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

other side of hope

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

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

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

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

Felicite will open in limited release on October 27. 

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

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

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

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

zama

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

New York Film Festival Report No. 1 (Faces Places, The Florida Project and The Meyerowitz Stories)

florida project

This is the first of three journal-style reports from the 55th New York Film Festival. I had a great day watching three movies one after the other yesterday. Not only were they all really good, but you will be able to see them all very soon in theaters (or streaming).

Faces, Places (Visages, Villages)
Legendary director Agnes Varda is 89 years old and she’s losing her eyesight. She suffers from an eye disease that makes letters bounce up and down and faces look blurry. It’s a rather sad, and frankly ironic situation to find yourself in when, like Varda, you rank as one of the greatest observers in cinema history. But that’s not stopping her. In this latest movie, Varda teams up with photographer JR, a young man who goes around the world taking giant portraits and pasting them on buildings. This is a sort of diary film, chronicling the duo as they travel from one French village to the next: meeting new people, and taking their portraits. The concept is simple, but the execution is masterful.

I don’t think there’s a more lovable personality than Agnes Varda, a tiny French woman who is as serious as she is hilarious, and manages to find deep truths in the most simple aspects of life. JR is a perfect foil for her because he, like us, can’t help but be fascinated by her. Of course Varda’s touch has all to do with how she can turn everyday events into moving moments of cinematic magic. This movie, like Varda’s greatest work, EXISTS. It doesn’t portent to be something it is not. It doesn’t pretend, it simply is. And it’s miraculous. This sort of premise could be deadly in the hands of virtually any other director. In the hands of Varda and JR, it is one of the great movies of the year.

Faces, Places opens in limited release on October 6. 

The Florida Project
This is the latest movie by Sean Baker, whose previous movie Tangerine was a huge critical hit a couple of years ago. As much as I admired its intensions, I was one of the few people who couldn’t quite connect to Tangerine‘s groove. All of this makes me really happy to report that The Florida Project is not only a huge step up, but one of the best movies I’ve seen this year. Baker continues to be fascinated with characters who live on the fringes of society. This time, the focus is on a group of poor kids growing up in the shadow of the Walt Disney World resort in Florida. The mothers hustle in order to get by, scarping enough money to pay rent at a low-level motel (run by a lovable manager played by Willem Dafoe) while the kids run around screaming, cursing, and wreaking havoc.

Like with Faces, Places, this is a very tricky tone to pull off. Baker jumps between the innocent perspective of young children who only half-understand the world around them, and the pressure that mounts over the adults around them. After the screening, Baker mentioned that part of his inspiration was a desire to make a “Little Rascals” movie, which makes a lot of sense. This movie flows from uproarious comedy to deep realistic drama seamlessly as it builds toward an incredibly audacious finale.

While we’re on the subject, I could debate the merits and purpose of the finale for hours. I’m still thinking through it, currently admiring its intention but still wondering about certain aspects of the execution. I look forward to having many conversations about an ending that’s the sort of gamble most filmmakers would be too afraid to approach.

The Florida Project opens in limited release on October 6. 

The Meyerowitz Stories (New and Selected)
Noah Baumbach has entered the golden age of his career. He is grown unafraid of sillier jokes, he has become a master of wrangling his ensembles, and along with editor Jennifer Lame, has embraced a more experimental and playful approach to editing. This Netflix production is a bit of a continuation on the themes of The Squid and the Whalefocusing on two brothers -a successful accountant (Ben Stiller) and a failed musician (Adam Sandler)- and their relationship to their father (Dustin Hoffman), who like the father in Baumbach’s earlier movie, is a frustrated artist. A writer then, a sculptor now.

Beyond being hilarious, the movie features the truthful bitterness of Baumbach’s best work. There is a certain frustration in dealing with your parents as an adult that this movie gets at a little too well. The movie is a little more rambly than usual for Baumbach. It goes for a bigger scale that shows the director’s ambition as his career continues, but leaves perhaps a little too many elements it needs to weave together. At the end of the day, though, the movie remains a very interesting piece of filmmaking (changing in perspective, style and rhythm as it goes along), and is anchored by an excellent cast (with Sandler and Hoffman as the stand-outs).

The Meyerowitz Stories will be available to stream on Netflix on October 13.

What If God’s Wife’s One of Us: A Review of Darren Aronofsky’s ‘Mother!’

mother!

There aren’t many relatable aspects to Darren Aronofsky’s Mother!, but it’s easy to relate to Jennifer Lawrence’s character. At least in the beginning. She just wants to hang out in her beautiful house with her poet husband (Javier Bardem) but people just won’t leave her alone. One after the other, strangers show up in her doorstep, and the foolish poet invites them all in to stay in the house as long as they want, not caring about the fact that they’re all horrible house guests. They eat their food, are constantly rude, and basically destroy the house that the couple has built together. But like I said, that’s just the beginning. Things get crazier from there, until the woman’s peaceful world has turned into an inescapable nightmare.

The movie has been advertised as a horror in the style of Rosemary’s Baby, but the resemblance to that kind of story is only partial and superficial. Mother! is something much more grandiose and uncontrolled. The movie doesn’t really take place in any kind of reality. It is one big allegory that’s taken the shape of a fever-dream and doesn’t even try to adhere to the conventions of what a “good narrative” is supposed to be. It is more unsettling and disorienting than it is scary. In a sense, it is a horror movie, but for those movie goers who will go in expecting a psychological thriller and will surely try to get their money back once they realize what they’re actually watching.

Whether or not the movie is any good (I am on the fence about this subject myself), it is an achievement. I tip my hat to Aronofsky for somehow managing to get good money, and from a big Hollywood studio no less, to make such an aggressively uncommercial movie. If you’re the kind of person who finds the idea of jumping into a potentially unsatisfying but wholly unique journey into craziness enticing, then Mother! is definitely worth a watch. On that note, I would also suggest that you stop reading this review and go see it, because the rest of this review is where I explain what I understand Aronofsky’s allegory to be, and why the final reveal of the movie’s intensions left me disappointed. The best way to experience Mother! is to not know anything about it.

You have been warned.

I’m not here to psychoanalyze anybody, but I think Darren Aronofsky might still be working out some aspects of his divorce. The most basic way to explain the movie’s premise -Bardem focuses all his energy on his work and audience adulation, his wife suffers for it- makes it sound familiar. We’ve seen movies about geniuses and their tortured wives before. Aronofsky is just doing two things differently. First, he’s flipping the script, focusing on the inspiring muse rather than the artist. Second, he’s trying to explore this dynamic through the biggest most popular artistic genius in western culture: God. So, basically, the movie is about how it would really suck to be God’s wife.

Aronofsky is also an environmental activist, so Lawrence’s character -who is never referred to by name and is credited as “the mother”- has a strong mother earth vibe to her. Her main activity when the movie starts is remodel the house in which she lives. In her own words, she wants to “build paradise.” Meanwhile, her husband -the poet- writes. That’s until a man comes around (Ed Harris), and the poet invites him to stay with them. Shortly after, the man’s wife shows up (a magnificent Michelle Pfeiffer). Then their children, and so on… Not only are these people destroying the beautiful house she’s built, but the poet is more interested in the adoration of these strangers than his wife’s love. It all seems pretty obvious, doesn’t it?

Well, that’s kind of my problem with it. Mother! seems to combine the personalities of two of Aronofsky’s most successful movies. It feels a lot like Black Swan in that it takes inspiration from the early work of Roman Polanski, and in that it is often exaggerated and silly in its approach to horror. Black Swan, however, is campier, less pretentious, and ultimately more fun to watch. On the other hand, the movie resembles Requiem for a Dream in that both movies take one idea (“drugs are bad” then, “god’s wife suffers” now) and make a whole movie out of it, relentlessly hammering the point home again and again. That’s why Mother! is best experienced unspoiled. Trying to figure out what’s going on gets the mind rolling, but once you piece the puzzle together, you are left with a very obvious answer. There’s not much to take away once you’ve cracked the metaphor.

That’s the risk of making a movie that is purposely obtuse about its themes, you just can’t manufacture profundity. Which is not to say that this is necessarily a bad movie. There is a lot of great filmmaking in service of this allegory. Arofnosky’s direction, especially towards the end, when the house has turned into a chaotic hellspace, is quite virtuosic. He sticks to Lawrence’s point of view, and moves us from room to room seamlessly. It’s all very disorienting, with only the sound design there to guide us. The result is overwhelming, and often unpleasant. It is ultimately an ugly looking movie. The cinematography, by longtime collaborator Matthew Libatique, goes for a dull color palette that makes Lawrence’s golden hair look brownish grey. It’s often very dark, and ungenerous to the few black actors in the movie, mushing their faces into the background.

It’s not a pleasant movie to sit through, but it’s definitely an experience. When all is said and done, it fits comfortably with the previous movies in Aronofsky’s career. As a matter of fact, this is probably the “most Aronofsky” of his movies, allowing the director to unleash his stylistic id thanks to the guiding structure of the scripture he is trying to allegorize. Honestly, my main complaint with the movie is that there’s not enough Michelle Pfeiffer. She’s only the first section of the movie, and she fucking kills it. The woman is a freaking movie star, why isn’t every director writing movies for her?

Ambition, Disappointment, ‘Top of the Lake: China Girl’

First Look

Two episodes in, I was sure Top of the Lake: China Girl had the potential to not only surpass the quality of its predecessor, but end up as one of the best television seasons ever produced. I’m afraid I got a little too excited too quickly. This is the sequel series to the miniseries Top of the Lakewhich was shepherded into television four years ago by the brilliant Jane Campion. It was a beautiful miniseries about a troubled detective looking for a missing child in the most remote corners or New Zealand. This second adventure translates the action to the beaches of Sydney, Australia, and while its opening chapters confidently set off to explore a number of fascinating subjects -motherhood, misogyny, prostitution-, the series doesn’t quite manage to bring them all together in the home stretch. It is ultimately a disappointment, albeit an ambitious one.

It’s a bit ironic that China Girl suffers from loose ends and plots that resolve in disappointing anti-climax, because one of my few complaints about the original series was the fact that its conclusion was a little too neat and tidy. In that original story, Robin Griffin (Elisabeth Moss) returns to her hometown of Laketop, a community nestled between giant mountains, and is wrangled into solving the case of a missing child. Tui Mitcham (Jacqueline Joe) is a twelve year-old girl who runs away from home after she gets pregnant. Things get complicated from there. We learn Robin was herself a teenage rape victim, that she gave up the resulting child to adoption, and that Tui’s story is connected to her own past in a way she didn’t anticipate. It’s a lonely show, in which the scale of the New Zealand mountains clash with the tiny specificity of human psychology. In the end, Robin solves the case, and gets a bruised but beautiful paradise of her own.

A paradise that collapses in on itself before the second season even begins. Now Robin is trying to get over the trauma of what she lost by diving back into detective work in the big city. There are two things Robin is preoccupied with throughout this second season. First, solving the murder of an unidentified woman who washes up the Australian coast stuffed in a suitcase. Second, reconnecting with the daughter she gave up all those years ago. The girl has grown up to be Mary (Alice Englert), a truly conflicted teenager who lashes out against her divorcing parents (Ewen Leslie and Nicole Kidman) by dating a creepiest 42 year-old German called Puss (David Dencik). Of the main characters, Mary is the only one that knows Puss lives in the brothel where the washed up corpse used to work. Things get complicated from there.

Campion and her collaborators (most importantly co-writer Gerard Lee and co-director Ariel Kleinman) are clearly going for complexity here. They try to create characters that are hard to read and put them in situations that don’t allow for easy reactions, but what initially comes off as complex ends up feeling like a shapeless contradiction. It’s a show with all the elements of great television, they’re just off in the calibration. There are a number of truly excellent scenes, especially early on. The scene in which Robin meets Mary for the first time feels incredibly honest. As does most everything having to do with Robin’s relationship to her case partner Miranda (Gwendoline Christie), which elegantly flows from hilarious to moving. Otherwise, the characters in China Girl tend to act in ways I haven’t seen any human act before, and the show suffers for it.

Nowhere is this more clear than in the relationship between Mary and Puss. He is presented to us as a truly grotesque human, talking about how he is a feminist before asking Nicole Kidman about her tits. He does much worse things than that, and while everyone recognizes the man as a monster, Mary refuses to leave him. She’s in love. “You don’t know him like I do”, she repeats over and over. And we don’t. Why Mary could see in this man is beyond comprehension, even if you recognize that teenagers are known for making bad decisions. The same puzzlement extends to the way Mary’s parents react to the situation. They land somewhere between acknowledgement that her kid is lashing out to resignation that she’s probably going to be swallowed into a prostitution ring. Maybe it’s a cultural thing, prostitution is legal in Australia, but I just don’t understand the characters’ reactions.

You can sense that a more generous glimpse into the characters’ inner lives would have gone a long way for a show with such a convoluted storyline. How convenient is it that Robin’s daughter has a relationship to the brothel involved in the case she’s trying to work? This sort of plotting is easier to accept when it feels like a tool to get at character and theme. Character, as explained before, is a little shaky here. But what about theme? I’d say what Campion is most interested here is the concept of motherhood. The dead woman turns out to have been pregnant when she died. Miranda is also pregnant. And there’s, of course, Robin’s re-connection with Mary. In this regard, the show seems to be focused a little too much on Robin’s perspective. This is frustrating on a couple levels, the first is that the character of Mary’s mother is underserved. This is irritating not only because that means Nicole Kidman doesn’t get enough to do, but because it comes off as particularly cruel given how kindly the character of Mary’s dad is treated. The relationship between Mary and her mom seemed ripe for resonance at the beginning, but doesn’t really go anywhere.

The other frustrating aspect about the show’s overwhelming focus on Robin is the way it relegates its victim and the other prostitutes to the background. The victim eventually gets a name, but never appears as herself. Only as a corpse or an erotic fantasy. The other prostitutes function more as a commenting unit than as individual humans. Their personalities are never really developed (their faces are the only thing that helps us tell them apart), so they end up feeling more like an accessory to the show’s themes rather than characters. This is particularly problematic since they are essentially the only major characters of color in the show. There is lip service paid to the fact that these women are exploited by western society (and not only sexually), but it doesn’t feel meaningful. The show isn’t interested in them as human the way it is in its white characters.

I would like to end by addressing this last “problematic” element. The demand for more, better stories that reflect the lives of racial minorities is loud. The lack of representation is still a problem. Most people suggest that the way to solve the problem is to encourage and sponsor more stories told by people of color. I agree with those people, I think this step is fundamental. I also think there’s another step to it. I think white filmmakers must also recognize their whiteness as part of their identity. No one can escape identity politics, and while I see why white directors would want to avoid getting involved in the sensitive topic of representation and race, I think they must. White people played a role in creating these systems of oppression, and they must play a role in dismantling them.

I’m not quite sure why I decided this was the place to write down my views on this issue. Top of the Lake: China Girl isn’t exactly a monumental work of racism or anything like that. It is a very ambitious show, often rewarding, and often frustrating. But I just can’t help but wonder what kind of show we would have gotten if Jane Campion and her collaborators would have gone in to humanize and explore the prostitutes the way they did Robin and some of the other white characters. It’s impossible to say if it would’ve been a better show. But the effort might have been worth it in and on itself.

Fall Movie Preview

Screen Shot 2017-09-02 at 7.41.03 PM

I’ve been trying (perhaps not hard enough) to write more reviews. Or at least, to write reviews on a more consistent schedule. I’ve also been trying (definitely not hard enough) to write things other than reviews. Keeping in that spirit, I’ve decided to write this post, which is notably not a review, and will hopefully serve as a sort of commitment for me to write future reviews by announcing what movies (and television) I will be watching this Fall.

So here’s how this works: I’ve look at the release calendar of all the movies that will come out between Labor Day and Thanksgiving and looked for the ones I’m interested in. I’ve decided to write them up week by week, highlighting the movie that I’m most likely to write about, while still mentioning anything that looks like something I would watch.

Friday September 8

Not a particularly exciting week at the movies, I’m afraid (September is a notoriously rough month for big releases), so we’ll have to settle for television. This Friday sees the release of the fourth season of Bojack Horseman on Netflix, which is great news. If the mix of absurdist, very punny, Hollywood satire and existential dread sounds like the kind of cocktail you might like, then you ought to watch yourself some Bojack. 

The really great news is that Jane Campion’s sequel series Top of the Lake: China Girl premieres on Sunday September 10. The original Top of the Lake was an outstanding piece of television, and the second season got nothing but rave reviews when it played at this year’s Cannes Film Festival. Elisabeth Moss returns in the lead role, this time joined by Nicole Kidman and Gwendoline Christie.

But if you really want to go to the movie theatre, I’m most curious about the Reese Witherspoon vehicle Home Againa directorial debut by Hallie Meyers-Shyer, daughter of kitchen-loving auteur Nancy Meyers.

Friday September 15

Darren Aronofsky has a new movie coming out. I run hot and cold on Aronofsky. I’m getting mixed signals from mother!not knowing if this is going to be the fun and silly Aronofsky who made Black Swan, or the insufferably serious Aronofsky of Requiem for a Dream. But who am I kidding? There’s no way I’m not seeing this movie because of one reason and one reason only… Michelle motherfucking Pfeiffer. So, yes, call this whatever you want. In my mind this is the new Michelle Pfeiffer movie, which also features Jennifer Lawrence, Javier Bardem, and Ed Harris.

There’s also Brad’s Statusthe new movie by Mike White, beloved as writer of School of Rock and creator of HBO’s Enlightened. It stars Ben Stiller as guy taking his son on college tours and feeling sad. Midlife crisis movie doesn’t sound all that original, but White is known for being a particularly insightful writer so I’ll give it a chance.

Friday September 22

There’s a lot of movies to pick from this week, but the thing I’m most excited about is, again, television. The fourth season of Amazon’s Transparent. I know not a lot of people are watching this show, and some of those who watched were turned off by its dislikable characters, but I remain in thinking it one of the most emotionally daring and moving shows in the history of television. I will definitely be watching.

As for movies, lots to choose from but nothing I’m too thrilled about. There’s Kingsman: The Golden Circlewhich is a sequel to a bad movie but has Julianne Moore in it so maybe I’ll see it? There’s Ninjago, which arrives just as I’m getting really tired of these Lego movies. There’s Victoria and Abdulour yearly middlebrow British drama starring Judi Dench. There’s Battle of the Sexesstarring Steve Carell and Emma Stone as opponents in that historical tennis match. There’s Loving Vincentthe first (and probably last) animated movie consisting entirely of oil-on-canvas paintings. And then there’s Woodshock in which Kiki Dunst takes drugs in the woods or something. I’ll probably watch some of these.

Friday September 29

The thing I’m most excited for this weekend is the New York Film Festival, which of course is something that not everyone gets to enjoy. I will be seeing ten or so movies there, including new movies by international auteurs such as Lucrecia Martel, Agnes Varda, Aki Kaurismaki, and Claire Denis. I will try to do some short reviews of whatever I see while the festival is going on.

In other non region specific activities, there’s the premiere of The Deucethe new HBO show about the porn industry in 1970s Time Square, which comes courtesy of David Simon (creator of The Wire) and stars James Franco and Maggie Gyllenhaal. And there’s also the Tom Cruise movie American Made, which doesn’t look all that interesting from the trailers but is directed by Doug Liman whose last collaboration with Cruise was the great summer romp Edge of Tomorrow. 

Friday October 6

Two of the movies I’m seeing at the Film Festival open in limited release this week. Faces Placesthe new very personal documentary by French filmmaking legend Agnes Varda. And The Florida ProjectSean Baker’s follow-up to his critically beloved Tangerine, which is somehow gotten even better reviews.

It might feel like I’m burying the lede here as far as big releases are concerned, so it’s time for a confession… I don’t like Blade Runner. Actually, I dislike it quite intensely. So my enthusiasm for Blade Runner 2049 is limited to say the least. I will see it, and I’ll probably review it. I just thought I’d let you know where I stand going in.

Friday October 13

Not a lot of exciting releases this week, but IMDb says Noah Baumbach’s new movie The Meyerowitz Stories is going to be released on Netflix this week. The movie focuses on an estranged family of New Yorkers composed of Adam Sandler, Ben Stiller, Dustin Hoffman and Emma Thompson. The movie premiered at Cannes, where Sandler got very positive reviews for his performance, so there’s something to look forward to.

Friday October 20

Todd Haynes has the difficult job of having to make another movie after his last one was a sublime masterpiece, but hey, such is the nature of the job. In his follow-up to Carol, he’s decided to change gears with Wonderstrucka YA adaptation in which two stories -one about a deaf girl in the 1920s and one about a boy in the 1970s- slowly converge with each other.

There’s also the limited release of BPM (Beats Per Minute)the movie about the French chapter of AIDS-fighting activist group Act Up that took this year’s Cannes Film Festival by storm. It came out of Cannes with the Grand Jury Prize and the reputation of being a festival stand-out.

Friday October 27

There’s a lot to choose from this week. I’m most looking forward to The Killing of a Sacred DeerYorgos Lanthimos’s follow-up to The Lobster, in which a doctor and a family are haunted by a sinister young man. Colin Farrell, Nicole Kidman and Alicia Silverstone all star in this one.

I’m also looking forward to The Squarethis year’s Palme D’Or winner, a two and a half hour Swedish comedy about the world of high art that is meant to be as awkward and dry as it sounds. Suburbicon a new satire directed by George Clooney and written by the Coen brothers which features a great cast including Matt Damon, Julianne Moore and Oscar Isaac. Felicite a drama about a Congolese singer, a rare opportunity to see African cinema that shouldn’t be missed. And Novitiateabout a young nun questioning her faith with Melissa Leo in a buzzy supporting role.

Friday November 3

I’m a Marvel agnostic, but the prospect of Taika Waititi (director of the hilarious What We Do in the Shadows and lovely Hunt for the Wilderpeople) putting his skills toward directing one of their movies is enough to get me excited for Thor: Ragnarokeven if the Thor arm of the franchise has never been my favorite. That and the presence of Cate Blanchett as a villainous Nordic goddess, of course.

I’m also quite excited for Blade of the Immortalthe latest from violent Japanese master Takashi Miike, which promises a lots of amazing samurai battles.

Friday November 10

There are two releases I’m very much looking forward to this week, and both feature one of my favorite working actresses. Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri stars Frances McDormand as a foul-mouthed grieving mother in the latest movie by foul-mouthed playwright-turned-director Martin McDonagh. While Lady Bird brings a double the action as far as my favorite actresses are concerned, starring Saoirse Ronan in the very personal directorial debut of one Greta Gerwig.

In limited release, Norwegian auteur Joachin Trier brings us Thelmaabout a woman with fantastic powers. And then there’s Kenneth Branagh’s version of Murder on the Orient ExpressJohnny Depp is part of an otherwise exciting ensemble which includes Willem Dafoe, Olivia Colman, Judi Dench, and Michelle Pfeiffer. Branagh stars as inspector Poirot, and I certainly hope this project is as hammy as that cast makes it seem.

Friday November 17

It’s funny how Justice League suddenly became “the new Wonder Woman movie.” It’s probably for the best, considering how much palatable Wonder Woman’s heroic disposition is compared to the dour tone of the latest Batman and Superman installments. Is there any reason to believe this movie is going to be anything but terrible? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

As for more promising releases, we have Richard Linkalater’s pseudo-sequel to The Last Detail, in which three veterans reunite to honor the corpse of a fallen soldier in Last Flag FlyingSteve Carell and Laurence Fishburne are both in this one, but it seems like Bryan Cranston plays the lead and you know that can’t be good. There’s also Mudbounda historical drama about a Mississippi plantation directed by the wonderful Dee Rees that will premiere on Netflix.

Wednesday November 22

This day sees two very exciting releases that got me a little nervous. First is the namesake of this blog, Pixar’s Cocowhose promotional materials feature a really funny ugly-cute dog, but have otherwise failed to impress me. Is it just me or is “dia de los muertos” the only thing Hollywood is interested in when it comes to Mexican culture? There’s also Darkest Hour, a Winston Churchill biopic that has me excited because it’s directed by my beloved Joe Wright but has me worried because it stars Gary Oldman in a fat suit and is a Winston Churchill biopic.

Friday November 24

Finally, Thanksgiving will greet us with some delicious peaches, courtesy of Call Me By Your Name. In his latest movie, Italian Luca Guadagnino, adapts a novel about a young boy who falls in love with an older student. The whole thing is set on the Italian coast, so you know it will be beautiful. If that weren’t enough, it is already one of the best reviewed movies of the year.

Look What You Made Me Do, Taylor Swift! (write this article, that is)

reputation

Taylor Swift has been living on top of the world. Is she about to come tumbling down?

“You know when they let reality stars do one single?”, “[it] is spectacularly bad”, “a Chris Gaines-level disaster.” That’s how Twitter woke up this morning after last night’s release of Taylor Swift’s new song. “Look What You Made Me Do” dropped at midnight, and the reactions came quick. Usually, I would shrug it off, thinking these types of reactions are just the type of hyperbole you always get from the corner of the internet that inhabits my Twitter feed, but the hate around Taylor and her new song today is deafening. We’ve always rolled our eyes at Taylor and her antics (even people like me, who tend to like her music) but this time is different.

This particular cycle started about a week ago, when Taylor cleared all of her social media presence. Her tweets, her instagrams… they were all gone. Then, she put up a weird video of what looked like a snake. It became apparent pretty quickly that the creature in the video was indeed a snake, and that Taylor was about to release new music. And so, this week she revealed the name and cover of her album -titled Reputation. In the cover (pictured above) a picture of Swift is surrounded by newspaper headlines that consist basically of her name over and over again. Finally, she released her new single.

It’s interesting to track how the reactions changed throughout this very quick release strategy. At first, people were intrigued. Taylor’s erasure of her social media was, after all, a very cryptic and vague message. At that point, anything was possible. Taylor was enjoying an uncharacteristically sympathetic moment. She was going to court claiming that a radio host had groped her. She was clearly setting a nice example, and so people reluctantly embraced her actions. But then the court ruled in Taylor’s favor and the floodgates opened. The takes started coming out the second the album art was revealed. It started with the usual “Taylor Swift isn’t really a feminist” thing, and it escalated from there. By the time the single rolled around, people were talking about how Taylor benefits from the suffering of people of color, and claiming that she set the release of her new album to purposely coincide with the anniversary of the death of Kanye West’s  mom.

How did we get here? Taylor has had a complicated last couple of years: great for album sales, not do great for her public persona. There was the whole incident in which Kim Kardashian released a video showing Taylor agreeing to lyrics in a Kanye West song that she had publicly condemned (look it up), she was in a short-lived but very much talked about romance with actor Tom Hiddleston, and she was the songwriter behind one of ex-boyfriend Calvin Harris’s hit singles for which she didn’t receive any official credit. But all of those are examples of the kind of feud that Taylor’s persona feeds off of. She loves playing the victim, and she’s built almost every album she’s ever released around such narratives. But then the worst thing that could have ever happened became a reality… Donald Trump won the election, and self-proclaimed feminist Taylor Swift hadn’t done anything to stop him.

Before the election, Taylor was just a smart opportunist. She went around selfishly but harmlessly co-opting whatever trend was popular at the moment in order to sell records. She did it with faux-folk back when Mumford and Sons were a thing, she did it with dubstep when Skrillex was a thing, and she did it with eighties pop just in time to be eclipsed by Carly Rae Jepsen’s genius. Because her music was good, we just shrugged it off. But now, a literal cartoon villain sits in the white house and her lack of political commitment doesn’t seem so harmless. There is context (in her country roots, probably) on why she didn’t endorse Hillary Clinton, but that’s not the point. The perception that what she did (or failed to do) was irresponsible is out there, and it is strong. Like most of us, Taylor wasn’t prepared for a Trump presidency. Then the world changed, and she was left behind.

Which brings us to “Look What You Made Me Do.” It’s not a good song. Musically, it feels very much like a late career Britney Spears dance song, which is far from my favorite kind of music. Lyrically, it is giving us more of the same old stuff Taylor always gives us. The chorus, comprised exclusively of the sentence “look what you made me do”, is a typical example of the victim narrative we’ve heard from her before. But given the current circumstances, the fact that the lyrics imply it was other people (the media? Kanye?) that made her do whatever it is that she’s doing doesn’t sit well at all. That’s not the only tone-deaf element in the whole thing. The Reputation album cover implies a “me vs. fake news” sort of approach that smells of catastrophe in the age of Trump. Add to that the embarrassingly cash-grabby magazines with “hand-written lyrics” that will be sold at Target, and it starts to feel like Taylor’s money-hunger might have gone a few steps too far (and that’s saying a lot).

And yet, there are kernels in this song that make me a tiny bit hopeful that Reputation might be the album I was hoping for after all. The bridge of the song, with the refrain “I don’t trust nobody and nobody trusts me”, when taken along with the snake imagery that’s all over the promotional materials so far suggest a shift from Taylor’s persona as a victim. So far we’ve assumed the phrase “look what you made me do” is meant to put blame on other people, and with good reason, that’s the kind of thing Taylor would usually go for. But what if the song is a sort of bridge, an introduction to an album that will not be so much about the people who made Taylor do horrible things, but actually about the horrible things that she did.

Because that’s what I want to know. Anything substantial Taylor has to say about the people who supposedly wronged her she’s exhausted already. I want her to move on, and to revel in these supposed dark and nasty things she’s doing. If this is truly an album about shredding off her skin and revealing her true reptilian self, then we might be about the experience some seriously great music. It’s also worth remembering that she tends to release either divisive or mediocre songs as lead singles for her albums (“We Are Never Getting Back Together” and “Shake It Off” were both first singles), so the album could be great for all we know. At this particular moment, though, the future doesn’t look so bright.