Blind Justice: A Review of Zack Snyder’s ‘Justice League’

justiceleague

Not long into Justice League, we get a bird’s eye view of the streets of London, and as the camera tilts up, we find Wonder Woman standing on top of a golden statue of Lady Justice. “Oh, right,” I thought, “Wonder Woman was good! And Gal Gadot was great in it.” The movie was getting off to a good start. Before that, we had seen Batman doing some delightfully silly detective work on a Gotham City rooftop that looked like a set right out of an old-fashioned Hollywood movie. And even before that, we had seen Superman, shot through a low-fi phone camera be interviewed by a young kid who asked what it was like to be a superhero. I was reminded early that there is a reason why these three characters endure in the public consciousness. They mean something. You can tell stories about them. I decided to give Justice League the benefit of the doubt.

But maybe I shouldn’t have. The success of Wonder Woman this summer was the first sign that Warner Bros. and their D.C. Comics Extended Universe had any chance of fighting in the same league as the Marvel machine, which is so effectively calibrated to churn out stuff and make bank in return. At one point, Justice League was supposed to be director Zack Snyder’s even bigger follow-up to the already over sized epic he called Batman v. Superman: Dawn of JusticeBut then Wonder Woman happened, and then a family tragedy made Snyder drop out of the movie halfway through. If the Warner executive’s thirst for “Marvel money” hadn’t been sufficiently obvious, they replaced Snyder with Joss Whedon, the man who wrote and directed the first Avengers movie.

The result is what you’d expect, a cheap copy of The Avengers. A lame attempt to reconcile the lighter tone of the Marvel movies with the trashy-meets-Baroque aesthetic of Zack Snyder’s previous movies. The bad news is that the studio couldn’t even have the courtesy to drop a truly bizarre and disastrous movie on us, which is what Batman v. Superman had promised us. In case you don’t recall, let me remind me that movie had both a pee joke and an emotional climax right out of a cheap mid-century melodrama. It might have been trash, but by God if it wasn’t the most fascinating pile of garbage I had ever encountered. Justice League, on the other hand, is just plain boring.

You’ll be shocked to learn that the movie’s plot revolves around a CGI alien-monster named Steppenwolf, who in order to destroy Earth, must find three mystical boxes full of power like humanity has never seen or some such nonsense. This idea, of our heroes and villains both going after a box, a cube, or any other mystical artifact is what Alfred Hitchcock used to call a MacGuffin. This technique is basically an excuse to have a plot when the writer knows that the real reason people are going to the movies is not to see a stupid plot develop, but to spend time with great characters. This is something the writers of Justice League seem to have forgotten. There is nothing but stupid plot in this movie. Whatever signs of interesting character work were given in the first few scenes of the movie are abandoned pretty early on in favor of boilerplate pathos and unfunny banter.

Of course, there is a way to get around both a stupid plot and lame character work, and that is to go all-in on the set-pieces. It’s not ideal, but I’ve seen it work. Not in this movie, though. Have you heard the phrase “justice is blind”, well Justice League takes it literally. This might very well be the ugliest movie I have ever seen. It’s bad even for DC standards (and these are the folks who brought you Suicide Squad). What is particularly ugly about it? Computer Generated Imagery. Hollywood blockbusters have come to rely so intensely on the idea that computers can make anything “look real” on screen that they have forgotten the fact that that is simply not the case.

I won’t go back to the argument that a single practical, make-up, or puppetry effect feels a thousand times more real than any image generated by a computer (we’re sadly way past the point when anyone in Hollywood would entertain that argument). But even then, how is it possible that a movie that cost more than a hundred million dollars to make can’t keep a person standing in front of a green screened background from looking like the result of a 6 year-old using photoshop? How can anyone find any pleasure in watching brown blurbs underscored by loud noises? Why would anyone want to see Justice League? There’s nothing going on here. Just three of the most iconic characters of the 20th Century wasted on the plot of a bad Power Rangers episode.

Advertisements

Morality Played: A Review of Martin McDonagh’s ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’

3billboards

If you’re someone who’s interested in cinema or screenwriting odds are at some point or another you’ve heard a movie be dismissively described as “overwritten.” But what does the word “overwritten” actually mean? Ask someone who uses the term to define it for you, and you’ll get a Potter Stewart type of response. “I know it when I see it.” Since nobody can explain what they mean by it, I’ve always believed there is no such thing as an “overwritten” screenplay. The script is either good or bad. The notion that someone could put too much effort into writing didn’t make sense to me… Until I saw Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri 

This is not to say that Three Billboards is an incompetent movie. In fact, one of the most fascinating and irritating things about the movie is the fact that it manages to work fairly well despite being plagued by some major problems. The biggest problem is that there seems to be something rotten in the movie’s foundation. A lack of clarity in its message. And that is precisely when the term “overwritten” came to my head. Because the core the movie is either too opaque or simply empty, it was almost as if I could see right through the movie and all the way down into writer-director Martin McDonagh’s head. I could see the gears in his brain working, complicating the plot, and choosing how he was going to shock the audience at every turn. I wasn’t watching a movie, I was watching someone write a screenplay.

But let’s stop talking in generalities and get down to the example at hand. Three Billboards stars Frances McDormand as Mildred Hayes, a divorced woman whose teenage daughter was tragically raped and murdered. It’s been a several months since the crime occurred, and the police force hasn’t come anywhere near to cracking the case. Frustrated, Mildred decides to rent out three billboards along a solitary road and make her case through advertising: “Still no arrests? How come, Chief Willoughby?” A lot of people in town aren’t happy with Mildred’s recriminations of the town’s law enforcement. Especially the local cops, which include a dim-witted bigot played by Sam Rockwell.

The movie plays with morality but is not a morality play. Traditionally, morality plays were religious narratives in which an allegorical protagonist made his way toward the righteous path. Martin McDonagh is not interested in showing us the righteous path, but in showing that finding the right path might be harder than we thought. McDonagh, who was recognized as a major playwright before he migrated to film, has a very particular writing style. Most of his works uses foul language and extreme violence. Most of his work is also set in Ireland, so he measures the violence with the philosophy of Catholicism in order to examine questions about morality and redemption.

On this occasion, McDonagh’s mind is set on a very specific goal: establish moral complexity. It’s not long into the film that we learn that the targeted Chief Willoughby (Woody Harrelson) has been diagnosed with terminal cancer. Later, in the middle of a verbal confrontation, the Chief coughs blood right onto Mildred’s face. He might be neglecting the case, but he is just human. This sort of pattern repeats itself over and over again throughout the film. We thought we knew who a character was, until the next scene reveals something unexpected about them and suddenly they’ve been put under a different light. It happens so often it becomes exhausting, especially once the movie reaches its climax and we’re left unclear on what exactly the movie is trying to say. And whether its message has any real value.

Things are more complicated than they seem. Morality is not as cut and dry as our leaders make it seem. That seems to be the message, which sounds a little thorny in 2017, especially coming from the film industry. I don’t need to remind you that some of the most powerful men in Hollywood are finally paying for the sexual crimes of their past. The recent wave of victims opening up about abuse in the industry is only getting bigger. With this mind it’s fair to say Three Billboards speaks to our current moment in contradictory ways. On the one hand, we have an indignant woman trying to find justice for a daughter who was abused in the most savage way. On the other, focuses on Sam Rockwell’s bigoted cop character finding his way towards redemption.

Rockwell’s character is a pretty nasty fellow. If the movie isn’t quite excusing his behavior, it is at least making choices that will raise a couple eyebrows. I’m thinking particularly of the movie’s use of language. The characters in this movie say a lot of reprehensible things. They drop multiple N, F, and C words. Some of them do truly horrible and violent things. They punch, kick, beat, and set fire to each other. The kind of behavior that would be reprehensible in the real world, but is often shrugged as “bad-ass” in the movies. McDonagh understands that his characters are behaving badly. He has to, because he wants to redeem them. He wants to hate a character, than empathize with them.

To his credit, he comes close. But it’s hard to buy the redemption story when McDonagh leaves the tools he is using so nakedly visible. We can see the final product in his head, and we can see what he’s sacrificing in order to get there. Consider, for instance the minority characters. There are a few black characters in the movie, none of which have real personalities and are -when you get down to it- mostly used as props in the escalating tensions between Mildred and the police. They’re a litmus test. They stand to the side while the plot keeps moving forward, and are called to the foreground only to let the main characters react to their blackness. Meanwhile, the treatment of the female characters (other than Mildred) is similarly simplistic.

This problem grows even larger when you consider it in conjunction with the movie’s comedy. There are a lot of scenes that play for laughs in this movie. Almost every moment of deep drama or violence is bookended by comedic scenes. The audience I was with laughed loudly when characters used inappropriate language or did inappropriate things. But what was the purpose of all this? Did McDonagh think that because he had black characters in the background he could get away with these off-color lines? Was it all just an exercise in seeing how badly a character can be behave and still be redeemed? Maybe the audience’s laugh was one of discomfort.

And yet, I said that the movie mostly works, and I meant it. A lot of this falls on the shoulder of the actors. McDormand, Harrelson and Rockwell all do very strong work as the main characters, and they’re helped by a sturdy, deep bench of supporting players. Peter Dinklage and Clarke Peters immediately come to mind as doing much more than required with their parts. But a crucial part has to do with McDonagh’s expertise as a writer. He knows how to craft a story and how to keep an audience engaged.

That’s why Rockwell’s redemption arc almost works. McDonagh’s secret is to keep the plot moving forward. There is a lot of plot in this movie. Every scene either reveals something unexpected about a character or features an unfortunate incident that moves the plot forward. But if every scene features a shocking revelation, then nothing is shocking anymore. We seize to believe in the movie as a unifying world, and only as a story crafted to make us react in specific ways. We stop thinking about Mildred, her daughter, or any kind of moral complexity, and we can only focus on McDonagh’s hand. There is a good movie hidden somewhere in Three Billboards, one that focuses on the characters’ truth and not in the audience’s reaction.

Blade Runner 2049? …More Like Blade Crawler 204ZZZ, amirite?

blade4

Let’s get an unpopular opinion out of the way first: I don’t care for the original Blade Runner. We can all agree that it is a pretty looking movie. Its impeccable production design has obviously proved hugely influential in the science fiction genre, and there is a lot of pleasure to be extracted out of Jordan Cronenweth’s neo-noir cinematography and the tingly electric score by Vangelis. So the movie’s got style. But in matters of substance, it leaves a lot to be desired. This new Blade Runner 2049, a sequel set thirty years after the original, follows in the footsteps of its predecessor almost identically. These are two and a half hours of stylish but empty images. Two and a half hours of oppressive dullness. Two and a half hours of oppressive boredom. Does the movie have anything interesting to say? I wouldn’t know. By the time it got around to explaining itself, I simply didn’t have the energy to care.

A lot of effort has been put on part of the studio not to reveal even the most basic plot elements of this movie, but it’s been a couple weeks since it opened and it’s not doing particularly well in the box office so I will go ahead and give a broad outline of what this story is about. The hero is K, a robot (or replicant) played by Ryan Gosling, who has been especially programmed to obey orders. Previous replicants weren’t so good at following orders, and so K’s job is to travel the galaxy and hunt down runaway robots. If you remember the original movie, you’ll know that people who do this kind of job are called Blade Runners. Now, the big difference of course is that the hero of the original movie was a human, and K is a robot. K’s obedient nature is put into question when he discovers a dead replicant who was apparently pregnant at the time she died. A robot? Pregnant? Existential questioning ensues.

That short synopsis should be enough to give you a broad idea of what the movie is about. Most movies about robots are about one of two things, and this movie is about both. One: it’s a movie that portrays robots as the members of an oppressed servant class. They’re practically slaves, designed to do whatever humans want them to do. Jared Leto even says so at some point in the movie, in a rambling monologue about “slave labor” and “civilization” and that kind of thing. Two: this is a movie that asks what makes a human a human. Is it consciousness? Because if you think about it, if a machine thinks it is concious, isn’t that practically the same as having a consciousness? So robots are oppressed, and they are conscious. So it’s actually not cool to oppress robots.

That might be a reductive way of thinking about the philosophy behind the Blade Runner saga, or it might just be all that the Blade Runner saga has to say about humanity. I lean toward the latter, and personally haven’t been convinced by any other arguments that try to make the themes of these movies sound more interesting than they are. But a movie isn’t its themes. At least not exclusively. Good movies have been made out of worse ideas, so we all know it’s not a matter of what you have to say, but how you say it. I’m afraid I’ve already spilled the beans about Blade Runner 2049′s mode of operation.

The movie is directed by Canadian Denis Villeneuve (Arrival, Sicario) who has proved to be a rather good filmmaker when it comes to setting an oppressive mood and building lots of tension. Somehow, neither of those talents transfer to Blade Runner 2049, which is simply dull from start to finish. Cinematographer Roger Deakins -largely considered one of the best living cinematographers in the world- is along for the ride, and while he works hard to make everything look as striking as he can, there is very little he can do when the pretty images he creates are in service of such an empty script. Considering the talent the people involved have shown in other ventures, I’d have to put the bulk on the blame on the movie’s atrocious script.

The biggest problem about the screenplay -and this is something that is a huge problem in the original Blade Runner as well- is that it confuses vagueness with gravitas. Practically every scene in this movie has the characters talk in vague terminology, going in circles around a subject without really saying anything about it. Everything that could be said simply is said in obscure poetic terms. Nobody refers to anything directly and nobody talks like people, regardless of whether the character is an android or a human. Harrison Ford enters the film towards the end, and he seems to be trying really hard to bring some emotional truth to the proceedings (which is unusual for Ford at this late stage of his career). Sadly, he is let down by the movie. And so are we.

What else can be said about Blade Runner 2049? I try to find something nice to say about it, and I come out empty-handed. Its most interesting moments seem to be cribbed out of other movies (like Her), or have been explored in better detail and more efficient fashion elsewhere (Ex Machina and World of Tomorrow come to mind). The design is pretty, but feels like it’s a lot of flash in service of very little substance. The score (by Hans Zimmer and Benjamin Wallfish) abandons the delightful luminosity of the original Vangelis in favor of boring drones of the kind we hear in every single blockbuster nowadays. And the less said about Jared Leto the better. Whatever purpose his character was supposed to serve, his scenes are the best example of how many people’s heads can fit inside this movie’s butt.

New York Film Festival Report No. 5 (Let the Sunshine In, Lady Bird, BPM)

lady bird

This is it. The final entry in my New York Film Festival diary. It was a very good festival. I’m very glad I got to be a part of it. As for you, well, you should be happy there’s a lot of great movies coming your way in the next couple months.

Let the Sunshine In
I try to avoid indulging in stereotypes, but let’s put on our prejudice hat for a moment. If I tell you “artsy French film version of a Nancy Meyers movie”, what do you picture? Because that’s the most effective way to describe Claire Denis’s new movie Let the Sunshine In, which stars Juliette Binoche as a newly single woman who bounces from one frustrating relationship to another. For those who heard French Nancy Meyers and expected a sexual thriller about kitchen remodeling: I have bad news. The movie has the rough structure and tone of a romantic comedy, but it’s all hidden under layers of impenetrability. That’s the French part of it all, of course.

Denis is a very talented and very well respected director. I assume that she had a very specific movie in mind, and that Let the Sunshine In probably resembles that movie quite closely. It is just a very unpleasant movie to sit through. My guess is that Denis is trying to say something about language, or communication, because her movie is made up of scenes of two people talking in which they dance around every subject never truly saying anything concrete, over and over again. This might be commentary on the way people talk (I guess), but it’s incredibly boring to watch. Also, this film was described to me as a “comedy”, which is too generous for a movie with maybe two chuckles in it.

Let the Sunshine In will probably be released in theaters sometime next year.

Lady Bird
I have a hard time finding things to say about Lady Bird other than that it is a delightful movie. There is no point to simply list all the things I liked about it, so I let’s talk about it in context. This is the directorial debut of Greta Gerwig, who is mostly known as an actress. As a writer, she collaborated on two wonderful movies with director Noah Baumbach (in which she also starred). Film critic Kyle Turner pointed out on Twitter that Gerwig’s movies focus on the romance of relationships that aren’t explicitly romantic. Frances Ha was about a break-up story about two best friends. Mistress America was about an obsessive love between sisters. Now, Lady Bird, is a romance about keeping up the love between mother and daughter.

Saoirse Ronan stars as Christine, who has given herself the name Lady Bird, and is the kind of teenager who is trapped between feeling like she’s better and worse than everyone else. You know, typical teenager stuff. Lady Bird is a working class girl who lives in Sacramento and goes to a private Catholic school. She is trapped between wanting to leave her hometown and reinvent a new life for herself and loving the people and places that she’s known her whole life. This is most obvious in the complicated relationship she has with her mother, played by Laurie Metcalf. Ronan and Metcalf are the stand-outs in a cast full of incredible performances. What else can I say? The movie is hilarious, I can’t wait to see it again, and Gerwig is as good of a director as she is an actress and a writer.

Lady Bird will open in theaters on November 3. 

BPM (Beats per Minute)
This movie by Robin Campillo was the big audience favorite at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, where it won the Grand Prize of the Jury. The film is best described as a portrait of the French chapter of the activist group Act Up, which stood up for the rights of HIV-positive people in the eighties and nineties. Other than its sexual honesty and impassioned energy, the movie is most exciting in the ways in which its structure reflects that of an activist group. The film has an expansive ensemble of characters, and it devotes a healthy amount of time to most of them. Each scene is presented from more than one perspective. The camera is constantly cutting to someone else’s perspective, as if it the film itself was reflecting the democratic ideals of the subjects themselves.

That’s true of at least the first two thirds of the movie. BPM is two and a half hours long (overlong running times being a staple of contemporary French cinema), and as it moves along it loses the plural focus. For its last section, the movie narrows its point of view on one specific character as his battle with AIDS becomes more intense. It’s not that these scenes are bad, but they are the kind of thing we usually see in movies about the AIDS crisis (not that there are that many movies on the subject). It’s a disappointment because it just isn’t as unique and impassioned as the first part of the film. It all comes together rather strongly in the end, but given how long the movie is, most of my patience had been lost by then.

BPM will open in limited release on October 20. 

New York Film Festival Report No. 4 (First Reformed, Wonderstruck)

WonderStruck

This is my fourth report from the festival, discussing two movies that I wasn’t expecting to see. But, hey, crazy things happen at the New York Film Festival!

First Reformed
During the Q&A session after the screening, writer-director Paul Schrader was asked about his influences. He shrugged off and said: “let’s just say there will be a lot of term papers written about this film.” Indeed, First Reformed is the kind of movie that is designed to fascinate young cinephiles, and that’s a good thing. Schrader admits to lifting from such dry Europeans as Dreyer, Tarkovsky and Bergman while making the picture, though the most obvious influence is Robert Bresson’s Diary of a Country Priest. Schrader’s movie also focuses on a priest -played by Ethan Hawke- who looks after a small chapel in Upstate New York and, well, keeps a diary.

Schrader’s goal seems to have been to make a movie that fits in the tradition of all the filmmakers mentioned above, and the many movies they made on the subject of faith and despair. I think he succeeded. First Reformed is not as severely designed and deliberately paced as some of its predecessors, but it is similarly ambitious and audacious in its filmmaking. Hawke gives what is most likely the best performance of his career as a faithful man who is confronted with deep emptiness. Like most of the other movies in this genre, it is all a slow build-up to a bold finale. It’s the kind of ending that shakes you off of your seat. The kind of ending that is hard to understand, but one can’t stop thinking about.

First Reformed has been picked up by A24 and will be released early next year. 

Wonderstruck
Todd Haynes is an incredible filmmaker. He makes some of the most carefully crafted movies in the world  with the help of some of the most talented collaborators in the business. Cinematographer Ed Lachman, production designer Mark Friedberg, costume designer Sandy Powell, and composer Carter Burwell -to name a few- are all among the very best of their respective crafts. Together with Haynes, they’ve made an immaculately crafted movie. The detailed recreation of New York City’s past, the wonderfully old-fashioned score, and the playful sound design, Wonderstruck is simply gorgeous. It’s almost tragic that such unparalleled talent is stuck working with a such weak script.

Author Brian Selznick adapted his own novel -about two deaf children, in two different time periods, who make fateful pilgrimages to New York City- to the screen. I haven’t read the source material, but from what I hear, the movie adheres to it quite closely. I got the feeling, watching Wonderstruck, that Selznick had a tough time translating his literary devices to the language of film. We get so little personality out of the two protagonists, that it’s easy to suspect the novel being told in the first person, able to access the characters’ thoughts and inner monologues. As written, the characters remain a little too blank, and the screenplay comes off as clunky. Especially when it is surrounded by such amazing craftsmanship.

As sad as it is that Haynes doesn’t quite manage to pull it all together, I can’t stress enough how beautiful the film is. Especially in its third act, when a shift in visual style allows production designer Mark Friedberg to show off with some of the most beautiful images I’ve ever seen.

Wonderstruck will open in theaters on October 20. 

New York Film Festival Report No. 3 (Felicite, The Other Side of Hope)

other side of hope

This is the third of what will now definitely be five reports from the 55th New York Film Festival. Before we get into it, I gotta say, if you have the means to afford to see a bunch of movies at this festival you ought to try it sometime. The Festival atmosphere is a true blast. And you never know what will happen, you might run into Dakota Johnson on the way to the bathroom like I did Tuesday night. Don’t worry, my heart stopped after the encountered but I’ve been brought back to life.

Felicite
Felicite is one of the rare African movies that has found commercial distribution in the United States, which in a just world would make it a must-see for cinephiles. The film stars Vero Tshanda Beya Mputu as Felicite, a single-mother who makes a living as a singer in Kinshasa (that’s in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, by the way). It’s a tough living, but Felicite manages to get by. That is until her son gets severely injured in a motorcycle accident. Now the mother must come up with large sums of money to pay for multiple medicines and an operation. That synopsis must have put a pretty clear idea of what kind of movie this is in your head. If that’s the case, you’re probably right and wrong at the same time. 

The first half of the movie is, as expected, influenced by Italian Neorealism and even more so by the more contemporary work of the Dardenne brothers. The style is recognizable: hand-held cameras and shallow focus compositions that stick close to Felicite as she goes around trying to gather money however she can. Halway through the movie, however, there is a shift. Suddenly, director Alain Gomis dispenses with dialogue and we enter a world of much more expressionistic filmmaking. The movie starts to communicate with us through surreal images, dream-like sequences, and music. Felicite is a singer, after all, and all the most effective moments throughout the film happen when she sings.

It’s a bold structural gamble on Gomis’s part, that sadly works better for me in theory than in practice. The movie is ultimately a character study, and I feel like the expressionistic way in which the movie conveys Felicite’s inner life in the second half is ultimately too opaque to get a valuable read out of her. Still, this is the kind of fearless filmmaking I appreciate even when the movie fails to connect with me.

Felicite will open in limited release on October 27. 

The Other Side of Hope
This one’s a movie about a Syrian man trying to find refuge in Finland, but it’s not the kind of movie you’d expect from that description. This is directed by Aki Kaurismaki, the uncontested master of deadpan comedy. I know what you’re thinking, is comedy really the way in which we want to deal with a humanitarian crisis of this scale? Well, turns out deadpan comedy might be the exact perfect way to make movies about contemporary social issues. I have a theory as to why, if you’ll allow me to go on a brief tangent.

On his book Understanding Comics, Scott McCloud talks about the difference between iconic (simple, cartoony) images and realistic images. His theory is that humans identify more easily to iconic images due to their simplicity. It’s almost as if they were closer to the Platonic ideal of what they’re representing than a realistic image. The characters in The Other Side of Hope are so stiff and unsentimental that they’re almost like iconic images. It’s impossible not to see something of yourself in them. They’re irresistible in their simplicity. It also helps that the movie is hilarious. And sweet. It’s just a great film.

The Other Side of Hope will open in limited release on December 1. 

New York Film Festival Report No. 2 (Zama, Call Me By Your Name)

zama

This is the second of what were originally going to be three reports from the New York Film Festival, but might end up being four (or five?). Who knows! Anyway, the movies keep being good so I want to keep recommending them.

Zama
Anyone who’s lived in Latin America will recognize that despite all of its beauty, the continent is still fighting to stand out of the shadow of Colonialism. The hierarchical structures brought in from Europe have waned and morphed throughout the years, but they haven’t gone away. This colonial past is a dark spot that affects the core of the continent to this day. Lucrecia Martel, Argentine director of such masterpieces as La Cienaga and The Headless Woman, knows how to poke at this dark corner of Latin America’s psyche in a way that virtually no other filmmaker is capable of. For Martel, adapting Antonio di Benedetto’s historical novel to the screen was a painstaking task, leaving a nine year gap between her newest film and the one before. The cinephile community missed her terribly for the last nine years, but a movie like Zama is worth the wait.

Don Diego de Zama is the protagonist of the movie, and he is the perfect subject to represent the conflicting resentments of the South American upper class. He is an officer of the Spanish crown, stationed somewhere in the jungles of colonial Paraguay, who wants nothing more than to be transferred to a less remote town. So he waits. And waits. And waits for a royal letter that will change his fortune. A letter that never comes. Of course what makes Martel such a great filmmaker is how she chooses to tell this particular story. Beyond being another acute autopsy of Latin American society of the kind only Martel can deliver, Zama is a uniquely audacious film in terms of its filmmaking. There is virtually no exposition in the film. It’s hard to tell when and where things are taking place, and what we’re supposed to take out of each scene. It’s a purposely obtuse movie, the kind of difficult work that opens immense rewards to those who are willing to engage with it, and that only a master filmmaker can deliver.

Zama was picked up by Strand Releasing, which will release the film sometime in the first half 2018.

Call Me By Your Name
I’ve been a fan of director Luca Guadagnino (I Am Love, A Bigger Splash) for a while now, and even I must admit that Call Me by Your Name feels like a big leap in his filmmaking. In which direction that leap is going could be debated. I’d argue it’s a leap toward maturity. He’s always been unapologetically stylish (and I’ve loved him for it). With this latest movie -a romance between two young men spending a summer in beautiful Northern Italy- he seems to have become able to apply his stylish fervent impulses not only with the focus of his previous films but with newly gained patience and restraint.

That tricky French term mise en scene- which describes how a movie chooses to tell its story in visually artful ways- must be applied when talking about this movie. All technical and formal aspects of filmmaking seem to be working in a very deliberate and impressive way. It’s a movie that manages to be formally impressive without calling attention to itself. And yet, as much as I admired its filmmaking, I couldn’t quite connect emotionally to the movie in the way most people seem to have. I suspect a variety of reasons for this. Some have to do with the film itself, maybe in its casting or its script. Others have to do with things outside the film, like the fact that I’m just a straight dude trying to connect to this specifically gay story, or how I had a really long day at work before sitting down to watch this deliberately paced two hour plus movie.

All I’m saying is there is tons to admire here. So given the circumstances of my watching of the film, I wouldn’t be willing to solidify my opinion of it until I get to see it a second time. And in case you’re wondering what the kind of intense reaction the film is generating in its target audience, I recommend this rather beautiful essay by Jason Adams.

Call Me By Your Name will open in limited release on November 24.