River of Dreams: A Review of ‘The Lost City of Z’

the lost city of z

In movie-world, South America exists only so white men can get lost in its jungles. Half the time, these explorers are motivated by greed, and are destined to go mad searching for entire cities made of gold. The other half is dedicated to those noble explorers who will find spiritual salvation by connecting to a primal spirit that can only be found in such a remote place. I can’t stop thinking about James Gray’s new movie The Lost City of Z since I saw it Thursday night. It is, again, the story of a white explorer who searches for a mythical city in the Amazon. It is Romantic, pragmatic, realistic, and fantastical all at the same time. It belongs -without a doubt- to this long list of movies about white explorers getting lost in the jungle, and yet, it is unlike any such movie I have ever seen.

Critics who love it -and there are many- are sure to point out how The Lost City of Z is the kind of movie that doesn’t get made any more. And they’re right. This is the type of old-fashioned adventure that Hollywood studios will be thoroughly uninterested in financing as long as superheroes and loud robots keep bringing cash the way they do. We’re talking about a movie filled with explorers, dangerous rivers, panthers, and cannibals. The kind of adventure movie that could’ve easily been made by a major Hollywood studio in the forties, fifties, or sixties. Had that been the case, though, the movie would’ve surely been of the kind that we now call “problematic”.

While those movies undoubtedly have their merits (and there are many), they are products of a different time. A time in which it was perfectly fine for Alec Guinness to play an Arab in Lawrence of Arabia and nobody batted an eye at the grotesquely insensitive portrayal of African warriors in the movie Zulu. Later in history, when we started to feel bad about this sort of treatment, filmmakers went to the other extreme, portraying indigenous people as ridiculously noble, almost magical creatures that showed the white protagonists how to become his better self. Somewhere along the road it’s become clear that the best way to deal with these questions of representation is to allow for movies written, directed, and told from the perspective of the indigenous people (a good example would be the Australian film Ten Canoes).

That is not the kind of movie that James Gray wants to make, and that’s ok. Gray is often described as a classicist; a director interested in re-examining the perennial genres of American cinema. He’s given us his take on the New York cop drama (We Own the Night) and the American dream melodrama (The Immigrant), and now gives us his take on the white explorer movie. And it’s quite fascinating. He is undoubtedly more interested in the white protagonist than the indigenous characters he encounters, but the nuance with which Gray portrays the man’s adventure feels unprecedented. What’s more, he brings something to the movie that wouldn’t fly with any big studio, no matter the era. Something that exists beyond the story and scope of the movie. Something that cannot be understood, only felt. Something mysterious and moving.

Before you dismiss me as some sort of cheap guru, let me tell you what the movie is about. It is based on the non-fiction book of the same name by American journalist David Grann, which is in turn an exploration of the life of Lieutenant Colonel Percy Fawcett, a real life English explorer who disappeared in the Amazon, as he was obsessed with finding a lost city he called, you guessed it, “Z”. As portrayed in the movie by Charlie Hunnam, Fawcett is a man with a mission as ambitious as his mustache. Born to an alcoholic father, Fawcett is determined to prove himself and climb the ladder of English high society. After embarking on a trip to map out the border between Bolivia and Brazil, however, he finds himself fascinated with the possible existence of an ancient civilization hidden deep in the jungle.

A lesser film might’ve portrayed Fawcett as a strictly noble character, but Gray’s portrayal is meticulously unsentimental. Fawcett’s motives for trying to find this ancient city aren’t nefarious. He is not searching after gold or riches, he wants to prove to the scientific establishment back in Britain that they have “underestimated the Indian”. Perhaps he sees himself in these Indians, dismissed as savages the way he’s dismissed for being the son of a drunk. Fawcett devotes his life to this quest, neglecting his wife (Sienna Miller) and his children (the oldest of which is played by new Spider-Man Tom Holland). He is a dreamer, but also an obsessive. When he goes off to fight in World War I he shelters himself from the horrors of war by clinging not to a picture of his wife or his kids, but of the jungle.

If you truly think about it, Fawcett is neither a hero nor a villain. He is a fascinating and engaging figure, but it’s as hard to fully root for him as it is to dismiss him as a colonialist. That’s one of the great virtues of Gray’s touch. Whenever he is given a choice in how to portray Fawcett, he chooses the more complicated option. For every moment in which Fawcett is ambushed by a hostile tribe and orders his men not to shoot but instead sing a song and attempt to make contact, there is a scene in which he has a conversation with his wife about how he considers her an equal, but don’t be ridiculous she can’t join him in his next trip the jungle is no place for a woman. The purpose of his quest is to point out the arrogant blindness of European scientists, but Fawcett has blind-spots of his own.

And while this meticulously calibrated -and rather distant- exploration of the character is happening, the movie is indulging in the kind of fabulous imagery that makes people fall in love with the magic of cinema. Cinematographer Darius Khondji turns the Amazon into a Romantic painting, with flickering torch-light, glowing rivers, and purple-red twilights. The score, by Christopher Spelman, is right out of a classic epic, with swelling strings and pounding drums. And the sound design, quiet and merciless, does as much as any other craft to convince us that this jungle is as much a real space as a figment of our imaginations. What is this place? It looks and sounds like nothing we’ve ever seen. Are we also explorers?

That’s the question that opened up the movie for me. I wasn’t quite sure what I was watching when I sat in the theater for The Lost City of Z, but thinking back on it I’ve come to realize the brilliance of Gray’s style. You wouldn’t expect it from a movie as elegant and restrained as this, but more so than any movie I’ve seen in quite a while, The Lost City of Z is an immersive experience. It is designed not to make us understand, but to make us feel the themes of the movie. This is most explicitly clear in the last section of the movie, when a final expedition finally  has the world of Fawcett’s family life in England and his adventurer life in South America meet, and reality becomes a dream.

What exactly happens in those last fifteen minutes of movie? The real Fawcett disappeared in the jungles of Brazil in 1925, his movie equivalent fades out of the screen in a haze. He started out trying to better his station, then the jungle become something more. The myth he created for himself has become his own reality. But what does this mean? Is this a beautiful moment of rapture, or a tragic end to a fruitless mission the ramifications of which he couldn’t fully understand? Whatever it is, we cannot make sense of it, only feel it. That weird feeling of excitement that comes with a chill to the bone when you respond to a movie that you don’t quite understand.

In an interview with film critic Peter Labuza, James Gray talks about the importance of story in film saying: “Birth, life, death. We have to make sense of that cycle.” He’s talking about why telling stories is a fundamental aspect of film making. “Nobody is above story”, he says, and with Lost City of Z, he’s made a movie that embodies that mantra. He’s made one of those movies that are inexplicable. You watch them, and you feel like the filmmaker isn’t even sure of what exactly he’s trying to say, only that he had to say it. It’s a movie that feels bigger than itself, a movie that suggests there is something more.

I’m not even sure I like The Lost City of Z and I couldn’t care less. It feels beside the point. I’ve thought about the movie incessantly since I watched it, and I can’t wait to see it again. I can’t wait to think of twenty more interpretations, trying to figure out what the movie is trying to say. Even though I know, all twenty times, I will be wrong.

Cannes 2017 Preview

ismael's ghosts

The Cannes Film Festival is the most prestigious and exciting event in a cinephile’s calendar year. Every year, for two magical weeks in May, the world’s most respected filmmakers and some of the biggest stars in the world get together to celebrate the best of cinema in the beautiful French coast. I can’t help obsess about the Festival, and so it’s become a tradition for me to comment on the Official Selection every year right after it is announced.

This year’s Main Competition titles include new works by some of my very favorite filmmakers in the world, but it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t suffer from some of the problems that are seemingly indebted to the selection process. First of all, this lineup includes only three female directors (which is on part with the last couple of years, but still a frustrating number for a Festival that is the ultimate gatekeeper of what is considered great cinema). Second, it’s a lineup very much focused on American and European filmmakers. There are only three East Asian productions, and no representation whatsoever for Latin America, Africa, and any Asian country other than Japan and South Korea. One or two films are usually added to the competition lineup after the announcement, so we’ll see if any of those bring a little more diversity to this group.

But let’s not bury the lead here. The biggest story of the day is that Nicole Kidman has FOUR (!) different movies premiering at the Festival. After captivating the world with her incredible performance in HBO’s miniseries Big Little Lies, it’s becoming increasingly obvious that Kidman has set her eye on world domination, and I for one welcome our new Australian thespian overlord.

Most years I get so excited and can’t wait for the time when all these movies are released in theaters and I can finally see them that I end up watching (or re-watching) other movies by the selected filmmakers. So this year, I decided to include some recommendations for those of you who are unfamiliar but would like to get acquainted with these Cannes-approved auteurs.

Ismael’s Ghosts (directed by Arnaud Desplechin)
This movie is not in the Main Competition, but it will open the Festival. There is a history of Cannes openers being bad (past openers include The Da Vinci Code and Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood), but this drama about a film director dealing with the return of his former lover feels right at home at Cannes. Desplechin is a festival favorite, as are Marion Cotillard, Charlotte Gainsbourg, and Mathieu Amalric, all of whom star in the movie.
Where to start: Desplechin is one of the most well-respected French filmmakers working today. Some of his most well-known films are heavily autobiographical, but I think the best place to start with him is with his family drama A Christmas Tale , (newly available through the Criterion Collection) starring frequent collaborator Mathieu Amalric and the legendary Catherine Deneuve.

In the Fade (directed by Fatih Akin)
This is a thriller set in the Turkish-German community in Hamburg. It follows Diane Kruger as a woman who seeks revenge after a bomb kills her family.
Where to start: Akin is a German director of Turkish decent. His most popular movie, The Edge of Heavenpaints a wonderful portrait of the complicated relationship between Germany and Turkey, and won the Screenplay Award at Cannes in 2007.

The Meyerowitz Stories (directed by Noah Baumbach)
The latest movie by one of my favorite American directors has already been picked up for distribution by streaming giant Netflix, so expect this to be available in your computers later this year. As far as we can tell, this is the story of an estranged New York family reuniting to celebrate the patriarch. The cast includes Dustin Hoffman, Emma Thompson, Ben Stiller, and… Adam Sandler?
Where to start: Based on the description, this new movie sounds quite autobiographical, just like the coming-of-age tale The Squid and the Whalewhich put Baumbach on the map. That would be a great place to start for those who are unfamiliar with his work, as would the new-wavy Frances Hastarring a delightful Greta Gerwig. My personal favorite, however, is the hilarious Mistress Americawhich also stars Gerwig.

Okja (directed by Bong Joon-ho)
This is the second movie in Cannes Competition produced by Netflix, which is kind of a big deal for a company that has struggled to be embraced by cinema purists. Sure to inspire comparisons to E.T.this movie centers on a girl trying to keep her monster-friend-creature Okja from being taken by an evil corporation. It’s the kind of action-packed movie you wouldn’t expect to see at Cannes, except Bong has proven to be a master when it comes to mixing high art and genre cinema. In case you’re not sufficiently excited, let me mention that Tilda Swinton is in this movie.
Where to start: The movie that made Bong famous is the disaster-kaiju movie The Hostwhich was a blockbuster hit in his native South Korea. If you’re a little scared of subtitles, though, you can’t go wrong with his English debut, the violent and rebellious Snowpiercerwhich features Tilda Swinton in a delightfully unhinged performance.

120 Beats per Minute (directed by Robin Campillo)
I don’t know much about this movie, except that it focuses on the history of the activist group Act Up, which organized to fight AIDS in the early 90s.
Where to start: I haven’t seen Campillo’s other features as a director (this is his third), but I can vouch for his talents as co-writer and editor of Laurent Cantet’s The Classwhich won the Palme D’Or in 2008.

The Beguiled (directed by Sofia Coppola)
The best way to get excited for this movie is to just watch the trailer. I’ve already written about this movie as one of my most anticipated of the year, and don’t have much to say except that it’s a Civil War-era drama where a Union Soldier (Colin Farrell) seeks refuge in an all-girls school in the South, whose inhabitants include Nicole Kidman, Kirsten Dunst, and Elle Fanning. If you are, like me, a fan of Coppola, well, then you’re already sold.
Where to start: Coppola’s biggest mainstream success was undoubtedly the Oscar-winning Lost in Translationbut I think the best introduction to her unique style and mood is through her first film: The Virgin Suicides

Rodin (directed by Jacques Doillon)
A biography of famous French sculptor August Rodin starring Vincent Lindon, who won the award for Best Actor at Cannes in 2015. Back then, he was playing a man struggling to provide for his family during the economic crisis in The Measure of a Man.
Where to start: I’m mostly unfamiliar with the work of Doillon, except that his most famous title is the nineties drama Ponetteabout an infant dealing with the death of her mother. You’ll know whether you want to watch the movie based only on that premise.

Happy End (directed by Michael Haneke)
The king of Cannes returns! Haneke has won the Palme D’Or for his last two movies (Amour, The White Ribbon) and there are many an oddsmaker who will tell you the odds of him winning a third time aren’t bad. As we all know, Haneke loves to put the bourgeoisie through misery, so this time he has made a family drama with the European migrant crisis as the backdrop. Jean-Louis Trintignant and the fabulous Isabelle Huppert are his subjects.
Where to start: Like I said, Haneke’s films can come off as hugely sadistic, so if you want to ease into his relentless style, you might want to start with the Oscar-winning Amourwhich focuses on a man caring for his dying wife. Yup, Haneke’s meditation on death is the most accessible of his movies.

Wonderstruck (directed by Todd Haynes)
One of the most talented directors of his generation, Haynes returns to Cannes with a tale about two runaways. A contemporary midwestern boy and a girl living in 1920s New York. The cast includes Michelle Williams and Julianne Moore, and the 1920s section is supposedly a silent film. So, yeah, I’m excited.
Where to start: If you haven’t experienced the miraculous benefits of watching Carolthen you should right that wrong as soon as possible.

Redoubtable (directed by Michel Hazanavicius)
Last time Hazanvicius was at Cannes, his remake of The Search was met with loud boos and scathing reviews. He is back, though, with a biopic of iconic French new wave director Jean-Luc Godard.
Where to start: I think it’s time to give The Artist a second look. Now that the noise and tension of its Oscar campaign has dissipated, you will probably find it to be a charming little comedy. At least I do.

The Day After (directed by Hong Sang-soo)
I can’t find a reliable plot synopsis of this movie. I only know that it stars Korean actress Min-hee Kim, who was absolutely wonderful in last year’s The Handmaidenand was embroiled in a tabloid scandal when she started a relationship with… Hong Sang-soo! I’d tell you more about it if I had access to the Korean equivalent of OK Magazine.
Where to start: Hong is one of the most prolific filmmakers in the world, often making a movie a year (not only does he have this movie at Cannes, but another starring Isabelle Huppert will play Out of Competition). I have only seen Right Now, Wrong Thenwhich is a very interesting (and endearing) movie, and I’m told is quite representative of his style. I guess it’s time for me to catch up with his work.

Radiance (directed by Naomi Kawase)
You would be absolutely insane to except a random person on the street to know who Japanese director Naomi Kawase is, but at Cannes, she is a perennial fixture and there is a whole narrative about when will she finally win the Palme D’Or. That’s why this place is magical.
Where to start: I must confess I haven’t seen any of her movies, though I hear The Mourning Forest is the place to start.

The Killing of a Sacred Deer (directed by Yorgos Lanthimos)
The second of Nicole Kidman movie in the Competition, and the third to have been included in my list of the Most Anticipated of 2017. Needless to say, I’m excited about this movie, and not just because The Lobster was one of my favorite movies of last year. The cast for this one includes Colin Farrell and Alicia Silverstone (!!).
Where to start: Lanthimos’ English debut The Lobster is probably the best place to start, but if you want a peek of truly insane art house cinema, then you have to watch his breakout movie Dogtooth

A Gentle Creature (directed by Sergey Loznitsa)
The movie is based on a short story by Dostoyevsky, and focuses -like so much of Russian literature- on a woman’s suffering. Joking aside, this Ukranian movie should be hugely political in its message, at least based on what I know about the director’s previous work.
Where to start: Sadly, I haven’t seen Loznitsa’s other work, though I’ve heard nothing but good things about My Joy and In the Fog

Jupiter’s Moon (directed by Kornel Mundruczo)
All I know about this movie is that it’s some sort of “refugee drama”, but let me say I’m highly suspicious of this title. We all know Jupiter has more than one moon. I don’t know what this guy is trying to pull here.
Where to start: This is Mundruczo’s second film, so the obvious (and only) place to start is White Godwhich won the Un Certain Regard Award in 2014, and features a truly epic stampede of wild dogs through the streets of Budapest.

L’Amant Double (directed by François Ozon)
I don’t know much about this movie, so let me take the time instead to tell you all that I very recently watched Ozon’s latest movie, Frantzwhich is currently playing in theaters and is absolutely fantastic. If you’re a fan of classic cinema, romance, or just good movies in general, you should seek it out.
Where to start: If you can’t afford to the ticket or the babysitter required to go see Frantz in the cinema, then my answer for the best introduction to Ozon’s world of emotion and melodrama is the wonderful musical 8 Women.

You Were Never Really Here (directed by Lynne Ramsay)
Like so many female directors, Ramsay doesn’t get the chance to work as often as we would like her to. This is her first movie in six years, a thriller starring Joaquin Phoenix as a veteran trying to save a girl from a sex trafficking ring. 
Where to start: Ramsay is a fascinating filmmaker, and she announced herself as such with her very first feature, a unique coming-of-age story by the name of Ratcatcher

Good Time (directed by Josh Safdie and Ben Safdie)
Perhaps the most gratifying surprise of this year’s announcement was the inclusion of this team of brothers who’ve been working for a while in the micro-budget section of American cinema be included in the big boys club reserved for international auteurs. I mean, they were already climbing up, judging by the fact that this movie stars Robert Pattinson.
Where to start: And the reason why everyone was excited about the Safdies inclusion in the lineup wasn’t just the underdog factor, but the quality of their last movie, Heaven Knows Whata tough but truly outstanding portrait of drug-addiction.

Loveless (directed by Andrey Zvyagintsev)
The one Russian film in the competition, and judging by Zvyagintsev’s previous work, surely to be subversive and political in more ways than one. According to the synopsis I could find, this is about a couple that must suspend their divorce-in-progress in order to find their son, who mysteriously disappeared during one of their arguments.
Where to start: He gained praise for his mammoth Leviathan, but if you don’t want to commit to the two-and-a-half hour running time, then may I suggest Elenaabout a housewife trying to secure some money for her future.

What’s the Point? A Review of Beauty and the Beast

beauty and the beast

Why would you make a live action remake of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast? Other than to make a hell of a lot of money, that is. The 1991 musical is one of the crown jewels in Disney’s history, the first animated movie to be nominated for Best Picture, and a family classic whose popularity endures to this day. The fact that everybody already agrees that the original is great is both the reason this movie got made, and the reason why it should’ve never been made in the first place. When you’re working with such a beloved property, it doesn’t make sense to make any big changes that could potentially anger the fans. But if you’re not going to make anything new to the material, well, then what’s the point of remaking the movie in the first place?

That doesn’t matter to the stockholders. For almost a decade now, Disney has been cranking out live action versions of its most popular movies.They started out with clever twists, like re-telling the story of Sleeping Beauty from the point of view of villainous enchantress Maleficent, but somewhere between Cinderella and The Jungle Book all pretensions of originality were dropped, and so we are presented with a Beauty and the Beast that doesn’t pretend to be anything but a reenactment designed to feed on nostalgia and make lots of bank.

The biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is the conundrum I already mentioned, the fact that it must exist in this weird place of trying to update the story to our contemporary cultural moment, while not changing anything too much, so as to not anger the people who grew up loving the original. The second biggest problem with Beauty and the Beast is that every time director Bill Condon (Dreamgirls) and his collaborators are presented with this conundrum, they settle in the worst possible decision.

For example, why would you cast Emma Watson, an actress who simply does not have the vocal power to star in a musical, as the star of a musical? I imagine Condon wanted to play off of Watson’s public persona as an outspoken feminist, trying to bring some 21st Century relevance to a character who was designed as a “strong female lead”, but still received criticism for falling in love with the talking buffalo who imprisoned her. Regardless of the motives, it was a bad decision. Watson can’t sign well enough to not need considerable auto-tune help on her tracks, and she isn’t completely comfortable spending most of her scenes acting against computer generated characters. Despite coming of age with the Harry Potter movies, Watson has always been better with contemporary material. Her one truly great performance remaining Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring

Even if Watson was able to extract pathos out of having a conversation with a candlestick and her only set-back was the singing, there wouldn’t be a particularly good reason for her casting considering how lazy and half-baked Condon’s attempts at updating the material are. There is a scene in which the town’s people punish Belle for trying to teach a girl to read, a seriously clunky moment that tells us nothing we already didn’t know from listening to the lyrics of the opening number. The inclusion of a trip to Paris courtesy of a time-travelling book also goes nowhere, and doesn’t add any real value to the themes of the movie.

There are hundreds of similar little changes that don’t really have a reason to exist. Not only do they make the movie longer, but they muddy the plot and the message of the movie. One of the most admirable things about the animated version is how streamlined it is, how it doesn’t waste any of its 84 minutes and manages to tell a captivating and beautiful story. What’s the real reason why you would add an eleven o’clock number in which the Beast sings a ballad saying “I let her steal into my melancholy heart”, when we’ve already witnessed that happen on screen? We don’t need a CGI singing wilderbeast to recount the plot for us, especially since everyone in the audience will already be familiar with the story.

I know what you’re thinking. Is everything about this movie so bad? Isn’t there anything redeemable about it? The truth is the movie isn’t really all that bad, or all that horrible. It’s simply mediocre. I didn’t feel particularly bored or restless watching it, but the movie kept tripping on its own feet, reminding me that I had already seen this very story, told in a much better way. If there is a silver lining to this, it’s Luke Evans as Gaston and Josh Gad as LeFou, who benefit not only from having extensive experience as musical theater performers, but from being able to play off each other and not having to constantly interact with computer generated characters. You know, acting.

This is particularly noticeable in Gaston’s show-stopping number, “Gaston”, which Condon stages like an old-fashioned musical, with a set of extras dancing around the tables and singing along. A good musical number will get you a long way, even if you decide to cut and re-arrange some of Howard Ashman’s magnificent lyrics for no valuable reason (I could go on a tirade about how incredibly stupid and disrespectful it is to change a score that is the crowning achievement of one of the great lyricists in the history of musical theatre but I don’t want to sound like too much of a maniac).

We are so familiar with the animated version that even the slightest change to a musical number feels like a betrayal, and every change made to the script feels like a deterioration of the original. The most successful parts of Beauty and the Beast are the ones that adhere closest to the animated classic. But if the best possible version of this movie is a frame-by-frame recreation of another movie -and if there are already remakes of Mulan, Aladdin, and The Lion King scheduled for the coming years- one can’t help but ask the question: is there any legitimate reason for this movie to exist?

Grade: 4 out of 10

The Future is Nigh: A Review of Logan

logan

Hugh Jackman has spent almost two decades playing Wolverine, and although it is never safe to assume a comic book character has been put to rest (especially one that makes as much money as this one), Logan makes a very compelling case for letting this be Jackman’s last outing as the immortal mutant with deadly metal claws we’ve all come to love. I do, and don’t, mean this as a compliment to the movie. Logan is a thesis statement for a more creative and liberated future in superhero movies, but also a suggestion that the genre might be doomed by its own blockbuster success.

The movie is set in the future, Logan is one of the very few mutants left in a world that has hunted them into extinction. He sports a grizzled beard and makes a living driving a limo in a Texas border-town. Logan is done with this bullshit. He is just trying to make some money to buy a yacht so he and his beloved mentor Charles Xavier (Patrick Stewart), a telepath suffering from degenerative brain disease, can finally sail into the sunset and away from this horrible future.

That is, until he crosses paths with a young mutant. The first child mutant he or Charles have seen in years. Her name is Laura (Dafne Keen), and she’s a runaway. She is being chased by an evil corporation that has been experimenting on mutants south of the border or something like that. The details aren’t as important as the nature of the mission: grizzled old Logan now has to take this little Mexican girl all the way across the United States so she can find safe haven in Canada. Ain’t that something?

It’s possible that James Mangold and the other people who worked on this movie could sense where the country would be heading by the time the movie came out, but could they possibly have imagined how timely and bittersweetly Logan‘s story would play to a  post-inauguration audience? Whether the filmmakers intended for Logan to play as political allegory for our times is beside the point. One would have to be truly disconnected from the world around them to not see the parallels.

Many people -including those behind this film- are saying that Logan is more of a western than a superhero movie. There is even a large section in the film in which the characters watch George Stevens’ classic western Shane. Logan shares a lot of similarities not only with the plot of Stevens’ movie, but with the kind of social messaging westerns used to have in the culture.

The best westerns of the past reflected certain truths about America and its relationship to its own mythology. The clearest example is probably John Ford’s The Searchers, which reflects the anxieties of the white establishment about the changes that were coming about thanks to the rise of youth culture and the civil rights movement.

Similarly, Logan tells us something about the time we live in. The old white man (mutant) takes a last stand, and sacrifices himself for the well being of the future generation. A generation lead by a Spanish-speaking girl and her multi-racial cohorts. The movie is superficially the last chapter of a beloved character, but could also be read as the last chapter of a type of hero. Is Logan the story of the righteous white man seeking redemption?

Sadly, it’s more interesting (and entertaining) to think of the wider political and social ramifications of Logan than to actually watch the movie. This is Jackman’s ninth appearance as Wolverine, and I can’t help but tip my hat to a performer such as him, who has committed to truly perform, and give it his all every time he plays the character. It’d be really easy to phone it in when you’re doing one ridiculous sequel after another, but Jackman is a pro, and it’s nice to see him get a farewell movie such as this.

Dafne Keen, the little girl who plays Laura, is also pretty awesome, and I would potentially watch a movie about her own crazy adventures. But that’d be another movie. Despite Jackman’s commitment and a number of cool ideas, Logan mostly disappoints, particularly as an action movie. The action set pieces are a disaster, impossible to follow, and with no sense of action geography whatsoever. The movie is incredibly violent, but also brute, with not enough precision to its filmmaking and not enough pathos to its bloodshed (in an aesthetic sense, there is lots of sad moments in the movie). The plot churns along, but other than Jackman’s commitment, there is little to keep us going.

Here is where I come down on Logan: It’s quite an interesting artifact about our times. It’s the first superhero movie in a while to actually want to say something about who we are, and why our culture has taken to this kind of storytelling. It also suggests an alternative model for blockbusters, in which the necessity to always go bigger could be replaced with an interest in exploring different genres and kinds of stories. At the same time, and this is the saddest part, it suggests that if our superheroes do go down that path, quality filmmaking won’t come with them.

Superheroes are men of action, but the action sequences in their movies are rarely great anymore. They don’t reflect an interesting thought, a unique vision. They don’t reflect the themes of the story, and they rarely stand out from each other. Action movies say a lot about themselves with the way they present their action, how it’s choreographed, and how it’s edited. Sloppy action sequences belong in sloppy action movies. If you’re an action movie, tell your story through action.

Grade: 6 out of 10

P.S. The trailer for Deadpool 2 played before the movie, and Jesus Christ, if it isn’t the biggest and most depressing evidence that superhero blockbusters have lost whatever interest they had left in competent filmmaking. This trailer is basically one joke. A joke that has been done before and is easy to pull off. And it can’t even do that!

 

What Are We Talking About When We Talk About Basic White Women?

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This is an observation. I’ve noticed something in the last couple of years regarding our reactions to depictions of women in the media. It’s something I’m not completely comfortable talking about, so I want to make one think clear out front. This is not me suggesting I have the answers to what I’m going to write about, or trying to tell society -let alone women- how they should react to these things, but rather me trying to start a conversation on a subject I am very eager to understand better.

Now, the last few years have been invaluable in addressing and correcting certain weaknesses of the second wave feminism. Feminism experts please feel free to correct me, but the way I understand it, the feminist wave of the seventies, while being a huge stepping stone in the fight for women’s equality, was rather narrowly focused on the experiences of a very specific type of woman. Broadly speaking, one could describe this woman as white, educated, and upper middle-class.

In the past few years, we’ve seen the rise in popularity not only of feminist causes, but of intersectionality, thanks to which we understand that social causes don’t exist each in a separate vacuum, but are connected to each other. We, as a society, are making an effort to understand the plight of different groups of women. The experience of being a black, latino, asian, gay or trans women is similar in many ways, but each group has struggles of their own. We are striving to understand what makes each struggle different and worth discussing. The reception to creative works such as Lemonade, Insecure, Jane the Virgin, One Day at a Time, Tangerine, and Transparent all suggest we are willing to have these conversations, and I think this is great.

Now, let me talk about something that, it seems to me, is an unfortunate by-product of the conversation about intersectional feminism that we seem to be having. Before I get into it I want to make clear, once again, that I am not writing this with the intention of telling anyone how to be a “good” feminist, let alone a “good” woman. I just want to point out something that is bothering me. If you are a woman reading this, and have something to say about the subject, please reach out to me in the comments or in any other form of social media because I am very interested in having a conversation and learning more about how the people most affected by what I’m writing about are feeling.

With that out of the way, here it goes: The other night I was watching HBO’s new miniseries Big Little Lies, which stars Reese Witherspoon and Nicole Kidman as rich women living in Monterrey California. The show has something to do with a murder mystery, but it seems most interested in exploring the inner lives and relationships of these women (the cast also includes Shailene Woodley, Zoe Kravitz and the great Laura Dern). I enjoyed the first episode quite a bit, but when I went looking for reviews of the show, I encountered a very large number of critics who were dismissing it as silly, trashy, shallow, etc. These comments rubbed me the wrong way, as they do every time a piece of media is dismissed as unworthy of discussion for being for and about women.

It is true that we have a lot of voices sticking up for many other shows and movies starring strong women, but I also see a pattern as far as which shows get praise and which shows are dismissed. The shows (or movies) that get praise either A) fit in traditionally masculine genres, by which I mean genres which have a history of male protagonists. Examples of this include Mad Max: Fury Road and Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Or B) fit in with the intersectional discussion, like Insecure. There is obviously nothing wrong with sticking up for these shows and movies, which I love, but what about shows, movies, and music that appeal, for the lack of a better term, to “basic” white women?

Society seems to be unable to find room for all women at once. Every time a type of woman is elevated by culture, another must be put down. We are at a point in which art about diverse, unique, different types of women is being embraced more than ever, and still, we seem to insist that one type of woman is acceptable while another is not. I feel like it’s become increasingly acceptable to dismiss art centered on the lives of white women as disposable, not serious, basic. I’ve experienced this push-back a lot, being a person who has stuck up for Taylor Swift’s music as a worthy expression of teenage womanhood and the first Fifty Shades of Grey movie as a subversive tale of female empowerment (which is sadly undone by its sequel).

Before you take out your pitchforks and chase me out of town, please let me say that I in no way think that it’s women that are responsible for this or anything like that. I don’t think it’s women who are putting each other down. I think the fault, as with so many things wrong in this world, is with men. Or the patriarchy, which is always content to move along as long as women don’t get too much power and respect.

What I hope to see is a reevaluation not only of these shows, movies, and music that appeal to white women, but of the kinds of conversations that we have about them. I believe every piece of art that is looking to engage with the reality of being a woman is worth exploring and analyzing. This doesn’t mean that we should always praise them, but that the conversation should be had. This goes into another subject that is bothersome to me, which is our insistence that everything has to be either the best or the worst. Many of this “white woman” media is problematic, yes, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t other worthy things about it.

It bothers me when I say I like Taylor Swift and someone says “I hate that bitch”, or I say I enjoy watching Girls and everybody in the room groans in disgust. There is much to talk about and analyze in both cases. Yes, Taylor Swift’s understanding of feminism might be problematic, but isn’t it more interesting to think about the nuances of what does and does not appeal to young women about her music than to just leave it at “I hate that bitch”? And yes, Girls has a very real problem with its lily-white depiction of New York (especially in earlier seasons), but it doesn’t mean Lena Dunham doesn’t also have interesting things to say about the way women relate to each other.

I will write my magnum-opus on why I think Girls is a great show after it airs its finale a couple weeks from now, but in the meantime, why not take the time to tell me why I’m totally wrong about this, or share whatever other comments you have on the subject. I really want to hear from you.

2016 Oscar Winner Predictions

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You know the drill, so why write an introduction?

Best Picture

  • Arrival
  • Fences
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • Hell or High Water 
  • Hidden Figures
  • La La Land
  • Lion
  • Manchester by the Sea
  • Moonlight 

The big question this year, as I’ve written about extensively, is exactly how many Oscars La La Land will manage to win. Will it win more than eleven statues, and thus beat the record for most wins by a single movie? To be determined, but one thing’s for sure: That sort of narrative going into the ceremony must mean that the Best Picture win is all but guaranteed. I suppose there is a chance the overwhelming critical support for Moonlight or the gigantic box office numbers of Hidden Figures could help either of those movies sneak a win Sunday night, but it’s a small chance.
Will Win: La La Land

Director

  • Denis Villeneuve (Arrival)
  • Mel Gibson (Hacksaw Ridge)
  • Damien Chazelle (La La Land)
  • Kenneth Lonergan (Manchester by the Sea)
  • Barry Jenkins (Moonlight)

Despite recent history, Best Picture and Director usually go hand-in-hand, especially when the winner is as big an awards juggernaut as La La Land has become.
Will Win: Damien Chazelle

Lead Actor

  • Casey Affleck (Manchester by the Sea)
  • Andrew Garfield (Hacksaw Ridge)
  • Ryan Gosling (La La Land)
  • Viggo Mortensen (Captain Fantastic)
  • Denzel Washington (Fences)

I’m going to be honest. I have no idea who’s going to win. Casey Affleck seemed like the obvious winner for much of the race, until those sexual harassment allegations came knocking. Denzel seems like a good alternative, but he already has two Oscars and Fences doesn’t seem like the busiest title. I even think they might split the vote and open it up to Ryan Gosling, leaving room for La La Land’s clean sweep. I change my mind about this every three minutes, so don’t trust my prediction. That being said…
Will Win: Denzel Washington

Lead Actress

  • Isabelle Huppert (Elle)
  • Ruth Negga (Loving)
  • Natalie Portman (Jackie)
  • Emma Stone (La La Land)
  • Meryl Streep (Florence Foster Jenkins)

Here’s my dream scenario: Leonardo DiCaprio opens the envelope and he informs us that there’s a tie. For the second time in Oscar history two women win Best Actress in the same year. Isabelle Huppert will have to share her Oscar with Ruth Negga. It would be the most deserving Oscar decision of all time. That being said, I think Emma Stone is quite good in La La Land and I won’t be upset when she wins.
Will Win: Emma Stone

Supporting Actor

  • Mahershala Ali (Moonlight)
  • Jeff Bridges (Hell or High Water)
  • Lucas Hedges (Manchester by the Sea)
  • Dev Patel (Lion)
  • Michael Shannon (Nocturnal Animals)

Ali has been the presumed front-runner (and critical darling) for most of the season, but he’s won shockingly few of the “big” awards. I see Dev Patel (who has the ridiculous advantage of being nominated here despite being the lead character of his movie) as a very likely contender for an unexpected win. I’m going with Ali, but this is a close call. 
Will Win: 
Mahershala Ali

Supporting Actress

  • Viola Davis (Fences)
  • Naomie Harris (Moonlight)
  • Nicole Kidman (Lion)
  • Octavia Spencer (Hidden Figures)
  • Michelle Williams (Manchester by the Sea)

There is no question about this. Why wait until Sunday? They might as well write Viola’s name on that statue right now. 
Will Win: 
Viola Davis

Original Screenplay

  • Hell or High Water (Taylor Sheridan)
  • La La Land (Damien Chazelle)
  • The Lobster (Yorgos Lanthimos, Efthimus Filippou)
  • Manchester by the Sea (Kenneth Longergan)
  • 20th Century Women (Mike Mills)

Two of the best movies of the year only got nominated in this category, which means they have no chance of winning. This is one of the few categories La La Land could lose, and Manchester by the Sea is sure to be tough competition now that Best Actor doesn’t feel like the safest place to reward it. Still, no Best Picture winner in the last twelve years has lost the Screenplay award (except for The Artist, but that was a silent film).
Will Win: La La Land 

Adapted Screenplay

  • Arrival (Eric Heisserer)
  • Fences (August Wilson)
  • Hidden Figures (Allison Schroeder, Theodore Melfi)
  • Lion (Luke Davies)
  • Moonlight (Barry Jenkins, Tarrell Alvin McCraney)

Wow, this seemed like an easy win for Moonlight when nominations were announced, but I’ve grown less certain in the last couple weeks, as Hidden Figures became a huge box office hit and Lion started winning awards out of nowhere. I wouldn’t be surprised if any of these movies won.
Will Win: Moonlight 

Cinematography

  • Arrival (Bradford Young)
  • La La Land (Linus Sandgren)
  • Lion (Greig Fraser)
  • Moonlight (James Laxton)
  • Silence (Rodrigo Prieto)

Again, the question is how many can La La Land win, and this one seems like a pretty easy get.
Will Win: La La Land 

Production Design

  • Arrival (Patrice Vermette)
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Stuart Craig)
  • Hail, Caesar! (Jess Gonchor)
  • La La Land (David Wasco)
  • Passengers (Guy Hendrix Dyas)

In theory, La La Land should be vulnerable enough to lose this category, but I just don’t think any of the other nominees has the right combination of buzz and showy design to challenge it.
Will Win: La La Land 

Costume Design

  • Allied (Joanna Johnston)
  • Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them (Colleen Atwood)
  • Florence Foster Jenkins (Consolata Boyle)
  • Jackie (Madeline Fontaine)
  • La La Land (Mary Zophres)

Unlike Production Design, I think there is a clear challenger to upset La La Land here. Jackie Kennedy is one of the biggest fashion icons in history, and the movie features the type of flashy period costumes that usually triumph in this category.
Will Win: Jackie

Film Editing

  • Arrival (Joe Walker)
  • Hacksaw Ridge (John Gilbert)
  • Hell or High Water (Jake Roberts)
  • La La Land (Tom Cross)
  • Moonlight (Nat Sanders, Joi McMillon)

It only makes sense for La La Land to win here, considering how Best Picture winners tend to win Editing as well. I’d say Arrival and Hacksaw Ridge have a shot at an upset, but I wouldn’t believe it.
Will Win: La La Land 

Original Score

  • Jackie (Mica Levi)
  • La La Land (Justin Hurwitz)
  • Lion (Dustin O’Halloran, Hauschka)
  • Moonlight (Nicholas Britell)
  • Passengers (Thomas Newman)

My second dream scenario: Mica Levi wins. This will obviously never happen with the second coming of the Hollywood musical standing right there in the corner.
Will Win: La La Land 

Original Song

  • “Audition (The Fools Who Dream)” (La La Lad)
  • “Can’t Stop the Feeling” (Trolls)
  • “City of Stars” (La La Land)
  • “The Empty Chair” (Jim: The James Foley Story)
  • “How Far I’ll Go” (Moana)

Lin-Manuel Miranda will have to wait to complete his EGOT, even though his song for Moana is easily the best song in the category. The question here is which La La Land song will prevail. “Audition” features in one of the most emotional scenes in the film, but “City of Stars” has become sort of the movie’s official theme song.
Will Win: “City of Stars”

Sound Mixing

  • Arrival
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Sully
  • 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi

Ironically, there is no way La La Land will lose this award. Even though I couldn’t understand a single word that was sung during that opening number (and I know I’m not alone).
Will Win: La La Land 

Sound Editing

  • Arrival
  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Hacksaw Ridge
  • La La Land
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 

Pay attention to this category Sunday night, because if La La Land wins here, it will probably sweep all over the place. You see, it doesn’t really make sense for a musical to win Sound Editing (which used to be known as Sound Effects Editing). It’s not a genre that is known for the use of sound effects, unlike war films and such.
Will Win: Hacksaw Ridge 

Makeup and Hair

  • A Man Called Ove
  • Star Trek Beyond
  • Suicide Squad 

I have the sneaking suspicion that Suicide Squad is going to win this category. It is, after all, the one movie in this category that had a lot of conversation build around the makeup. Sure, a lot of it was people complaining about how silly Jared Leto’s Joker looked, but that’s still a conversation. Anyway, Star Trek Beyond is the only acceptable winner in a rational world, and I must cling to sanity as often as possible.
Will Win: Star Trek Beyond

Visual Effects

  • Deepwater Horizon
  • Doctor Strange
  • The Jungle Book
  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Rogue One: A Star Wars Story 

For some reason, I have this feeling that people really love computer generated tigers. Life of Pi won here, and it makes for The Jungle Book to follow in its foot-steps.
Will Win: The Jungle Book  

Animated Feature

  • Kubo and the Two Strings
  • Moana
  • My Life as a Zucchini
  • The Red Turtle
  • Zootopia 

I will never quite understand why the world fell in love with Zootopia, but it did. And even I must admit it will be nice to award a movie about accepting those who are different from you in a time when empathy has become a partisan issue.
Will Win: Zootopia 

Foreign Film

  • Tanna (Australia)
  • Land of Mine (Denmark)
  • Toni Erdmann (Germany)
  • The Salesman (Iran)
  • A Man Called Ove (Sweden)

I am afraid Toni Erdmann is too funny, too long, too unique, and too good for the Academy. However, I remain optimistic that despite fitting in a genre that the Academy loves, A Man Called Ove is too generic and pedestrian to actually win the award. A nice compromise might be The Salesman, which mixes artistic merit and accessibility with the familiarity of a past winner in this category and the political timeliness of how the movie’s crew will not attend the ceremony due to the travel ban.
Will Win: The Salesman  

Documentary Feature   

  • Fire at Sea
  • I Am Not Your Negro
  • Life, Animated
  • O.J. Made in America
  • 13th 

The fact that O.J. is seven and a half hours long should be enough to overcome the voices that insist (rightfully) that it’s not a movie but a television series. Either way, the extreme length makes it look like a titanic achievement that must rewarded.
Will Win: O.J. Made in America 

 Animated Short

  • Blind Vaysha
  • Borrowed Time
  • Pear Cider and Cigarettes 
  • Pearl
  • Piper

Remember when we all went to see Finding Dory and thought Piper was so much better than the actual movie? This is how it pays off.
Will Win: Piper

Documentary Short

  • Extremis
  • 4.1 Miles
  • Joe’s Violin
  • Watani: My Homeland
  • The White Helmets 

Haven’t seen any of this, but I’m predicting the one that’s about the Holocaust, and I’m told, is weirdly the least depressing of the five.
Will Win: Joe’s Violin 

Live Action Short

  • Ennemis Interieurs 
  • La Femme et le TGV
  • Silent Nights
  • Sing
  • Timecode 

Sam as the Documentary Short category, my predictions are going off reading about these movie’s subject matters. I’m picking a French movie about the inhumanity of the refugee vetting process.
Will Win: Ennemis Interieurs 

Short Review: John Wick: Chapter 2

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Even having seen and thoroughly enjoyed John Wick, one cannot help but feel like “the surprise factor” played an important part in why it became an instant cult classic (or whatever the equivalent to cult classic is in this day and age) as soon as it did.By the fall of 2014, superhero movies and oversized blockbusters had saturated the market, and we were ready for a streamlined and lower scale action movie. Keanu Reeves had been starring in nothing but stinkers for a while, and was ready for a comeback. It was a perfect combination of exactly what we needed, made even better by the fact that the movie seemed to come out of nowhere. It makes sense, then, that the great fear with John Wick: Chapter 2 was whether it could live up to the freshness of the original. Those in doubt should rest assured that Chapter 2 doesn’t only live up to its predecessor, it surpasses it.

If there was one thing that was going to be hard to replicate in a John Wick sequel, it’s the simplicity of the original’s plot. And it’s true that Chapter 2 cannot come up with a hook as simple and divine as the first movie’s. In case you don’t remember or haven’t seen John Wick, the movie can be summarized thusly: Some ruffians kill John Wick’s dog, and John Wick takes revenge. It’s the plot equivalent of perfectly designed minimalist chair, clean, to the point, and beautiful. The plot of Chapter 2 is much messier, beginning with an action sequence designed to tie loose ends from the previous chapter and then going in circles for a while before finally revealing what it had been building towards. It’s a minor weakness that the movie manages to survive intact, particularly because the payoff is worth it. John Wick Chapter 2 is good throughout, but the movie’s second half is something else.

John Wick presented us with a fantasy world in which assassins use their own currency (some sort of old golden coins) and stay in a private hotel for criminals. The attention paid to crafting a unique not-quite-realistic world was indicative of a meticulously crafted movie. John Wick Chapter 2 takes the world sketched out by the first movie, and blows it up to epic proportions. We are no longer in a not-quite-realistic world, we are in the deep end of movie world. This is a movie so confident in its abilities it isn’t afraid of going big, or indulging in the ridiculous. The ridiculous is actually what makes it so great.

The first thing we see in the movie is a Buster Keaton silent being projected onto the wall of a building. The movie announces the fact that it’s taken its cues from the silent masters of physical comedy, and it doesn’t disappoint. From there, we quickly cut to a long chase sequence. John Wick drives like a maniac through the streets of New York. He is looking for the precious vintage muscle car that was stolen from him in the last movie. It doesn’t take him long to find the car and make an escape, but he is followed by a series of henchmen, who all ride in taxi cabs. This is when, as they say, shit gets real. John Wick fights off the henchmen, but once he’s dispatched them, two more taxi cabs pull over and another bunch of henchmen walk out to fight. Cabs keep pulling up and John Wick keeps dispatching henchmen for a long time. The amount of cabs that pull up in that sequence and the amount of people who are run over by them is excessive and ridiculous. It is also very cool.

That’s just the first example of the kind of cards John Wick: Chapter Two has up its sleeve. Its action sequences are long and indulgent and they are better off for it. The moment when Keanu and Common keep falling down a seemingly endless staircase, the big finale shootout inside what is essentially a hall of mirrors, and particularly the scene in which John Wick has to escape literally every assassin in New York City are all set pieces for the ages. Chapter 2 might not be as tightly plotted and consistent as its predecessor, but it aims for higher heights. It shoots for the stars, and damn it, it succeeds.

Grade: 9 out of 10