Chattanooga Film Festival 2018: Day Two

For the past several years, I’ve gone down to the Chattanooga Film Festival – it’s one of my favorite weekends for film every single year. (You can see my previous year write-ups since moving to this blog here.) A festival that’s in love with genre films, trash cinema, and embraces the weird and wild, CFF’s philosophy is that every film is worth watching in some way, and it’s an idea I can always get behind. This year, I managed to get back down there for all four days, which means there’s a lot to talk about. After a lackluster first day, day two was a move back in the right direction, full of generally interesting – if flawed – films, as well as the first real knockout of the festival.

mv5bmjixmtuynjq2nv5bml5banbnxkftztgwmdi0otg5ndm-_v1_sy1000_cr006741000_al_The idea of William Friedkin making a documentary about exorcism is an obvious one, but that doesn’t make it a bad idea. After all, here’s the director responsible for the definitive film about exorcism, responsible in no small way for the fact that the practice has found its way into mainstream knowledge. So when The Devil and Father Amorth is sold under a) the promise of a Friedkin documentary about exorcism, and b) reveals that Friedkin was given the chance to film an actual exorcism, performed by Father Gabriele Amorth, the Catholic church’s leading exorcist…well, you can imagine why that’s instantly compelling.

But even at a mere 68 minutes, The Devil and Father Amorth feels overlong and draggy, spending far too long navel-gazing and discussing the impact of The Exorcist on popular culture and exploring Friedkin’s personal beliefs on whether or not demon possession is a true phenomenon. Rather than becoming an engrossing documentary about exorcism and its place in modern times, Friedkin turns the film into either a glorified DVD extra for The Exorcist or, as my friend Adam put it, “the most overqualified episode of Unsolved Mysteries ever filmed.” By the time the film finally (and, again, when you’re using the word “finally” in regard to a 68 minute film, well, that’s something) gets to Amorth and the exorcism, you can forgive viewers for wondering what the point of all this is.

None of that keeps the actual exorcism footage from being less than fascinating, and although I have some questions about the unaltered nature of the footage (mainly with regard to the audio, which felt tweaked to me), it’s gripping and compelling stuff – less showy and Hollywood-like than anything we’ve ever seen, but no less strange and uncomfortable. It’s a shame, then, that Friedkin’s efforts to lead a debate about the footage afterward end up feeling so much like he’s steamrolling any interview subject; this is less a discussion and more of a chance for Friedkin to explain that he’s the smartest guy in the room, and to ask everyone else to confirm it. There’s some fascinating elements of this film, but you can’t help but wish it had been given to someone less interested in turning it into a film about themselves. Rating: ** ½

mv5bmtg5mtgxodixnl5bml5banbnxkftztgwntuwnti4mje-_v1_sy1000_cr007381000_al_Trying to describe why I liked Borley Rectory is going to be a little tough in a verbal medium like a review, since so many of its pleasures come from its style and the experience of how it’s being told. As a documentary, Borley Rectory does its best to recount the fabled history of the titular house, often held up as the “most haunted house in England.” Writer/director Ashley Thorpe gives us a pretty straightforward accounting of events for the most part, tracing the house through its various owners and attempting to figure out some pattern to the sightings and hauntings…at least, until near the end, when the documentary seems to go about dismantling and disproving half of what it’s been claiming this whole time. (The willingness to look at both sides of the house is interesting; the out-of-nowhere swerve in tone at the end is less so, and ends up feeling jarring and disruptive.)

But what makes Borley Rectory worth seeing is less what it’s about, and more how it goes about it. The best way to approach this, I think, is to show you a clip, and I really recommend you pause in this review and take a couple of minutes to watch this brief excerpt, which gives you a sense of the film’s style and method. Mixing animation, re-enactments, old photographs, and a bit of stop-motion animation, Borley Rectory creates a fascinating, compelling atmosphere that’s hard to shake off, often giving you the feeling that you’re watching old photographs come to life. (Less so when original dialogue is introduced, though; the film does best when it’s quoting verbatim from primary sources.) Taken out of context, Borley Rectory could easily come across as little more than an old FMV game with a bit better technology, but when watched as an experience, it’s immersive and strange, plunging you into the supposed unreality of the house in a fascinating way. The result isn’t perfect, but it kept me pretty riveting and in love with its odd, unsettling atmosphere, and its sheer novelty and ambition alone makes it worth watching and seeking out. Rating: ****

mv5bmjm0mdu1mdayml5bml5banbnxkftztgwntkynza2ndm-_v1_(Before I go any further, I need to say: yes, the poster you see to the right of these words is really the poster for this film. Yes, it’s really that bad. No, I hadn’t seen it before I picked the film to see, or honestly, I might not have gone. Lord, what a nightmare that is.)

“A theater director’s latest project takes on a life of its own when her young star takes her performance too seriously.” So goes the logline for Madeline’s Madeline, a drama about an unstable young actress (Helena Howard, whose performance here is an absolute knockout) whose fractured perspective infects the film, turning it into a disjointed, uncomfortable, sometime surreal affair. There’s a lot to unpack here, from the film’s compelling and nuanced depiction of a deeply dysfunctional mother-daughter relationship (Howard’s mother is played by indie darling Miranda July, and her terror and unease at her unbalanced daughter is played perfectly) to the way it blurs the line between art and madness, between psychosis and coming of age. And there’s little denying that, from a technical and filmmaking perspective, or from an acting vantage, Madeline’s Madeline is pretty incredibly done – the performances are outstanding, and the film’s ambition and desire to push the envelope is mostly matched by the talent behind the camera (director Josephine Decker).

At the same time, I can’t lie to you: I ended up finding Madeline’s Madeline incredibly pretentious and more than a bit dull along the way, and I can’t help but feel that it falls in that category of “well, it may be a ‘good’ movie, but I didn’t really like it at all”. Part of that comes from my natural antipathy towards from about the “powerful inner struggle of art,” where navel-gazing becomes the rule and self-importance can’t be overstated, and there’s definitely a sense that this film is about The Power of Art and how Art Truly Can Change Your Life in a way that gets eye-rolling. More than that, by a certain point, I’m not sure what I’m supposed to take away from the film; yes, Madeline is a broken girl, one whose unpredictable and explosive actions are both riveting and dangerous, but I can’t see what Decker or the film wants us to take away from it beyond simply depicting it. I’m sure that this will end up being beloved by a lot of people, and I can’t entirely fault anyone for that – I can imagine this being the kind of movie that a lot of film people will really embrace and run with. But for me, the self-importance, weirdness for its own sake, pretension, and lack of purpose just left me admiring the craft but bored by the film. YMMV, though. Rating: ***

mv5bmtmyn2q5odytmwi3oc00njbjlwiyytitnge5ngjiyzi4njnjxkeyxkfqcgdeqxvyndc3mzm3mq-_v1_It’s hard not to think of the works of Guillermo del Toro when talking about Tigers Are Not Afraid, from Mexican director Issa López. Like del Toro’s films – especially The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth -López’s film deals with the harsh realities of a child’s life against a harsh backdrop by using fairy tales and fantastical elements to offset them. In Tigers, that backdrop takes the form of warring cartels that have left whole communities of orphaned children in their wake. Following Estrella, a young girl whose mother disappears, Tigers tells the story of how she falls in with a group of young boys and they build a community together, only to find themselves attracting the attention of cartels – cartels that have no problem murdering children to maintain their position.

That’s dark fare, to put it mildly, but somehow López keeps it from being overwhelming, due in no small part to the way he lets his young cast act like, well, young boys and girls. They’re silly, they’re needy, they’re immature, and they’re fun to be around. At times, Tigers is a testament to the resiliency of youth in much the same way that The Florida Project was – a reminder that children can be children, and even in the face of trauma, there’s something wonderfully innocent about them. But also like Sean baker did in The Florida Project, López never lets us forget what growing up in this world can do to someone, or the emotional toll it takes. There’s a lot involved in protecting young ones from the world, and there’s a lot that happens when you can’t get away from the darkest parts of the world around you.

What that doesn’t even get into is the way the film uses fairy tales and the supernatural as a framework to understand the world, as well as to touch on justice beyond the realm of this world. Tigers Are Not Afraid is a dark film, but there’s a sense that the scales may balance, if not in this world, then in the next. López uses his supernatural elements perfectly, creating a sense of unease and constantly leaving us largely uncertain if the things we are seeing are real or only in Estrella’s head. But, like in del Toro’s films, at a certain point, does it even matter, if she believes it?

Tigers Are Not Afraid was the first real masterpiece of the festival for me; it’s a film I hope gets widespread recognition in America and a wider release. It’s a tough watch at times, but hauntingly so, and the execution across the board – from the use of the slums as backdrop to the heartbreakingly good performances by the child actors – is nearly flawless. It’s the kind of film I come to CFF hoping to see every year, and I’m glad I didn’t miss it. Rating: *****

revenge2018One of my all-time favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips involves Calvin creating a fantasy that ends with the most dangerous threat of all: tyrannosaurs in F-14s. “This is so cool,” says Calvin, while Hobbes simultaneous comments, “This is so stupid.”

That dichotomy nicely applies to Coralie Fargeat’s Revenge, a truly dumb movie that I kind of enjoyed anyways. A Kill Bill-style female empowerment revenge film, Revenge follows the story of Jen, the mistress of a powerful businessman who is left for dead after a sexual assault by one of the man’s friends. When Jen realizes she’s not dead, however, it’s time to get some payback on these guys for what they’ve done.

I spent an awful long time in Revenge trying to decide if the film was accidentally stupid or knowingly stupid, and even at the end, I’m not entirely sure (although I’ll admit that the film’s wonderfully excessive and blood-soaked ending felt just the right amount of tongue-in-cheek for me). What I can’t argue is that it’s beautifully shot across the board, and finds a flair and style pretty much every chance it gets. More than that, especially in contrast to day one’s dire DownrangeRevenge knows how to bring out the suspense in a scene, taking its time and using pacing and quiet breaks in the action to fill the frame with unease and uncertainty. More than that, the film is gorgeously crafted, with some exquisite long takes and some great use of the desert backdrops.

And, of course, there’s the film’s gender politics, which manage the non-insignificant feat of having an incredibly attractive woman running around largely in her underwear and somehow never feeling leering or ogling. That’s no small thing, and it’s to Fargeat’s credit that she manages to turn that most disreputable of genres – the rape revenge film – into something that comments on women’s subservience to men, social conditioning, male gaze and expectations, and more, all while still never backing away from the demands of the genre. Does it hold together as a story or a plot? Nah, not really. But it’s still more fun than you’d expect. Rating: *** ½

Also on Day Two: I finally got to catch one of the CFF seminars hosted by famed B-movie connoisseur Joe Bob Briggs, and it was every bit worth the wait. Giving an overview of exploitation film, with a focus on how the genre used sex as a selling point, giving us a fantastic overview ranging from silent films to “educational” roadshows, and still finding a way to turn the last act into a tribute to Russ Meyer and Herschell Gordon Lewis. It was a love letter to trash cinema from a man who adores it and knows his history, and I both learned a lot and just generally enjoyed myself.

IMDb: The Devil and Father Amorth | Borley Rectory | Madeline’s Madeline | Tigers Are Not Afraid| Revenge

Blue Ruin / **** ½

blue20ruinI wanted to see Blue Ruin even before I saw Jeremy Saulnier’s Green Room, his follow-up and all around incredible film. Indeed, as much as I loved the claustrophobic tension of Green Room, the fact that Blue Ruin sounded so Coen-esque – a murder story that escalates – had me even more intrigued. But what I got was something more interesting and substantial (though no less well-made) than I expected; while Blue Ruin handles some of the same themes as other revenge films – primarily, the question of whether or not revenge is worth the blood that it spills, or the violence that sometimes blows back upon the avenger – it does so by creating something more complicated and mundane than most revenge films. This is Coenish in the “regular folks getting in over their heads” feel that it creates, but rather than using it for black comedy, as the Coens so often do, it’s used to increase our unease, our tension, and the emotional impact of the movie.

Much of Blue Ruin‘s impact has to be laid at the feet of Macon Blair, who has to carry so many scenes entirely on his own, without dialogue or any other actors to play off of. Even from the film’s opening notes, where we’re introduced to Blair as a homeless, unkempt drifter, the film lets his performance tell the story, as he wanders around, gets food, and eventually finds himself brought in by a police officer who wants to let him know that someone is being released from prison. Saulnier fades the audio here, prolonging the mystery, but Blair’s face tells us all the story we need – there is some deep tragedy here, and it’s how this man ended up where he is. To some degree, that sets up the recurring theme of the film: the way that violence ripples out far beyond its original target, leaving far more devastation in its wake than a single act might suggest.

Yes, Blue Ruin is a revenge film, but it’s not the one you expect; indeed, Blair’s act of revenge doesn’t end the film so much as it kicks it off, leading to a chain reaction of escalating violence that leaves plenty dead, more wounded, and the damage both emotional and physical hard to quantify. Saulnier stages it all perfectly for tension and unease, constantly reminding us how over his head Blair is, but also how broken he is – how little he has left in him beyond this quest to even the scales, no matter what it takes. And while there’s a lowkey comedy to some of the proceedings, Blue Ruin feels more like a tragedy than anything else – not just in terms of Blair, but in all of the participants in what follows.

None of this might make Blue Ruin sound as good as it is, or as tense; as he did in Green Room, Saulnier stages things expertly, extending the tension until it’s unbearable, using gore and violence for maximum impact, and investing us in these characters so that their fates matter to us beyond the machinations of a plot. Much of this comes down the performances, but also Saulnier’s control of the film; especially given how little this film gives us in terms of exposition, the fact that we’re never lost as to what’s going on is remarkable. But the way each setpiece unfolds slowly and horribly makes for some truly gripping viewing; yes, these are undeniably the acts of an amateur, but that only makes them more emotionally affecting and desperate, investing the film with even more power.

Blue Ruin‘s Coen brothers comparisons are understandable on a number of levels, but they don’t really prepare you for the film, which feels more like a very violent drama than a true revenge thriller or crime caper. It’s a film about violence that doesn’t flinch from it – similar to what Saulnier would do with Green Room – but it’s also about what these acts can do to a human being, both as a perpetrator and a victim. It’s a pretty stellar entry into the film scene, and bodes well for years of Saulnier films to come.


Buster’s Mal Heart / Logan Lucky / Tangerine

large_busters_mal_heart_ver2I missed Buster’s Mal Heart last year at the Chattanooga Film Festival, a festival whose tastes almost always align with mine; as a result, when it showed up on Netflix, I figured it was worth checking out. A weird, twisty, psychological thriller starring Rami Malek (of Mr. Robot fame) and written/directed by Sarah Adina Smith, Buster unfolds in three separate stories whose connections are unclear for much of the film’s running time. In one, a heavily bearded Malek drifts in a rowboat on the ocean, screaming Spanish obscenities at the sky; in another, he plays a wandering drifter named Buster who’s wandering in and out of the houses of the rich. But in the main story, he plays Jonah, a hotel clerk whose marriage and relationship with his daughter is suffering under the strain of his night shifts and the influence of a wandering drifter (DJ Qualls) preaching about the evils of civilization.

It’s all an interesting enough setup, and Malek plays his parts incredibly well. But Buster’s Mal Heart is far less than the sum of its parts, with the ultimate connection between the story feeling meaningless and more than a bit pretentious, and some of the film’s other big moments ending up thudding and obvious. It all feels like it’s going for something profound, or at least mind-bendy, but instead, it just ends up muddled and dull, Malek’s performance aside, turning into something little more than a tired retread of ideas from better movies. Rating: **

1510598-bI’m pretty glad that Steven Soderbergh is unable to retire, from a film fan point of view. As long as he’s working actively, I’m guaranteed a regular stream of interesting, engaging movies; more than that, he’s almost completely incapable of repeating himself (a couple of Ocean’s sequels aside), as Logan Lucky shows. It would be entirely easy for Soderbergh to retread Ocean’s 11 again; after all, this is a heist film at its core. But, instead of giving us a smooth, sophisticated con game, we get something more low-key and natural-feeling, which befits the different world of Logan Lucky. This isn’t high rollers and con men; this is the working poor, stealing to stay alive, and Soderbergh brings a more controlled, thoughtful approach to much of the film’s setup period.

Indeed, it’s fascinating how much the downturn in the economy has shaped recent Soderbergh films, from Magic Mike to The Girlfriend Experience, and Logan Lucky is perhaps the most explicit version of this to date, with Channing Tatum’s single working dad getting laid off due to insurance liability, and Adam Driver’s bartender only having one arm thanks to three tours in the Middle East, a job he took due to a lack of other options in the area. It’s never hammered on, but the subtext is impossible to ignore here, and it’s what keeps the movie from being the condescending look at the poor that some people have accused it of being. Soderbergh’s clearly got some cynical feelings about corporations and big business, culminating in a brief scene in the aftermath of the heist where we get the business’s side of it, and his sympathy is deeply with these characters. Does he find the comedy in them? Oh, undoubtedly – Logan Lucky is incredibly funny. But all of these people are smarter than you might first assume, and there’s an undeniable Robin Hood feeling to the heist – the poor robbing from the rich.

All of which adds up to a great heist movie, but something that’s also quintessentially Soderbergh – something more character-driven, more stylish, and more entertaining than the simple story would ever lead you to believe. I had a blast with it, and love that Soderbergh’s work ethic means he’s going to be churning out more movies for a long time to come. (Oh, and the famous Game of Thrones joke? It’s every bit as funny and wonderful as you’ve heard and then some.) Rating: **** ½

tangerineBefore he made the incredible The Florida Project (my favorite movie of last year), director Sean Baker rose to fame with Tangerine, a dark comedy/drama that follows two transsesxual prostitutes on a Christmas Eve of manic events, largely orbiting around Sin-Dee’s (Kitana Kiki Rodriguez) efforts to track down her pimp/boyfriend who cheated on her while she was in prison. At the time, I was never sure if Tangerine was famous because it was good, or because it was shot entirely on an iPhone and still looked pretty great; having seen it, I can tell you that it’s almost entirely the former.

Yes, Tangerine looks incredible, to the point where you probably won’t remember the iPhone shooting while you’re watching; it doesn’t hurt that Baker has such a great eye for finding the beauty in everyday images, as well as a cinephile’s eye for framing. But as he did in Tangerine, Baker creates a naturalistic, fleshed out world, one where you don’t feel like you’re watching a movie so much as trespassing in a whole society that we’re only barely privy to. As Sin-Dee and her friend Alexandra (Mya Taylor) make their way around the city – Sin-Dee hunting down her boyfriend, Alexandra trying to drum up audience interest in her performance that evening – we watch as they argue, talk at each other and everyone else, chat with old friends and new enemies, and just sort of exist. The result is a little more plot driven than Florida Project was – the two women have a full character arc each, as does Razmik (Karren Karagulian), a local cab driver who’s got his own life that weaves in and out with these women. Again working with primarily new faces, unknown actors, and inexperienced newcomers, Baker brings his world to life, depicting these lives without pity or judgment.

The end result is surprisingly funny; there’s no end of drama and screaming, but I ended up laughing at a huge amount of it, and there’s no denying that Alexandra’s dry commentary on half of the drama makes every scene all the better. But Baker finds the emotional core buried deep within the women, ending on a quiet scene that’s perfect in every way – a moment of tenderness, understanding, and peace in the middle of all of it. In a way, that’s Baker’s movies, too – an affectionate, nonjudgmental portrait of people we tend to overlook. Rating: *****

IMDb: Buster’s Mal Heart | Logan Lucky | Tangerine

Groundhog Day / *****

tumblr_n45jlonpsj1s80h8lo1_500I couldn’t tell you how long it’s been since I last saw Groundhog Day, a funny, surprising comedy that’s built up a reputation as a truly great and thoughtful piece of filmmaking over the years. What I can tell you is that it’s been too long, and that watching the film this time, you can count me filmy among those who find it far more profound, thought-provoking, and even moving than any movie in which a man lets a groundhog drive a car has any right to be.

There’s little need for me to go over the plot of Groundhog Day – a man is trapped in a cycle of the same day for…centuries? Millenia? The length of time varies (director Harold Ramis has put the length somewhere ten years; the original screenplay said 10,000 years; the film, wisely, leaves that to the imagination, as it does so many other details), but it’s long enough to watch cranky, arrogant, solipsistic weatherman Phil Connors run the gamut of emotions – denial, acceptance, anger, depression, excitement, confidence, and more. From a cinephile’s perspective, what it means was the first time many of us got to see that there was more to Bill Murray than the cocky, confident, smart-assed persona he brought to every other role he played. To quote (probably it’s more of a paraphrase) a friend of mine, “Murray was always a fun person to watch, but you got the impression that if you had to deal with him in the real world, you’d punch him. And Groundhog Day was the first movie where Bill Murray played a character who had to answer for the Bill Murray character.” And yes, there’s Chris Elliott, and Andie MacDowell in maybe her best role (I’ve never been a giant fan of MacDowell, but I couldn’t deny that she’s perfect for the role of Rita here – optimistic, sweet, genuine, and everything that Conners isn’t), and yes, Michael Shannon, looking very young but unmistakably Shannon-ish. And, of course, Groundhog Day is funny, with Murray at the top of his game, Harold Ramis’s direction insuring great comic timing, and the editing doing a picture perfect job of maintaining the cyclical rhythms of the film.

But none of that is really what sticks with you about Groundhog Day, is it? No, this time around, I found myself fascinated by the detours the film takes – the scenes that feel like they’d never survive a more test-screening-driven world. Scenes where Connors debates the nature of God, and wonders if there’s not really a God, just someone who’s been around long enough to know all the patterns. Scenes where Connors gives into the depression and hopelessness that come with being stuck in a cycle that will never end. Scenes where he desperately wants to make everything perfect, but never can get things just right. And most of all, there are the scenes involving Connors realizing that some things simply can’t be controlled or changed; there’s a brief sequence involving a homeless man that truly kicked up some dust in the room, even knowing it was coming, and leads to a quietly powerful line from Murray that hits hard. When told that sometimes, people just die, Murray pauses, and then responds, “Not today they don’t.”

Somehow, this bizarre, high-concept comedy grapples with rich, incredible concepts, doing so with even more success for how it doesn’t actually force them into the film. It’s a film that’s all about self-improvement, but not in an easy or tidy way. It’s a film about the quest for fulfillment, for understanding the meaning of existence, for grappling with our place in the universe. It’s a film that deals with depression and acceptance, love and isolation, and so much more. It’s genuinely, frequently hilarious, yes, but it also manages to leave you thinking about the issues it raises far more than anything more didactic could ever manage. (In many ways, I spent some of Groundhog Day thinking about NBC’s The Good Place, which similarly finds a way to tell a story about true self-improvement and moral quality in the guise of a surreal, insane comedy.) It’s a film that becomes great, not because it set out to be, but simply does so by taking its concept seriously enough to think about it. What a joy it is to watch.


Phantom Thread / *****

phantom-thread-alternate-poster-6-620x916There are essentially two ways I could review Paul Thomas Anderson’s latest, Phantom Thread. I could be incredibly brief, saying that I needed time to think this one through, and that much like Anderson’s The Master, it’s a film that doesn’t lend itself well to instant analysis; it’s designed to let you sit with it, unpacking it over time and turning it over in your mind. The second approach to reviewing it, though, is to do what I’m going to do: to think out loud, to process Anderson’s fascinating, complex, nuanced, layered film in waves, and do my best to unpack everything that makes this film so incredible. (Behind the scenes note: as I’ve written this review, my star rating has gone up, as I’ve talked myself more and more into how much of a masterpiece this film is.)

Echoing really no other Anderson film as much as The MasterPhantom Thread isn’t what your expectations are telling you it is. It’s not even the film you’re going to think it is 20 minutes in. On the surface, this is a period drama set in the 1950’s, following a demanding, difficult, idiosyncratic fashion designer Reynolds Woodcock (Daniel Day-Lewis) as he strikes up a relationship with a quiet, sweet waitress named Alma (relative unknown Vicky Krieps, who holds her own against Day-Lewis – not a small feat). Added into the mix is Woodcock’s close relationship with his sister Cyril (Lesley Manville), who knows her brother’s moods, needs, and requirements intimately, and enables/tolerates/assists him as needed. And from that – and the film’s lush, rich textures and costumes – you might feel like you’re getting a period romance drama, something sweet and heartfelt.

But that’s not Phantom Thread, which buries its jagged psychological edges in manners and moods, focusing on the power dynamics between these people in subtle ways, and refusing to spell out any of its subtext until the closing minutes, and even then, only barely. It’s a film about a fraught, difficult relationship between a difficult man and a loving woman who wants to make him happy; and yet, simultaneously, it’s a critique of the arrogance of genius, which thinks that it deserves the freedom to be obnoxious and cruel. It’s a comedy of manners, but one with a far more unusual (and kinkier, to some degree) view on the thing. It’s a love story, but a deeply unconventional one, focused on the way these two people love each other and yet demand control over their relationship and over the other party. And ultimately, though it gives us answers in a wildly unconventional way (one of my favorite film memories of the year is feeling the crowd react nearly physically as they realized exactly what the nature of their relationship was becoming near the end of the film), it does so in a way that feels both right for the characters and ultimately on a human level, getting at something more universal than you’d expect for a movie about such unusual needs and desires.

And yet none of that conveys how frequently, constantly funny this film is, giving you laugh out loud line deliveries, comedy from loudly buttered bread, and so many superb lines of dialogue conveying irritation that I have days worth of new things to say to my students. It doesn’t convey the richness of every performance (yes, of course Daniel Day-Lewis is incredible as Woodcock, bringing out the humanity of this man as well as his genius, making his black moods both understandable and repellent, and evoking both strength and weakness as necessary. But how great is Vicky Krieps, slowly letting us realize that Alma is far from the submissive, meek woman we think she is, and holding her own in this struggle for control against Lewis, all while doing so little physically? And then there’s Manville, who gets so many of the film’s great lines, playing the cold observer trying to navigate between the two) and how deeply human and complex the characters become thanks to those performances. And more than anything, it doesn’t prepare you for Anderson’s direction and cinematography. From the way he brings every driving sequence to life as an excuse for Woodcock to cut loose to the haunting depiction of a fevered hallucination; from the deep discomfort of a horrible wedding to a silent battle across a New Year’s Eve gala; from the silent moods of a breakfast table to an angry confrontation over a dinner gone wrong – somehow, Anderson films them all in incredible ways, drawing out the tension, the psychological moods, the uncertainty, and the beauty of every moment, delivering a richness that can’t be conveyed in words.

Because Phantom Thread truly is a relationship movie. Not in the sense we so often use it – where we watch two people fall in love over time – but in terms of being a movie about how people relate to each other, and how those connections shift and evolve over time. We understand both why Alma loves Reynolds and why he’s so difficult; we see the appeal of Alma but also know why Reynolds gets so frustrated; we empathize with the difficult line Cyril has to walk. And maybe better than any other director alive right now, Anderson knows how to direct in a way that lets his actors draw out those connections without spelling them out, using great acting to explore bonds and deep issues in a natural way. That he also backs it with sumptuous visuals and bravura sequences is, I think, icing on the cake. It’s a film that’s funnier than you expect and darker; it’s both more entertaining than you’d assume and more complex; it’s both easy to watch and thought-provoking enough to leave you pondering it for a great long time afterward. It is truly a remarkable film on every level, a dazzling masterpiece that keeps revealing more layers to me as I think on it, and a film that reminds you why we should count ourselves lucky to have Paul Thomas Anderson working as a filmmaker today.


The Florida Project / *****

florida_projectIt’s hard to write a review of The Florida Project, a movie that is so much about its mood and tone – and so little about its plot, in some ways – and yet, it’s a movie that I’m compelled to talk about, just in the hopes of making more people watch it, because it brought me such joy. It’s a film that feels like you’re simply watching people live their lives, giving us a window into the lives of the working poor while filtering it through that inexpressible optimism and silliness of childhood. It’s funny, heartfelt, and achingly honest throughout, showing us its characters without judgment or scorn – and that’s a sentiment I can always get behind.

The Florida Project takes place at a hotel that’s more or less serving as an apartment complex for a number of lower-class working families. More than that, it focuses on the kids that live in (and around) that complex, especially a young girl named Moonee (played by newcomer Brooklynn Prince, who’s so natural here that you quickly forget you’re not just watching a documentary about children). Moonee is six years old, and this world is what she knows, from the odd tenants of the hotel to the local businesses, and director Sean Baker and the film follows Moonee and her friends as they play, goof around, misbehave (in more mischievous ways than anything bad)…and really, that’s about as much plot as there is to the film. We see Moonee’s interactions with her mom, a single mom named Halley (Bria Vinaite, another newcomer, and another incredible and naturalistic performance) – the love between the two of them, the struggles Halley goes through to provide for the two of them, and the difficulties of their lives. And weaving in and out of their lives is the hotel supervisor, played by Willem Dafoe (guess what? It’s another incredible performance, this one reminding you that Dafoe is a truly great character actor and not just someone to be cast as an oddball).

And really, that’s about it, in terms of what happens. Yes, we catch glimpses of Halley’s struggles, and catch implications about the outside world intruding into these children running wild (and often unsupervised); yes, kids come and go in the hotel, Disney World looms nearby, and tourists come and go; yes, in some ways there’s a conclusion that’s more heartbreaking and heartfelt simultaneously than you probably expected. But by and large, Baker simply follows around Moonee and her friends as they play games, sneak into off-limits room, check out derelict condos, and get into the kinds of trouble you probably expect 6-year-olds without much supervision to get into.

But more than that, The Florida Project immerses us in this world, letting us see everything through the eyes of Moonee and her friends – unaware of the darkness of the world, unaware of their place in society, unaware of the judgment that so many people have for them, and instead just joyfully and anarchically running wild through their world. Whether they’re shouting at tourist-filled helicopters, marvelling at rainbows or fireworks, begging for ice cream, or just watching TV, there’s something wondrous about the way that The Florida Project slowly but surely lets you live in this world and its naturalistic, warm performances. It’s all too easy to forget that you’re watching a movie with The Florida Project; it’s so warm and natural that it feels like you’re just another inhabitant of this hotel, keeping an eye on Moonee and her friends. Even Dafoe, who’s just about the only major name of the film, loses himself in the world, giving a performance that gives you a peek into his warm heart without ever preaching about it or beating you over the head with it.

Yes, there are ideas and themes to The Florida Project that I love – acceptance, empathy, a glimpse of the difficulties of live among the working poor, and more. But more than any of that, I loved The Florida Project because it’s warm and loving and honest and human in a way that few films ever manage. It’s funny, it’s charming, and it’s beautiful in its simplicity and storytelling. It’s my favorite film of 2017, and I can’t say enough great about it.


Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri / **** ½

three_billboards_outside_ebbing_missouriIt’s been a bit over a week since I saw Martin McDonagh’s incendiary, inflammatory, angry Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and even now, I’m struggling with how I feel about the film. There is part of me that’s deeply frustrated with the movie for touching on controversial, important themes that it has no interest in truly grappling with – themes like police brutality and institutional racism, whose eventual sidelining in the film is truly frustrating. And yet, for all of that, I can’t deny the craft of the film on every level – from astonishing performances to a lacerating script, from beautiful visual elements to a haunting score – nor can I deny how much the message of the film hit home for me, even as I got frustrated by the film’s skirting of its bigger ideas.

So let’s begin with the film’s conceit, which is so good and propulsive that it gives the film an energy and strength it never truly loses. Three Billboards is the story of a grieving mother (Frances McDormand, who hasn’t been given a role this good since Fargo, and who brings an incredible performance with her) who leases three billboards outside of her small Missouri town in order to castigate and shame the local police force for its failure to figure out who assaulted and killed her daughter. It’s not hard to empathize with McDormand’s anger, which is palpable in nearly every frame and every interpersonal interaction; her loss (and its attending injustice) has stuck to her and left her in a constant state of impotent rage, one that directs itself to anyone unfortunate enough to be around her.

But the first sign that Three Billboards is more complicated and fascinating than you might expect comes in how it handles its police force. Because while our first impression of the force comes by way of Sam Rockwell’s belligerent, abusive officer, it becomes clear that the police are more accurately embodied by Woody Harrelson’s compassionate, dedicated police chief, who has clearly done his utmost on this case to no avail. And while much of Three Billboards should be experienced cold, suffice to say that McDonagh slowly reveals information about the chief that makes McDormand’s public shaming all the more problematic and complicated.

It would be easy to handwave Three Billboards aside as “both sides-ism” gone mad, a film where no one is right or wrong entirely, and instead are so polarized that they refuse to acknowledge the good points of the other side. But that’s not what this film has in mind; instead, while it’s nominally a film about this injustice and failed police investigation, it’s more than anything a film about how anger and grief can poison us emotionally, keeping us from being able to interact with the world around us and shutting down the very bonds that we need to have in our lives. And in a time and age when it’s so easy to be angry and frustrated and rage-filled at the slightest look at the news, McDonagh’s points about the toxicity of that are timely, trenchant, and valid.

And yet, that also finds the film grappling with Rockwell’s character, initially presented as the worst kind of police officer: abusive (both physically and verbally), racist, incompetent, and lazy. Rockwell brings an incomparable amount to the role, making it come to life as more than just comic relief, but also opening the door for the way the film complicates him, showing him as much a product of anger as McDormand in some ways. That’s a complicated choice, though, given how vile some of the things that Rockwell’s character is accused of, and can feel like the film wants to use toxic behaviors as “flavor text” and never really engage with them – and that’s before the final act begins to give him a sort of redemption arc that sits uneasily with me, no matter how good Rockwell is in the part.

For all of that, though, there’s little denying how successful Three Billboards is as a film. It moves like a rocket; the dialogue is every bit as good as you’d expect from McDonagh, shifting from pathos to vicious comedy to intensity without ever missing a beat; it’s beautifully filmed, with some knockout sequences; and the performances are truly incredible across the board, with McDormand giving one of the year’s best performances, and Rockwell and Harrelson being not far behind her. (And that doesn’t even get into the incredible supporting cast, which includes Peter Dinklage, Caleb Landry Jones, Clarke Peters, John Hawkes, and so many more great character actors.) Yes, I struggle with how the movie shies away from the very themes it introduces…but if you look at the film not as a piece of social commentary, but instead as a character study and a look at rage in the modern world, it succeeds on every other level. I laughed (very hard) throughout it; I found it moving and effective; and more than anything else, I can’t quite stop thinking about it. And maybe that’s the most effective point of all about it.