Thursday, December 26, 2013

Film Week

A review of the films I've seen this past week.

FRANCES HA (2012)
Surprisingly touching film about an aspiring dancer who can't get her shit together. It does in 86 minutes what Girls keeps trying to do and doesn't always get quite right--and it's a show I actually like quite a bit, but I think the movie has a stronger grasp on similar themes of modern alienation and drift. The film's keen grasp of character--and Greta Gerwig's warts-and-all performance as a character who isn't always likable--elevate this film from trappings that I'm growing increasingly impatient with (the idea that talking about nothing is cool, the fascination with obnoxiousness, the way people in New York are somehow automatically more interesting; the film sees through a lot of that). But 90% of this comes down to Gerwig's excellent performance, which is precise and honest without being precious. A critic in the Village Voice said that director Noah Baumbach has mastered being personal without taking things too personally, and that's really the approach that makes this work. I feel like in the hands of others this would've been a film I'd found impossible to take seriously. It's not perfect, but it's spirited and honest in a way that counts. ****

AFTER EARTH (2013)
I dug this skiffy flick about a father and son trapped on an uninhabited future Earth. Will Smith, Jaden Smith and M. Night Shyamalan aren't my favorite people in the world, but I was intrigued by the premise and the way the film dealt with fear and being able to manage and control it. (Which probably isn't too surprising, given my anxiety and panic disorders.) Is it really a scientology flick? I've seen people with varying opinions on that. It seems like a tenuous connection at best to me; the film seems more concerned with mastery of emotional responses in a crisis situation rather than analysis of unconscious engrams or diatribes against psychology. If that's really in there, it's not effective as scientology propaganda. What I saw was just an interesting, good-looking science fiction adventure with some interesting themes about fear vs. danger and how complicated father-son relationships can be. There are some elements I found deeply silly (every animal on Earth has evolved to kill man, a creature that hasn't lived on Earth for a thousand years?), and I'm not a fan of Jaden Smith's acting (though, to be fair, constant near-panic is a pretty hard thing to watch without getting anxious and annoyed), but it was more engrossing to me than a lot of the recent carbon copy science fiction blockbuster wannabes. Not essential, but surprisingly good. (Interesting, biology-based tech, too.) ***1/2

THE TO DO LIST (2013)
Aubrey Plaza stars as a teenager who graduates high school and decides to explore sex so that she doesn't start college as a virgin. It's a fairly predictable teen sex comedy that is really only different from a lot of these movies in that it stars a girl instead of a boy. Actually, there is one element I appreciated, which is that Plaza's character sees sex as a choice--her choice--rather than something she does because of societal pressures or some other agenda. I saw someone call the movie "fake feminism," but I feel like the character feeling empowered enough to shape her own personal change on her own terms makes it actual feminism. It's not "fake" just because the movie's not making a grand point about it. I didn't think it was a great movie, but that was mainly because I didn't find it that different from a dozen other movies I've seen before rather than any cynicism about empowerment. I like Aubrey Plaza and I thought she was good in it. It's actually got a pretty good cast, but the movie itself is nothing special. **1/2

DAYDREAM NATION (2010)
Interesting, original film about small town angst. Kat Dennings plays the new teenage girl in a small town marked by overwrought symbols of uncertainty like a constantly-burning industrial fire and a vague, stalking serial killer. Kat, adrift since her mother died, begins an affair with her teacher and finds herself in a love triangle with one of her fellow students, a stoner whose friends are smoking cleaning products just to see what happens to them. The pressure builds and builds; it's interesting how the film is a coming of age drama that plays like a thriller; it takes people who are really just longing for love, acceptance and purpose, and magnifies their emotional turmoil into high drama. Very nuanced and sharp, bleak and existential, and very ambitious. It's not a hundred percent successful, but I appreciate that it tries to be something different and novel, and it has a firm grasp of its characters. It's logic is like an apocalyptic version of magical realism. It's more poetic than logical, but it was nice not knowing where it planned on going as it was winding its way through the narrative. ***1/2

FRUITVALE STATION (2013)
Tense, assured film about the last day in the life of Oscar Grant, a young man who was killed by a transit cop on New Year's Eve 2008. It's a devastating film, opening with Grant's murder, and then showing us his last day alive, inexorably leading to a confused and sudden death that we know is inescapable. Director Ryan Coogler makes an interesting choice, then, to show us just how casual the day is, rather than imbuing every action with deep symbolism (though there are moments, of course, such as a scene with a feared and neglected pit bull or a moment where Grant throws away a bag of weed in an attempt to change his life). It's restrained; a quietly emotional attempt to put a human face on a tragedy that succeeds. It's very powerful. ****

Fruitvale Station is a widely acclaimed film, but I want to take a moment here to mention something that's bothering me in some of the negative reviews I've read. Kyle Smith in the New York Post said it was manipulative, which is a legitimate criticism, but then went on to write an entire separate, angry article that was really just an overreaction to the racial themes of the film. The film is unapologetically frank about being about black and Hispanic people who live in a world where white culture is still considered the default. (There's one scene that really stood out to me where Grant--played by Michael B. Jordan, an actor I really like--tries to buy a birthday card for his mother, and the cards have white people on them. That gave me something to think about; that's an experience I've never had and never had to think about, which is how privilege alters your perceptions.) I know it's hip to say that racism doesn't exist anymore or that we're past it, but that's bullshit; it's institutional and not acknowledging that only perpetuates it. Smith's angry review--in which he says that because Grant's death was accidental, it "was no more pregnant with lessons for society than if he had been hit by a bus"--and his companion article, which blasts the filmmakers for not mentioning that Grant's time in prison was for possession of a handgun, attempt to say that race had nothing to do with Grant's death. I think it's impossible to separate race from the incident, because I don't think the transit cops would have dealt so fearfully and angrily with a group of young white men. I've seen cops deal with white and black students here in my college town, and the difference is marked. A lot of cops approach black kids like they've been trained to assume that all black kids carry weapons and are dangerous. To its credit, Fruitvale Station is more frank about this than manipulative. Any attempt to wave the racial aspect away is just an uncomfortable reaction to a genuine problem in society. I also don't appreciate Smith's attempt to bring up Grant's handgun conviction, which has literally nothing to do with the circumstances of his death, because it sounds like what he's saying is that because Grant was a poor black man and possibly a thug that somehow makes his accidental murder less sad. That's ridiculous and wrong.

I also was annoyed by the AV Club's review, which tries to pull the same attitude of the movie being too manipulative to make an "obvious" point about Grant not deserving to die, and "if America needs a movie to make that much clear, God help us." That's pretty disingenuous. I would argue that since the film about an unarmed young black man getting shot and killed was released in the same summer when people were arguing about whether George Zimmerman had the "right" to murder Trayvon Martin, America probably does need a movie to make that clear. That criticism is just misguided.

SUSANNAH OF THE MOUNTIES (1939)
You expect a certain amount of casual ignorance regarding race in old movies. But between this and The Littlest Rebel, what makes me really uncomfortable isn't a casual racism, but a deeply earnest racism that tries to argue that historical racism was somehow necessary, and we'd all be better off if non-whites would just accept that. At least, that's how it comes across. Retch. I can just talk to my Mom if I want someone to condescend to me about when racism is somehow justified. *

THE BLUE BIRD (1940)
Just like The Wizard of Oz, but without the wit, charm, great performances, beautiful sets, or magic. Shirley Temple plays an ungrateful brat who goes on a search through fantastic realms for the blue bird of happiness. The film was Darryl F. Zanuck's attempt to do The Wizard of Oz with Shirley Temple in the role she missed out on, but it kind of highlights that, as charming as Temple could be, she wouldn't have been a strong enough performer to carry off that film. This one played a big part in derailing her career. I feel like I've already seen all the Shirley Temple movies I'm ever going to like, honestly. This certainly isn't one of them. **

THE BELLS OF ST. MARY'S (1945)
I've wanted to sit and watch this film every Christmas for the last 18 years--it's always on TCM--and I finally did. And I loved it. It's the sequel to Going My Way, a film I loved last year, and for much the same reason: it's a likable, emotional, well-made movie that's very easy to like and get caught up in. Bing Crosby again plays Father O'Malley, this time sent to a Catholic school that's falling apart. Bing is just fine, as he was in his Oscar-winning role in the first film, but this one's real weapon is Ingrid Bergman, who is wonderful as Sister Mary Benedict. What you'd expect in a movie like this, but genuine. ****

56 UP (2012)
This has been on my TiVo for a while, because I saw all of the previous films in this documentary series back in May and didn't want to pull the trigger on what should be the last one until 2019. This one was a bit bittersweet; a lot of the participants have been caught in the worldwide recession, and it's wiped out their dreams of retirement and made them worry about the chances of their children to prosper in a system that seems increasingly stacked against them. Some of them are genuinely angry about the way that system seems to have changed the rules at the eleventh hour. Still, it's affirming in its series of snapshots, showing us moments that add up to a life and how even when our plans don't work out, we can choose not to be victims. ****

1 comment:

Roger Owen Green said...

Didn't see Fruitvale Station (havent seen much at all lately), but TOTALLY agree with your criticism of the criticism.