Plot of the Dead: A Review of Pixar’s Coco

cocomx

Original movies. Once upon a time, we could rely on Pixar Animation Studios to deliver a movie that was not only original, but very good practically every year. Those days are gone. Now, like every other heavy-hitter in Hollywood, Pixar is most interested in making sequels to its older hits. Coco is the last original Pixar production we will see until, at least, the year 2020. On paper, Coco is an oasis, by far the most exciting project on Pixar’s list. A lot of time and research went into crafting this story about the Mexican tradition of Día de los muertos, and a lot of excitement built around the idea of Pixar depicting Mexican culture on a big canvas (and in a respectful way, for a change). Having finally seen Coco, I must say the results are mixed. The depiction of Mexican culture is detailed, but leaves some questionable gaps. The movie’s biggest weakness, however, is an overwhelming reliance on plot, a flaw that seems endemic to the way the Pixar team approaches filmmaking.

While watching Coco, the focus of anyone who, like me, was born and raised in Latin America is going to be in Pixar’s depiction of Mexico. On the one hand it’s a bit frustrating that the only Latin American (or Mexican) tradition Hollywood seems interested in is Day of the Dead. On the other, it’s easy to recognize that the iconography that comes with the Day of the Dead -colorful skeletons, orange flowers everywhere- is incredibly striking. One can only imagine all the things Pixar’s computer geniuses could do with the traditional visuals. A psychedelic extravaganza, perhaps? A beautiful rendering, at least.

Well, there are two sides to this story. After a beautiful papery introduction, Coco introduces us to a fairly realistic (if idillic) portrait of contemporary Mexico. Miguel is a young boy who lives in the fictitious village of Santa Cecilia. He dreams of being a musician in the image of his idol Ernesto de la Cruz. There’s only one problem: his family hates music. Turns out his great-great-grandmother’s husband was a musician who ran away and left her and her young daughter to fend for themselves. After swearing off music, the woman managed to make a living as a cobbler. Years later, the whole family works in the shoe business, and music was never heard in the family again.

Until Miguel comes around, of course. He wants to show his family wrong by performing at a talent show that takes place on día de los muertos, but through a series of complications, Miguel ends up stranded in the Land of the Dead. This is the truly fantastic and colorful part. Or so it seems. First, we meet Miguel’s ancestors, who are all talking skeletons. Then, we travel through a long and beautiful bridge made of floating flower petals. Finally, we arrive in the Land of the Dead and our first glimpse of this wonderful world is… immigration?

Yup, there is immigration protocol in the Land of the Dead. In order to move from one plane to the other, you must go through customs and see if your face pops up in a little screen. You know, just like you do when you cross the border into a different country. This is the first big eyebrow-raising moment in the movie. The Land of the Dead sequences are the moments in which the movie can be as creative as it wants, isn’t this place supposed to represent the essence of Mexican identity and traditions? Is the movie suggesting that this is the essence of being Mexican? Crossing the border, being an immigrant?

The whole depiction of the Land of the Dead is a huge wasted opportunity. It is presented as essentially a prettier version of the “real” Mexico we have seen in the first part of the movie. The buildings, the ways to get around, the class structure, they’re all basically the same. There are concerts, and elevators, and pools, and fire escapes, and of course, immigration agents and customs. Except for a few details, it’s all practically the same, just with a bunch of skeletons. Where is the magic? Where is the creativity? This is what, I think, has become the problem with Pixar. They are too focused on having the plot make sense, at the expense of everything else around it.

Pixar’s motto has always been that the “story comes first.” You can find countless interviews, videos, TEDtalks in which a Pixar creative talks about the way in which they craft stories. At the time when Pixar first burst into the scene, their extremely logical way of looking at every angle of a story and crafting it to its full potential was practically unique in American animation. Years later, they are the most powerful animation house in the country. Not only have there been countless imitators of their style, but Pixar itself has bought into its own legend, following its protocol without questioning it.

Coco is all plot. In a way, it is an extremely tight story. There is not a wasted moment, every scene not only leads perfectly into the next scene, but sets up a bit of information that will be paid off in a later scene. In theory, this is how you want to craft a story. You want to make it as much of a perfect puzzle as you can. But are there other things you’re missing by doing this? What is being lost? The big irony of this approach is that by focusing so tightly on plot, the guys of Pixar have crafted a story so perfect that it’s all but guaranteed you’ll predict every beat. Fifteen minutes into the movie, I could have told you exactly how everything is going to play out.

A predictable plot is not always a death sentence (pardon the pun). Many movies work around lame plots by focusing on character, visuals, or set pieces. The best musicals of classic Hollywood actually thrive on generic plotting. But what can you turn to when plot is your biggest obsession? There are some nice songs in Coco, and some pretty visuals. But the plot doesn’t allow for the design to truly take flight. The character animation is boringly realistic, and the comedy repetitive. You won’t believe how many times a skeleton loses its head as the punchline to a joke.

It’s a shame Coco feels so much like a wasted opportunity. Hopefully the strength of the Disney-Pixar machine paired with the Thanksgiving weekend will make it into a big hit. Because, if nothing else, Coco being a success would guarantee future Hollywood productions dealing with Latino characters and subjects. This might not be the masterpiece we wanted it to be, but the only way to make one is to keep trying.

Advertisements

Notes on ‘Mudbound’

mudbound

1. Mudbound was financed independently and premiered at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, where it was met with a very warm reception. There was a subsequent bidding war to buy the film’s release rights, with rumored offers by distributors A24 and Annapurna. Ultimately, the film was sold for Netflix for a reported 12.5 million (the movie’s reported budget was 10 million).

2. There’s a lot of criticism about the distribution methods of Netflix, which prefers to make their movies immediately accessible in its website rather than giving them a theatrical release first (which was Amazon does, for example). The defense is obviously that Netflix’s website can reach way more people than any theatrical release can, but there is something a little sad about the fact that so few people will get to experience Mudbound on the big screen considering how strongly the movie is linked to a legacy of Hollywood epics.

3. Mudbound follows the story of two families in 1940s Mississippi. The McAllan clan are the white land-owners. The Jacksons are a family of black share-tenants leasing and working a piece of the McAllan’s land. The film follows the families before, during, and after World War II -a period during which a member from each family goes off to fight in Europe.

4. This is an independent production with a limited budget (again, 10 million). Most of the action takes place in and around the small farmhouses of both families. However, director Dee Rees uses every penny available to her (and a series of ingenious cinematic techniques) to make the movie feel far grander and expansive than its budget would immediately allow. The result is a movie that is ambitious in a way we rarely see come out of Hollywood (or American cinema in general) anymore. It’s a literary epic in the legacy of Gone with the Wind, The Color Purple, or The English Patient. 

5. That’s what makes me think the experience of watching Mudbound on the big screen must be invaluable. It’s not often that we see movies that are interested in grand-scale storytelling (the only other exception is The Lost City of Zand what are the odds we got two movies of this kind in the same year?). The big screen seems like the natural habitat for a movie like Mudbound, which sets out to (and succeeds) paint a multi-layered portrait of the historical complexities of race relations in the United States of America.

6. Mudbound’s cinematography (by Rachel Morrison) is beautiful. Morrison managed to capture the unbelievable natural beauty of the American South while being completely honest about the earthly grossness of life on the farm. As the title would suggest, there is a lot of mud in Mudbound. But all of the humidity and dirty faces are balanced with breathtaking sunsets and beautiful profiles of people silhouetted by candle-light in the night. My only disappointment regarding the look of the movie is that the cinematography often looks very obviously digital, distancing the movie from the comparisons it wants to make to the film classics of the past.

7.  The movie’s ambitions are reflected in its structure. As I mentioned on Twitter, the “plot” of the movie doesn’t really kick in until the second half of the movie when the sons return home from the war. Rees devotes the first half to exploring the inner lives of each of the major characters. She goes off on tangents, and follows each of them for five to ten minutes before going on to the next. Learning about these people is fascinating in and on itself, but even if it weren’t it’s worth it for the way in which it pays off in the second half. By the time we get to the movie’s climax, we know so much about the characters and their perspective on each issue everything becomes much more intense.

8. One of the ways Rees manages to paint such a detailed portrait in the first half of the movie, is by using voice-over narration. Voice-over is regarded as a cheap narrative device because screenwriters usually use it a short-hand for crafting truly cinematic story-telling (“show don’t tell” is the mantra of good screenwriting). The voice-over in Mudbound, however, is an absolutely essential and effective tool. Each of the six major characters in the movie gets their own voice-over. By getting to be inside each of their heads, the movie creates a polyphony of complexity, giving backstory on each of them and how they relate to each other, and to the racist institution that is life in the South.

9. In an interview with Ashley Clark from Film Comment magazine, Rees says that one of the things she was interested in accomplishing with Mudbound was “to explore the currency of whiteness.” “They all have it, it’s just how they spend it” she says about the McAllans, the white family in the movie. And it’s true. The incessantly racist grandpa (Jonathan Banks) feeds on it, while his older son (Jason Clark), while not overtly racist, is content to benefit from the system. Even more telling is the position of younger son Jamie (Garret Hedlund) who suffers from PTSD and bonds with black veteran Ronsel, not realizing the danger that can come to Ronsel out of forging such a relationship.

10. The Netflix factor seems to have tempered the praise for the movie, but an aspect that has been widely celebrated is the strength of the movie’s cast. The cast has been awarded the “Best Ensemble” award from the Gotham Awards and the “Robert Altman” award from the Independent Spirit Awards. I wholeheartedly agree with these citations, since the movie derives so much power out of the constellation rather than one specific star. Jason Mitchell’s performance is particularly moving as Ronsel Jackson. Mary J. Blige and Rob Morgan express enormous amounts of emotion wordlessly as Ronsel’s parents. Carey Mulligan paints a particularly nuanced portrayal of a woman trapped between privilege and misery. But the performances are even stronger in context with each other than on their own.

11. I saw Greta Gerwig’s delightful Lady Bird for a second time the night after I saw Mudbound, and I noticed how both movies manage to turn very specific stories and small budgets feel much bigger and expansive than they sound on paper. Gerwig does this by giving generous amounts of personality and life to her supporting characters, not unlike what Rees does with her voice-over. However, the epic scale of Mudbound also comes from the director’s use of ellipses. She jumps through time liberally, often changing points of view, in order to explore an important detail about these people’s lives. I’m particularly fond of a montage narrated by Mary J. Blige’s character, in which she details how death is always present in a farm, be it in the chicken that you must kill for dinner or the dead possum that rots under your house.

12. Mudbound is one of the best movies of the year. Movies that are both this ambitious and this successful are very hard to come by. It is available on Netflix, so you have no excuse. Go watch it now.

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.

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.