What If (2014)

What If, a non-romantic comedy about Wallace (Daniel Radcliffe) falling for Chantry (Zoe Kazan) but not being able to do anything about it as she has a long-term boyfriend. This is a conundrum I know well (whether the hold-up be unavailability or lack of reciprocated interest) and it is a challenge worth considering because as much as positive thinking types stress not to fear rejection because it doesn’t have consequences, sexual interest isn’t consequence free. Even though it is the most natural thing in the world, we don’t seem to have figured out a good way to deal with the fact of sexual interest in a non-sexual relationship that allows that relationship to still thrive. As famously postulated in When Harry Met Sally, “the sex part always gets in the way.”

I’ve had the privileged to know a great many exceptional women, smart, beautiful, fiercely independent. These wonderful traits are things that draw me to want to be friends with them, but also make me want more and it is a constant struggle and I think What If does a great job handling the nuance. It does so in a slightly over-the-top way with both real and fantasy plot elements that push realism, which make it easier to accept the improbabilities of the genre. It really succeeds based on the highly charismatic cast and sharp dialogue, namely from the trio of Radcliffe, Kazan and Adam Driver but even with the rest, it is exceptionally cast.

If there is one gripe, it is that Wallace’s plight isn’t that troubled. He’s had many girlfriends and has many options, his problem of finding himself on the outs is pretty confined to this relationship, the problem for him is he is caught too much on this one ideal woman. That is less sympathetic than someone more lacking in success or options. I pray that in my own life, if my Zoe Kazan is unavailable, I will not be too fixated to know that when life gives you Megan Park, you fuck Megan Park.

B+

Happy Christmas (2014)

Joe Swanberg is quietly becoming one of the better filmmakers working, and this despite a workrate that exceeds even Woody Allen over the past few years. If my November has been characterized by stuffy epics, Swanberg’s films, generally under 90 minutes and with a distinct lack of formality, are the perfect antidote. While the mumblecore movement, from which Swanberg emerged, is sometimes associated with being so improvisational and authentic as to feel slight, each of the past three Swanberg releases I’ve seen (Drinking Buddies and All The Light In The Sky) have had just enough of a hand guiding the naturalism to hit on meaningful parts of humanity. If I had to pick, I’d say AtLitS is my favorite, with its portrayal of strains on a woman in Hollywood hitting a complex age in the industry, but Happy Christmas goes somewhat back to the thematic well that Drinking Buddies hit, with a tension between carefree types and more organized ones.

Jeff (Swanberg) and Kelly (Melanie Lynskey) are proper adults now with a young son, but some of the strain of the way the role of mature adults is imposed on them because of having a child. Jeff’s sister Jenny (Anna Kendrick) comes to stay after her relationship falls apart and she provides a source of chaos and immaturity. In this she often provides an example of how problematic that immaturity is, especially in the context of parental responsibility, but it also provides a needed injection for Jeff and Kelly to find a place in their lives for a little more freedom. This manages a relatable nuance while never feeling tedious or obvious. I did feel a bit of sympathy for Jenny, even though she’s the clear problem child of the film. Watching the way the film cuts around her use of alcohol I couldn’t help but think what an editor could do with the footage of my life to make things look much worse than I think they are. Anyway, time for me to dig further into Swanberg’s filmography.

B

Mockingjay Part 1 (2014)

Every time we get one of these split finales, everyone has to weight in on whether there is artistic merit or whether it is only shameless cash grab. While The Hobbit’s triple split is a particularly failed effort, the two other notable instances, Harry Potter and Twilight, show just how powerful a split can be.

If not for the split, I feel like the climactic battle of Harry Potter would have suffocated the space that the first part allows for the quieter, icier contemplation of the friendships of the central trio and ultimately the power of friendship and love that is at the heart of that saga. Not splitting would have denied us the best film in the series (and the one entry that outshone the source material). True, the second part felt a bit lesser, but I think that can be chalked up to decisions in the filmmaking rather than anything inherent in the split.

Splitting Breaking Dawn also allowed for increased focus on a slightly quieter drama prior to the chaos of the climax, in this case delivering an intriguing body horror about pregnancy and about choice. Again, this part one is arguably the high point of the series. Part two is more or less a success of trashy fun.

If The Hunger Games was about setting a context of inequality and oppression and Catching Fire was the tricky task of managing dissatisfaction and the crafting of a symbol, Mockingjay concerns itself with turning these raw materials into a concerted and successful rebellion. It also starts to introduce concerns about what degree noble ends can justify means. The film focuses on the use of propaganda (an uneasy exploitation of tragedy) and largely ignores concerns about District 13’s more controlling egalitarianism of the book. ScreenCrush’s review of some of the differences in the adaptation highlights a few ways that Katniss is made less active. These represent some of the first instances of really blowing the adaptation, and ultimately, it doesn’t do enough to justify its separation (though maybe getting it out of the way will benefit the second part).

Still, this film has a handful of those tremendous moments of real craft, both in production and in performance that have set the series apart from most blockbusters. If this ends up being the weakest entry (and I certainly hope it proves to be that), it speaks quite highly of the franchise. I still can’t wait for part two, which should be a thrill ride.

B

Spoiler Section:
The film goes to District 12 twice here. The second trip is staggeringly effective, though slightly weakened by the first trip which feels a complete waste. I could have done with a lot less of Katniss’ affection for Peeta. Maybe I just don’t appreciate interpersonal matters in comparison to the political, but her giving primacy to him feels like a weakness, especially since everything he’d done and said up to this point would suggest he’d be as disappointed as anyone.

A Way of Life (2004)

One of the trickiest things to manage in cinema is making unlikable characters sympathetic. A Way of Life, the debut film from Belle director Amma Asante, is centered on Leigh (Stephanie James), a young mother reliant on government support and her brother’s gang of petty criminals. She is very abrasive (it was hard for me to avoid thinking of Andrea Arnold and the prickly Mia from Fish Tank, though as a young mother she is more like the lead from Wasp), and it is especially hard to watch the racism spewed by her and those around her. Yet, even if she isn’t a superstar mother, her love for her daughter ultimately does connect you to the character. All these other things, her lashing out, opens up as kind of a primal maternal reaction to both real and perceived threats to her ability to be mother.

There is a pointed comment here. Even in a more robust welfare state in the UK, we see how society is kind of failing Leigh as a mother, never really giving her enough to thrive. Instead, it gives just enough that society feels it can blame her for not being good enough. There are obviously situations where society needs to step in on the behalf of a child, but this cautions us against rush to judgment. While I think it is a bit less successful overall, the film’s handling of racism does at least remind us of the way that economic uncertainty, rather than uniting the underclasses, can often cause tensions, especially surrounding race (or, especially in the US, matters of religiosity). There is a gut punch moment in the film that kind of speaks to similarities in experience, blinded by racial animus.

As a piece of filmmaking, this is rougher, and more inconsistent than the precision Asante would demonstrate with Belle (or that Arnold has done with gritty realism) but it is ultimately a strong, compelling work. With two such films under her belt, Asante is definitely a director to watch going forward.

B

Olympia (1938)

First, apologies for my disappearance. I’ve been reviewing films but just not getting them posted…I’ll try to get caught up.

Part 1:

I’m pretty sure the internet has ruined the Olympics. Watching this two hour summary broadcast of the 1936 Olympics it is kind of surprising how much is packed in, but yet with how much detail. Yes, theoretically a lot of non-competitors are cut out and yes, sometimes the events are sliced up enough that you don’t retain a great handle on what is going on (though part of the blame for this is the lack of fancy graphic technology). But the thing that has ruined the Olympics is how accessible results are. Even though this particular Olympiad is almost 80 years old, I didn’t know the outcomes so often the events were actually pretty gripping in how they were presented. Admittedly this production only captures the classical track and field events, not the mass of additional sports that have been added to the tally, but there is something nice about having everything in a tight package. Modern Olympiads are scattered to the wind of a dozen cable channels at all hours of the day. Even if you try to watch the more cultivated tape-delayed prime-time displays it is a painful slog of commercials and puff pieces. Riefenstahl cuts to the heart of the matter and it is surprisingly satisfactory…if you combined that efficiency with modern graphics and a touch more space for context or coherence and it would be a much more satisfactory way to get back to that natural element of sport, especially national competition, that makes the Olympics such an alluring concept every two years (until the aforementioned spoiling, commercials and excess ruins it).

But this is a film, not a sports broadcast. In this respect it has two primary attributes, both tied to its placement within Nazi Germany. For example, the opening ceremony’s entry of countries, typically so dreadful starts to feel pretty creepy, not just when the overtly fascist countries walk by with full Nazi salute, but even the other countries. There’s just something about a military-style parade that gives me an odd feeling. Probably my favorite thing in this part is watching Hitler watch, and react, to the Games. The behavior is common enough, excitement at victory for his country, disappointment with defeat, but everything is different when you’re Hitler.

Ultimately more substantial is the place of race. Certain overt, and frankly unnecessary to anyone with eyes, callouts of race in the commentary definitely place it in a different time or culture, but the film itself is quite honest in showing how much Jesse Owens and the other black athletes kicked butt. Released two years after the Olympics, I suppose Germans had gotten over the performance at that part, but there is a surprising honesty about it. Instead of showcasing a master race, it perhaps unintentionally helps mark a symbolic turning point, a loss of dominance coming from a breaking of the controls that allowed white people to paint themselves as superior. Still, moving back into the film’s unintentional humor, perhaps the best moment on race is after Owens sets a World Record in the 100 meter dash only for it to be discounted because he had a wind at his back. Typical of the white man to come up with a bullshit excuse to deny recognizing the achievements of a minority (though Owens did get the gold if not the record).

Part II:

If any part of this film (or films, if one insists) that could perhaps be claimed as tilting toward propaganda in promotion of the aryan race, it is the opening of this film and its female gaze appreciation of a pristine assemblage of sporting men, having completed running, in a state of undress. This also is one of only a few places in this part that really feels like it justifies separation and a title indicating a focus on beauty. For the bulk of this second part, it feels like more of the same, though now with those sports that mostly fall outside the track and field context. A few of them, like gymnastics and diving are perhaps more aesthetic competitions but ultimately I feel like the divide is minimal. There does seem to be a more abstract approach to the coverage of many of the events so as sports broadcast it is less effective.

The tricky thing about the artistry of Olympia is that it is hard to appreciate revolutionary technique decades later when the revolutionary has been adopted as the mundane. With a lot of research I could get an exact sense of what is revolutionary about it, but I wouldn’t really feel it. There were more moments in this part that were bold enough to break through this and stand out and ultimately I can see why someone with a more scholarly and technical approach to cinema would value this film particularly highly. But in terms of the narratives of the games that stood out in the first part, this one seemed a lot less interesting and it started feeling a bit long in the tooth. I certainly don’t see much in the film (in this version, apparently early versions in Germany did cut a lot of the Owens stuff) to feel the need to write it off as technical craft in service of something terrible, like Birth of a Nation or, apparently, Triumph of the Will. On the whole I’d say a decent time was had, even though I wouldn’t see myself revisiting it or claiming it as a favorite.

Locke (2014)

So I’m not entirely sure, but I think the moral of the story is that when you have an affair, make sure to leave your mistress alone and scared in the maternity ward and continue lying to your wife. Sure, one might say the moral is fidelity, but infidelity is in large measure biological, while reactions to infidelity are social constructions, in a purely literal sense, the wife’s insistence on the traditional all or nothing approach to monogamy is the wrecking ball here.

Thankfully, this film is metaphor rather than a dubious morality tale. Whether you think the metaphor is too forceful or not, it is not incidental that Ivan Locke (Tom Hardy) is a construction site manager. As he at one point stresses, even one slight deviation in a skyscraper’s foundation can be catastrophic. The film, more or less in real time as Locke drives to London, balancing family, mistress and business over the cell phone, is an act of watching his life crumble due to cracks in his foundation.

As a basic concept, this is a powerful one, because it is really true of life that momentary lapses of judgement, or often even things out of one’s control (as some of Locke’s challenges here prove to be), can fundamentally alter the path of one’s life in irreconcilable ways. Key the the story’s effectiveness is that once you take his sexual indiscretion as a given, he’s trying to be a stand-up guy, being there for his imminent child even though he has no affection for the mother. It is his noble effort at least as much as his potential vice that destroys him.

In terms of effectiveness though, I did feel held back by a couple things. Hardy’s accent here just has a certain off aspect to it. While the phone conversations mostly work as the structure of the dialogue, a few scenes where Locke vocalizes comments to his father, who we learn was never there for him, fail pretty badly. I get the importance of his father as driving his own need to make this choice to drive to London, and driving his own insecurities, but the execution of these scenes just feels out of place and I do feel like the possible suggestion that his father’s absence is the crack in his foundation is a bit traditionalistic. Ultimately Hardy does pull off an engaging enough performance that combined with the basic ideas makes it a worthwhile film, but it doesn’t really pull things together just right to be more than that.

B-

Boyhood (2014)

When Boyhood started filming early in the 21st Century, I was almost exactly the age that Mason is when this film ends. Watching Mason (Ellar Coltrane) and sister Samantha (Lorelei Linklater) grow from childhood into early adulthood, during an era of my own adulthood, serves as a strong reminder of how old I am, far more than a film using multiple actors to display progression over such a span would. Techniques like using hit songs from various years (as this film does) are nice steps to show progression, but there really is no substitute for showing the passage of time than showing the passage of time, as worn on the faces of both children going through adolescence but parents (Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke) passing from relatively early adulthood into solidly middle-aged.

Even as the film begins, we know we are watching a broken family and this journey is one of a certain degree of economic and emotional instability, with the Great Recession feeling a perfect thematic complement, though no doubt it shaped the direction the story went. It is a story with some very challenging dramatic moments, but leaves some of the biggest or heaviest just off screen. Yet it has a certain idealism about it as well, both in a certain “it takes a village” attitude, and especially the way certain rites of passage for Mason seem much more meaningful within his life than at least within my own. It is a film that manages an amazing humanistic naturalism but also has a certain aura of cinematic remove.

I suppose this is Linklater’s trademark. The Before Sunrise trilogy similarly hits moments of great, subtle realism wrapped up in something a bit too perfect to be reality. Films like Slacker and Waking Life are a bit too philosophically verbose or coherent to pass as real discussion, and a bit of that voice finds its way into the mouths of the characters in Boyhood. This might sound like a complaint, but it isn’t. True realism is likely to be boring, too painful, or thematically random. Linklater’s skill at polishing just the right places to shape story while largely leaving the essence of reality is what distinguishes him as a director and makes Boyhood stand right alongside the Before trilogy as definitive films.

A

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