or another. It’s a film worth checking out for anyone curious to take a glimpse at Stewart’s possible post-Daily Show career. 

Rated: R

Running Time: 103 mins.

Quoted: “There are certain situations, that if you film them, won’t do your friends or the movement any good.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com 

The Lunchbox

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Release: Friday, February 28, 2014 (limited)

[Theater]

You know you have an indie film on your hands when you’re sitting there, reading a plot synopsis about the misplacement of a lunchbox.

Indeed, this oft-underappreciated everyday object becomes the focus of attention in a truly unique and grounded-in-reality drama involving two lost souls seeking companionship in a chaotic and often disillusioning world.

The busy port city of Mumbai, India is simultaneously the most populated city in the country and the fifth most populous city in the world, and, being considered India’s financial, commercial and entertainment hot spot, is also home to several of India’s major film and television studios. A sprawling network of high rise buildings that jut out proudly above the low-lying canopy of ramshackle communities, the bulging mecca that is Mumbai swells with potential for wealth, power, success.

In a society that places emphasis on hard work and dutiful attention to church and family, everything has structure and everything seems predetermined, calculated. This is chiefly the reason why The Lunchbox appeals — its determination to break from structure and willingness to abandon societally accepted norms. That may sound like a cliché, but with any luck, a little explanation is about to go a long way.

Saajan Fernandes (Irrfan Khan) is facing retirement and has only recently lost his wife. He now exists in a drearily repetitious cycle that he has allowed himself to succumb to. Elsewhere, the young Ila (Nimrat Kaur) is married but unsatisfied with the present state of the relationship, so she’s attempting something new: cooking meals that she knows will please her husband. She is surprised when her first attempt at spicing things up is met with total silence from the hubby. That’s because in a rare mix-up involving Mumbai’s famed ‘dabbawalas’ — the people responsible for transferring home-cooked meals from the home to a person’s place of employment and back again at the end of the day — her lunchbox is taken to someone else.

Instead of going to her increasingly detached husband, the delicious meal she prepared is ingested by a very pleasantly surprised Saajan. The seemingly minor error turns out to be the spark of a friendship between two people who would otherwise be total strangers. Over the course of presumably several weeks (possibly months) Saajan and Ila exchange a number of notes that become increasingly interesting, even intimate. She shares her concerns about her husband’s emotional distance while Saajan fills Ila in on his worrying about retirement and the mourning of his late wife.

This is first-time direction from Ritesh Batra and yet The Lunchbox plays out with the conviction of a seasoned filmmaker. Batra’s choice to keep the main cast limited to just two wounded souls helps focus the project immensely. Somehow, the handwritten notes the two share through the lunchbox also helps to slow down the pace of life in metropolitan India just a little. Almost every development that occurs along the way is something elemental, something basic that we can believe actually might occur given the circumstances. There’s hardly a scene in which the drama feels forced or invented for perhaps no purpose other than to awaken audience members who were falling asleep in their seats, the ones who were expecting more action to take place. Maybe expecting the lunchbox to explode, or start talking or something even more bizarre.

Indeed, there’s none of that. There’s a lack of a cartoonish superhero design on this lunchbox, which makes some sense considering the film prefers to have feet planted firmly in reality. None of this is to suggest this film is uneventful or free of drama, though. In fact the narrative is wrought with tension at times and comparatively more light-hearted and upbeat during others. The Lunchbox is a film that prefers to highlight the imperfection of humanity rather than over-simplifying or overdramatizing it.

That’s a tricky tightrope to walk, in case anyone was wondering.

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4-0Recommendation: A pleasant, reality-based drama centering on an atypical relationship that develops in a most atypical way, The Lunchbox has broad appeal. Possessing subtitles and originating from India does little to hinder the film’s extreme ease of accessibility. The performances are a delight and its subject matter, though not wholly original, is given the benefit of the doubt given the unique cultural material that is used to progress the story. I don’t know about any of you, but I want my lunches delivered to me while I’m at work! And I’m not talking Panda Express, either.

Rated: PG

Running Time: 104 mins.

Quoted: “Dear Ila, things are never as bad as they seem.”

All content originally published and the reproduction elsewhere without the expressed written consent of the blog owner is prohibited.

Photo credits: http://www.impawards.com; http://www.imdb.com