Category Archives: Film

The Family Stone

The Rotten Tomatoes critics consensus of The Family Stone is that “This family holiday dramedy features fine performances but awkward shifts of tone.” Which, yeah. That’s why it’s so good.

I didn’t come away loving it when I saw it in the theater. Too mercurial, I thought. And that excruciating dinner scene… But upon further viewings, I’ve come to realize it’s one of the greater Christmas movies, precisely because of its mood swings. Perhaps your family was different, but “awkward shifts of tone” should be one of the definitions of family.

Not only does the film capture a particular kind of cozy, Hallmark-approved Christmastime—and one that’s distinctly New England—but it also captures what it’s like to go through any kind of Christmas with the people you love but who are also most adept at driving you crazy.

An immediate familiarity sets in as we’re dropped into this year’s Stone Family Christmas, which feels like it could be any of the many Christmases they have shared together. The family members gradually arrive at the Stone home and start chatting as if continuing an ongoing conversation. There’s hardly any backstory, no “remember last year when…” or other expository filler that can weigh down family dramas. As we meet each Stone, we can deduce at once their role in the family, though not yet what role they will play in the unfolding story.

Little things stuck out during my most recent Christmastime viewing. Like the random assemblage of characters piled into a car to go get pizzas, a reminder to me of how driving to places around the holidays with the people you don’t usually drive to places with feels a bit more special. Or Amy and Sybil pestering Everett about taking his tie off, which at once told us that was something Amy and Sybil cared enough about and that Everett was the kind of person to wear a tie at a family get-together.

Everyone starts out on a certain trajectory, but writer/director Thomas Bezucha does a great job of steering the key characters into unexpected directions. These trajectories are just as varied as the film’s tone. Sybil’s terminal breast cancer is alluded to but never exploited, and is the impetus for the brief but powerful moments of reconciliation she experiences with her adult children before the end of the movie. Amy’s prickliness, which bleeds into outright hostility at times, gives way to brief moments of vulnerability. And though the partner swap revealed in the one-year-later epilogue is borderline preposterous—Meredith’s totally cool with her sister dating her former fiancé? really?—the circumstances that led to each character’s moment of clarity were sold well.

I’ve found my opinion of The Family Stone is in the minority, but there are others out there who see what I see in it. I absolutely understand the counterpoints as well, but ultimately I don’t care whether you like it or not!

Escanaba in Da Moonlight

For dose dat don’t know much about the Superior State, dere’s a couple of tings that need to be explained. First ting is, in da U.P., we don’t explain tings. Second ting is, we got some of the best huntin’ and fishin’ in da whole world.

So says Albert Soady, patriarch of probably the most Yooper family you’ll see on film thanks to Jeff Daniels’ Escanaba in Da Moonlight. I learned about the movie from a book about midwestern accents, and since I’m from Wisconsin and have been deer hunting, I was very intrigued.

Written and directed by Jeff Daniels, a Michigan native, the movie is based on a play also written by Daniels, which focuses on the peculiarities of hunting culture and Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. Daniels plays Reuben, a sadsack hunter haunted by never having shot a buck. He meets up with his father and brother at a rural cabin the night before deer hunting season opens desperate to shed his “Buckless Yooper” curse. This year, however, he comes equipped with potions from his Ojibwa wife meant to attract deer to him. They apparently work, because supernatural wackiness ensues.

The strange rituals, the sing-songy local accent, and the abundant flatulence all felt familiar to me, having for years trekked to a cabin in the Northwoods for “deer camp” (and duck camp and fish camp) for some fresh piney air and a chance at cynegetic glory. The specific delights and idiosyncrasies of this experience are hard to explain to the uninitiated, but this movie does it well. Half the fun (and strangeness) happens when you’re not hunting.

The movie’s origin as a play is evident. There are stretches of tightly paced dialogue, with characters trading time in the spotlight, and a single setting where most of the action occurs. Yet despite the story taking place mostly within the cabin (which feels appropriately ramshackle and lived-in), Daniels stretches outside when needed to take advantage of the authentic Michigan wilderness around them.

Joey Albright shines as Reuben’s brother Remnar, whose Kevin James-style physicality contrasts well with Reuben’s browbeaten neuroticism. Add to this Harve Presnall’s stentorian father figure Albert and oddball supporting characters, and you’ve got a pasty-esque mix of flavors in this bizarre yet lovingly crafted indie movie that’s best watched in long underwear with a case of Leinenkugel’s.

La La Librarians

Lots of great anecdotes from the New Yorker story “Scenes from the Oscar Night Implosion“, including this one on the Academy librarians planted in the corner of the press room:

In the back corner was my favorite part of the press room: the librarians’ table, where the Academy librarians are on hand to answer questions. Under a sign that said “Reference,” a librarian named Lucia Schultz had a thick binder of Oscar history and another of credits for the nominated films. Reporters came by to ask questions. Had there previously been two African-American acting winners in the same year? (Yes, in 2002, 2005, and 2007.) If Lin-Manuel Miranda won Best Original Song, would he be the youngest-ever “EGOT”? (Depends on whether you count noncompetitive awards. Barbra Streisand was younger, but she won a Special Tony Award.) Was Mahershala Ali the first Muslim to win an Oscar? (They couldn’t say, because the Academy doesn’t keep records on winners’ religious affiliations.) After Colleen Atwood won for Best Costume Design, a Metro.co.uk reporter rushed up to Schultz and asked if any other British people had won four Oscars. “Yes, but Colleen Atwood is from Washington State,” Schultz said.

Later on, as the Best Picture snafu was happening, Schultz had what we could call a run on the reference desk:

On the monitors, a guy in a headset was onstage, and the “La La Land” producer Jordan Horowitz was saying, “This is not a joke. ‘Moonlight’ has won Best Picture.” When the camera zoomed in on the envelope, the press room collectively screamed. A reporter ran up to Schultz and asked, “Has anything like this ever happened before?” Schultz, who had not prepared for this scenario, was frantically searching her records. “I cannot think of a case where this has happened,” she said. “There are times when people thought it happened.” More reporters lined up with the same question—it was the most attention Schultz had got all night. She remembered something about Quincy Jones and Sharon Stone forgetting the envelope for Best Original Score, in 1996, but no other precedent came to mind. (In fact, Sammy Davis, Jr., once read from the wrong envelope, in 1964.)

Time to update those reference materials.

What’s So Amazing About Grace Kelly

I rewatched High Noon after reading Glenn Frankel’s excellent new book High Noon: The Hollywood Blacklist and the Making of an American Classic. I first saw it in a high school film class and loved it. Because I hadn’t seen many westerns before that, I didn’t realize how unique it was among them, but I do now.

(John Wayne, a leading Hollywood Red-hunter and blacklist promoter, hated it, and made Rio Bravo as a response to it. Too bad that it’s way worse than High Noon.)

Frankel profiles all of the film’s major cast and crew, including Grace Kelly, who was 21 at the time and in only her second film. She hated her performance, but I think her cold rigidity, even if it was the result of bad acting, works within the context of the film.

It’s amazing how much Grace Kelly did in her five-year acting career. Out of her 11 total films, five are considered notable or downright classic: High Noon, Dial M for Murder, Rear Window, To Catch A Thief, and High Society. She also won Best Actress in 1954 for The Country Girl (though she should have been nominated for Rear Window, her absolute peak) and was nominated for Best Supporting Actress for Mogambo. She worked with Hitchcock, Ford, and Zinnemann, and starred with Cooper, Gable, Grant, Stewart, and Holden. And all of this before she turned 26.

Then she made herself a princess and ghosted. As a friend of mine would say: Be brief, be beautiful, be gone. Can’t argue with that.

Favorite Films of 2016

According to my records I watched 83 films in 2016, 33 of which came out this year. As is the case with my reading, I’m in a “watch as much as I can” zone because I love movies and there’s so much great stuff and there are too many movies and I’ll never have this amount of free time once I have kids. So here are my favorite films from 2016, ranked:

Arrival. I’m a total sucker for stories like this and Lost, Interstellar, Midnight Special, Gravity, Take Shelter, Contact and other deeply humane tales masquerading as sci-fi that make you think just as much as they make you want to hug someone. Though the geopolitical element to the story waded a little too close to didactic for me, I was nevertheless absorbed from the first minute, even if I’m still trying to figure everything out. Found myself surprised by the quality of Jeremy Renner’s performance, unsurprised by Amy Adams’s, and wishing Forest Whitaker had more to do.

Moonlight. I got the feeling there were two hidden acts before the beginning of the film, showing the childhood and adolescence of Mahershala Ali’s crack dealer before he crossed paths with young Chiron, who’s starting on his own journey through a troubled life. Time is a flat circle.

Everybody Wants Some!! With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, it’s the middle sibling between Linklater’s Dazed and Confused and Before trilogy, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones. More thoughts here.

Hell or High Water. “Tangled Up in Blue” by Bob Dylan: “But me, I’m still on the road / Headin’ for another joint / We always did feel the same / We just saw it from a different point of view / Tangled up in blue.” Lots of tangling up in this movie, for good and ill. Family, money, friendship, death, the future. Mutual haunting. And what is a haunting but a tangle with the past? That last shot tho.

Kubo and the Two Strings. Haven’t seen much love for this in the year-end lists, which is baffling. In sumptuous stop-motion animation, a cohesive fable plays out with a cast of characters who range from terrifying. Though in patches during the second act the interaction among the makeshift traveling posse borders on cloying, the larger arc of Kubo and his family and what it shows us about memory and creation is incredibly affecting.

The Wave. It’s Jaws plus The Impossible plus that New Yorker article about the earthquake that’s gonna destroy the Pacific Northwest one day. Dug it! More thoughts on this deliciously tense low-budget Norwegian thriller that doesn’t look low-budget at all here.

The Fits. That finale!

Hail, Caesar! Liked this pretty much immediately. Full of hilariously deadpan Coen Bros Touches™ like David Krumholtz yelling things in the background of the communist gathering. I only wish we could have spent more time with the rotating cast of capital-c Characters I’ve come to expect from the Coens. Like Frances McDormand’s film editor: can their next movie be just about her? This could easily be the origin of a Marvel-esque cinematic universe.

Midnight Special. From idea to execution, this Jeff Nichols joint is inspired in every sense: as homage to Spielbergian themes of family and destiny, as a sci-fi fable with the courage of restraint, and as an auteurist vision that doesn’t always shine scene to scene but adds up to something effulgent when it matters. Review here.

Captain America: Civil War. Finally, a Spider-Man who actually looks like he’s in high school! That, along with ever more compelling character studies of Steve Rogers and Tony Stark, made this latest episode of The Marvel Cinematic Universe Show worth watching. Full review here.


Other favorites: The Lobster, 10 Cloverfield Lane, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, The Innocents, La La Land, Popstar: Never Stop Never Stopping, Last Days in the Desert

Haven’t yet seen: Silence, Toni Erdmann, Manchester by the Sea, Certain Women

Innocents & Wonder

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Synchronicity strikes again.

I recently watched Anne Fontaine’s The Innocents, a new film set in post-WWII Poland focused on Mathilde, a young French Red Cross nurse compelled to help a convent of Polish nuns with a dark secret. I watched it while in the midst of Emma Donoghue’s new novel The Wonder, which is also told from the perspective of a nurse, Lib Wright, a Florence Nightingale apprentice in nineteenth-century rural Ireland who is sent to observe and care for a girl purported to have survived without food for months, only on “manna from heaven.”

Both Mathilde and Lib are reluctant recruits to their missions. Mathilde is beseeched by a desperate nun; Lib is in it for the paycheck and the desire to debunk the farce of the “miracle girl” with ruthless scientific empiricism. They allow their biases and prejudices—Mathilde’s annoyance with the sisters’ rigid piety and Lib’s anti-Irish condescension—to color their encounters with their patients, which creates tension initially but also allows for surprising connections.

I encourage you to seek both of these works out not only because they are worth the experience, but because both are stories about women, made by women. They each do have interesting male supporting characters (the journalist Bryne in The Wonder and the Jewish doctor Samuel in The Innocents have what could be considered a conflict of interest in helping Mathilde and Lib, respectively, which is what makes their involvement so compelling), but they are above all focused on the lives of women, without calling attention to this focus. They are simply great stories deftly told.

The Apu Trilogy

Finally watched all of Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy: Pather Panchali (1955) and Aparajito (1956), and Apur Sansar (1959). Filmspotting’s recent Satyajit Ray marathon compelled me to finally give them a go. The Criterion editions are, no surprise, beautifully rendered. I’d heard of the trilogy first from Image‘s Arts & Faith Top 100 Films list, which I’ve used along with Top 100 lists from AFI and Time magazine as a guide for films to seek out. (At this writing I’ve seen 92 of AFI’s list, 51 of Time, and 47 of Image; we could debate the merits of these lists all day, but they are undeniably handy guides for pursuing quality cinema.)

The movies do revolve around Apu, but his mother Karuna was as much the star of the first two as Apu was. I suspected this was the case after watching Pather Panchali, but her role in Aparajito confirmed it. She’s often exasperated or stressed in her role as a homemaker struggling to provide and care for her two children in rural 1920s Bengal, but moments of delight and grace sneak through as well. Then, as tragedies mount and modernity creeps in, her struggle intensifies just as Apu ages into a bright and aspirational teen. His visits home dwindle along with Karuna’s health; she doesn’t disclose her illness to Apu, nor her despair at his increasing distance.

This culminates in a crushing scene when Apu, on a rare visit home, fades to sleep as Karuna peppers him with questions. “When you earn money, will you arrange treatments for me?” she says. “Apu? Will you, Apu?” No answer. Whether she was expecting answers or just needed to voice her concerns, the look on her face takes a devastating turn through concern, fear, and desperation before arriving at resignation.

Apur Sansar brings the trilogy back under Apu’s domain, following his perambulations as a struggling writer and reluctant evolution as a bridegroom and father. Despite being closer in age to the Apu of Apur Sansar, I was less enveloped in this story than those of the first two movies, but still felt satisfied by the trilogy’s full-circle conclusion.

The lists from Time and Image group all three films together, but I favor the approach Sight & Sound takes on their Top 50 Greatest Films of All Time list, which separates Pather Panchali from the group (just as they rightfully split up The Godfather and The Godfather Part II). Though the second two films fill out the rest of Apu’s story, Pather is the strongest self-contained film, and the story I could most envision returning to again.

The Wave (Bølgen)

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There must be something in the water at The New Yorker. The Richard Brooks film In Cold Blood was based off of Truman Capote’s 1965 New Yorker story of the same name. The Spike Jonze film Adaptation was based off of Susan Orleans’ 1995 New Yorker story “Orchid Fever”. And Roar Uthaug’s 2015 film The Wave was based off of Kathryn Schulz’s 2015 New Yorker story “The Really Big One”.

That last one isn’t technically true, but it might as well be. The same mixture of science, dread, and sense of looming catastrophe I felt while reading Schulz’s Pulitzer Prize-winning story on the mass destruction that awaits the Pacific Northwest’s Cascadia subduction zone reemerged from the very beginning of The Wave, which is set in the real Norwegian tourist village of Geiranger. The town is at constant risk of annihilation when—not if—a rock slide tumbles into the fjord and triggers a devastating tsunami.

With this inevitability hovering over the town, a geologist named Kristian prepares to move with his family to a bigger city to start a new job in the oil industry. But when an anomaly in the town’s tectonic monitoring system stirs in Kristian an ineffable sense of doom, he can’t shake the feeling The Big One is coming. He already left his job, but it won’t let go of him.

We know from the movie’s title and poster that The Wave is coming, but no one else does, and that makes watching each character’s oblivious actions, pauses, and second guesses unbearably tense. The potency of this foreboding is the forte of the film, especially the first act. It grafts the fear of the unseen menace of Jaws onto a much larger and elemental force that cannot be fought or killed, only feared and fled from. This makes it similar in tone and story to the 2012 film The Impossible, which dramatized the true story of a family scattered by the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But unlike The Impossible, which had the surprise tsunami happen early on and then focused on the family reuniting, the tsunami in The Wave takes its sweet, torturous time arriving.

That choice makes it a stronger film, though the search-and-rescue of the second act I think diffuses some, but not all, of the tension that had built throughout the first half. In that way it felt like two different movies, with more of the conventional story/character beats big-budget disaster films tend to revert to happening after the tsunami hits. Yet, for being made for a paltry $6.5 million, the film is no shoddy disaster flick. The visual effects turn the tsunami into a monstrous, atavistic brute force of nature. And the cast—especially the parents played by Ane Dahl Torp and Kristoffer Joner—render a compelling human drama in how they react to the tectonic terror and try to survive in its hellish wake.

I checked to see which other Scandinavian films I’ve seen and found several great ones: The Hunt and Oslo, August 31 both made my Best Films lists for their years, and Troll Hunter was strange but interesting. These modern films plus the extensive filmography of Ingmar Bergman means there’s lots out there to discover. I’m happy to add The Wave to that list.

Tom, John, Abby & George

The fourth episode of the John Adams miniseries (“Reunion”) contains two of the best scenes in the show. The first is John hanging with Abigail and Thomas Jefferson in Paris. It’s fun to consider now how these titans of American history would have interacted in their time, before they achieved titan status:

The second is when John Adams meets with King George III as the first American ambassador to Great Britain. Giamatti perfectly portrays the range of emotions Adams must have felt serving this role: pride above all, I imagine, in every sense of the word. To represent his new country in such a prestigious role also carried with it the custom of bowing deeply not once, not twice, but thrice, to the monarch he had so vociferously criticized:

Still delighted HBO chose to dedicate a series to the Founding Father who would not land on Mount Rushmore but had an undeniable influence in making it possible one day.

Everybody Wants Some!!

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With its likable cast, meandering dialogue, and lived-in plotless feel, Everybody Wants Some!! is more than just a “spiritual sequel” to Dazed and Confused. It’s the middle sibling between that film and Linklater’s Before series, all of which seem to take place in the same film universe where everyone’s a peripatetic philosopher and life happens in the ordinary moments between the usual milestones.

I say the cast is likable, and they are, but the kind of guys and social life depicted in the film—college baseball players in 1980s Texas—are also what I tried to avoid during my adolescence. I played in team sports (mostly soccer) up through high school, and enjoyed the camaraderie and the opportunity to play in a team setting. But the macho posturing, sexual banter, and competitive saber-rattling common in that milieu made me uncomfortable and kept me from bonding with most of my teammates.

Those same things are prominent in Everybody Wants Some!!, but with the barriers of time, maturity, and the fourth wall I felt a strange affection for these guys that I didn’t feel for their real-life counterparts. Maybe because Linklater cranks the Bro-ishness right up to the limits of its charm, mercifully saving it from spilling over into being unpleasant. Or maybe it’s due to the lack of malice in their pranks, taunts, and hazing rituals. This isn’t a team of O’Bannons, the paddle-wielding sadist from Dazed and Confused. They clearly enjoy being around each other and find value in their shared experience on campus and on the baseball field.

Despite sharing the laid-back, chatty vibe of Dazed, a significant difference between the two films is the gender balance, or lack thereof. In Dazed the girls were weaved well into the film’s panoramic story. Every Everybody female, however, save Beverly, is either a potential sex partner or barely regarded at all. Perhaps that’s at it should be in this case, given how sex-obsessed these guys are. Like the one dude who gives lip service to the Equal Rights Amendment while trying to pick up a girl, it would be inauthentic to make these guys more politically enlightened than they really would have been.

Authenticity being a key virtue of Linklater films, it’s why, despite the quibbles, I loved hanging out in this world. I suspect repeated viewings will confirm this, as is true with most Linklater films.