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Category Archives: Prestige Pictures
Caution: this review contains major spoilers for the film.
It’s hard to talk about Arrival without spoiling the film. So much of what makes it more than just a well-done first contact story is tied up in its later developments. They recontextualize enough of the prior proceedings that trying to discuss the import or quality of the film without taking it as a whole is like trying to give someone directions without letting them know the destination.
But its premise is deceptively straightforward. In the world of Arrival, aliens have come to Earth in twelve ships scattered across the globe. Louise Banks (Amy Adams) is a linguist brought by the U.S. Military to a ship located in Montana, in an attempt to help humanity communicate with this extraterrestrial presence. With the help of theoretical physicist Ian Donnelly (Jeremy Renner) and a buffer provided by Colonel Weber (Forest Whitaker), Banks slowly but surely finds ways to speak with these seemingly unknowable beings, with the American team alternatively working with and against similar groups around the world attempting the same.
Growing up is hard enough. Figuring out who you are, figuring out the balance between what’s deep and held fast in your soul and what you’re willing to share with the world, is a difficult endeavor under the best of circumstances. Coupling that with the difficulties of living in a household of addiction, of a sexual preference that earns you added scorn, turns an already fraught journey into a cruel and unforgiving one.
Despite the harshness of these troubles, Moonlight finds the beauty forged within that crucible, the kindnesses large and small and the transcendent moments and connections, that give a sweet, put upon young boy something to hold onto as he becomes a man. Despite the aesthetic pleasures of Moonlight’s gorgeously-shot scenes, it is, at times, an ugly, dispiriting film, but ultimately a life-affirming one. It centers on the unique challenges of its protagonist, struggling to define himself, and finding his way among the pitfalls and small graces of growing up.
You’ve seen Hidden Figures before. Maybe you haven’t seen this exact movie — about how three unduly unheralded African American women helped NASA in the early 1960s — but if, like me, you dutifully watch the slate of Oscar-nominated films year after year, then within ten minutes you’ll already know this movie by heart.
It features a gutsy but unorthodox protagonist trying to make a dent in a system that marginalizes and ignores her. It’s a period piece, with enough obvious dialogue, details, and cameos from well-known historical figures to let the audience know exactly when the story is taking place, with plenty of opportunities for the viewer to say, “My, how far we’ve come.” It has supporting characters facing challenges that mirror the protagonist’s, shining more light on the ways in which the order of the day affected those who were quietly fighting to maintain their place in it. And it has the standard untold story/historical injustice angle, intended to imbue the film with an extra bit of triumph and tragedy, all unleashed with a heavy dose of Hollywood mythmaking.
The difference, and the thing that distinguishes Hidden Figures from the likes of The Imitation Game, Dallas Buyers Club, and other recent Oscar nominees that play in the same space is that it uses the power of that formula in support of a woman of color. At a time when the world of film is still lingering in the shadow of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, it’s encouraging that Taraji P. Henson is cast as the star of a movie that follows the Oscar-approved blueprint and succeeds at the box office and the awards table in the process. It’s just a shame that the film’s artistic merit can’t match its social merit.
It’s hard to say how much knowing what happens in a story affects our enjoyment of it. We live in the age of the spoilerphobe, where nerds like me abandon social media in the days leading up to a major release for fear of having significant plot points or major twists revealed too soon. But in Shakespeare’s day, everyone more or less knew the ending ahead of time, and the lack of novelty didn’t lessen the draw. That’s a reminder that what the story is need not, and arguably should not, overshadow how the story is told.
Which is to say, I’m not sure how much the greater effect of Spotlight was lost on me given that I already knew a decent amount about the molestation scandal within the Catholic Church that played out in the newspapers and on our television screens for years after the time depicted in the film. The movie is, if not exactly a mystery, then certainly a story of the intrepid reporters of the Boston Globe’s “Spotlight” team starting a small investigation and slowly but surely uncovering how widespread a pathology there was.
Caution: This review contains major spoilers for Brooklyn.
Dan Harmon, the creator of Community, is known for several things — his trademark bottle of vodka, his tendency to spill his guts to audiences full of strangers, and also his Story Circle. The Story Circle is a device that Harmon uses to create nearly any story he writes or supervises. It consists of eight steps for how a narrative ought to progress under his watch: 1. A character is in a zone of comfort; 2. But they want something; 3. They enter an unfamiliar situation; 4. Adapt to it; 5. Get what they wanted; 6. Pay a heavy price for it; 7. Then return to their familiar situation; 8. Having changed.
Brooklyn is basically “Story Circle: The Movie.” Eilis (Saoirse Ronan) may not have the best life in Ireland, but she is certainly comfortable there. And yet she hopes and wants for a better life than any she could expect to have where she grew up. So she moves to Brooklyn, and the unfamiliarity of her new situation is hammered home in every interaction she has, from the coaching she receives from a more experienced Irish immigrant that she meets on the boat to America, to the snotty comments she hears from the more experienced residents in her boarding house who better understand the local culture, to the homesickness that plagues her in her quieter moments.
Despite a number of well-crafted elements, the success or failure of The Martian absolutely depended on Matt Damon’s performance in the lead role. It’s true that, in contrast to spiritual predecessors like Gravity and Castaway, the film was not a one-man show, instead featuring a murderer’s row of stellar supporting players. What’s more, its narrative thrills were not limited to its protagonist’s adventures on Mars; The Martian told an equally compelling story of what was happening back home.
But Damon’s Mark Watney, and his lonely trials and tribulations on a desolate planet, were the lifeblood of the film, commanding the lion’s share of its run time and focus. That meant that for much of the movie, Damon alone had to convey his character’s distress, his resolve, his humor, and his humanity, with no one but the camera to talk to. And despite that handicap, he succeeded with flying colors. Few major roles share the degree of difficulty of Damon’s here, where the main character spends much of the film in solitude, with little in the way of major plot developments or action to maintain the energy of the picture, and the performance Damon delivered with that backdrop more than lived up to the challenge.
Caution: This review contains major spoilers for The Hateful Eight.
The Hateful Eight is filled with characters who are constantly performing for one another. Some of them are pretending to be something they’re not in the hopes of avoiding detection, some tell tall tales with theatrical enthusiasm in order to provoke, while others embellish at the margins to puff themselves up or knock someone else down. It’s no grand reveal when discussing a Quentin Tarantino movie to note that more than a few of them meet a bloody end, but what’s striking about the director’s eighth film is the way that the personas his characters assume, what roles they inhabit and which factions they align themselves with, change the kind of consequences they face within it.
The Hateful Eight is a film about justice and tribalism and how those two concepts inevitably lead to some strange, unsettling outcomes when combined. At the same time, the movie is just as concerned with how the identities that we project affect the kind of “justice” we receive.
Depiction does not equal endorsement. An artist may explore the depths of something controversial or lurid or profane without giving it their stamp of approval. This is how we defend films, television shows, and other works of art against the myriad pearl-clutchers and watchdog groups who gnash their teeth, gather their pitchforks, and declare that “something must be done.” It’s how we protect the scores of transcendent works about unseemly, unsavory, or otherwise unpalatable personalities who offer compelling narratives, but who may never receive their societally-mandated dose of comeuppance or public shame by the time the story ends.
But here’s a dirty little secret – depiction is much more complicated than either the defenders or the scolds would readily admit.
Make no mistake — the fact that a film simply shows bad behavior, even in seemingly glamorous terms, does not necessarily mean that the director intends it as something to aspire to. The camera itself makes no judgments. Context speaks volumes. But merely pointing a camera at someone or something does still send a message. It says, “This is worth caring about, or at least worth paying attention to.” Aim it at a particular event, or individual, or group of people, and it says theirs is a story worth telling.
Which is to say that when Boogie Nights director Paul Thomas Anderson decided to point his camera at the lightly-fictionalized men and women of the San Fernando Valley porn industry in the 1970s and 1980s, he never truly glamorizes their existence or expresses his unqualified approval for how they live their lives. To the contrary, though the film ends on a note of bittersweet hope, the thrust of the work is how the flash and filth depicted, and the lifestyle that accompanies, thoroughly and pervasively runs these poor folks through the wringer.
There are many works of fiction about people telling lies for so long that they start to believe them. These stories range from folks like Walter White putting on the costume of a villain only to realize that the role feels a bit too comfortable, to the cipher protagonist of Avatar, who spends so much time in his alien body that he decides he belongs with The Smurfs. Most of the time, these shifts are treated as triumphant awakenings or operatic betrayals. But few are as soft, simple, or sweet as when Royal Tenenbaum, in the film that bears his name, lives up to the lie he’s spun — that can be a better man.
When Royal (Gene Hackman) tells his pseudo ex-wife Etheline (Anjelica Huston) that he’s dying and wants to reconnect with his family, it’s a canard. Not only is Royal as healthy as a man who drinks, smokes, and eats three cheeseburgers a day can be, but his conciliatory gestures were merely a front to (a.) worm his way back into the Tenenbaum family homestead after getting kicked out of the hotel where he’d been living for the last twenty years and (b.) ward off Etheline’s suitor, Henry Sherman (Danny Glover).
But the crux of the movie comes once Henry has unraveled Royal’s deceit and confronts him in front of the whole family, including Royal’s children: broken businessman Chas (Ben Stiller), gloomy scribe Margot (Gwyneth Paltrow), and washed up tennis pro Richie (Luke Wilson). Royal doesn’t bother denying the accusations, but in one last attempt to manipulate his loved ones, he turns to the family and says, “Look. I know I’m the bad guy on this one, but I just want to say that the last six days have been the best six days of, probably, my whole life.” A strange expression suddenly creeps onto his face, and The Narrator (Alec Baldwin) says, “Immediately after making this statement, Royal realized that it was true.”
The more I think about it, the more upset I am that Bradley Cooper was snubbed at The Oscars on Sunday.
Hear me out. I know Cooper did not portray the kind of character or take on the kind of role that the snobs in Hollywood typically care for–it didn’t fit the traditional “Best Actor” mold. There was lots of violence in the film; he spent most of the movie brandishing a gun, and yes, the character was portrayed as something of a superhero in a situation with much bigger political issues at play that the movie only grazed.