Support the Girls is an American Masterpiece

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Andrew Bujalski’s new movie, Support the Girls, is an American masterpiece. If you think this notion sounds ridiculous considering this is a low-budget comedy about the waitresses of a Hooters knock-off, you are forgiven. However, I can’t promise you’ll be able to forgive yourself if you pass up the opportunity to watch this excellent movie. Most of Support the Girls takes place over 24 hours and in one location. It’s a tiny movie, but it feels gigantic. It has enormous things to say about women, labor, race, class, and humanity. It moved me in a profound way, the way only one or two movies do every year. It is also hilarious.

The movie stars Regina Hall, who’s been excellent for many years and is finally getting a stab at lead roles, such as her radiant turn in last year’s Girls Trip. This time around, she plays Lisa, the general manager of “Double Whammies,” the kind of sports bar where the waitresses wear short shorts and reveal a lot of cleavage. This type of restaurant proves to be a setting ripe for exploration, and positioning Lisa as the central character gets rid of the sleazy male gaze that usually comes with movies about scantily clad women. As manager Lisa is the bridge between business owner and workers, and as a woman she is the safety net between working girls and the charged, potentially dangerous, gaze of the clients.

Lisa is good at her job. She is resourceful. We mostly follow her during one eventful day, in which she is faced with one problem after another, and never fails to find quick and viable solutions. One of the girls says Lisa is “married to this job.”She’d be the perfect manager, except that she cares. She cares about the girls that work for her, and that’s not great for business. She knows what it’s like to be one of these young women and wants to protect and guide them as much as possible. Despite a million things going wrong on this fateful day, trying to help one of her girls is what gets her in trouble with her manager. Being a human and running a business are simply not compatible.

This divide between professionalism and empathy is what makes Lisa such a unique and fascinating character. Manager characters are usually portrayed as ass-kissing weasels who want nothing more than to climb the professional ladder. Their desire to move up in the workplace is usually a sign that they have betrayed the ground-level workers, especially if they started out as one. But Lisa cares. She is a multi-dimensional human with real world problems and the movie is right there with her. There are no p.o.v. shots or surreal touches that get us inside Lisa’s head or anything like that, but Bujalski very explicitly chooses to share the camera with his protagonist. A telling moment comes early in the film: It’s already been a stressful morning when Lisa steps out of the restaurant and enjoys a moment of calm. She takes a deep breath, and the hand-held camera moves up and down very slightly, as if it was breathing with her.It’s a significant touch. One that signals not only toward Bujalski’s commitment to his main character, but to the movie’s overall commitment to empathy and being willing to share in the lives of other humans.

This is a very clear strength when it comes to the girls. You have Danyelle (Shayna McHale), who’s good at her job despite pretty much hating it. There’s new hire Jennelle (Dylan Gelula), a marketing major with a lot of ideas. And above all, there’s eternally peppy Maci (Haley Lu Richardson), the only girl who seems to actually enjoy working at “Double Whammies.” Thanks to this commitment to empathy, the girls are both hilarious and poignant, and the actors who play them are able to make up the best ensemble of the year.

What’s so effective about Support the Girls is that its characters are not helpless, or dumb, or caricatures. They have agency, dimension, initiative. They make choices, they collaborate, they try to get ahead. Some of their decisions are questionable, but we see where they’re coming from. The movie argues that these women have a right to have principles other than those dictated by society, and allowed to make mistakes while trying to live up to them. Lisa says as much during an emotional argument with her husband: “I can take fucking up all day long, but I can’t take not trying.”

Support the Girls positions daily life in the context of an America that keeps on moving despite its deep problems. It casts a light on the people who refuse to lose their humanity just because they have to go along and make it work. Anyone who’s worked a shitty job will immediately relate. Bujalski has pulled a magnificent move, in which he’s couched something profound inside a seemingly unassuming movie. His final trick is closing his movie by echoing the last scene of indie black sheep Garden State, only this time the loud screams into the void ring with the power of America’s working women.

The Best Movies of 2017

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This has been a great year for cinema and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Next time someone comes with their “tv is better than the movies” nonsense, just take a deep breath and feel sorry for the fool. They’re simply missing out. Sure, you won’t get much out of the movies if you live on a diet of Marvel movies, but take a gamble on a smaller release and chances are you’re about to see something really interesting. At leas that was the case for me in 2017, which shaped up to be a particularly strong year for American cinema. So much so that I’m afraid my top ten (and my top five especially) might at first glance look a little “basic.” I tend to go off the beaten path with my year-end lists, but not even I could argue with some of this year’s critical favorites.

Because it’s been a particularly strong year, because I saw more than ten movies that I loved, and because I’m afraid people won’t give a hoot about them if I just list them in some sort of runners-up list, I’ve decided to change things up a little. Each movie in my Top Ten will be accompanied by a “Companion Film”, meaning another great movie from this year, that happens to share thematic, genre, or artistic ties with the main entry. Ten is just an arbitrary number, after all, and a cinematic year like this is worth celebrating.

Before we get started, a few clarifications on eligibility. Movies that I saw at the New York Film Festival but were not release to a general public in 2017 will have to wait until next year to qualify in the list. This includes Lucrecia Martel’s excellent Zama, which will no doubt be mentioned in the post I write a year from now. Movies like A Fantastic Womanwhich got a one week qualifying run will also have to wait until next year, when they actually open in more than one city and for more than one week. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s move on to the list!    

The Ten Best Movies of 2017:

ladybird11. Lady Bird
(dir. Greta Gerwig / 93 min. / USA)
The greatest thing about Greta Gerwig’s delightful directorial debut is that it’s both incredibly specific and incredibly generous. It’s not only the relationship between Lady Bird (Saoirse Ronan) and her mother (Laurie Metcalf) that feels complicated, multi-faceted and honest. It’s also the other members of her family, her class-mates, the actors who appear in only one scene, even the town of Sacramento. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t forget that everybody is the protagonist of their own story, even if the movie’s main character is a self-absorbed teenager. And let’s be honest, we’ve all been there. Every teenager is ridiculous and self-absorbed. One can only hope that, from the outside, our teenage selves seemed as adorably lost as Lady Bird.
Companion Film: With an even more difficult and troubled female protagonist stomping through California, Ingrid Goes West makes a sort of evil twin to Lady Bird, one that is hilarious and relentless in its portrayal of mental illness in the age of social media.

goodtime32. Good Time
(dir. Benny Safdie, Josh Safdie / 101 min. / USA)
Hats off to the Safdie brothers, and their miraculous accomplishment. It’s truly bizarre that a movie as drenched in masculinity as this one ends up as one of my favorites. With a perfectly lean script and flawless command of camera, score, and editing, Good Time comes in like a runaway train. We see two brothers rob a bank and before we know it, we’ve spent one long and stressful night led by Robert Pattinson’s unstoppable performance. What starts out as one of the most thrilling movies of the year ends up as one of the most specific and effective critiques of white male privilege ever committed to film.
Companion Film: Another brilliant story about New York brothers, albeit in a completely different tone is Noah Baumbach’s The Meyerowitz StoriesIt’s a far more comedic film, but it doesn’t make it any less poignant in its interrogation of family relationships, or daring in its bold structural choices.

ghoststory23. A Ghost Story
(dir. David Lowery / 92 min. / USA)
If you’re going to have Casey Affleck in your movie, at least have the decency to cover his face with a bed sheet for most of it. Alright, enough comedy! I’m here to tell you Lowery and his collaborators have accomplished something truly special here. What starts out as a movie about a grieving wife turns into a story about a lonely ghost and ends up going into places so unexpected I wouldn’t dream of spoiling them. This was no doubt the most unique experience I had at the movies this year. And to those who complain, saying that a mid-film monologue spells things out too much, well, I’m sad you’ve so wildly misinterpreted this movie.
Companion Film: Olivier Assayas’s Personal Shopper is a less grandiose but equally daring companion piece to A Ghost Story. Instead of focusing on the ghost, it centers on the mourner; a young woman waiting for a signal from the afterlife. Kristen Stewart shines in the main role, especially during what’s already the most iconic texting sequence in cinema history.

princesscyd4. Princess Cyd
(dir. Stephen Cone / 96 min. / USA)
Princess Cyd is a lovely story about two women. A single writer who has spent the last few years more focused on her work than on her relationships, and a teenager with a tragic past who is discovering her sexuality. They spend the summer together and learn a few things about themselves along the way. Sounds cheesy, but it is not. The trick is in the details. This is a movie about the experience of being human, and director Stephen Cone focuses on that. On the food that we eat, the light of the sun, the flowers in the garden, the textures of our clothes. This is one of the most delicate and warm version of such a story I have ever seen.
Companion Film: Another movie about a summer of love is Call Me By Your NameDirector Luca Guadagnino adopts a deliberate and relaxed tone, and like Cone, crafts a gay romance that escapes the cliched dramatics of the genre.

floridaproject55. The Florida Project
(dir. Sean Baker / 111 min. / USA)
I’ve thought a lot about Sean Baker’s movie since I saw it at the New York Film Festival, and I only grow more and more impressed by the way in which he balances the tone. On one hand a gripping portrait of poverty in the dingiest part of Florida, on the other a loud and hilarious movie about an incredibly obnoxious child and her troubled mother. I think about what this movie accomplishes and I wonder: How can a movie be strident and subtle at the same time? How can it be shouting in your face one minute, then indirectly present you with a profound detail in the most understated fashion?
Companion Film: Bong Joon-ho’s Okja might seem like an odd companion, but if you think about it, these are both tonally bold movies about social issues told from the perspective of a resilient little girl who just won’t give up.

getout46. Get Out
(dir. Jordan Peele / 104 min. / USA)
Jordan Peele’s debut as a feature filmmaker might rank fourth on this list, but it is undoubtedly the movie of the year. I don’t have to tell you things aren’t going great in America right now, but maybe I have to remind you how Get Out -thanks to Peele’s incisive screenplay and an excellent cast- became relevant in a way virtually no movie had been this decade. The satire about black bodies trapped in the horrifically white suburbs was a phenomenon for a reason. A movie this sharp, this effective, that captures the current mood so perfectly is nearly impossible to come by. It became an event, and it was an achievement.
Companion Film: Also exploring American identities through B-movie sensibilities, Sofia Coppola was accused of whitewashing history. The absence of black characters in The Beguiled speaks volumes. This is a dark and incisive exploration of white southern womanhood dressed up in a delightfully pulpy package.

7. The Lost City of Z lostcityofz7
(dir. James Gray / 141 min. / USA)
A rare movie. Not only because it’s an unabashedly old-fashioned story about an old-timey explorer’s journey into the Amazon, but because it’s a kind of movie that comes only once in a generation. This movie is a mystery. As if director James Gray didn’t quite know what he was trying to accomplish with it, but he felt something. Whatever is was, he felt if it so strongly he had to follow that instinct and put it on screen. The last fifteen minutes of The Lost City of Z are some of the most magical moments I experienced at the cinema all year. It’s a movie that exists as a bridge between our dreadful world and the land of dreams. Movie magic.
Companion Film: In Mudbounddirector Dee Rees complicates a generational epic about two families in the American South -an epic of the kind that rarely gets made anymore- and emerges with a gigantically moving film.

hermia&helena68. Hermia & Helena
(dir. Matías Piñeiro / 87 min. / Argentina, USA)
Everyone who’s moved to a foreign country -including myself- at some points refers to their life back home as feeling like a dream. What’s more, we know that if we ever went back, then our lives abroad will become the dream and home will feel, once again, like reality. This odd feeling is perfectly captured in Hermia & Helena. Matías Piñeiro is one of the most exciting directors to emerge this decade. With just a handful of films he’s established a unique voice. His movies are short, playful, and full of life. He finds inspiration in Shakespeare’s comedies, which is only appropriate for someone with an appetite for subplots, tangents, and all kinds of structural games. Someone who is unafraid to turn cinema into play.
Companion Film: Both Shakespeare and Piñeiro understand how strange love can be, and with Phantom ThreadPaul Thomas Anderson follows suit. Set in the world of fifties high fashion, the movie plays like a cross between Scenes from a Marriage and Fifty Shades of Grey. A twisted rom-com if there ever was one.

post109. The Post
(dir. Steven Spielberg / 115 min. / USA)
Only a veteran as provenly successful as Steven Spielberg could read a screenplay in February and fast-track production so the finished movie could come out by the end of the year. And only a genius of his stature could make it a great movie. The Post is a bold and underlined argument for the democratic importance of an independent and free press, embodied by a heroic Meryl Streep cloaked in a golden caftan. It ain’t subtle, but certain times call for bluntness. This movie, after Lincoln and Bridge of Spies before it, closes out Spielberg’s magnificent a trilogy about the idealism and practicality of the U.S. Constitution.
Companion Film: Aki Kaurismaki’s The Other Side of Hope is also a topical film with a very clear message. It merges the Syrian migrant crisis with his signature deadpan humor. Such a bizarre mix shouldn’t work, but Kaurismaki proves empathy and humor are the best ways to deal with a crisis.

facesplaces910. Faces, Places
(dir. Agnes Varda, JR / 89 min. / France)
Nobody makes movies like Agnes Varda. She’s so energetic, exciting, and just so endearing. She is as good a filmmaker as she is a personality. One can’t help but fall in love with her. Her personality is infectious. She is also 88 years old. That’s the tension that turns Faces, Places from a delightful movie into a profound one. Varda teams up with photographer JR to drive around France meeting new people and learning their stories. It’s the kind of premise Varda usually tackles, only this time her age is clashing with her physical being. Her body can barely keep up with her youthful spirit. This is a beautiful movie about people, kindness, and aging. Calling it delightful would be an understatement.
Companion Film: If we’re talking about unique movies about death and memory, then we must mention Don Hertzfeldt’s World of Tomorrow Episode Two: The Burden of Other People’s Thoughtsan unlikely sequel to an already perfect film that manages to be every bit as moving as the original.   

 

Worst Movie of the Year:
Bad movies are easy to forget, but a movie you hate… You will remember that one. A bad movie can be forgiven. The Book of Henry, for example, is terrible, but admirable in its ridiculous incompetence. War for the Planet of the Apes, however… Now that’s a movie I will never forgive. I wish I could get back the two hours and twenty minutes of my life in which I had to sit through a festival of empty philosophizing and tortured apes.Why would anyone think this counts as entertainment? This is a Planet of the Apes movie for Christ’s sake! But it’s the evocation of everything serious from religious allegory to slavery and the Holocaust that moves War for the Planet of the Apes from torturously boring into outright offended. I’m getting angry just writing about it. What a piece of trash.

Most Underrated:
You hear film critics complain about “Marvel movies this” and “Star Wars movies that”, and then, when they’re face to face with a truly idiosyncratic and inspired blockbuster, they rip it to shreds. Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets got mostly terrible reviews -probably because it had box-office bomb written all over it from before it opened- but deserved so much better. Director Luc Besson’s science fiction extravaganza is a feast for the eyes, and presents us with charmingly old-fashioned storytelling. With its B-movie sincerity and its bold effects, it feels closer to the original Star Wars than any of the official sequels we’ve gotten since 1983. I will grant some things don’t work as well as they could (Dane DeHaan is horribly miscast as the lead, I’ll give you that), but by God, this was a blockbuster that went for broke, and I hope it gets rediscovered in the future.

Most Overrated:
This year, movies like Detroit and Suburbicon were rightfully criticized for their tone-deaf approach to race relations, so I’m surprised there aren’t more people criticizing Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri on similar grounds. This movie uses institutional racism and violence against women as mere plot-points, jokes even. The biggest offense is the way Three Billboards sets up the rape and murder of a young woman to fuel the redemption arc of a racist cop. McDonagh’s script is interested in plot complications and shock value at the expense of its characters. Focusing so hard on upending expectations might make Three Billboards seem like a morally complex movie, when in reality, it doesn’t have much to say. At least nothing of value.

Biggest Surprise:
So, The Boss Baby is not a great movie or anything. It is, however, a fairly good movie. Which might as well be the biggest achievement of the year when you consider the premise of the whole thing. This is a movie about a baby that wears a suit and is voiced by Alec Baldwin. You see, he behaves like Jack Donaghy, but he’s a baby! This movie had no right to be anything  but a pile of garbage. And yet, it is one of the most inspiring uses of animation of the year. The character animation and the design of the whole thing are inventive to a degree most American animation (especially computer generated animation) refuses to be. It’s a movie that follows in the proud tradition of the classic Looney Tunes and UPA cartoons of the fifties. The movie eventually runs out of steam (how could it not?), but for the first half or so, The Boss Baby is quite something.

Biggest Disappointment:
If you had told me last year that I would enjoy the freaking Boss Baby more than the newest films by Todd Haynes and Yorgos Lanthimos, I would have taken it as a personal attack. Yet here we are, with two filmmakers I hugely admired tied for the most disappointing results of 2017. Haynes and his collaborators did a masterful job with the sounds and visuals, but not even they could save Wonderstruck from one of the most frustratingly bland screenplays of the year. Meanwhile, Lanthimos went full sadist in the quasi-horror The Killing of a Sacred Deerbut I couldn’t find any point to his brutal experiment. At least we can rest assured that no movie, no matter how terrible, will ever take away our ability to enjoy the masterpieces that are Carol and The Lobster.

With ‘The Post’, Steven Spielberg completes an excellent trilogy about the Constitution.

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America’s never been great, but that’s not entirely America’s fault. No country is inherently great. No constitution, no matter who writes it, guarantees a country’s success. The constitution of the United States of America is no different, but that doesn’t prevent its citizens from being obsessed with it. America, in many ways, is obsessed with itself. Almost every controversy in this country is followed by commentators, politicians, and celebrities philosophizing on what it does and doesn’t mean to be an American. “This is not who we are”, “This isn’t the image America should give to the world”, “America is better than this.” We can debate whether this “American exceptionalism” does more harm or good, but there is no question that most Americans believe in it.

The ability to believe in this message of exceptionalism while simultaneously examining -even questioning- the machines that make it work is what makes the recent work of Steven Spielberg so fascinating. Judging by his movies, Spielberg is a believer in America’s ability to be a force for good. Moreover, he believes that the American constitution is a perfectly fine blueprint for achieving this greater good. At the same time, however, he understands that the constitution isn’t perfect, and more importantly, is not going to uphold itself. Being a force for good is possible, but it’s not an easy job. It’s not that the constitution magically created a great country. The constitution is important, but even more important is the belief behind its creation, that a country could be great.

In order to explore this question, Spielberg’s made a trilogy of films that serve as a lesson in American civics. Each of these movies interrogates the idealism of the constitution by focusing on the practical. Each movie shows what it looks like for a different democratic institution to try to uphold the ideals behind this founding document. The first movie of the trilogy is Lincoln, which chronicles the process of passing the 13th amendment that ended slavery and was integral step toward actualizing the “all men are created equal” element of the constitution. Lincoln deals directly with the notion that it’s not the constitution itself, but people’s interpretation of it, that creates equality. It also shows that achieving something as great as the passage of an invaluable amendment can be an extremely tricky process.

President Lincoln -portrayed in an Oscar-winning performance by Daniel Day-Lewis- is a wise and charismatic man; he’s also a cunning strategist. A large chunk of the movie focuses on the unorthodox methods Lincoln used in order to convince congress to pass the bill. Not everything that was done was ethical, not everything that was done was legal. There was extensive trickery, and lies, involved. But such is the democratic process, the movie argues. The juxtaposes the idealism of one of the brightest moments in American history with the down and dirty reality of the political machine. John Williams’s heroic score can swell while Lincoln gives a speech, and still the movie understands that idealism is nothing without action.

The second movie in the trilogy, Bridge of Spiesfocuses on the judiciary. All-American Tom Hanks plays attorney James B. Donovan, who takes the job of defending a captured Soviet spy. The first half of the movie includes a lot of Donovan speechifying about how granting this man -no matter his crime- is the right, American, thing to do. Not doing so, according to Donovan, would be forgetting the ideals of the constitution, lowering the standards up to which American Democracy holds itself. This is very much a movie about the cost of idealism. Doing what’s right turns Donovan (and his family) into pariahs. So much so that instead of throwing rocks at his house, an angry mob decides to shoot at it.

But Donovan just has to do what’s right. In the second half, he is unexpectedly called to East Berlin, where he has to negotiate the release of two Americans who have been imprisoned by the Soviet and East German governments respectively. Donovan, as played by Hanks, is the most heroic character in this trilogy. He is an everyman who is thrown into impossible situations in which he simply has to what’s right. Donovan’s time in East Berlin is, simply, excruciating. He must deal with two corrupt governments, impossible bureaucracy, a lack of sleep, and the fact that he has a cold. In Bridge of Spies, upholding the constitution and doing what’t right is physically exhausting. But it’s what’s got to be done. Donovan refers to the constitution as “the rulebook.” Adhering to the rules, he claims, is “what makes us American”

The trilogy closes out this year, with The Postwhich is currently playing in theaters and might just be the perfect capper. The last entry in the series feels like a much more urgent film than the ones that preceded it, and for obvious reasons. Famously, Spielberg first read the script for The Post in February. Less than ten months later, the movie was screening for critics. To say that the movie was inspired by last year’s presidential election would be an understatement. The movie focuses on the publication of classified information known as The Pentagon Papers, and the subsequent lawsuit that the executive branch of government filed against the New York Times and the Washington Post. This is a movie about how the freedom of the press is essential in a democratic government.

The Post not only deals with the Executive Branch, but with the “Fourth Estate” that is meant to hold it accountable. It’s interesting that the movie chooses to focus on the people working at the Washington Post. The New York Times was the first paper to publish classified material that made clear the government was lying to the public about the Vietnam War, but focusing on The Post allows Spielberg to put the focus on the underdogs. Not only because the Post was a relatively small regional paper at the time, but because he finds a very fascinating hero in the paper’s owner, Katharine Graham (played by Meryl Streep).

Graham is a very unusual heroine. On the one hand, she is an underdog. She is a woman in a position of power at a time in which such things were more than uncommon (and she only got ownership of the paper after her husband died). As such, she has a hard time getting the men around her to fully respect her, and is incredibly doubtful about her decisions. This doesn’t mean that she isn’t a strong and courageous woman. If anything, it means the opposite, that a woman raised in a system that was overwhelmingly against her agency forged on to defy the U.S. President is outstanding. On the other hand, Graham is a privileged woman. She’s a wealthy socialite who spends a lot of her time at fancy dinner parties.

Because she is a Washington socialite, Graham is friends with many politicians, including Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara. When she first hears about the possibility of publishing the papers, she thinks of her friend of Bob, of what this whole situation will do to him and his reputation. One of the most effective moments in the movie comes when Graham and Washington Post editor Ben Bradlee (Tom Hanks), go on about their friendships to ex-Presidents Kennedy and Johnson. Were they softer on them than they should have been? How are the people meant to hold the President accountable be the President’s friend?

And at the same time, you have a whole group of reporters at the Post working hard to find and publish these papers. Graham might be at the center of the story, responsible for the ultimate decision to publish, but this is a team effort. It’s not just one person, it’s not even just one paper. It’s, again, a movie about doing what’s right on the face of fear. The things at stake are money, power, reputation. Those are all things that America loves, but those are not the thing behind the ideals of the constitution. That’s what Spielberg has been trying to get at in this section of his career. What does it mean to do the right thing?

At a time when culture is focused on nostalgia for the past. At a time where movies and tv shows insist on recycling the magic of the movies Spielberg made in the nineties, Spielberg has decided to go on a fully opposite direction. He’s making movies that have a classical sheen, following the legacy of Frank Capra and John Ford. That movies, in this day and age, can be bold and earnest about the thing they are about. That they can be transparently idealistic and incredibly honest at the same time. That there is a director like Spielberg, who can make these movies with such directorial aplomb. All of these things make me happy. All of these things, I celebrate.

Notes on ‘Mudbound’

mudbound

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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. 

A Privileged Man: A Review of the Safdie Brothers’ ‘Good Time’

Abacus-16

Good Time is such a propulsive, lean, and tense movie it’s easy to imagine some dismissing it as an example of style over substance filmmaking. The plot unfolds over night, and Robert Pattinson stars a lowlife who makes a series of questionable decisions while trying to help his mentally challenged brother. The movie is a thrill ride. Hand-held cameras keep us close to the characters’ faces, rapid fire editing keeps the plot moving forward, and through upbeat electronic music, the soundtrack does the same. But pay attention to the details, and you’ll find this is a much more thoughtful movie than it initially appears. Pattinson’s character isn’t just a guy who’s trying to get out of trouble. He is imbued with a kind of white male privilege that motivates even a lower class hoodlum from Queens to stomp over and ruin the lives of whoever crosses his path in order to get what he wants. It’s this undercurrent of thematic heft, the thoughtful observation of who this character is, and the attention to detail that elevate the shiny surface and make this one of the best movies of the year.

Not that the shiny surface needed much elevation per se. It’s a testament to the filmmaking talent of directors Josh and Benny Safdie that a thematically hollow but similarly propulsive version of this movie could still be considered a triumph. But then again, the Safdies are not that kind of filmmakers. They seem to be committed to making every moment of run time count. The movie is incredibly lean and heavily detailed at the same time. Part of how this is achieved is by getting rid of any aspect of the story that could be expendable, and focusing on the immediacy of the main character’s journey. In an interview at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, the brothers (and co-writer Ronald Bronstein) revealed that they had crafted a very extensive backstory, sketching what had happened to the characters from the time they were children up to moment before the movie begins. None of that backstory is in the movie.

This is a good thing. Once you hear the filmmakers give background on the relationship between Connie Nikas (Pattinson’s character) and his brother Nick (played by director Benny Safdie), you understand certain details of how exactly Connie comes to the point where he is willing to do all the desperate things he does throughout the movie. But we don’t need it. Knowing that backstory supplies superficial information, what we see on screen is a visceral and truthful relationship. A scene in which Connie sits down and opens up about why he’s doing what he’s doing would be beside the point. We don’t need to hear about his commitment and desperation, we see it all on screen. In the way the Safdies stick to his merciless point of view, and in Pattinson, who delivers a career-best performance in the role.

It is only appropriate, then, to describe Good Time as a well observed movie. We tend to refer to slow character studies and mood pieces as “well observed”, one of the achievements of this movie is how it opens up glimpses into its characters and their world while keeping the plot moving forward at full speed. This is a movie that knows what it’s talking about. The Safdies are native New Yorkers, and nobody would be fooled in believing otherwise after watching this movie. This is the kind of New York movie we get very seldom. It is not set in Manhattan high-rises or Brooklyn brownstones. This story sticks close to the ground, running through the streets of the outer boroughs (mostly Queens). It’s trafficking in the kind of realism you can’t just stumble upon. It’s such a New York movie, a Cellino and Barnes commercial makes an appearance.

This extends to the characters. A lot of them just come in and out of the movie, but the Safdies make sure we know these people have real lives outside the plot. This isn’t achieved through exposition, but through action. How a character says a line, how they move, even details about where they live speak volumes. And at the center of the movie, of course, exists the one character who pierces right through all these characters’ lives. Connie’s increasingly poor decisions start with a bank robbery. To pull this robbery off, he puts on a rubber mask that makes him look like a distorted black man. A telling disguise that reveals volumes about how the character relates to his own identity.

Connie Nikas is an able-bodied straight white man. This means that despite belonging at the bottom of the economic barrel and looking like a sleazebag, he can still access a certain amount of privilege that has trickled down from the top just because of who he is. Most of the characters he encounters can’t access this privilege. Some of them are black, some of them are old, some are women. His brother, as said before, is mentally challenged. The most honest thing about the movie’s treatment of Connie’s situation, however, is that Connie is entirely willing to use whatever ounce of privilege he has left in order to get what he wants. Even if it means destroying other people’s lives.

It is unclear how aware Connie is of the privilege that allows him to repeatedly avoid his own downfall. There is no denying, however, that his actions are often horrifyingly selfish. At one point he impersonates a security guard, and despite presenting himself as the only witness of a particularly fishy situation, he gets away with it. The cops take his word as face value. Do they believe him because he’s white? There is a slight level of ambiguity, but it’s telling that the only characters who are detained during that scene are black. In more than one occasion he hustles his way into black people’s homes, eating their food, drinking their alcohol, and making use of whatever item he needs in the moment. It’s a particularly masculine kind of privilege. He doesn’t seem to have any empathy or respect for the people around him. He’s come to believe he can get whatever he wants, he just needs to find a way to get it.

It wouldn’t be difficult to make a meta-filmic read of the film in which Connie fancies himself the protagonist of his own movie. His initial plan to rob a bank is, after all, the kind of solution that is far more prevalent in movies than in real life. He also has his brother as a moral justification. He’s not doing this all for himself. Just like Pacino robbed the bank for his lover in Dog Day Afternoon, so he seems to be doing it all for his brothers. Connie’s idea of what is good for his brother is obviously warped. He might be smart enough to selfishly get out of trouble, but he isn’t thoughtful. He is the kind of character that in the past has been portrayed in either too sympathetic or too villainous fashion. Rarely does the portrayal fall in such a perfectly amoral place.

Whether Connie finds redemption, or whether he deserves it, is one of the questions that linger after the movie is over. After all, a working class bum such as him can only push his luck so far. The movie ends on a weirdly tender note, that shows a kind of sentimentality that was absent for most of the movie. It seemed out of place initially, but on further reflection, opens up a series of questions about these brothers, their actions, and their humanity. It’s hard to discuss without spoiling the movie, but it’s telling that we never get to see Connie’s ultimate sacrifice, leaving his actions ambiguous. It’s also telling to think of where we last see his brother, what he’s doing, and who surrounds him. That conversation might have to wait for a later time. For now, I don’t have much else to say, other than that Good Time is one hell of a movie.

The Dream Not Taken: A Review of the wonderful Hermia & Helena

hermia and helena

Anyone who has so much as tried to move to a different country knows it’s not an easy thing to do. From needless amounts of paperwork to ridiculously restrictive laws, reality will put a quick check on anyone’s fantasy of packing things up and starting anew. And that’s not even taking into account the desperation of those who not only want, but need to emigrate. Just living in another country is a weird thing. The more you stay there, the more your life back home feels like a dream. You might as well have moved to a different planet. And yet, life does not stop, and the people back home keep on living and informing who you are and what you do. This push and pull between two places that are equally real but feel similarly fake is explored playfully and honestly in Matias Piñeiro’s wonderful new movie, Hermia & Helena, which opened in (very) limited release this Friday.

Piñeiro is an Argentinian director who’s specialized in making talky indie comedies inspired (but not really based on) the works of William Shakespeare. His name might ring a bell to art-house audiences, who’ve come to know him as a recurring presence at the New York Film Festival (where Hermia & Helena premiered last fall). After making quite a few movies back home in Buenos Aires, Piñeiro moved to New York sponsored by a an artistic fellowship program. That’s pretty much the same situation the protagonist of Hermia & Helena is in. Camila (Agustina Muñoz) is a theatre director who’s made the trip to New York to work on a translation of A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Those familiar with Shakespearean comedy will know that the young lovers of Midsummer Night’s Dream flow in and out of love with each other quickly and often thanks to the hijinks of a particularly fickle group of fairies. Piñeiro has a lot of fun with this concept. Even though the parallels to Shakespeare aren’t always evident, Piñeiro has made a genuinely playful film, which is often as tricky as the fairies of the play. Like many a Shakespearean protagonist, Camila expresses deep devotion for one lover, only to casually exchange him for another. Then, Piñeiro flashes back to the let us know there was more tot he story than we initially thought. More lovers, more secrets, more hijinks. He repeats this format a couple of times, each more revealing than the last.

This is not only a fun structure, but an effective conduit for the movie’s themes. The thing is, Camila is the type of privileged traveller who already has a pretty comfortable and fulfilling life back home in Buenos Aires. When we first meet her -hours before she has to drive to the airport- she isn’t even sure if she actually wants to travel to New York. She does, of course, but once there she says she’ll finish her translation really quickly and go back home as soon as possible. Only this isn’t truly how she feels. At least not quite. She hasn’t come to New York just to write, there are quite a few other personal plans (people) in her agenda, not to mention the unforeseen plans (people) that present themselves along the way.

Camila exhibits the traits of the young aimless traveller who has nothing to lose; who has their whole life ahead of them, and would rather get into a big mess of a situation than let an opportunity go to waste. Of course, every opportunity that she does or fails to take has repercussions, and involves other people. Camila herself is the product of a couple of such travelers. Her dad (an American) met her mom (an Argentinian) when they were both abroad in Australia. They never saw each other again, but their decision not to let a good opportunity go to waste resulted in a daughter who is (perhaps unwittingly) following in their footsteps.

One of the many great things about this movie is that it understands that this type of people tend to somehow attract each other. It also understands that Camila isn’t the only one making or breaking plans (and relationships) in order to try something new in a different place. There are always new promises to make, and new promises to break. The movie understands the seduction of the desire to reinvent oneself, and the regret that comes later, when you look back. Love can be as quick and petty as a fairy, but pixie dust doesn’t leave a hangover, real life does.

Some who have seen Piñeiro’s earlier work have described this movie as a bit of a step down for the director. This being the first movie of his I have seen, I find it revelatory. The birth of a deep interest in a new filmmaker and his work, that could very well grow into fascination. If his Viola (inspired by Twelfth Night) and his Princess of France (inspired by Love’s Labour Lost) do as great a job as Hermia & Helena of crystalizing their themes and finding new energy in Shakespeare’s evergreen but dangerously deified catalogue, then I can’t imagine them being anything less than extraordinary.

That being said, I would share a word of caution those who will seek out the movie based on this review (and I hope you do). At first glance, Hermia & Helena could be wrongly dismissed as too slight, pointless even. Though it’s really fun to watch, it’s the kind of film whose lack of serious conflict will make some feel like it isn’t going anywhere. Others, like me, will not only feel like it’s going somewhere, but everywhere. I suspect my own personal experience moving from South America to New York played a big role in my loving this movie. Take this review with a grain of salt if you must, but know that this movie spoke to me on a very personal level… and isn’t that what film’s supposed to do?