CERTAIN WOMEN

1.5 out of 5 stars (1.5 / 5)

I wish I understood what the appeal is to Kelly Reicherdt’s films. Ever since I saw the one-hour borefest that was Old Joy ten years ago at the Film Forum, a movie where two bros get together for a weekend getaway and just when you think something akin to bonding or something homoerotic should happen, nothing, not a single damn thing, does, I realized this is the kind of art movie film snobs rave about and hyper-analyze in lengthy, 3,000 word articles in prestige magazines, gushing over every minute scene like it was the second coming of Vertigo announced with heroic trumpets and flashes of lightning. It’s no wonder that I had trouble even getting tickets to watch this at the New York Film Festival. People were on standby lines in droves just waiting to see what magick Ms. Reicherdt would concoct, and boy, she didn’t disappoint. I wish I would have never seen this movie. Heck, I wish I could un-see it. But, alas, there it is, a ticket spent, 105 minutes gone to the gutter with a movie so insipid, so drained of life that I probably could cut my own veins and drink my own blood to replenish myself.

Look. I don’t mind art-films — in fact, I love them, I love how daring they can be, how they can take a narrative into a whole different place and if the story ends belly up or on its feet, it’s okay, because the story was going there anyway. I like that. I also like a story that takes me somewhere. Anywhere. Down Route 66 if you will. What I don’t like is when a director, in wanting to go via the artsy route, decides to make a film about essentially paint drying and expects you to sit there in those tight Alice Tully Hall seats that hurt, chew some popcorn, and gawk in awe. It doesn’t work that way. Even Hitchcock said a story has to entertain . . . in all languages. If a story so steeped not only in boring Americana, but also in lethargy and self-sabotage, can’t make it past a Festival, how can it even hope to reach an audience?

But, I sat there, incredulous, watching people as well as the movie — the people afterwards, of course — I do pay attention. I saw them gush and ooh, and aah. and I wondered what kind of drugs they might be on. It was better than the movie, I can tell you that.

Again, like Moonlight, the movie I saw a day before, there is a triptych. Instead, however, of it being about one person, it’s about four different women who live unhappy lives in Small Town USA, somewhere in the Northwest. I forget. Montana, perhaps. Laura Dern introduces the movie with a story that actually did capture my attention: she’s in a sordid affair not dissimilar to Janet Leigh’s in Psycho, but that’s beside the point: she returns to work to find herself in the middle of a situation with a man who had a worker’s compensation case thrown out of court because he settled for too little and now he’s in a bind. The man later holds a security guard in his office hostage; Dern is summoned to negotiate the man to surrender, and before you know it, this is exactly what happens, not without Dern realizing she may have been complicit in him going off the rails.

In the second story, Michelle Williams, a Reicherdt regular, plays a woman married to the man Dern was having the affair with (what!) who wants to build her own house, but has to negotiate with a crusty old man over a pile of rocks on his property. Somehow her marriage becomes strained, but it all resolves itself out in the end. The third story — and here the movie screeches to a complete halt as if it had run out of gas, and life — involves a lawyer (Kristen Stewart) who teaches night school and lives four hours away and a lonely girl (Lily Gladstone), a ranch girl who’s also her student. I got the feeling Glastsone’s character was a lesbien — repressed, perhaps, but still — because she clearly falls for Stewart’s closed-book character. I kept waiting for something to materialize . . . but like in Old Joy, another gay tease, nothing did, and I was left alone to ponder what the hell did this all mean.

So there you have it. Certain Women will appeal to anyone who loves this kind of plotless, aimless film that deprives its audience of any kind of satisfaction and presents itself in film festivals aiming for artistic quality. I’m going to call it quits on anything Reicherdt does from now on. I like involving plots, and exciting artifice. If I need to go to sleep I’ll take a Contac and knock myself out.

MOONLIGHT

 

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

The New York Film Festival this year had one of the strongest programs I’ve seen in a while, and none stronger than Barry Jenkins’ extraordinary picture Moonlight (currently playing at the Angelika and the AMC Lincoln Square, expanding nationwide this coming Friday). Prior to this film I knew nothing of Jenkins’ work, so I basically was, in my opinion, watching a first from a new director. What intrigued me was that this wasn’t just another throwaway LGBT coming of age story that frankly, bores me to death with their cardboard acting and made-for-video montage. This was a three part vision of a man at three crucial stages of his life: childhood, adolescence, and early adulthood. It’s a perfectly staged triptych that showcases the elements that shape a character and turn him into the person he is today.

When we meet Chiron, he’s a frail little thing called him Little, almost mute, chased down the block by bullies for no other reason than he’s an easy target. Hiding, frightened, eyes expressing more pain and fear than any child I’ve ever seen, it’s hard not to see yourself in this kid. I was once this very kid. Chiron gets taken in by a kind drug dealer, Juan (Mahershala Ali) who alongside his wife Teresa (Janelle Morae) become the surrogate parents Chiron himself never knew (but should have had). Despite his position in society as a man outside the law, Juan is the only masculine fulcrum the boy has, his home the only stability Chiron has experienced, and an early conversation where a young Chiron (who has begun to grope with his own identity) asks, “Am I a faggot?” yields surprisingly positive results. Jenkins frames the love of father and son achingly beautiful and ethereal in a sequence where Juan teaches Chiron to float on water. You see the bond between the two, and the incredible fragility this poor boy carries — a frightened person that will remain inside as he grows.

We also meet Chiron’s mother, a horror show masquerading as caregiver, played to repulsive perfection by Naomi Harris. She’s barely getting by, but is ferociously addicted — in a turn of fate, by the same drugs Juan sells on the street which she consumes. She doesn’t care much about Chiron spending time at Juan’s house whenever it suits her, but later on in a scene of almost impossible rage she demands from Chiron he hand her over whatever money he has, which Juan has given him as an allowance. Chiron does, solely out of pure hatred of her, and leaves her hellish place to find solace with his childhood friend Kevin with whom he has had a crush on since he was a kid. Kevin, while ostensibly heterosexual, meets Chiron at the beach one night and after some playful conversation shares a kiss with him. However, the violent onslaught of relentless thugs at his middle school will ultimately tear them apart for some time.

Moonlight’s third act is a wonder of revelations: now a grown man living life on his own terms, powerfully built and a sight to behold, his face a mask that expresses nothing, Chiron has evolved into the same man Juan, his spiritual father, was. He’s still cagey and trusts no one, but this, we see, comes from the many scars of growing up in a violent world where the only way out was by force. A random call from an old friend triggers memories long repressed, and veers the picture into an entirely different direction — far, far away from the drug scene and deep, deep into a long, progressively romantic conversation with a man he once loved as a teenage boy. I dare you not to get emotional when a song plays itself on the jukebox where Kevin now works as a restaurateur. The conversation in itself is fantastically intimate, and drenched in romantic suspense. These are now two grown men feeling each other out, both cynical, both world weary, and it is a wonderful sequence, as haunting and smoldering as any romance from the 1940s.

I’m in awe that this movie could speak volumes about the nature of masculinity in such a brief running time. From its early scenes when Juan attempts to guide Chiron, followed by Chiron’s own emancipation sequence that instead of filling him with triumph lands him on the wrong side of the law, to the powerful but ultimately lonely man seeking that connection to something golden and cherished, Moonlight presents a complex character study of a man grappling with identity and his place in the world that expects everything but yields nothing. Moonlight resonates because it speaks to all gay men who have had to adopt masks in order to survive.

SPOTLIGHT ON THE 54TH NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL: 13TH, 20TH CENTURY WOMEN, AND THE LOST CITY OF Z

And so, the 54th New York Film Festival has come to a close as of October 16th. After a solid two weeks of what I wold call a non-stop  all-you-can-eat cinematic buffet, my throbbing eyes needed a rest and my mind needed to turn itself off in order to digest the sheer enormity of visuals that I’d witnessed, often back to back, without a rest. Now that I can think, now that it’s all over and some of the films that made their premiere have started their theatrical runs in New York and LA theaters (and will expand between this weekend and the next to all other theaters nationwide), I’m going to start by focusing on their Opening Night, Centerpiece, and Closing Night selections.

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5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

A remarkable Opening Night choice, Ava Duvernay’s searing documentary 13th focuses on the prison system and its intricate relationship with slavery as a perfectly legal reason to keep persons of color under bonds for no other reason than their skin tone. As a documentary 13th has shoes that are at first too large for it to fit in. It would seem that this would be a mountain to steep to climb, but when presenting a fluidity of historical information as to the darker aspects of our nation it’s an onslaught of one event after another, linked together by the pervasive hand of the White Man in Power’s tenacious grip on power and its subversion of everyone else to the Nation’s Will.

The culprit, needless to say, is the glaring loophole in the 13th Amendment of the Constitution. Had “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction,” omitted that pernicious clause, we would not have the level of inequality that we have today where blacks and latinos overpopulate jails at record levels and a prison system, itself the brainchild of a pseudo non-profit organization called ALEC (closely scrutinized here) benefits from it in monetary and political gains. ALEC as the power behind the power has been the puppet-master aiming to privatize the prison system through legislation and the use of colorful language that seeks to diminish and dehumanize black men at all costs. They have even submitted the proposal to use GPS monitoring for convicts inside their own homes.  It is a scary reality, especially when most of these people have been convicted to abnormally long sentences for smaller crimes.

Our government, 13th explains and does so rather well, has been complicit in upping the lengths of which law enforcement can go to incarcerating what it eventually would call “superpredators” — men solely interested in polluting our children with drugs of all kinds, and even attempts to tinker with the system have all but backfired badly. Most notably, 13th examines the horrible mistake Bill Clinton’s [ALEC proposed] “three strikes; you’re out” policy was, how it basically ripped black men from the streets and made them invisible. An attempt, seen later on in the film, of Clinton to apologize is seen as feeble, but when all is said and done, there is little that he or anyone can do to place a bandage over the gaping wound. Especially when he wasn’t the first to initiate this persecution against men  of color. J. Edgar Hoover’s insidious grasp on power and the government led him to become a monster of surveillance against black intellectuals and belittled them into FBI’s Most Wanted — among them Martin Luther King, Assata Shakur, and Angela Davis (who herself talks about her experience as someone who faced arrest and managed to discredit her accusers brilliantly). Such has been the fear of “the black man” that even organizations like the Black Panthers was systematically ripped apart, piece by piece, member by member, until only memories remain.The politics of law and order have prolongued this ongoing drama under the guise of the (now failed) war on drugs championed by Nixon and Reagan to such an extent that the image of the drug dealer/criminal has become inextricably linked to men of color.

And it’s this image of the black man as pawn for a lynching has resurfaced, most notably with the advent of cameraphones. I often wonder how would have history been written if we had had such phones fifty, sixty years ago when Emmet Till was being shot to death, or black men were hanged from trees. When we see visual representations of black men in film it’s always under a bestial form — little more than a savage — with next to zero redeeming qualities to his animal persona. Birth of a Nation, now a little over 100 years old and a massive blockbuster of its time, is an egregious example of this “black panic.” It has so infiltrated our culture that you see psychopaths like Susan Smith and many, many others accusing “the black man” for being the perpetrator, the violator, the child killer, when in fact it’s a well known fact that it was exactly the opposite and slave owners would use black women as sexual slaves for instant gratification. More striking is when we see through Duvernay’s documentary lens is the symbol intrinsically tied to racism that the burning cross became as an emblem for the KKK. This is one frightening moment of life imitating art for the spread of terror.

You will not leave this rich documentary without feeling both complicit and sick to the stomach. When we’ve witnessed the militarization fo the police and the events of Ferguson, when we transpose that to the hosings of black men and women fighting to stay alive in the 60s, and the hectoring, hateful voice of Donald Trump as the ultimate bigot eager to rip this nation to shreds, you will see just how far we truly are to call ourselves a “nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.” We may be a great nation, but it sure doesn’t look like it for the Trayvons, the Emmet Tills, and the Eric Garners.

Find 13th on Netflix or at IFC where it’s playing.

 

20th Century Women (Centerpiece, October 8)

 

4.8 out of 5 stars (4.8 / 5)

This is the third time since going to a film festival that a movie steeped in deep 70s nostalgia makes it to its repertoire, the first being Inherent Vice (Centerpiece, NYFF, 2014) and last year’s Miles Ahead (although you could also call The Walk a trip back to nostalgia, but somehow the disco colors, the time, the hedonism is missing in Zemeckis’ film which adheres closer to Philippe Petit’s audacious walk in between the Twin Towers who themselves figure throughout the entire film as a symbol of a different era that ended in 2001). Mike Mills’ 20th Century Women is a trip down memory lane at the end of an era when we were rebelling against the status quo with the false hopes of some radical growth when in fact we basically came right back home to it. Seen through the lives of three women who serve as mentors and mothers to a young boy growing up in Southern California, 20th Century Women is essentially a coming of age story tinted with vibrant colors and reckless, carefree abandon.

Living in a ramshackle Victorian home in Santa Barbara, Dorothea (Annette Bening in one of her most complex characters), a woman both daringly progressive and surprisingly conservative, realizes her adolescent son Jamie (Lucas Zumann) needs some guidance, the type she perhaps as someone from a completely different generation cannot provide him. Not trusting her own live-in boyfriend/home repair guy William (Billy Crudup, in a sensitive, vulnerable role as that macho guy who isn’t so macho after all), she enlists her tenant Abbie (Greta Gerwig, a purple-haired punk and feminist enthusiast going through a bout with cervical cancer) and neighbor (and frequent night visitor) Julie (Elle Fanning) to help her out. Both girls couldn’t be different: Julie is reserved and only sees Jamie as a friend. She has sex with boys because she can, but essentially keeps her distance to anyone who could come closer than she would want (a fact that becomes revealed much later in the film when Jamie tries to have sex with her). On the other hand, Abbie provides the more literary information that Jamie is all too eager to devour. One breathtakingly funny sequence has Jamie telling a friend who was boasting that he made his girlfriend orgasm three times that perhaps she was faking it — an utterance that lands Jamie on the other end of a fist.

20th Century Women is light on plot; it’s  Summer of ’79 plot breezes by almost without effort, as light as a San Diego breeze, and as touching as the moment Bening’s character in voice-over talks about her past, her present, and her future. Her omniscient character is the glue that holds this sort-of family together and while you know that one day it will all end, that Abbie, Julie, William, and Jamie will eventually find their own lives and lose touch, Mills keeps you focused in this beautifully told “Perfect Moment” that we all lived at one point of our lives. So much, that when the movie reaches its conclusion, it’s almost sad to see the credits start to roll.

20th Century Women opens in theaters Christmas, 2016, and nationwide January, 2017.

The Lost City of Z (Closing Night, October 15)

2.5 out of 5 stars (2.5 / 5)

 

https://youtu.be/aBjv_jzhh2w

And finally we arrive to the film that the New York Film Festival decided to close its festival. If 2015 had an overrated entry in Taiwan’s The Assassin, this year the most overblown piece of boredom has to go to James Gray’s version of Embrace of the Serpent, The Lost City of Z. Based on David Grann’s The Lost City of Z: A Tale of Deadly Obsession in the Amazon, Gray plunges the viewer straight into this heart of darkness from the get-go with a short clip that wouldn’t have been amiss from The Forbidden Room (itself featuring snippets of an explorer meeting an exotic tribe way out in the jungle). So pretentious is this movie that it wants you, the viewer, to know in exclamation points that You Are Watching An Epic, and boy, does it hammer it home. It’s not to say that parts of it aren’t good — they are, most notably Percy Fawcett’s first encounter with natives that goes rather bloody (and has echoes of Alfonso Cuaron’s The Revenant) and ends with piranhas. It’s just that this type of story arrives with a DOA stamped on it. We’ve seen this many times before. John Huston and Francis Ford Coppola both tackled men in jungles in The African Queen and Apocalypse Now and turned both experiences into nightmares. Gray’s film is austere to a fault, with overreaching dialog, stilted performances from its entire cast, and it plods along mercilessly for two and a half hours. You might like it; I for one, am not a fan. Sorry.

The Lost City of Z is set to open in March, 2017.https://youtu.be/aBjv_jzhh2w