Tuesday, January 23, 2018

2018 Oscar Nominations (Reaction and Analysis)



Well, the 90th Annnual Academy Award nominations were announced early this morning by co-presenters Tiffany Haddish and Andy Serkis from the Samuel Goldwyn Theater in Beverly Hills and represented a return to the original format after last year's disastrous, anticlimactic online unveiling. While being glad Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs took the hint and went back to what worked, I can't say I enjoyed the butchering of all the nominees' names and jokey, stand-up atmosphere that again revealed the Academy's desperate, yearly obsession with be seen as relevant and plugged in to pop culture. With Haddish, they found a current, newsworthy entertainer to do it, while accidentally creating that inevitable moment of awkwardness when she wasn't nominated for Supporting Actress. But that was a longshot at best. The announcement was what it was, and there were very few surprises or outrageous snubs. There's definitely nothing as undeserved or appalling as Jennifer Lawrence's recent "Worst Actress" Razzie nod for literally one of best performances of the year in mother! 

Say what you will about the Academy, but as frustrating as they sometimes are, at least they don't just count box receipts and call it a day. They did a mostly respectable job here and while none of these categories will set ratings ablaze, how much of a goal is that anymore? The Oscars never did, nor pretended to. But it would be nice if they permeated the cultural conversation a little more, as they did last year with their strongest show in decades, culminating with that shocking Best Picture mix-up. What they have consistently done is nominate and reward respectable work, and this year again appears to be no exception.  Read the full list of nominees here and check out my take on things below.

- Guillermo del Toro's The Shape of Water leads the pack with 13 nominations, which seems like an absurd amount, even accounting for the technical awards. Sorry, but it does. Dunkirk and Three Billboards follow with 7 and 8, with both standing a better chance at wining Best Picture. How strange is that? After last year, it's already been established anything can happen. The Florida Project and I, Tonya don't make the cut, but you can't seriously believe the Academy would consider nominating Wonder Woman for Best Picture. But that it didn't get any nominations at all in any category is a bit surprising.

- Nine Best Picture nominees in total and I still say they should go back to five and make each choice mean more. Phantom Thread and Darkest Hour are the two surprises here, as everything else went according to plan. Both of those were primarily viewed as vehicles for their lead actors until this morning. And anyone who thought The Post wouldn't get in was kidding themselves.

- Remember when Greta Gerwig was set to star in that now shelved How I Met Your Mother spin-off a couple of years ago? Me neither. I guess everything does happen for a reason, and while a lot people have been waiting a while for this nomination, few could have guessed it would come in the Director category, making her only the fifth woman to ever earn that honor. And it's awesome. Jordan Peele's in for Get Out and the sole surprise (if you can call it that) is Paul Thomas Anderson's nod for Phantom Thread, which got a lot more love than anticipated. Somewhat conspicuous by his absence is The Post's Steven Spielberg, but with five slots to fill, there was always a good chance he'd be squeezed out. More surprising are the omissions of Three Billboard's Martin McDonagh and Call Me By Your Name's Luca Guadagnino.

- Let's just say it: Denzel Washington probably wouldn't have gotten a Best Actor nod for Roman J. Israel, Esq. if not for the recent sexual misconduct allegations against James Franco, who was all but a lock for The Disaster Artist a few weeks ago. Tom Hanks also found himself out in the cold for The Post, as most of the attention seemed focused on Streep's performance. Denzel's joined by Daniel Kaluuya for Get Out, Timothée Chalamet for Call Me By Your Name and, of course, the recently retiring Daniel Day-Lewis for Phantom Thread. Either way, Gary Oldman has this in the bag for Darkest Hour. He's due.

- No surprises or snubs whatsoever in Best Actress. A month or two ago it seemed as if Saoirse Ronan had this sewn up for Lady Bird. Now it's Frances McDormand's to lose for Three Billboards, but still closer than some think. We have our obligatory Streep nomination, but at least this time it's a role of substance in a picture most agree is worthy. No Jessica Chastain for Molly's Game, but that was considered a bit of a stretch to begin with. Wouldn't it be something if Margot Robbie won for I, Tonya?

- One of the few shocks, and a somewhat under-reported one, was the great Richard Jenkins' Supporting Actor nomination for The Shape of Water. No one saw that coming and it was probably the biggest sign that movie would be cleaning up this morning. Christopher Plummer still gets in for All The Money in the World despite all the endless controversy swirling around that film. No Armie Hammer for Call Me By Your Name though. That's a noteworthy exclusion, and maybe the biggest snub of the morning.

-In what's shaping up to be the big Supporting Actress showdown between respected TV veterans Allison Janney and Laurie Metcalf, Octavia Spencer shockingly slides in for The Shape of Water, while Mary J. Blige and Lesley Manville also get surprise nominations for Mudbound and Phantom Thread, respectively. Holly Hunter missing out for The Big Sick could be considered the only full-blown snub in a category infamous for throwing us some curve balls on both nomination morning and Oscar night.

- Logan becomes the first superhero film nominated for Best Original Screenplay while Mudbound's Rachel Morrison becomes the first female Best Cinematography nominee. 


Sunday, January 21, 2018

Dunkirk



Director: Christopher Nolan
Starring: Fionn Whitehead, Tom Glynn-Carney, Jack Lowden, Harry Styles, Aneurid Barnard, James D' Arcy, Barry Keoghan, Kenneth Branagh, Cillian Murphy, Mark Rylance, Tom Hardy
Running Time: 106 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

Christopher Nolan's Dunkirk clocks in at a tight, ambitiously intense 107 minutes. This bares mentioning not only as an under-reported detail in relation to its quality, but because at just over an hour and a half, it's one of the shortest war movies in decades. And by today's standards, it just might be one of the shortest movies, period. As tough as it may be to believe, there was a time not too long ago where every major release wasn't averaging two and a half hours in length. In fact, producers would do all they could to keep a film's running time to a minimum (remember "Harvey Scissorhands?"), interfering so heavily that the actual editor takes a backseat. The shorter the movie, the more theaters it could play in, and the more money it made.

The rules have now changed as actual brick and mortar theaters rapidly dwindle in the age of home viewing. Desperate to get anyone into a theater, studios are relying on bells and whistles like IMAX, 3D and insuring every movie "experience" is as long as humanly possible. You see, if it's an amusement park ride, you'll never want to get off, no matter how terrible. There's also little sense in leaving anything on the cutting room floor, hoping it'll be a bonus feature or deleted scene on the now defunct DVD format. The result has been movies getting progressively longer. And worse.

When you're packing stuff in just for the sake of it, there's no way the quality doesn't suffer considerably. It's also easy to forget the final bloated product we see is often the heavily edited, shorter version. A scary thought. You wouldn't have guessed the writer and director to break that streak would be Nolan given his career-long propensity to overindulge, with mostly positive but sometimes mixed results. It's still one of the industry's biggest mysteries how The Dark Knight managed to win a Best Editing Oscar when it was the very definition of a picture that would have greatly benefited from a snip and a trim. But implying Dunkirk's greatness only stems from its brevity is just as ridiculous as blaming a film's failures entirely on it running long.

While many factors are at clearly at play, it's still not unreasonable to suggest its length is the end result of many things done well, such as Lee Smith's masterful editing, which assures there isn't a single wasted or unnecessary moment. Proving a war epic doesn't have to be packed with story beats to succeed, Nolan creates this claustrophobic, almost terrifying sense of immediacy and impending doom that reverberates until the final minutes. With its emphasis squarely placed on spectacle and scope over story, it's in many ways the perfect antidote for those put off more emotionally-driven war entries like Saving Private Ryan.

It's 1940 and many of Allied soldiers have retreated to Dunkirk, France to await evacuation during World War II. One of them is Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), a young British private who survived a German ambush and now joins Gibson (Aneurin Barnard) in attempting to transport a wounded soldier from the beach onto a hospital ship. Meanwhile in Weymouth, Mr. Dawson (Mark Rylance), his son Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney) and teenage friend, George (Barry Keoghan) set out to the beach aboard his boat for a civilian rescue mission that's derailed when they save a shell-shocked, shipwrecked soldier (Cillian Murphy) with little interest in returning. In the air, Spitfire pilot Farrier (Tom Hardy) must assume command after their leader is shot down, but with a shattered fuel gauge, it's likely he won't last much longer himself.

Divvying the screen time between three separate, occasionally interlocking stories that center around the evacuation, Nolan focuses on what happened on land, at sea and in the air, with the each event serving as an entry point.We already know the subject itself is often enough to warrant massive praise and awards consideration, and while this probably will to, he at least went about earning it with some creatively inspired decision-making. Consisting primarily of suspenseful action set pieces with very minimal dialogue, Nolan conveys that war is lost or won on the battlefield and does his best at keeping us there, rarely letting the narrative get dragged down by unnecessary details or needless editorializing.

Despite the obvious commitment to period accuracy, there's this slick, contemporary look to the production design and cinematography that fits Nolan's vision. Sounding like something straight out of a 70's horror movie, Hans Zimmer's pounding, foreboding score never lets up, creating an uncomfortable tension throughout. There's also a significant reliance on practical effects over CGI, which only seems to enhance the authenticity unfolding in front of us. This isn't a character study and I'd argue that unpacking backstory on all these men wouldn't have necessarily brought us closer to the situation they're in and may have even slowed the momentum. What pulls us closer to the event is exactly what Nolan does in simply showing it. If everything we learn about them comes from the situation they've been thrust into, it's still an inevitability that certain segments will be the favorites, outshining others. 

Wisely casting a group of mostly fresh-faced unknowns as the soldiers, the performances are uniformly strong across the board with an excellent Fionn Whitehead as the terrified private being the closest we have to a full-blown lead in terms of screen time.  He's backed up nicely by the very known, but completely unrecognizable Harry Styles, who so seamlessly slides into his larger than expected role as Andrew, a determined British Army infantry private, you'll have to check the credits twice to believe it's him. The strongest plot thread involves Mark Rylance's civilian mariner and the friend of his son who just so happens to tag along, with all getting much more than they bargained for in taking on Cillian's Murphy's emotionally fractured, muted soldier.

In having to stay calm for the boys while navigating a potentially volatile situation, Rylance gives the film's quietest and most assured performance alongside Barry Keoghan, who conveys all the enthusiasm and apprehension of an eager volunteer trying to help, but instead finding himself in the wrong place at the wrong time, resulting in tragic consequences. With his identity as concealed here as it was in The Dark Knight Rises, Tom Hardy spends nearly the picture's entire length masked up in a cockpit, letting his voice and eyes do all the lifting, which we already know he's quite skilled at. Kenneth Branagh and James D'Arcy probably have the least to do in their respective roles as British Commander Bolton and Colonel Winnant, if only because there's so little talk of either strategy or politics. It's essentially non-stop action, which works to the film's benefit.

Despite a tame PG-13 rating, nothing about Dunkirk feels sanitized or glossed over to appeal to wider audiences. And yet, it's still one of the more accessible in its genre and among the chosen few worth rewatching. While all of the events are fictionalized, what they went through is very much inspired by true events and feels it, with Nolan employing a fast-paced, docudrama style approach that puts us right there with them. It's almost as if he set all the preventive measures in place to cut off the depressingly common "been there, done that" feeling that's accompanied most war pictures released over the past 25 years.

Monday, January 15, 2018

Star Wars: The Last Jedi



Director: Rian Johnson
Starring: Mark Hamill, Carrie Fisher, Adam Driver, Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Lupita Nyong'o, Domhnall Gleeson, Anothony Daniels, Gwendoline Christie, Kelly Marie Tran, Laura Dern, Frank Oz, Benicio del Toro
Running Time: 152 min.
Rating: PG-13

★★★ ½ (out of ★★★★)

**Warning: The Following Review Contains Major Plot Spoilers.**

From the moment it was announced George Lucas was selling LucasFilms to Disney and we'd be getting the inconceivable pipe dream of actual sequels the original Star Wars trilogy, it was basically a given they'd be able to creatively surpass the wretched prequels. But hopes remained high that they'd go further and really get it right, and after selecting J.J. Abrams' as the franchise's caretaker and an enormously successful reintroduction with 2015's The Force Awakens, there was finally  reason for fans to celebrate. There was just one more thing. But it's everything.

If you argue few characters in cinema's history have had a greater influence on pop culture than Luke Skywalker, than it's also fair to concede few actors have ever gotten as little credit as Mark Hamill. He's why we're here, and watching Harrison Ford denounce his involvement all these years only served as a reminder that Hamill never complained once, instead appreciating the adulation of his fans and in knowing the only role he'll be known for is at least a great one. While it's difficult to call any aspect of the already highly praised original trilogy overlooked or underappreciated, if forced to choose, it's his performance.

With the promise of sequels also came the promise of something fans like myself have been waiting decades for: Hamill playing Luke as the older, grizzled Jedi Master. Under the best circumstances,  he'd be as instrumental to The Last Jedi as Sir Alec Guinness was to A New Hope as Ob-Wan. With age and experience on his side and a director as uniquely talented as Rian Johnson at the controls,, Hamill would be put in a position to do the work of his career. What I couldn't have anticipated was descriptors like "controversial" and "polarizing" being attributed to any Star Wars installment that doesn't have George Lucas' name attached. Or more specifically, that the controversy would primarily surround Hamill and his return to this iconic role.

The Last Jedi is not The Empire Strikes Back of this series, nor should that have been the expectation. But it is something a Star Wars movie hasn't been in a while, if not ever: Completely unpredictable. Both for better and worse. It is the most visually arresting installment in many moons, while containing a certain degree of depth and complexity uncommon to the franchise, especially at this point. In other words, it doesn't feel as if Johnson was just hired for a job, which was probably one of the bigger fears going in. Unfortunately, mitigating these flashes of brilliance is that it's overstuffed, overplotted and, at over two and a half hours, a bit bloated. There's enough plot here to jam into ten movies, but all anyone will want to talk about is what happens with Luke. And that's fair, since it's about time he gets some attention.

When we last left Rey (Daisy Ridley), she had arrived with Chewbacca and R2-D2 on the remote island of Ahch-To to convince the self-exiled Luke Skywalker (Hamill) to join the Resistance in their fight against the tyrannical First Order. But it'll be harder than anticipated, as she discovers a bitter, grizzled recluse who's denounced all Jedi teachings after Han and Leia's son, Ben Solo, turned to The Dark Side under his tutelage, only to reemerge as the vindictive Kylo Ren (Adam Driver). Now it's Ren who sees himself capable of recruiting Rey to his side, as Luke fears history could be repeating itself.

Meanwhile, Resistance General Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and pilot Poe Dameron Oscar Isaac) are trapped on a transport ship surrounded by a First Order battle fleet targeting their rebel base, as per the orders of Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). This is as Stormtrooper turned Resistance fighter Finn (John Boyega), joins Poe, BB-8, and mechanic Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), to embarks on a mission to infiltrate one of their ships and disable their tracking device. The First Order, however, have other plans.

There are about four or five main plots and sub-plots unfolding simultaneously throughout Rian Johnson's script, close to half a dozen huge battle sequences and such a surplus of characters both new and old that you'll need a chart to track it all. Historically, the most successful Star Wars entries are the tightest and most streamlined, narrowing its focus on a few key characters embroiled in a struggle between good and evil. It was that template Lucas introduced in 1977, until with each succeeding effort the universe expanded, the backstories grew deeper and more complicated, and now with Episode VIII, the consequences of that excess are finally reflected in the actual running time of the film. This isn't your father's Star Wars and it might even be the first to fully incorporate the Marvel influence, as the only possible explanation for a universe this packed is Disney looking ahead to spin-offs and sequels.

Injecting the material with his own vision in a way the safer Abrams didn't in The Force Awakens, Johnson manages to heavily diverge from instituted tenants of the franchise while still being somewhat hamstrung by certain requirements. The result is a fascinatingly mixed bag of greatness and frustration that's all about looking ahead, serving as a swan song for classic characters and seriously testing the loyalty of even the most ardent fans who receive what could be their final nostalgia fix. By its end, the most important question surrounds whether enough has been done with the newer characters to get them to the point that they're ready to take over. And the biggest surprise coming out of this is that the time has apparently now arrived, whether we're ready or not.

Much of the gargantuan running time is taken up in the first half by a lot of narrative set-up and an exciting opening battle sequence that lays the cards on the table in terms of what to expect from the Resistance's plan to topple the First Order. Little would we know that the rest of the picture is going to be spent subverting those expectations. While it's easy to quibble that nearly all of these battle scenes could have used a trim and they do employ a good deal more CGI than its predecessor, they're staged impressively by Johnson and Abrams' mandate of incorporating more practical effects has mostly held.

Like its predecessor, the world continues to look dirty and lived-in, the creatures seem authentic and the locations look like actual places rather than actors standing in front of green screens. While most aren't completely incorrect in pointing to the film's middle portion involving Finn and Rose at Canto Bight as lagging the most, there is a larger "Let's do that. Well, that didn't work. So let's try this." repetition to the whole Resistance storyline, often causing the narrative to take an extra step or two in getting where it's going. Whether that's something that would be ironed out in a second viewing remains to be seen, but what's undeniable are that characters are given a chance to shine, even as others are inevitably marginalized.

Anyone who came exclusively for Chewbacca, R2-D2 or C3PO may as well head for the exits since they're given what amounts to extended cameos, save for maybe Chewy who does share a cleverly humorous scene opposite the now infamous Porgs. Most of the comedy in the script works really well, coming off as as natural and unforced as it ever has, especially when it comes to anything involving Domhnall Gleeson's put-upon General Hux, with the actor actually in on the joke this time around.

Despite General Leia Organa spending much of the film's first half incapacitated, the late Carrie Fisher, as promised, is given a substantial role this time around, even as each of her scenes carry a  certain weight in wondering if it's her last. As the glue that holds the Resistance together, she makes her additional screen time count and becomes far more instrumental to the story than most predicted. Even when not on screen, the character's a presence and Johnson crafts a far more emotionally fitting send-off for the actress than that jarring non-appearance as a CGI avatar at the end of Rogue One. Oddly, this wasn't a send-off for the character, who strangely survives through the end of the film despite numerous opportunities to rather easily write her out. Talk about a surprise.     


In a successfully odd and inspired bit of casting, a purple-haired Laura Dern steps in as Leia's temporary surrogate Admiral Holdo, more than holding her own in this universe and proving to be strongest of the new additions. Her casual but stern demeanor plays well against Oscar Isaac's hotheaded pilot, Poe Dameron,who has a more developed arc than you'd expect, undergoing a transformation throughout that puts the character in a more intriguing place than simply the "hero" role he played in the last film. In fact, one of the better, overlooked aspects of Johnson's screenplay is that at least most of the major characters have clearly identifiable arcs, even amidst all the quibbling as to where some of those lead.

The only important character who takes a noticeable drop-off in importance is Finn who, through no fault of John Boyega's, can't help but feel like an expendable accessory following the purposeful, spirited introduction he had in The Force Awakens with his engaging fish-out-of-water plot. His one moment comes in a lightsaber duel with Gwendoline Christie's Captain Phasma, who's quickly emerged as the new Boba Fett by being a relatively minor character whose popularity can be attributed to a really cool costume.

While Finn still has some interesting interplay with Benicio del Toro's stuttering codebreaker, DJ, being separated from Rey hurts him the most since so much of his impact inthe previous film came in those scenes opposite her. But even taking into account my reservations about the ultimate purpose it serves in the film's final scene, the Canto Bight excursion is a really fun detour in the vain of A New Hope's Cantina, and Kelly Marie Tran's Rose is a fun, spunky new character who unfortunately seems marked for death the second she appears.

That Rose doesn't perish should be a shock, if only we cared. And that's the biggest problem. The plot that eats up the most amount of running time feels like a placeholder as we we wait to return to one of the most well-written, directed and performed storylines in the franchise's history. In fact, it's so superior to the other aspect of this production that it superficially magnifies even the tiniest flaws with everything else. There isn't a moment when Finn and Rose are on screen when you're not wondering when they're going to get back to Kylo, Luke and Rey.

In a storyline brimming with possibilities, Luke's training of Rey, and both their relationships to Kylo Ren/Ben Solo, is masterfully executed, taking us back to the classic template of the original Star Wars trilogy in a way no film has managed since. With more considerably more mileage and experience behind him now, Hamill brings an undeniable gravitas to the role of Luke that wasn't there before, and despite many complaining about the character becoming a grouch or turning his back on the ways of the Jedi, it make sense. As does his distrust of Rey, who he believes will eventually betray him as Ben Solo did. Of course, we find out that's not completely true through a series of brilliant Rashomon-style flashbacks that present three different perspectives on the inciting event that caused the creation of Kylo Ren. It's really the first time the audience has been seriously challenged to question Luke's morality, and it's a testament to both Hamill and Driver's performances that we are.

With two sides to the same story and the truth landing somewhere in the middle, true nail-biting suspense is built up in finding out whether Rey or Ben will turn to the other side, as each attempts to flip the other. With Rey's calling to the Dark Side ringing louder and more believably than ever (resulting in an unforgettable sequence involving mirror images) while Ben internalizes Snoke's disappointment at his apparent softening due to the guilt of killing his father and lingering attachment to his mother.

What's most clever about all this is how it works on a number of meta levels by having Snoke acknowledge fan criticisms of Kylo Ren as a Vader wannabe and being defeated by the inexperienced Rey in the last film. She and Ben clearly share a strong, unspoken bond that goes beyond being mere adversaries, communicating telepathically as he tries to seduce her into seeing the world his way and vice versa. So palpable is their chemistry, you start to wonder whether they're literally seducing one another, as there's this sexual undercurrent to their relationship that uncomfortably brings to mind the fact we're still unaware of Rey's lineage.

Johnson has fun teasing us with Rey's parentage and playing with fears that the two will be revealed as siblings before pulling the rug out. It comes as a relief when it's revealed that she's essentially a nobody, not only because the idea that everyone has to be genetically linked is patently ridiculous, but it gives Ben another card to play in claiming he's the only one who sees her as a "somebody." It's with all this to unpack that Rey and Kylo Ben eventually arrive in Snoke's blood red Throne Room for their moment of reckoning in a sequence that draws heavily from the legendary Vader turn at the conclusion of Return of the Jedi. But it's an important distinction to make that Johnson doesn't try to duplicate it in any way, as the battle feels as if it belongs entirely to this film, with his writing and direction at a level that more appropriately earns a comparison to Luke's and Vader's Cloud City confrontation in Empire.

While it's hard to overstate how much Ridley and Driver wring out of each other and the material, the CG presentation of the creepy, frightening Snoke only helps their cause, far surpassing Andy Serkis' unsuccessful holographic cameo in Episode VII. Not only does The Throne Room scene closes with a shockingly unprecedented moment of brutality for the franchise that turns the story upside down. Or does it?  With neither willing to give in or back down to the others' beliefs, Rey and Ben find themselves back at exactly where they started: On opposite sides. It's now Luke who must face down his ultimate challenge in Kylo Ren. Getting that character to the point where he's at Vader level didn't seem like a possibility a film ago, but now thanks to Driver and the writing, he's alarmingly close. And with Ridley further building on the already solid foundation built for Rey, she stands on her own in a way she didn't a film prior. So while it seems as if the story merely reset itself, it's with characters internally transformed by what's happened here. 

The concept of the Force, which has fluctuated wildly in use and explanation throughout the series, is strongly presented and examined here, lacking in the occasional ridiculousness of previous entries. It's made clear that Rey hasn't yet mastered it and why, and Yoda's holographic appearance from beyond the grave is at least partially successful in so far as looking less like the computerized abomination we saw in the prequels, if still not exactly resembling the iconic Frank Oz creation we all loved from Empire.

While getting the climactic showdown we've always wanted with a seemingly invincible Luke battling Kylo Ren on the red-soiled planet Crait, it comes with a major caveat. Luke's Force projection takes the dive, as his physically spent body remains on Ahch-To, exiting the series as he entered it: Staring into the sunset, before disappearing for good. Taken at face value, I actually don't have a huge problem with Luke sacrificing himself to insure a future for the Resistance and the eventual title character.

Skywalker's arc came to its logical conclusion while Hamill delivers the dark, conflicted performance we've always wished for, becoming the film's centerpiece and beating heart, but in a far different manner than in the original trilogy. The final moment he shares with Leia can be seen as the ultimate symbolic gesture that the franchise is moving forward without them. Almost as sure an indication as a bitter Luke tossing his lightsaber was of Johnson's intentions to completely deconstruct this universe.

What's potentially problematic is a franchise without Han, Luke and Leia, and betting the new characters are ready to move to the forefront. Two of them surely are, while the jury's still out on the rest. That, along with pacing and editing issues, is where the film flounders most. And yet, while the sum of its parts is arguably greater than the whole, it's too sprawling and ambitious to not have staying power. There's nothing "average" about it, as it visually stuns while deepening the characters and mythology. Rian Johnson did his job. It wasn't to send every hardcore fan home happy, or take a safe, risk-free route that paves the way for a smooth, predictable Episode IX. It was to shake things up. Be careful what you wish for.     

Sunday, January 7, 2018

A Ghost Story



Director: David Lowery
Starring: Casey Affleck, Rooney Mara, Will Oldham, Sonia Acevedo, Rob Zabrecky, Liz Franke, Kenneisha Thompson, Barlow Jacobs
Running Time: 92 min.
Rating: R

★★★★ (out of ★★★★)

How often do we hear the obviously discomforting phrase, "Life Goes On" when someone passes away? If David Lowery's haunting and affecting A Ghost Story isn't one the saddest films about loss that's ever been made, then it's certainly among the greatest. It takes that statement and truly gets inside it, offering up a contemplative, poetic meditation on living and dying in this universe that's so important it feels as if we've been given answers to questions we didn't know we needed, or even wanted. And the script never once advertises it's doing that. Lowery just lets his story wash over us, showing what it must be like, to not only live with the grief surrounding a catastrophic loss like this, but be the deceased. It knows that while life does technically "go on" for most, it's nothing but an empty platitude when applied to the person who's gone.

So, how then can this film possibly attempt to articulate the feeling of no longer being alive? It's not as if the deceased can feel or do anything. And that's exactly the point. The entire concept is ingenious in its simplicity, and as you've already likely heard, this is the movie where Casey Affleck stands around in a white sheet with eyeholes and Rooney Mara eats an entire pie. That's the easy description, and on that alone you'll get a handful of people who won't see it, or will, and say they were bored to tears because "nothing happened." That's fine, but a lot happens, just not in the way anyone's used to. Emotionally, it's difficult to get through because it dares to go places that guarantee a lasting experience for those prone to falling under its spell.

Sparse and achingly real, there isn't much narrative to be found because it's interested in ideas large enough to transcend it. What starts as a painful reflection on love and loss gradually builds to more, crossing time, space and existence as it maintains this uncomfortable intimacy with the familiarity and monotony of everyday life. Unbearably depressing and strangely uplifting all at once, it's staying power already seems unrivaled, continuing to grow in my estimation since its initial viewing.

Quiet, sensitive Texas-based musician, "C" (Affleck) lives with his wife, "M" (Mara) in a small suburban home he loves, but she's hoping they can soon move out of. Unfortunately, the final decision rests with neither, as a tragic, sudden car accident claims C's life as he pulls out of their driveway early in the morning. While lying on the mortician's table, his spirit appears to rise from his lifeless body, and wearing a white bedsheet with two eye holes, he returns to their house as a passive, invisible observer of his grieving widow. Watching as C attempts to put the pieces of her now shattered life back together, he takes in the painful realization that things will gradually get easier for her. Soon, he'll be gone a little longer, and as a result, that absence may mean a little less.

C will meet new people and will surely now want to sell a house that contains plenty of warm memories, but stands primarily as a depressing reminder of a future together that's gone. While she can leave, he's trapped, standing on the sidelines long enough to frustratingly witness a new family move in and the house turn over yet again. He stays and waits for her to come back. Will she? When C's journey finally takes him out of the house, he embarks on a transformative trip through time and memory, finding out what it truly means to leave a lasting legacy in a universe where everyone has a history.

Emotional devastation. That's really the only proper description for what Lowery accomplishes in taking a seemingly ludicrous premise of a dead guy walking around in a ghost sheet and wringing such pathos out of it. Even one or two half-steps wrong in the presentation of this admittedly high risk concept could have resulted in disaster, but he somehow successfully walks that razor's edge, delivering this melancholic tone poem that haunts and wonders with each new scene. Much of that comes from the fact that you can sense the presence of C under the sheet.

You can just tell it's Casey Affleck under there rather than some stand-in or double. From the height to the posture and movements, it's definitely him, and you get the impression any attempt at a substitution would negatively manifest itself in a piece built entirely around mood and feeling. He has to move just right for all of this to work and not seem ridiculous, but Affleck goes several steps further with his head gestures, finding ways to convey an entire range of emotions through, yes, a sheet.

Much has been made of Rooney Mara's infamous pie-eating scene, but it seems that audiences are more put off by the audacity of the idea than the actual event, which sees her desperate, grief stricken character ravenously goes to town on this pie all within a single take. It's clear why the scene's here, as it might be the only true release M allows herself in the wake of this tragedy, but what's less obvious is how anyone could have serious thematic issues with it. If they're just bored then that's fine, as the film probably isn't for them anyway since many other scenes feel even longer. But Lowery's not just being pretentious or trying to shock. Rather, it's a deliberate attempt to take us inside the head space of a character who's dying inside, and that it succeeds at it (and much more when factoring in who else is in the room) should be enough to claim it works better than any lines of spoken dialogue could. It also calls to mind an old expression that you'd even watch a certain actor or actress just read the phone book for two hours. This takes less time, but substitute a dessert dish for that phone book and Rooney passes the test.

Possibly from corroborating once before on a Lowery project, Mara and Affleck have this easygoing shorthand as a couple in the early scenes, of which there are surprisingly few. Once the death occurs, most of the remainder belongs to her, carrying those scenes of grieving with expressions and silences that seem unconsciously plugged in to his spectral presence without ever truly being aware of it.
Daniel Hart's unnerving and hypnotizing score also adds to that feeling with invisible subtly, even as the film's loudest proclamation of outright emotion, Hart's band Dark Rooms' "I Get Overwhelmed" exceeds any expectation of a song powerful enough to break down the barriers between life and death.

With long enough stretches of no dialogue to qualify as a silent film, Lowery leans heavily on visuals, sound design, score and the performances to tell the story. The combination of being shot in an extremely boxy aspect ratio and Andrew Droz Palermo's washed out, grainy cinematography recreate the look of a vintage photo, while also serving to enhance the claustrophobia. It's as if we're looking through a peephole or viewfinder into these characters' lives, much like the deceased protagonist.

It's hard to prepare for what you'll experience when a premise this far outside the box lands on your lap. But there's no mistaking that A Ghost Story is, in every possible sense, an experience, albeit one requiring the viewer to enter with an open mind and heart. So many of its scenes are unforgettably haunting. Whether it's a sudden, explosive expression of the ghost's anger directed at strangers who have taken over his home, an unbearably sad, subtitled silent conversation that takes place between apparitions, or time travel trips into the future and past that deliver a cold but somewhat comforting truth: While the world goes on without us, it's entirely possible we each left a mark that made it just a little better for whoever comes next.